A journey into Brazil’s decimated Mata Atlantica in search of golden lion tamarins.
The Atlantic rainforest is just waking up at the project site of the Associação Mico Leão Dourado (AMLD, or the Golden Lion Tamarin Association), two hours outside the city of Rio de Janeiro. The night sky yields the stage to daylight and life begins to chirp. Close your eyes and listen. There are countless insects keeping time, and, of course, there are birds: 934 species of them live here, and they happily make their own orchestra (no conductor necessary, thank you very much). You might also hear a howler monkey: they live here too, though they’re usually more vocal at dusk. And of course, there’s the most prevalent sound: the rush of morning traffic on the highway just outside the project gate.
Truthfully, it’s difficult to imagine this place as the prolific wilderness that it once was. The Mata Atlantica (Portuguese for Atlantic Forest), which once rivaled the Amazon in size, has been reduced to 7% of its original spread. It is fourth on the list of biodiversity hotspots on the planet, which means that it is one of the most biodiverse (20,000 species of plants alone, 40% of which are endemic) as well as one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Imagine opening a full salt shaker and spreading its contents evenly on a dinner plate. The plate is the land, the salt the forest. This was the Atlantic Forest 100 years ago. Now, this time, instead of opening the container, you just shake it a good ten times onto the plate. That is the Mata Atlantica today.
The destruction of the forest has wreaked havoc on her inhabitants. At least 250 species have gone extinct, and certainly there were many more who made their exits quietly and unnoticed by humans. But in 1992, one critically endangered species caught the eye of the international conservation community: the golden-lion tamarin, Leontopithecus rosalia. If you didn’t know it but caught a glimpse of one, you might think it was a garden gnome in an orange fur coat, ready for Brazil’s version of Burning Man. Their long and slender fingers – the better with which to dig up insects and pick fruit – look like they could belong to Gollum. And those very clearly primate faces set in fiery orange lion manes? Mother Nature’s very own collage.
You can’t miss them (unless they want you to).
When the world took notice of the golden lion tamarin in 1992, there were less than 200 individuals remaining. But on the ground in Brazil, efforts had been in place for decades to try to coax the tamarins out from extinction’s hands. In 1974, Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento Florestal (IBDF) created the country’s first biological reserve, Poço das Antas, to provide the rapidly dwindling golden lion tamarin population with a protected habitat. This is where the AMLD is located.
In 1992, the project undertook an enormous and rarely-attempted effort to save these monkeys. In cooperation with Zoos from all over the world, the AMLD began the introduction of captive-born tamarins back into the forest fragments surrounding the site. The GLTs came from all over the world: Washington D.C., Hawaii, Frankfurt, and Denmark. A worldly bunch indeed – ironic, since the way mother nature had intended it, they should be found in only one place: the Atlantic forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro. These captive-born monkeys, soon to be free-ranging, were Cariocas, and they were returning home.
As the years passed and the tamarin population grew, the project was faced with another problem: land shortage. So reforestation efforts began. Today, one of AMLD’s focuses is building corridors between forest fragments that the tamarins currently occupy. Some of the fragments don’t have enough food to sustain a population, so AMLD biologist, Andreia Martins, includes food provisioning at certain sites in her roster of duties. She monitors sixteen groups of tamarins; the size of the families can be as small as two monkeys or as large as twelve. Most of them are descended from captive-born individuals.
One day, the tamarin population should be able to sustain itself. Though it’s now calculated that there are about 1,700 individuals, the goal of the project is to bolster the population to 2,000, with 25,000 hectares of protected forest by 2025 (they still have at least 10,000 hectares to go).
“There might actually be about 2,000 tamarins now,” says Luis Paulo Ferraz, AMLD’s Director. “But if there’s not enough space, then what?”
And it’s understood. What will they eat? Not only do they have to contend with very limited habitats (truthfully, these habitats are more like Zoo exhibits without the steel bars or visitors; their barriers instead are the omnipresent cattle pastures), but at certain sites, they also have to reckon with the sagui. Otherwise known as the common marmoset, the sagui is an invasive species introduced from the north of Brazil via the illegal exotic pet trade. The marmosets compete with the tamarins for space and food.
Between negotiations with private landowners to maintain the forest fragments on their property (far less profitable than converting them to pastures), reforesting corridors between the fragments (which can take months of maintenance after the saplings are put into the ground and can cost up to $10,000 an acre), monitoring current tamarin populations, and running a bevy of education programs, Ferraz, Martins, and the rest of the AMLD team have their hands full.
This morning, I am in the forest with Martins, looking for a family of tamarins.
“Be careful,” she says. “I tripped over this log once and broke my leg.”
One of the rules of the rainforest is this: don’t drag your feet, lift them. Another is: step lightly. You never know what you’re going to step on. The forest floor is always a surprise. Spongy? Sturdy? Muddy? Clandestine puddle? Fire ants? Driver ants? Giant hole under the leaves? Enormously toxic snake taking a nap?
From time to time, Martins stops and lifts the radio tracker to see if she can get a signal from a collar worn by one of the tamarins. Over an hour later, we hear a series of beeps. Martins points up a hill.
“That way,” she indicates, and though she still takes out the tracker from time to time, we rely more on her senses now than radio waves. Every once in a while, we stop and listen. She is fluent in the language of the forest. Thirty minutes later, she announces their arrival. I can see nor hear any sign of them.
And yet, they come.
“This is a family,” she said. “Five individuals.”
Do you name them?” I ask.
“Some of them,” she smiles, and lists their names. Eduardo, Gina, Jadir, Jim, and Devra.
She has been monitoring the tamarins for thirty years. Though she has seen their number grow from 200 to over 1,700, she knows that they are not yet out of the proverbial woods – in fact, if she could trade their proverbial forest for an actual one, she would do it in a heartbeat. This is what they need.
Yes, the golden lion tamarin population is growing, but it has a precarious hold on existence that is still largely assisted by humans. The hairless ape not only provides food, but also rebuilds their habitat. And that is a monumental effort indeed. Imagine filling a bathtub one drop at a time and then pulling the drain. It takes less than a minute for the water to empty. But now you want to refill it, and again, you have to go one drop at a time.
This is what it’s like to reforest a deforested Mata Atlantica.
But there is a bright side: one generation ago, humans were recklessly destroying this unique biosphere without a second thought. That they are regenerating her a mere generation later illuminates the undeniable potential of our species.
We made a mistake. And now, slowly but surely, we are fixing it.
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