Everyone will be impressed by the diversity and number of primates that are featured in the pages of All the World’s Primates. It is rarely recognized beyond scientific circles that most of these primates now face a very uncertain future. A republication of a revised edition in 15 years hence will have fewer, perhaps significantly fewer species to depict. This is a tragedy and public awareness is an essential component of any conservation strategy.
The loss of habitat, particularly primate habitat is a concern that is recognized but seldom acted upon. Numerous learned and detailed reports have been produced but there are few examples on hand where sustainable gains in the area of habitat restoration are reported. The terrifying growth of the human population and the hunger for land and resources is, to my mind, as serious a concern as would be news of an incoming asteroid whose collision with this planet will bring about mass extinctions. I believe that we are now too far along in the destruction of nature for any real prospects to save a large number of wild species from certain extinction. Ex-situ populations, captive breeding and limited reintroductions can sustain species for posterity and I accept that this may be one step better than simply having museum preserved tissue, specimens in formaldehyde and David Attenborough and his works on DVD.
The political class and those who work in contemporary governments the world over could arrest the accelerating loss of habitat but to a very large extent, such people are spineless and self-serving, defining the future in terms of their own employment or electability. In most countries of the globe where wild primates still live, the human species is also under threat from scarce resources and poverty. Officials are afraid of appearing to favour survival of nature over the short term problems of humans. Seldom is it appreciated that the destruction of forests, wetlands and savannah will in no way end human poverty; quite the opposite in fact and real poverty will become so deeply embedded that there would be little basis for hope even for the prospects of our species.
The huge human population which is already well beyond the carrying capacity of our planet is obviously a critical challenge but the related human induced climate change is another with ramifications that are, for many, too horrendous to contemplate logically. I do think that the evidence, at least from Africa, is pointing increasingly to people moving off marginal lands which simply cannot sustain human communities that want education, better food and a technology based life style. By the end of 2007, the global human population had reached the point where for the first time more than 50% of humans alive were city or at least urban dwellers. This is a very significant threshold to have crossed and it might be a harbinger for better prospects for nature. It is too early to be sure but there may be a “tipping point” where urban life may be almost the only hope for our species en-mass and so give a chance for habitat restoration and reintroduction of species that have been sustained in ‘ex-situ’ conservation programs.
For now at least, I believe we should put increased pressure on governments to plan land use with due regard to climate change. We should encourage “holding the line” on the sanctity of national parks and protected areas we should continue to sustain as best as we can, the genetic viability of small isolated populations of wild species. With primates, this may be less difficult than for other groups of mammals.
All the Worlds Primates provides a volume that should give added weight and urgency to conservation measures. It would be a tragedy indeed if many of these wonderful primates were last seen in this publication!
Richard Leakey, FRS
Richard Leakey, a Kenyan, has had several careers that engaged him in paleontology, anthropology, museum administration, conservation, politics and government administration. He has published a number of scientific and popular books as well as presenting television documentaries. He currently serves as Chairman for Transparency International – Kenya, Chairman of WildlifeDirect and he holds a position of Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in the USA. Dr. Leakey is also working to develop a major new initiative to extend research into the origins of our species through the international Turkana Basin Institute based in Kenya. Dr. Leakey was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007 an he holds a number of honorary degrees and awards that recognize his contributions, including the honorary Doctor of Science from Wageningen University.