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"In recent years, the forest cover has been under threat"
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Wednesday, 4 April, 2001, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
Golden primate makes a comeback
Male tamarin in tree WWF
Habitat loss is the golden lion tamarin's greatest threat
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

One of the world's most endangered primates, the golden lion tamarin, has taken a huge step towards a secure future.

Thirty years ago this species was on the brink of extinction

Dr Garo Batmanian
In the animal's stronghold, the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, numbers have just reached 1,000 tamarins - the highest figure for 30 years.

The 1000th individual, a male, was born in March 2001. But conservationists say numbers need to double before the species' survival is assured.

In the early 1970s there were fewer than 200 tamarins left in the wild.

Success story

Dr Garo Batmanian, head of WWF-Brazil, said: "Thirty years ago this species was on the brink of extinction. Now it has reached over 1,000 individuals, and is a conservation success story."

Tamarin infant on mother's back WWF
The 1000th tamarin, born in March 2001
The tiny primates, weighing a little more than half a kilo, and measuring about 36 cm in length, live in family groups of five or six animals. Some live to more than 15 years in the wild, and infants are usually born in pairs.

They are found only in the lowland coastal Atlantic forest in Rio de Janeiro state, and habitat loss remains the greatest threat to their wellbeing.

The forest once stretched over 100 million hectares, roughly the size of Egypt, but now only about 7% of the original forest remains. Less than 2% of the tamarins' original habitat is still intact.

Back to the wild

The Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Project is the first and oldest continuous project in Brazil run by WWF. It now embraces 39 other organisations and 140 zoos, working together to re-establish the species.

Since 1984, 147 captive-born tamarins have been released into the wild, and many of them have bred, so the reintroduction has added a total of 320 animals to the wild population.

Between 60 - 70% of the wild-born animals survive, but WWF says reintroduction alone will not be enough to ensure the specie's future.

It has also moved 12 groups of animals from small and isolated patches of forest to a larger stretch that is better able to sustain them.

Radio tracking

There have been experiments at monitoring the tamarins' movements by fitting them with radio collars.

A few years ago, experts were taken aback to find they were receiving a clear signal from one collar although there was no sign of the animal wearing it.

They eventually found the tamarin had been eaten by a snake, with the collar still sending a signal from inside its stomach. And WWF says it has evidence of "a dramatic increase" in predation of complete groups of tamarins.

It suspects the predator may be the tayra, a small animal like a weasel, which has learned to dig tamarins out of the nest holes where they spend the night.

Joining the dots

WWF now intends to establish 13 forest corridors on degraded land to link 14 patches of forest where the tamarins live.

Mother tamarin with twins WWF
Tamarins usually produce twins, as here
It says that the corridors, involving the restoration of just 20 ha (49 acres) of forest, will add a further 3,500 ha (8,649 acres) of isolated forest to the total habitat available.

Stuart Chapman, of WWF-UK, said: "It has taken 30 years to get to this point, and the species is only just recovering. Research has shown that 2,000 individuals are needed to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

"Wildlife corridors must be planted to create highways between isolated patches of forest if we are to secure a future for the tamarin."

If WWF succeeds in its aim, the tamarins will not be the only species to benefit. The Atlantic rainforest is also home to more than 2,000 sorts of butterfly, and 450 kinds of tree have been found growing in a single hectare.

It has 680 bird species, 199 found nowhere else. Rare and threatened mammals which live there include the maned sloth and the woolly spider monkey.

Photos courtesy of Juan Pratginestos/WWF-Brazil

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28 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Growing threat to rare species
12 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Dire outlook for many primates
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