Gremlins in a Fractured Forest

How the fate of elflike marmosets and lion tamarins is tied to the fortunes of a fable piece of Brazil

  • Tui De Roy
  • Apr 01, 2002

LISTENING intently, Leticia Brandão squints into the mist-clad forest valley below. "They're answering!" she exclaims as she tries to trick her quarry into approaching closer.

Her cassette recorder plays back the forest calls, and another volley of intense, high-pitched squeaks responds, so shrill they almost fall off the audible scale. Suddenly branches begin to move and several little elfin faces stare at her from the dense foliage. They look uncannily like tiny, clownish human visages, pale faces with piercing gazes and pink lips framed by thick, black fur. Fluffy, white ears stick straight out to either side.

These are buffy tufted-eared marmosets, living above 3,000 feet in the coastal mountains of southern Brazil. They are one of a close-knit family of ten species of diminutive primates--six tufted-eared marmosets and four lion tamarins--that share a huge though little-known forest region, Brazil's Atlantic Rain Forest. All face threats to their existence, but now at the eleventh hour they are at the center of a changing tide of fortunes in one of the world's most beleaguered environments.

Separated from the vast Amazon Basin by huge savanna scrublands, the isolated Atlantic ecosystem runs along the coast from the eastern tip of South America in Brazil to northernmost Argentina. It contains untold thousands of species. Of its 20,000 or so kinds of higher plants, 30 percent are thought to occur nowhere else on Earth. Just one 2.5-acre study plot was found to hold 450 different species of trees--the world record. The little primates are distributed throughout this rich ecoregion, their habitats fitting together like a loose jigsaw puzzle across the forest.

But pressures on the region, which once covered more than half a million square miles (about twice the size of Texas), are enormous. Three quarters of Brazil's 164 million people now live there, and most of the original wilderness has been lost to five centuries of human colonization, agriculture and development. In all, close to 93 percent of it has disappeared, leaving only scattered fragments of standing forest.

Photo: © TUI DE ROY
MISTY FORESTS clinging to higher reaches of coastal mountain ranges support innumerable epiphytic plants. Aerial bromeliads provide foraging opportunities for hungry monkeys at Bocaina National Park (above), the largest intact stretch of Atlantic forest.

Even as they cling to a precarious survival in this diminished landscape, the little primates--some just seven inches high, not including dangling ten-inch tails--are playing a big part in a widespread grass-roots movement to save what remains of their embattled habitats. Although most of the animals are critically endangered, they are adaptable and charismatic. Collectively, their lovable attributes have triggered a ground swell of support for their protection, and the little gremlins have become the forest's ambassadors.

As a group, these primates share some intriguing--and endearing--behavioral features. All are tree-dwelling. Living in close social groups where cuddling and playing are important activities, they scramble and leap through the canopy and mid levels of the forest with an agility that seems to defy all laws of gravity. Unlike most other monkeys, group hierarchy is maintained and respected with almost no aggression or violence, even when old members depart or new ones join in.

The animals spend a lot of time stalking and pouncing on insects, or digging them out of their hiding places, as well as searching for berries, fruits and nectar. A substantial part of their diet also comes from lapping sap and gum that oozes from the bark of damaged trees. The smaller species even have jutting lower teeth specialized for carving neat gum-producing slits in favored trees.

Family life is even more remarkable. In each group only one female (or rarely two) bears young, asserting her dominance over other females with the help of pheromones (hormones cast on the wind) rather than through aggression. She gives birth to twins, which the entire troop looks after, carrying, protecting and sharing food with the infants. In some species the males are the most diligent at shouldering the helpless babies.

Weighing between 6.5 and 14 ounces, the marmosets are the pixies of the tribe. All are seemingly stamped out of the same evolutionary mold, but different versions crop up in various habitat pockets. One species is fawn-colored with a roguish sprouting hairdo. Another wears a tidy, white mask framed in a well-kempt black ruff. Two cousins from drier, more northerly reaches sport what looks like paint brushes sticking out of their ears--white in one species and black in the other.

