With only 60 individuals left in northern Madagascar, the northern sportive lemur is on the brink of extinction. Worldwide, more than half of all primates are endangered. If any did die out, their disappearance could alter their ecosystems in unpredictable ways, with unknown consequences for other species, including humans.
But as well as being potential victims, humans are also the main cause of the decline, since their expansion eats away at the habitat primates need to survive.
After the UN climate talks last December, the push towards scaling up climate response efforts emphasised the need to conserve the world’s forests as ‘carbon sinks’. Such wild areas also hide a treasure trove of animal biodiversity, entangled with indigenous people’s lives. Yet the animals living in forests are often ignored by global policies, which mostly focus on carbon reduction. Primates are the first victims of this neglect.
The northern sportive lemur is among the most endangered primates as its habitat range is extremely reduced. Even a small natural disaster could wipe it out. Although saving such species may seem hopeless, some experts think otherwise.
“These species can bounce back,” says Christoph Schwitzer, vice-chair of the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission. “We cannot give up on them. As long as there are [still] a few left, we have to do something to help increase their numbers.”
Primates face numerous threats, but the two main largest are caused by humans: habitat destruction and their exploitation for food and entertainment.
Habitat destruction mainly occurs when land is converted for agriculture. So-called slash and burn techniques, where farmers burn forest to clear space to grow crops, have been used for thousands of years.
When human communities were small and dispersed, this practice had a negligible impact on forests. But today, with larger populations, slash-and-burn agriculture has become unsustainable. For example, there are now 23 million people living on Madagascar and 80 per cent of the island’s forest has been cleared. 
The same is happening in Indonesia, where smoke from fires started last year to make space for oil palm plantations reached as far away as Vietnam, posing a threat to public health as well as the orangutan populations of Borneo.
Other primates face extinction because of exploitation. Many species are still illegally hunted for food, as they are the main source of protein for some communities. Others are victims of the illegal pet trade.
Over the past decade, the slow loris of Indonesia has become a popular pet throughout Asia. A recent study examined the suffering caused to these primates from them becoming YouTube sensations.  Videos showing their big brown eyes, quiet demeanor and reaction to being ‘tickled’ have gone viral. Because slow lorises cost little on the black market, people buy one, keep it until it dies and then get another, fuelling the poaching industry.
This September at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, the updated statuses of living creatures across the globe will be released. A list of the 25 primate species closest to becoming extinct will also be released. In 2012, at the last congress, several monkey, lemur, langur and gorilla species were on this list. Thankfully, partly due to the efforts of NGOs and governments around the world, all these species appear to still be with us.
“We have not lost a primate species in the last two centuries,” Schwitzer says. “This is a very large victory, as many vertebrates around the world are disappearing.”
But many species are teetering on the brink. There are only about 20 Hainan gibbons left in China, while the Miss Waldron’s red colobus of West Africa has not been seen for several years, with some people starting to fear that it may have gone extinct.
Primate population decline raises many serious research questions, chiefly what impact would potential extinctions have on forests and human communities.
For example, primates disperse seeds by unknowingly carrying seeds from one area to another on their fur.  Their disappearance could harm the plants whose reproduction they support.
“We can’t say that, if the primates die, trees and plants will go as well — it has been so long since a primate species has died, we just don’t know,” says Schwitzer. “There will, of course, be some sort of inevitable consequences on the ecosystems, but we need more research to know what exactly will happen.”
To save various primates around the world, NGOs are working with different government bodies. The most successful programmes are ones that also work with local people.
For example, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance educates children and adults about the value of maintaining the environment, along with the primates and other animals that live in it. The alliance also teaches local people about alternative ways to survive without exploiting the environment.
As the clock ticks down for primates all over the world, more funding and government commitment are crucial to halt — and possibly reverse — the path towards extinction.
Currently, many programmes fail because of a lack of money or capacity building that could empower people to become guardians of their own land.
This photo essay was produced by SciDev.Net's Global Edition.
Threatened primates can swing back if we let them