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World

Beloved Brazilian Monkey Clings To A Shrinking Forest

Originally published on Fri September 20, 2013 10:15 am

The tiny, copper-hued golden lion tamarin is so beloved in Brazil that its image graces the country's 20-real bank note. But this lion-maned monkey is in peril.

There's only one place on earth where the golden lion tamarin lives in the wild: in Brazil's Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlantica, just north of Rio de Janeiro. Deforestation in the region has reduced the monkey's habitat, once a massive ecosystem stretching for a half-million square miles, to just 2 percent of its original size.

By the 1970s, the total golden lion tamarin population in the wild had plummeted to just 200 individuals. Conservationists have brought the monkey back from the brink — barely. Through captive breeding programs in zoos, the tamarin population grew until biologists were able to release tamarins into the wild.

At first, the zoo tamarins didn't know how to survive. Some were eaten by predators; some starved. But others managed to reproduce, and subsequent generations have thrived. Today, there are 1,700 of them living in patches of forest along the Atlantic Coast.

But that comeback may be short-lived. The monkeys need even more forest for their population to grow.

Seventy percent of Brazil's human population lives in what was once the Atlantic Forest. Cities are ballooning and huge oil reserves have been discovered just north of here. A highway that cuts through this region is currently being doubled in size, from two lanes to four.

"We have very [little] forest left, and forest we have is absolutely fragmented," Luis Paulo Ferraz, head of the Associacao Mico-Leao Dourado, or Golden Lion Tamarin Association, tells NPR's Melissa Block. That fragmentation leaves the tamarin populations isolated in small forest patches, hurting the species' genetic diversity.

"That's why we have to create corridors" linking forested areas, Ferraz says. In the case of the highway, "the right thing to do is to create an artificial connection between both sides of the road. ... The tamarins need to cross over the road and need to have something that makes them feel protected."

Ferraz's group's idea is to create a sort of "tamarin bridge" stretching across the highway. It would require tree cover so the monkeys aren't exposed to bird predators, and it must be sturdy enough to withstand wind and the movement of trucks below.

Such a bridge has never been tried before, but the association, with support from its U.S.-based partner organization, Save The Golden Lion Tamarin, has been working on creating ground-level corridors for years, planting seedlings to connect the patches of forest habitat in a golden lion tamarin reserve.

A few miles away, a team from the group Agro Jardim, which works with the Golden Lion Tamarin Association on the reforestation effort, is planting trees that will eventually be home to a small group of tamarins.

Carlos Alvarenga, a forestry engineer, is in charge of the reforestation effort here. Does he ever feel mismatched, planting saplings while cities and roads grow around him?

"It takes a big effort," Alvarenga says. "But you can't just give up now. I'm certain that this work will succeed."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block reporting from Brazil all this week.

Our focus in this part of the program is the environment; specifically, deforestation and its impact on a beautiful endangered monkey. We're going to visit Brazil's Atlantic Forest. It's the only place on the planet where the golden lion tamarin lives, a tiny red-gold monkey with a leonine mane framing its face.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES AND FOOTSTEPS)

BLOCK: We've come out in search of the rare tamarin. Deforestation has reduced its habitat to 2 percent of what it once was.

LUIS PAULO FERRAZ: They are very close by us.

BLOCK: I'm with Luis Paulo Ferraz. He's head of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association at the Poco das Antas Reserve, about 90 miles north of Rio. We're walking through a private farm. The owner has set a patch of forest land aside for conservation. And all of a sudden, a flash of orange.

Ooh, there's one right there.

FERRAZ: Yes.

BLOCK: Oh, there are four of them up there. So who do we have here?

FERRAZ: Oh, we have more than four.

BLOCK: More than four.

FERRAZ: Look there.

BLOCK: Oh, eight. Eight. Oh, and they're tiny.

FERRAZ: Eight animals in this family.

BLOCK: So we are surrounded by these tiny golden lion tamarins - one, two, three, four, five, six. I think there are a couple more. They're a beautiful golden copper color with long, silky fur, and these tiny little faces, and long tails hanging down from the branches.

This one family of golden lion tamarins is very used to having human visitors. The father wears a radio collar around his neck, so biologists can track the group. The monkeys cluster on low, curved branches over our heads, calling eagerly for the bananas they see that Andreia Martins has brought with her today.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDEN LION TAMARIN)

BLOCK: She tells me the mom tamarin is pregnant with twins. I can tell, she says, I touched her belly.

ANDREIA MARTINS: Look at the belly - big one.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: The golden lion tamarin has come back from the brink, barely. By the 1970s, the total population in the wild had plummeted to just 200. Through captive breeding programs in zoos, the tamarin population grew, until biologists were able to release tamarins into the wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GOLDEN LION TAMARIN)

BLOCK: At first, the zoo tamarins didn't know how to survive. Some were eaten by predators. Some starved. But others managed to reproduce and the later generations have thrived. Now, there are 1,700 of them living in these patches of forest along the Atlantic Coast. But they need more forest so the tamarin population can grow and to ensure genetic diversity.

