Gorillas, orang-utans and a cyanide-eating lemur are among the world’s 25 most critically endangered primates, scientists have said.
Almost half of the world’s primate species are in danger of extinction, according to the Red List drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Deforestation and hunting have pushed some of mankind’s closest relatives to the brink, with some species down to their last few dozen animals. Of the world’s 634 species of primates, 48 per cent are threatened with extinction, but researchers want attention focused on the 25 most critically endangered.
These include the Cross River gorilla, confined to the hills of the Cameroon-Nigeria border. It is thought that fewer than 300 remain, as farmers clear the forests where they live. Also listed is the Sumatran orang-utan, one of only two species of the ape, now found in the wild only at the northern tip of the Indonesian island, where about 6,600 remain.
Many of the most endangered primates are unique to the island of Madagascar, among them the greater bamboo lemur, numbering little more than a hundred individuals. The species eats only giant bamboo, which contains high levels of cyanide — meaning the lemur theoretically ingests enough of the poison every day to kill it. How it survives is a mystery.
“They seem to have a way of avoiding the effects of the cyanide,” said Christoph Schwitzer, of the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation, and one of the editors of the report Primates in Peril. “We reckon it’s eating earth, which binds the cyanide into a compound which makes it harmless to the respiratory system. But it needs more research.”
The lemurs cope with poison but are being wiped out by slash-and-burn farming and illegal logging. Also endangered on the island is the Sclater’s black lemur, the only primate other than human beings to have blue eyes.
“The biggest threat to most primates is destruction of forests,” Dr Schwitzer said. “In Madagascar it’s subsistence agriculture, in Asia it’s palm oil plantations, in South America it’s illegal logging. What needs to be done is habitat protection.”
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