I will list here only a few primates, for lack of space. Although primates are the organisms whose extinction is perhaps the most obvious to us, they represent only a small percentage of the organisms which are becoming extinct. As mentioned elsewhere, there have been substantial declines in amphibian, bird, and fish populations as well, (and these are only vertebrate species) not to mention many plants such as mahogany and Southeast Asian dipterocarps. Of most extinctions, such as of lower plants and invertebrates, we know nothing. Two-thirds of bird species are in decline and 11% endangered (Tuxill, 1998). (Discussions of biodiversity losses may be found in any of the many papers on biodiversity listed in the bibliography: See, for example, Tuxill, 1998 [general]; Terborgh, 1989 [birds]; Chapin, et al., 1998; 2000; Dobson, 1995; Wilson, 1988, 1989; and others; see also listings of endangered species, the Red List, published by the World Conservation Union, the IUCN.).
Perhaps one-third of the existing species of primates, our closest living relatives, are endangered (Mittermeier, 1988).
i) Southeast Asian orangutans: We are not treating one of our closest biological relatives well. The orangutan, our third-closest relative, is highly endangered in its habitats in Borneo and Sumatra. It has been estimated that wild orangutans will be extinct within twenty years if nothing is done to preserve their habitats. Their demise is due to logging and destruction of habitat, and also to the fact that many adults are killed to obtain babies for the pet trade. In 1900 there were approximately 315,000 orangutans worldwide, but by 1998, only 27,000 were left. In a 24,000 km2 area of Sumatran forest, a population of orangutans estimated at 12,000 in 1993 had dropped to 6500 by 1999 – a halving in only six years. The last Sumatran habitat for orangutans is in the Gunung Leuser National Park, but illegal logging is rapidly reducing the area available for these animals (Ferber, 2000). In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), four million of the 13 million hectares of forest have been cut and converted to oil palm plantations (mostly for the benefit of friends of [now] ex-president Suharto). Habitat has been further reduced by the huge forest fires of 1997, partly set by settlers to clear land and partly due to the very dry conditions obtaining under El Niño. Much of this land had been primary forest (Jepson, et al., 2001).
ii) Brazilian monkeys: The Atlantic forest of Brazil has been cut for timber, charcoal, plantations, cattle pasture and industry, and is now reduced to 2-5% of its former extent. It was home to more primate species than any other tropical forest. Thirteen of its 21 primate species and subspecies (such as the charismatic golden tamarin) are endemic; fourteen are endangered and several are nearly extinct (Mittermeier, 1988). Yet plans for further clearing and development of the remaining forest continue.
iii) African primates: Much of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has occurred within the range of the pygmy chimpanzee (bonobo), which lives only in the central rainforest of this country. Both ill-paid, ill-fed troops and refugees are poaching the bonobos for food, and they are unprotected by park guards, who have been disarmed by soldiers. Eastern lowland gorillas, already a threatened species, are being heavily poached in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where most of these animals live, and which is controlled by the anti-government rebel group. Of 240 known gorillas in one central sector, more than half have been killed by poachers. Probably an even higher percentage are being exterminated in outlying areas of the park, which has had no government funding since the civil war began. Conservation groups have negotiated with the rebels and are training guards for the park. Because of security problems, however, it is difficult to know the true situation in the DRC, since the war made it dangerous for researchers to remain (Vogel, 2000).
James Revkin, writing for The New York Times of September 12, 2000, reported that Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey of Ghana and Ivory Coast has become extinct, the first documented primate extinction in more than 100 years. Other African red colobus species are endangered and will disappear soon unless there are serious conservation efforts. Many additional primates are heading the same way due to fragmentation of forests by logging and road construction. The small remaining patches are easily accessible to hunters, who supply bushmeat to urban markets. One of the researchers documenting the loss of the monkey said of the Ghanian forests, “A healthy forest is loud, but this was like being in a deserted cathedral. You don’t hear anything, you don’t hear birds. You stumble over snares and shotgun shells.” (Revkin, 2000) This is the future for many species and forests.
According to E.O. Wilson, taxonomic studies of existing species should be one of the overriding scientific goals of the 21st century. Many advances have been made in increasing the availability of systematic information to scientists around the world – the use of CD-ROMs, electronic databases and so forth. However, the amount of money provided for such studies, and the number of trained taxonomists available are sadly inadequate to the task. Perhaps only 3000 such persons in North America and 3000 more in other parts of the world, are presently working on biodiversity projects. Government, museums and universities in the United States (with the largest scientific establishment) provide only US$150-200 million per year for such studies. Wilson (2000) estimates that we need $5 billion over the next 10 to 20 years to make a reasonable survey of the world’s biodiversity – and even more important, we need to train students in systematics and to make taxonomy a desirable occupation.