In contrast, the larger lion tamarins, which may weigh as much as 1.5 pounds, are considerably more regal. The name is derived from their silky manes, but their impish faces are just as elfin as their smaller relatives'. The four species of lion tamarins--one all-gold, one all-black, and two a mixture of both colors--are restricted to tiny specks of habitat in the much-ravaged lowlands.

One species, the black lion tamarin, was feared extinct until it was rediscovered in 1970, its numbers now believed to hover around 1,000. Another, the black-faced lion tamarin, was discovered in 1990, and only 260 are thought to exist, all in the wild.

So how can this sad spiral of destruction be turning for the good at last? And how, one might wonder, have these little primates managed to hang on through so much adversity? The answers lie in the resilient nature of the animals and the upsurge in ecological awareness in Brazil.

TREE-LIVING ACROBAT: The Wied's tufted-eared marmoset is a skillful climber that adapts to human changes. It prefers forest margins, including thinned-out groups of trees left standing to shelter shade-loving cocoa plants.

Only a few decades ago, the government was actively promoting forest clearance for the production of charcoal, lumber, sugar, coffee, cocoa, cattle and other industries. Marmosets and tamarins in those times were more frequently found in pet markets than in their natural habitat.

No longer. The primates are now protected, and cutting down the rain forest has been outlawed. But even more important than laws is a surge of private initiatives to safeguard the region's natural heritage. Today Brazil has one of the largest numbers of conservation nongovernmental organizations (known as NGOs) of any country. Of the 700 or so that are active, about 30 have annual budgets in excess of $300,000.

Businessman Roberto Klabin typifies the new spirit. In 1986, he helped found SOS Mata Atlântica ("SOS Atlantic Forest"), a lobbying body for which he has served as president since 1991. To combat a lack of enforcement of the ban on forest clearance, his organization launched a detailed satellite survey of all remaining forest cover.

Armed with the incriminating photographic results, Klabin uses his network of high-level business contacts to pressure politicians into passing protective legislation and to fund a million-dollar annual budget with no international support. His latest initiative is to back up the satellite surveys, repeated every five years for comparative purposes, with a ground campaign to check on illegal forest clearance too small to show up on satellite images. The program is working. "What we are seeing is a dramatic decline in forest loss in recent years," says Klabin, who predicts that the declines will eventually stabilize near zero.

Walter Behr, a conservationist with a degree in business administration, helped found a different NGO. He is cajoling government officials into implementing the management and protection of Brazil's spectacular but long-abandoned Bocaina National Park, which until now has been safeguarded only on paper. With 275,000 acres of virgin Atlantic forest clinging to a precipitous mountain range by the sea, the park forms part of the largest remaining contiguous stretch of the original ecosystem. "Anyone could come here, hunt, plant crops, cut down trees, and nobody would stop them," he says. After years of pressure, a management plan has been approved and his group, the Pro-Bocaina Association, has been entrusted with implementing it.

Here, where a riot of aerial bromeliad plants and plummeting waterfalls overlook the coastal agricultural belt, is where Leticia Brandïo, the young Brazilian primatologist, studies the endangered buffy tufted-eared marmoset. Year-round she slogs through dense, steep forest in near-constant rain to find out how the marmosets live and what they need to survive. One of her startling findings: Even though they have home ranges of up to 100 acres--unusually large for such small animals--the marmosets often forage in forest margins and even disturbed or secondary growth.

Many hundreds of miles to the north, in the middle of the buzzing city of Rio de Janeiro, another marmoset enthusiast, Ariane Janér, is watching white tufted-eared marmosets. Her observation area: Tijuca National Park, whose green tendrils extend well into the city. Not a quarter mile from a car park, a lively family group uses an electric power line as an aerial bridge to access coveted fruiting trees. Although not native to this region, these animals (having probably started off here as escaped pets) are taking advantage of man-made opportunities where natural predators are few and cultivated fruit trees offer a new feeding bonanza.

The most celebrated of the tribe is the golden lion tamarin. Thirty years ago, less than two percent of its original lowland habitat remained, and fewer than 200 of the animals were left. Then, in 1974, conservationists launched an ambitious rescue plan. A 16,000-acre plot of remnant forest was turned into Poço das Antas Biological Reserve, and zoo-born tamarins were successfully reintroduced into the wild to boost the population. Today the Golden Lion Tamarin Association involves two dozen institutions in and outside Brazil, with the support of 140 zoos around the world that supply a steady flow of captive-raised animals.

