Chimpanzee family

Primates: Our Closest Living Relatives

Homo sapiens may be the most common primate, but we share the order with 512 other living species, from the tiny Madame Berthe's Mouse Lemur to the muscular Eastern Lowland Gorilla. Their intelligence makes them fascinating to observe and study, both in their own right and for the insights they provide into human evolution and behavior.

With wild populations in 93 countries, non-human primates play an important role in the maintenance and ecological dynamics of the tropical forest ecosystems (and for a few, savannas or semi-desert) where they live. More than 90% of the species are found between the Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. The following countries stand out for their extraordinarily rich primate diversity—Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Global Primate Distribution

Primate distribution map

On the Brink of Extinction

Unfortunately, nearly 65% of primate species are now threatened with extinction. This threat is largely due to human activities which degrade, fragment and destroy their forest habitats, and because of unsustainable hunting, for food, as pets, for trade, for biomedical research, and for body parts that are valued as fetishes or charms or for traditional medicine.

Primate extinction visual for lemurs, redo colobus and great apes

There has never been a more urgent time to take action to protect our cousin species. At Global Wildlife Conservation, we aim to ensure that no primate goes extinct.

The Primate Specialist Group:

Bringing together the world’s top primate experts

Under the umbrella of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Primate Specialist Group (PSG) is a 700-member association leading the fight against primate extinctions.

Primate Specialist Group relationship with GWC

Global Wildlife Conservation is the fiscal sponsor of the PSG and our chief conservation officer Dr. Russell Mittermeier, has been chair of this group since 1977. GWC’s Dr. Anthony Rylands and Dr. Christoph Schwitzer of the Bristol Zoo are deputy chairs. GWC also hosts Dirck Byler in his role as vice chair for the Section on Great Apes. The Primate Specialist Group focuses on four main duties:

1. Keeping the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species up to date.

The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory to track extinction risk to the species left on Earth. By determining and continually reviewing the status and needs of all primate species and subspecies, the Primate Specialist Group helps identify the conservation needs of each species.

2. Developing and scaling up conservation action plans

Global Wildlife Conservation and the Primate Specialist Group know how to prevent primate extinctions and how to recover primate populations across their native ranges. We do this via conservation action planning, a process that includes information gathering, planning, implementing and measuring the success for each conservation project. We have the methods, experience and personnel to put the right projects in place, as well as the network of field sites and depth of experience needed to immediately scale-up successful projects.

3. Publishing major findings

In the 1980s, scientists believed that there were about 180 species of primates. Now we recognize that there are at least 512 species and 702 taxa (species and subspecies), a measure of how much we have increased our understanding of their diversity, and revealing how much more we have yet to learn. The Primate Specialist Group shares research via professional academic publications, and other awareness-raising products such as a series of best practice guidelines for the conservation of the great apes and gibbons, and numerous field guides and pocket guides to identify the species and understand where they live and the threats they are facing.

The Primate Specialist Group edits and prints five academic journals that focus on primate taxonomy, ecology, behavior, population and distribution surveys, and conservation: Neotropical Primates, African Primates, Lemur News, Asian Primates Journal and the Primate Conservation.

4. Fundraising and grant-giving

Successfully reducing threats to primates and restoring their populations requires a long-term vision and consistent funding.

Global Wildlife Conservation administers the Primate Action Fund and the Lemur Conservation Action Fund that provide to contribute to global biodiversity conservation—providing strategic, catalytic support for the conservation of endangered nonhuman primates and their natural habitats.

GWC’s Primate Programs

With the understanding provided by the IUCN Red List, GWC is able to identify the species and species groups that are most in need of attention, assessing the need for and the scale of interventions required that can deliver the highest impact. We take a local to global approach to conservation, with GWC and our partners supporting direct conservation action for the most threatened species on the ground, while leveraging increased support for all species in the group through global approaches.

A Zanzibar Red Colobus youngster (Piliocolobus kirkii) - Endangered. (Photo by Robin Moore)
Red Colobus Monkeys

These are large and extraordinarily beautiful, leaf-eating monkeys of the tropical forests of Sub-Saharan Africa. There are 18 species, and all are threatened—five of them are now ranked as Critically Endangered. Working with the IUCN Primate Specialist Group (PSG) and the newly formed African Primatological Society (APS), a comprehensive “Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan (ReCAP)” to prevent their extinction has been developed with support from GWC. We are setting up a Red Colobus Working Group under the APS and PSG and mobilizing a Red Colobus Network of conservationists across the range of the genus that together will elevate red colobus to a flagship group for the countless other species that share their vanishing habitats.

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Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) - Critically Endangered. (Photo by Russell Mittermeier).

There are 111 species and subspecies of lemurs in Madagascar, an ancient, rich and remarkable radiation, isolated for more than 40 million years. Many of them have been discovered only recently—51 new species since 2000—and the populations of most are very small and restricted to tiny remnants of the forests that once covered most of the island. Ninety-three lemurs (84%) are now ranked as threatened, 73 of them are Endangered or Critically Endangered.

GWC was a part of the IUCN SSC Lemur Red Listing and Conservation Planning Workshop in Madagascar in 2018 and is supporting the implementation of a major action plan for lemur conservation.

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Northern Muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus) (Photo by: Pablo Fernicola)
Atlantic Forest Primates

The primate community of the Atlantic Forest, stretching along the montane east coast of Brazil, inland and south into Argentina and Paraguay, has been largely isolated for 10 million years, hence the presence of four genera, Leontopithecus (the four lion marmosets), Callithrix (the Atlantic Forest marmosets), Brachyteles (two species of muriqui), and Callicebus (five species of the Atlantic forest titi monkeys) that originated there and occur practically nowhere else. Of the 26 species and subspecies of the Atlantic Forest, 21 occur nowhere else, and 18 them are threatened (14 Endangered or Critically Endangered).

GWC partners with the Muriqui Project of Caratinga and others to protect the Critically Endangered Northern Muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus), the largest of the Neotropical Primates and only found in the Atlantic Forest.

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Miss Waldron's Red Colobus (Piliocolobus waldronae) (Artwork by Alexis Rockman)
Lost Primates

As a part of our Search for Lost Species campaign, we have developed a list of lost primates – species that have been lost to science for at least a decade (and often much longer!). Explore which primates made the list and get the latest news from expeditions to find them.

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Top photo: Chimpanzees in Tanzania (Photo by Russell Mittermeier)

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