BEIJING - Mankind's closest relatives are teetering on the brink of their first extinctions in more than a century, hunted by humans for food and medicine and squeezed from forest homes, a report on endangered primates said on Friday.
"You could fit all the surviving members of these 25 species in a single football stadium -- that's how few of them remain on earth today," said Russell Mittermeier, president of U.S.-based environmental group Conservation International.
Primates include great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as smaller cousins ranging from gibbons and lemurs to monkeys. They are sought after as food, pets, or for traditional medicines, and a few are still trapped for medical research.
Others are victims of competition for living space and resources as forests that make their habitat are chopped down.
"In Central and West Africa primate meat ... is a luxury item for the elite," Mittermeier told Reuters in a telephone interview from Cambodia. "Here it's even more for medicinal purposes, with most of the more valuable species going to markets in southeastern China."
Sumatran orangutans, one of two great apes on the list along with cross-river gorillas, are also threatened by a pet trade into Taiwan, he added.
But just a few thousand dollars could be enough to push up numbers of the most vulnerable animals, said Mittermeier, who hopes publicity from the report will bolster the flow of funds to conservation groups and income from ecotourism.
Primates survived the 20th century without losing a single known species -- in fact new ones are rapidly being found -- and should be relatively easy to protect, he added.
"With what we spend in one day in Iraq we could fund primate conservation for the next decade for every endangered and critically endangered and vulnerable species out there," he said.
China's environment and its animals are suffering from its rapid, dirty economic growth that may already have pushed a species of dolphin to extinction, scientists say.
But although its Hainan gibbon is thought to be the most endangered of all primates, with fewer than 20 surviving, the country's efforts to save the golden monkeys of remote southwestern Yunnan province have set a global model.
"What they have done, which I find really amazing, is they have local villagers following these groups on a daily basis," Mittermeier said. "We are looking now at applying that in Vietnam, in Madagascar and a few other places."
He said climate change -- a long-term threat to the most endangered species because it could wipe out the forests they survive in -- could also prove a "magnificent opportunity" if tropical forest protection and regrowth projects were included in U.N. programs to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"Most of the primates are tropical forest animals, and tropical forests really have only been under serious decline in the last 50 years," Mittermeier said.
"Now we are pushing the idea that if you have so much carbon sequestered in these tropical forests don't cut them down, and compensate those countries which have the largest areas -- which also happen to be the countries that have the most primates."
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© 2007 Reuters