FERRAZ: In this area here, the forest is really in a very difficult situation.

BLOCK: Just imagine what the Atlantic Forest used to be when the Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500. A massive ecosystem along the coast, half a million square miles, reaching 300 miles inland, in places. Bit by bit, it was chopped down to build cities and for timber, mining, sugarcane.

FERRAZ: We have very small forest left and the forest that we have is absolutely fragmented. That's why we have to create the corridors. That's why we have to restore the Atlantic Forest in this region.

BLOCK: You'll remember this small bit of Atlantic Forest near Rio is the only place in the world where the golden lion tamarin lives.

FERRAZ: They only live here in this lowland forest.

BLOCK: It's their one habitat, hot and humid. And these small, isolated patches of forest are under assault. Seventy percent of Brazil's human population lives in what was once the Atlantic Forest. Cities are ballooning. Huge oil reserves have been discovered just north of here. And the highway that cuts through here, it's being doubled.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

FERRAZ: Well, we are here at the road called BR 101.

BLOCK: This is the only highway from Rio up the coast. We watch road crews working on the expansion - two lanes will become four. Already, Luis Paulo says, tamarins get killed trying to cross this highway, trying to get to another fragment of forest habitat. So when the road is twice as wide, big trouble for this endangered monkey.

FERRAZ: In this case, the right thing to do is to create an artificial connection between both sides of the road.

BLOCK: So the idea here would be to create some sort of tamarin bridge going over a four-lane highway.

FERRAZ: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

BLOCK: Picture a tamarin bridge connecting treetop to treetop, stretching some 200 feet across this highway. It would need trees on it for cover, so the tiny monkeys aren't exposed to bird predators. It can't be just a rope bridge.

FERRAZ: Such a light animal that, with the wind and the movement of big trucks that circulate here, it's not going to be safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

BLOCK: A tamarin bridge, like the one Luis Paulo is imagining, has never been tried before.

FERRAZ: The tamarins need to cross over the road and need to have something that makes them feel protected by the trees. Let's move, otherwise we're going to be in trouble here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BLOCK: A few miles away, we catch up with workers planting small saplings in a field. Forestry engineer Carlos Alvarenga is in charge of reforestation of the golden lion tamarin reserve. He tells me these trees eventually will be home to a small group of tamarins.

CARLOS ALVARENGA: (Foreign language spoken) Four, five tamarins.

BLOCK: So all this work here today, plus much more, for four or five tamarins.

ALVARENGA: Si. Si.

BLOCK: When you think of huge forces working against you here, right - big oil, big roads, huge cities getting bigger all the time, and you've got these little saplings that you're putting into the ground maybe a foot and a half high, does it ever feel like it's mismatched?

ALVARENGA: (Through translator) It takes a big effort but you can't just give up now. I'm certain that this work will succeed.

BLOCK: Back at the patch of forest, Luis Paulo Ferraz gazes up at the family of golden lion tamarins, their glossy orange fur glowing in the sun. He points out that the tamarin's image has become a national symbol. It graces the 20 real banknote chosen by popular vote. And he has another dream.

FERRAZ: You know that we have the idea of having the golden lion tamarin as the mascot for the next Olympic Games. The Olympic Games are going to happen in Rio. This is an animal that only exists in Rio, not anywhere else in Brazil or in the world. It's golden like the golden medal. It's a history of success involving people from different countries. It's charismatic, beautiful, so let's see what happens.

BLOCK: Who could turn down that little guy over there?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: If that's not a mascot, I don't know what is.

(LAUGHTER)

FERRAZ: Me too.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's Luis Paulo Ferraz, head of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association at Poco das Antas Biological Reserve, north of Rio. And Luis Paulo provides us with our Brazilian phrase of the day.

We've been highlighting bits of lingo this week, words that illuminate popular culture here. And we noticed that Luis Paulo often tosses out a phrase that we've heard all over this week.

FERRAZ: Show de bola.

BLOCK: Show de bola. Show, that's the word from English, S-H-O-W. Show de bola, B-O-L-A, or ball. So literally, show of the ball. We'll let Luis Paulo explain.

FERRAZ: Show de bola, when you have a football match and one team played very well and did their fantastic game. It was a show de bola. It was a kind of ballet or something special. So it became an expression. Ah, it was show de bola, it was excellent.

Our day today, it's a beautiful day, sunny. We saw the tamarins in the morning. We had a very good lunch. The day today, well, we can say it was show de bola being with you, nice people, this is the expression.

CORNISH: Show de bola.

SIEGEL: That's our co-host Melissa Block reporting from Brazil. And you can check out a golden lion tamarin and catch up on the rest of her travels, at our Tumblr: ConsideringBrazil.tumblr.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.