But even with the creation of a second protected area--the 8,000-acre Uniâo Biological Reserve--the tamarins soon began running out of space. Nearby farmers, who had long found it prudent to maintain small patches of forest crowning hills on their lands to keep their streams from drying up, came to the rescue.

One of them was Luis Nelson, but he wanted to do more than just allow a few monkeys to live on his farm. In 1988, he put up a "Private Nature Reserve" sign at the entrance of his 1,400-acre property, where he dried bananas and raised cattle. At the time, no legislation existed to grant his land this title, but after four years of discussions with conservationists, government lawyers and skeptical members of his own family, he became the first in Brazil to legalize his scheme.

Under the newly created program of Private Natural Heritage Reserves, which offers tax incentives for private forest preservation, Nelson allocated 88 percent of his land to conservation in perpetuity, and called it Bom Retiro ("Good Retreat"). From 2 tamarins released that year, he now has a healthy group of 12, and his banana plantation feeds the monkeys. He now runs a small tourist lodge and heads a local conservation association dedicated to teaching young people alternative skills in order to relieve pressures on the land.

Photo: © TUI DE ROY
SOCIAL GROOMING all but eliminates aggression in such elflike monkeys as golden lion tamarins. Primates like these are so endearing they have inspired people to protect forests and take other conservation steps.

In all, 13 farmers signed covenants promising to protect their forests, a total of some 35,000 additional acres offering safe havens for new populations of tamarins. One such plot is a tiny 12-acre patch of forest sitting on a hilltop like a green topknot surrounded by grazing cows. This is home to the "Jorge" group, a captive-born family of eight tamarins named after George Rabb, director of Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, from where they came in June 2000.

Closely monitored with radio collars and enjoying daily feedings of bananas to complement their natural fare, these golden lion tamarins are enthusiastically learning how to be wild. They leap and play, run up and down tree trunks, cuddle together into a squirming, furry ball at siesta time and dig insects out of tree holes and bromeliad hearts with earnest concentration. At the core of the group are two very special youngsters born of the last rainy season. One of these has become the 1,000th golden lion tamarin alive in the wild. "Our goal is to reach 2,000 wild animals by the year 2025," says Denise Marçal Rambaldi, who heads the recovery project.

As part of the effort, corridors of trees are being replanted to connect the 13 small islands of privately protected forest with Poço das Antas Biological Reserve so that tamarins may range and intermix freely. A similar notion is being considered on a vastly larger scale to link together hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles of fragmented Atlantic Rain Forest, a concept that is slowly gaining momentum. Some huge areas of previously felled forests already have started to regenerate on their own where intensive coffee and cattle production failed after the soil was depleted.

Everyone involved in the movement to preserve Brazil's Atlantic Rain Forest agrees there is a phenomenal amount of work left ahead. But they also concur that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter every day. Conservation International, a U.S.-based organization that runs one of the many programs to save this forest, sums it up as both the "world's most endangered forest" and the "brightest spot in conservation in developing countries."

Back in the realm of the buffy tufted-eared marmoset at the edge of the Bocaina Mountain Range, moist coastal air wafts up 3,500 feet over the brim of the green wall rising almost sheer from the sea. Here the meandering Bracuí River loses its footing and plunges 400 feet in a chaos of noise and foam that mingles with tendrils of fast-growing mist. To the right of the falls is Bocaina National Park; to the left, private land holdings. Faint but piercing trills emanating from this wilderness suggest a passing band of marmosets. The fog closes in with the rise of noonday thermals and the heart-stopping view vanishes like magic. Only the roar of the waterfall remains as the unseen gremlin spirits carry their message away in a ghostly forest more and more people are trying to save.

Roving editor Tui De Roy and partner Mark Jones travel to South America often to report on wildlife. They teamed up with Mason Fischer, an Alabama native, to photograph Brazil's little primates in the wild.

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