Introduction to All The World's Primates

Russell A. Mittermeier

Russell A. Mittermeier

Russell A. Mittermeier

It is hard to believe that 14 years have passed since the first edition of The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates, and yet, in all that time, nothing has been published that can compare with that landmark publication.  Then, as now, the world’s nonhuman primates, the monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises, galagos, and tarsiers that are our closest living relatives, still occupy a very special place in the imagination of our own primate species, Homo sapiens.  As research over what is now some six decades has shown us, primates can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our own evolution and behavior.  But perhaps even more than before, research on primates over the past few years has focused on these animals not just as close relatives that can teach us more about the human species, but as very interesting, diverse, and important species in and of themselves, and key components of the tropical forests in which more than 90% of them are found.  Now, as before, they continue to be perhaps the best flagship species for the tropical rain forests of the world, which are increasingly under pressure, and their importance in these forests, as seed dispersers, as seed predators, as pollinators, and even as species that can enhance the role of forests in carbon sequestration, has become ever more evident.  All of this has stimulated a growth in primatology that has been particularly pleasing to those of us who have been working on these animals for the past 40 or 50 years.


What is particularly gratifying is that much of the growth of interest in primates since the publication of the first volume of this book has been in the countries in which primates actually occur, a total of 91 nations in all.  Countries such as Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, China, India, and Vietnam, have developed entire disciplines of primate studies, several have dozens or even hundreds of professional primatologists, and a few like Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, and China, have gone so far as to create special professional societies dedicated to primate research and conservation. What is more, much of the conservation effort needed to ensure the long-term survival of primates is now in the hands of professionals from these countries, and this is sure to grow in the future.

What is also exciting, indeed truly amazing, is the continuing discovery of new species of primates.  Indeed, this has accelerated over the past decade to the point that it is fair to say that we are living in a new “era of discovery” for primates comparable to the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, when many of the species that we grew up learning about were described by the scientific community.  When I wrote the Introduction to The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates in 1996, I mentioned two new species of lemurs from Madagascar and five from Brazil that had been discovered in the previous decade, and a third lemur that had been “rediscovered”.  That seemed impressive at the time.  However, since then, and especially since 2000, there has literally been an explosion of new primate species, with a total of 58 found in the past 10 years, and at least 20 more waiting in the wings.  Not surprisingly, most of these have been in the world’s richest countries for primates, Brazil, still at the top of the list and now with 114 species and 135 taxa, Madagascar, now in second place with 97 species and 101 taxa and fast approaching Brazil, and Indonesia, still third with 44 species and 68 taxa and with a particularly impressive increase in the number of tarsiers.  And it is not just species and subspecies we have been discovering.  New genera have appeared as well.  Callibella was discovered in the Central Brazilian Amazon at just about the time the first edition was published and was later recognized as a distinct genus, Rungwecebus was discovered in Tanzania in 2005, and new data enabled us to split Sciurocheirus from Galago, Mirza from Microcebus, Prolemur from Hapalemur, Mico from Callithrix, Oreonax from Lagothrix, Allochrocebus from Cercopithecus, Rhinopithecus from Pygathrix, and Nomascus and Hoolock from Hylobates.  As a result, where we talked about 234 species in the first edition of this book, we now must increase that total to 414 IUCN species and 612 taxa in all, along with an increase in the number of genera from 60 to a total of 73 at this time.  What is more, many primatologists have adopted the Phylogenetic Species Concept for primate taxonomy, following Colin Groves and his historic publication in 2000, which has resulted in the elevation of many primate subspecies to full species level and with many more still to come.  In other words, the science of primatology and especially our understanding of primate taxonomy, is still in a state of flux and rapidly evolving, making the appearance of this new illustrated volume all the more important and exciting.


Unfortunately, as was the case in 1996, many primates are endangered with extinction, and the situation is more severe now than it was back then.  Fortunately, we have a much better handle on what is happening now than we did at that time, thanks in part to the primate section of the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment, which held four workshops from 2005 to 2008 to assess the conservation status of the primates of Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and the Neotropics, and thanks also to increasing support for primate conservation activities by the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, by Primate Conservation Inc., by Conservation International, by the Wildlife Conservation Society, by the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, and by the recently-created Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and number of primatological societies that have established funds for small grants, including the International Primatological Society (IPS), the American Society of Primatologists (ASP), and the Primate Society of Great Britain (PSGB). According to the primate component of the Global Mammal Assessment, which was launched in August, 2008, at the Congress of the International Primatological Society in October, 2008, 69 of the world’s primate species (11%) are Critically Endangered, 137 (22%) are Endangered, and a further 97(15%) are Vulnerable, for a total of 48% of all primates in one of these three threatened categories.  What is more, this is almost certainly an underestimate, since many species were assessed as Data Deficient, and several of the most recently described new species have not been assessed at all.


The threats to primates have not changed, they have just become more severe.  The biggest threat of all remains habitat destruction, with the highest conversion rates being forest clearance for large-scale agriculture (e.g., soy in Amazonia, oil palm in southeast Asia), followed by slash-and-burn agriculture, logging (both legal and illegal), mining, and hydroelectric dams.  However, hunting of primates as a source of food, and in some cases for medicinal purposes, has emerged as a greater threat than previously believed.  Bushmeat hunting, with primates as a principal target, is rampant in Central and West Africa, as well as in parts of Southeast Asia, it continues in Amazonia, and it has even turned out to be much more serious than previously believed in Madagascar.  A few primates are very close to extinction, notably Miss Waldron’s red colobus and the roloway guenon in West Africa, and the northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis) in Madagascar, and a number of others are down to the last few dozen or few hundred individuals. Fortunately, we also have success stories.  Even some of the most depleted species, such as the Hainan gibbon on the island of Hainan in China, are slowly increasing their numbers, and quite a few others have come back from the brink and are now secure.  Indeed, several species that were included in the first few issues of the list of World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates (prepared once every two years by the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, the International Primatological Society, and Conservation International) have been removed, and can now be considered success stories, notably the lion tamarins and the muriquis from Brazil and several of the larger lemurs from Madagascar.  What is more, we have seen a significant increase in funding for the creation of protected areas in primate habitat (even if it has not always been with primate conservation as the primary objective), and the global interest in the importance of tropical forests in mitigating climate change (referred to as REDD – the Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) provides us with a funding mechanism that could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into conservation of rain forests over the course of the next decade. As was the case in 1996, one of the most important tools for both primate research and primate conservation is easy-to-use and well-illustrated overviews of what we know about primates.  These kinds of publications not only help the researcher, they also serve to stimulate the interest of up-and-coming students interested in animals like primates and also make a significant contribution to bringing the general public on board.  With this new website, entitled All the World’s Primates, Noel Rowe has once again made a major contribution to primatology.  With his many photographs, obtained in remote corners of the planet, as well as those taken by a number of other specialists, he has once again captured the wonder and the uniqueness of the Order Primates, and has provided a service to all of us who love these animals and to future generations of young people who are sure to be fascinated by them as well.  I thank him for this outstanding effort, and hope that this wonderful new book will have an even greater impact than its predecessor.


Russell A. Mittermeier


Chairman, IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group

President Conservation International


Citation: Noel Rowe, Marc Myers, eds. All the World’s Primates, Primate Conservation Inc., Charlestown RI.

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