How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

  • Primates along the Arc of Deforestation, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, are being driven to extinction as vast swaths of their habitats are devastated.
  • A recent assessment has placed the scallop sauá, whose conservation status was previously unknown, in critical danger; researchers claim that other primates face a similar situation of danger.
  • Conservationists say that investing in primate-based ecotourism, building on the established birdwatching model and leveraging existing agro-industrial infrastructure, could offer an effective conservation solution.
  • Some point to the municipality of Sinop, in the state of Mato Grosso, as a potential hotspot for primate observation ecotourism.

You probably haven't heard of the scallop sauá, a monkey found only in the Brazilian Amazon. Until recently, even researchers knew so little about it that they could not determine its conservation status for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

However, that changed this year, when a new assessment of the species Plecturocebus vieirai determined that it should be classified as critically endangered or on the verge of extinction in the wild. The researchers noted that its ideal habitat has been reduced to 56% of its original area, and that only 14% could remain by 2044, due to the combined pressures of deforestation and climate change.

The scallop sauá is a case in which dangers drive primates to the edge of what is known as the Arc of Deforestation, a region on the eastern and southern edges of the Amazon that is experiencing the highest rates of forest loss in Brazil. The study's authors point to the species as an "emblematic example" of conservation challenges in a deforestation hotspot .

There are more than 50 species of primates living in the Arc of Deforestation, many of them endangered. The Mato Grosso zogue ( Plecturocebus grovesi ), for example, was only identified and described in 2019 and was recently included in the list of the 25 most endangered primates in the world.

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

As bad as the situation is, conservationists say that primate watching tourism focusing on these endangered species is a viable solution to help conserve forest areas, generate income for the local population and, above all, protect the animals.

“Primate observation can be a profitable alternative to logging on private, public or indigenous lands in the Arc of Deforestation and is a way to shift from traditional, predatory extraction of Amazonian natural resources to sustainable land use based on conservation. biodiversity, local population well-being and climate change mitigation,” wrote the authors of the scallop sauá status assessment in their study, published in the journal Oryx.

Changing the face of the Arc of Deforestation

The scallop sauá and the Mato Grosso zogue are both found in the state of Mato Grosso, where rich biodiversity is often overshadowed by serious threats to forests, according to primatologist Gustavo Canale. Some of the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon are found here.

Soybeans and livestock are the main drivers of deforestation in the state, with the former responsible for at least 42,000 hectares of forest loss since 2020. Research published earlier this year warned that the world's largest rainforest is dangerously close to crossing a vital point of no return, driven by such deforestation.

Canale is among a group of people who say primate viewing could play a key role in shifting Mato Grosso from a center of deforestation to an ecotourism hotspot focused on these endangered species. Primates could act as “flagship species”, they say, gathering local support and interest to protect other biodiversity species in the process.

“Mato Grosso is a special place. It is known around the world because of soy and deforestation,” Canale, a professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso and president of the Brazilian Society of Primatology , said in a video interview with Mongabay. “We are trying to change that, showing the other side of the coin”.

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

The other side is the biodiversity within the large slice of the Amazon in Mato Grosso, home to several primate species, many of them endangered: the white-faced spider monkey ( Ateles marginatus ), the Emilia marmoset ( Mico emiliae ), the black howler monkey ( Alouatta caraya ), and the white-nosed saki ( Chiropotes albinasus ) are just a few of them.

Russell Mittermeier, president of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, the world's wildlife conservation authority, is a longtime advocate of primate observation as a conservation solution, and agrees that Mato Grosso is uniquely positioned to benefit from it.

“By combining tourism opportunities in the Pantanal with primate and bird watching in the Amazon portion of Mato Grosso, I think you have the foundation for a very good ecotourism industry,” said Mittermeier, who is also the director of conservation at Re :wild , to Mongabay in a video interview.

He pointed to the already well-established birding industry across the state and in other parts of Brazil as a successful model. “Birdwatching is a multi-million dollar business, so why not primates?” said Mittermeier.

However, not everyone is so optimistic about the prospects and viability of tourism as a solution to rampant deforestation in the region.

“Unfortunately, ecotourism is typically not a solution that can protect large areas,” Colin Chapman, a biological anthropologist at the University of Vancouver Island in Canada, said in an email to Mongabay. “Doing too many ecotourism operations to protect the large area would likely mean that the per-operation profits would be too low to satisfy the investor.” He added that he was concerned that "an ecotourism focus would fail to protect this large area".

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

The question of how much land ecotourism can protect is a difficult one to answer, said Rodrigo Costa Araújo, who conducted the scallop titus assessment and is a researcher at the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the German Primate Center . “But for us Amazon conservation specialists, it's pretty clear that we should have zero deforestation now,” Araújo told Mongabay by phone. The habitat of the scallop sauá, and other primates, is already fragmented in the south of the Amazon, leading to a worrying perspective of conservation of the species.

Defenders of ecotourism recognize that it is not the salvation for the numerous problems that drive deforestation and the loss of biodiversity in places like Mato Grosso. But they say it offers an opportunity to protect some areas and help change mindsets about forests as wasted development land, promoting understanding and value of the potential of biodiversity.

How ecotourism can save endangered Amazonian primates

“We have to find solutions based on economics. We need to find ways for people to profit from the land, without having to cut down the forest,” said Araújo. Primate ecotourism is only part of the equation for solving the Arc of Deforestation challenges, he added. Establishing protected areas, demarcating indigenous lands and enforcing environmental laws are some of the other urgent actions needed.

“I think [primate observation] could be a very attractive project or proposal that could be an idea to at least minimize the problem,” said Felipe Ennes Silva, a primatologist at the Mamirauá Institute . "I think the real solution is much more complex, but primate observation could be something to add to this set of solutions."

Mittermeier said the main focus should be on protecting as much forest as possible in the face of pressures like climate change: "Find the key pieces of forest that are left to protect these primates and do everything possible to maintain them and eventually , through reforestation, connect the pieces back together,” he said.

Hacking agricultural infrastructure

Hacking agricultural infrastructure
Canale, from the Brazilian Society of Primatology, said that he is anxious to see primate observation begin as soon as possible in Mato Grosso. He pointed out the municipality of Sinop as a potential center for this ecotourism activity in the near future. Populations of scallop tawnies live nearby, as does the endemic Mato Grosso zogue-zogue, alongside a number of other species. These populations do not face pressures such as hunting, which is the case with other species of Amazonian primates.

Along with his colleagues, Canale is developing maps, guides and stories based on the region's primates to promote awareness of these species and advance the ecotourism agenda.

They are also in dialogue with politicians, landowners and indigenous communities – stakeholders that Canale describes as key to the project's success; many have already expressed interest. Under the Brazilian Forest Code, landowners must also retain a portion of their land as native vegetation – 80% in the case of the Legal Amazon.

“We're also trying to get in touch with the big landowners, the agribusiness people, and we're trying to show them the opportunity to use the reserved forest as a place for tourism,” said Canale. "We are just at the beginning of this process."

He added that Sinop already has the transport networks and hotel facilities to house a primate observation industry. “We are trying to 'hack' this agribusiness infrastructure for primate observation, because the infrastructure is already there.”

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