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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Okay, so these chips and chirps are not the sounds of thrashing rattlers. They're not birdcalls, either. But they are the songs of golden lion tamarins recorded in the wild. The squirrel-sized orange monkeys live only in the Atlantic coastal forests near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By the 1980s, deforestation and the pet trade had reduced their numbers to just a few hundred in isolated patches of private forest. But today the population is up to nearly a thousand in the wild. Dr. James Dietz, associate professor of biology at the University of Maryland, worked on the first reintroduction attempts back in the mid-1980s. He says the project got off to a slow start.

DIETZ: We began with a focus on training tamarins before they were released. We built large halfway houses in the jungle. And the tamarins supposedly became adapted to the jungle in those halfway houses. And then when we opened the hatches, they didn't want to leave. They were much more secure in their cages and they didn't deal well with traveling on small branches and foraging in the wild environment. In fact, even when we tore down the halfway houses, they tended to remain on the wood and wire rather than face the jungle.

CURWOOD: So, what do you do? What have you learned? How do you do this right?

DIETZ: Well, the formula has to do with feeding the animals enough and providing them with a secure nest box with which they're familiar. So, imagine that a family of golden lion tamarins goes to sleep in its nest box in a zoo in Australia, and then a day or two later wakes up in a forest in Brazil. It still has its nest box. It's still receiving enough food to survive and reproduce. And that's the key.

CURWOOD: So, it's kind of a perpetual halfway house, then.

DIETZ: It is for the first generation. The animals that are zoo-born never really become as adept in traveling through the forest as their wild relatives. However, the second generation of tamarins is virtually indistinguishable from wild-born monkeys, and they interbreed with the wild-born monkeys.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering about the numbers here. You say that you have a thousand golden lion tamarins. Is that enough to ensure the survival of the species?

DIETZ: No, probably not. I think we need at least two thousand individuals, and those are two thousand individuals that are all interbreeding. It was easy enough to get the first ones, the first thousand. The next thousand is going to be much more difficult because the habitat doesn't exist. We have to create it. What that means is linking forests that already exist. It means planting areas which might be suitable for golden lion tamarins. That's going to take a tremendous amount of financial resources, a tremendous amount of human resources. It's a huge project.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what happens about rebuilding these corridors among these fragmented areas? What's the status of it?

DIETZ: Now, these forest islands are separated by cattle pasture. Maybe there are streams that link them. And what we're trying to do is work with the landowners in order to convince the landowners to allow reforestation in narrow corridors that would link these forest habitats. And we've also worked with the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden to develop the techniques to reforest degraded areas.

CURWOOD: How have the attitudes of the people there changed about this?

DIETZ: When we began working on golden lion tamarins there was no conservation ethic in the region. People were neutral about golden lion tamarins. In fact, some people caught them and kept them as pets in their houses. And now, if you travel in the region where golden lion tamarins are found, you'll see them as a status symbol. They are animals that people are proud of. They point to them and say, "We have them on our land. They're nowhere else in the world. And we're proud of it." You won't find any as pets, and you'll find a high level of collaboration with the folks that are doing the reintroduction and the basic science. In fact, all of those people are Brazilians. It's a Brazilian thing.

CURWOOD: What kind of eco-tourism possibilities are there for these monkeys? I mean, people just adore seeing them in zoos. What about the wild?

DIETZ: There are several of the local ranchers who have established more or less formal eco-tourism projects on their land. And when I say more or less, what I mean is, some of them actually have bed and breakfasts and they bring a few people in, and seeing golden lion tamarins on their property is part of the attraction. In terms of the less formal applications, that might just include having friends and family come over and see golden lion tamarins on your land. Again, it's a status symbol. Some people exploit it economically. Others just for their own purposes.

CURWOOD: Dr. James Dietz is associate professor in the biology department at the University of Maryland, and has researched golden lion tamarins for almost 20 years. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

DIETZ: And thank you.

(Music up and under: Millencolin, "Monkey Boogey")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Opposition to dredging PCBs from the Hudson is running as strong as the current in some parts of the river. To find out why, stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under: His Name Is Alive, "Across Every Fjord")



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