High-Income Countries Are Driving the Extinction of the World's Primates

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CC BY 4.0. 2019 Estrada et al. Expanding global commodities trade and consumption place the world's primates at risk of extinction.

Consumer demand for meat, soy, palm oil, and more has resulted in 60% of primate species facing extinction.

There is a certain level of disconnect when those of us in faraway places lament the news of crashing primate populations ... and then go out and buy beef from South America or neglect to check food labels for palm oil. Populations of approximately 75 percent of the world’s primates are in decline, and more than 60 percent of species are threatened with extinction. We may think that this staggering decline is happening independent of us – it’s far away and we’re not there cutting down the forest, after all. But in fact, it is happening because of us.

A new study published in peer-reviewed journal PeerJ illustrates just how dire it is, and just how much the demand from high-income nations is to blame.

“Major anthropogenic pressures on primate persistence include the widespread loss and degradation of natural habitats caused by the expansion of industrial agriculture, pastureland for cattle, logging, mining, and fossil fuel extraction,” write the authors. “This is the result of growing global market demands for agricultural and nonagricultural commodities.”

The study looks at the effects of international trade of “forest-risk agricultural and nonagricultural commodities” – that is, the products that drive deforestation, namely things like soybeans, palm oil, natural rubber, beef, forestry products, fossil fuels, metals, minerals, and gemstones – on habitat conversion in the Neotropics (Mexico, Central and South America), Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.

Among other findings, the study concludes that together, the United States and China are exporting the majority of these products. In a video discussing the research (which you can watch below), Paul A. Garber explains:

Approximately 95 percent of the forest-risk commodities that are exported by these primate habitat countries are imported by only 10 consumer nations in the world ... And in fact, the United States and China account fully for 58 percent for the forest-risk exports.

(According to table S7 in the report, in 2016 China imported $177.40 billion dollars of forest-risk commodities while the U.S. imported $87.32 billion dollars' worth.)

And it’s not just bad news for the non-human primates. The authors also conclude that “the economic benefits of commodity export for primate habitat countries has been limited relative to the extreme environmental costs of pollution, habitat degradation, loss of biodiversity, continued food insecurity and the threat of emerging diseases.”

Our consumer habits are leading to the destruction of rainforests, the extinction of primates, and worsening conditions for the people who live there – and all for what? Cheap hamburgers? Cheap junk food that relies on palm oil? Fossil fuels?

The researchers put together an infographic illustrating some of the numbers from the study.


PeerJ/CC BY 3.0

In their conclusion, the authors write, "In order to achieve the goals of primate habitat conservation, it is imperative to decrease the world’s demand for agricultural products (e.g., oil seeds, natural rubber, sugar cane) and the consumption of meat and dairy products." With projections for the problem worsening, they say unless a "way is found to promote environmental protection by 'greening' trade, primate habitat loss and population decline will continue unabated."

The importing countries need to work to develop more environmentally-friendly policies; likewise, ethical responsibility needs to be borne by the handful of international corporations that control the supply chains. And clearly, individual responsibility on the part of consumers is a piece of the puzzle as well.

"In short, a stronger worldwide effort at regulating the negative impact of unsustainable commodity trade in primate-range regions is critically needed," conclude the authors.

"Primates and their habitats are a vital component of the world’s natural heritage and culture. As our closest living relatives, nonhuman primates deserve our full attention, concern, and support for their conservation and survivorship."

See the whole study at Expanding global commodities trade and consumption place the world’s primates at risk of extinction.