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The golden lion tamarin, standard-bearer of the Mata Atlântica

The golden lion tamarin, standard-bearer of the Mata Atlântica

We worry a lot about the rapid destruction of the immense Amazonian rainforest, but in South America there’s another rainforest that once covered over 1.2 million km2 of the Brazilian coastal zone (equivalent to mainland Québec): that’s the Atlantic Rainforest, or Mata Atlântica. Today, only disconnected scraps of that rich forest survive. Those scattered plots taken together amount to no more than eight percent of the original surface area (equivalent to New Brunswick). The golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) has come to symbolize the struggle of Brazilians for the survival of what remains of this ecosystem.

Charming little orange primates

The golden lion tamarin is part of a family of small monkeys found exclusively in South America: the Callitrichidae. The lion tamarins (there are four species) are the biggest in that family (about 600 g). They’re all found in the Atlantic Rainforest, where they’re threatened with extinction thanks to the destruction of their habitat. The golden lion tamarin has silky orange fur and owes its name to its mane of that same color. It lives in small groups ranging from two to eleven individuals, most often related. Each group needs around 40 hectares of tropical rainforest, well provided with epiphytic plants (lichens, mosses) and with hollow trees so that they can hide from their predators, these being raptors, ocelots and boa constrictors.

The last golden lion tamarins

Originally, golden lion tamarins were found in a segment of the Atlantic rainforest that covered the entire coast of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro up to the first mountains of the Serra do Mar (14,000 km2). That forest has been reduced over the centuries as the land has been cleared for the production of sugar cane or coffee, or turned into pastureland for cattle. In the 1960s, the last golden lion tamarins (a few hundred) were living just on sparse pockets of rainforest, clinging to isolated hills on the Brazilian landscape. It was then that Brazilian primatologist Adelma Coimbra-Filholança launched an appeal for help in safeguarding the species.

The Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland teamed up with their Brazilian partners in the early 1970s to create the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program. The work accomplished thanks to that program was colossal, including a protocol fostering captive breeding, the establishment of protected areas, the introduction of golden lion tamarins into the Reserva Biológica União (in 2003), the growth of the population in its natural habitat, and the creation of forest corridors to link small forests together and thus allow the circulation and mixing of otherwise isolated golden lion tamarin populations. The Associação Mico-Leão-Dourado (the Brazilian association responsible for the implementation of the program) is also highly active in the area of scientific research and education.

Objective 2025

The aim by 2025 is to achieve conditions favorable to the long-term survival of the golden lion tamarin. What that means is that the population must continue growing in order to climb from the 1,500 golden lion tamarins currently living in 18 isolated forests (total of 154 km2) to 2,000 individuals living in an ensemble of 250 km2 of interconnected forests. That would statistically keep the population safe from inbreeding and the natural disasters that can affect part of its habitat, and for the next 100 years. Meanwhile, the captive population of 450 golden lion tamarins currently residing in 150 zoos around the world plays three major roles in safeguarding the species:

  1. It constitutes a backup population in case of a major natural disaster in the natural environment;
  2. It allows us to broaden our scientific knowledge about this primate;
  3. It plays a role in education and in raising awareness.

The Biodôme is also taking part in this mission, both for the golden lion tamarin and for numerous other endangered or vulnerable species that you can discover on your next visit.

Daniel Sauvageau is a scientific naturalist at the Montréal Biodôme.

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