How Brazil is working to save the rare lion tamarins of the Atlantic Forest

How Brazil is working to save the rare lion tamarins of the Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Forest that hugs the coast of Brazil is home to four small primates found nowhere else on Earth. The most famous of them, the golden lion tamarin, appears on Brazil’s 20-real bill, a part of the day-to-day interactions of people across the country. But not everyone knows the primate’s conservation story, which began in the 1960s and saw it saved from likely extinction through years of challenging work. Its lesser-known but equally charismatic cousins have similar tales of narrowly avoiding extinction, all of which have unfolded in the Atlantic Forest, Brazil’s most devastated and fragmented biome.

For five months, ((o))eco’s reporters interviewed researchers who work, or have worked, to protect the four small primates belonging to the genus Leontopithecus, the lion tamarins. In the Darwinian lottery, these species emerged winners with their distinctive color schemes that led to their popular names: fully golden (golden lion tamarin, Leontopithecus rosalia), fully black (black lion tamarin, Leontopithecus chrysopygus), black with a golden face (golden-headed lion tamarin, Leontopithecus chrysomelas), and golden with a black face (black-faced lion tamarin, Leontopithecus caissara). The species are distributed, respectively, in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, southern Bahia, and in the border region between Paraná and São Paulo. Aside from having similar appearances, sizes and habits, the four tamarins have also been similarly affected by the destruction of their habitat, the Atlantic Forest. The fates of at least three of the tamarins was altered due to the special work of Adelmar Faria Coimbra-Filho (1924-2016), considered the father of Brazilian primatology.

“The golden lion tamarin was [first described] by the naturalist Johann Natterer, a famous Austrian scientist who visited Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century, when he found the [golden] lion tamarins in Guaratiba,” on the western outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro,” Coimbra-Filho said in 2004. “In 1942, I again found two or three tamarins at a hunting ranch [there].”

It was at the ranch where Coimbra-Filho first saw lion tamarins in the wild, and where he was inspired to study them. He began spending time in the forest, noting the places they lived, studying the sparse literature that existed at the time, and mapping their areas of occurrence. When he was fired from this job at the old Gávea Park in Rio de Janeiro and sent to work at the city’s zoo, taking on the role of head of technical and scientific services, his passion became an object of study.

“[Working at the zoo] gave me the opportunity me to work with a broad range of animals, which was very good,” Coimbra-Filho said in a 2005 interview. “That’s where I began to get interested in primatology. But it wasn’t because of the zoo when I worked with chimpanzees, orangutans and a variety of Brazilian and African tamarins. Rather it was because in the past I had seen a tiny tamarin, the golden lion tamarin, which I thought was extraordinary.”

Lead Image: A golden lion tamarin by Marcio Isensee e Sá.

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