Our consumer habits are driving primates extinct

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More people live better than ever before in human history and plenty more are about to join their ranks as more and more people in developing countries get better-off.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that our current consumer habits across the developed world are wholly unsustainable and we would need nearly three Earth-sized planets to support such habits on a far wider scale. Unless we change our ways, oceans will continue to be overfished and polluted, natural resources will continue to be depleted, and wildlife habitats will continue to be destroyed.

A case in point is a new study whose authors warn that the economic benefits of commodities for export have come at great environmental costs for countries in the tropics with primate habitats. These countries have been experiencing increased pollution and habitat degradation, along with a loss of biodiversity and continued food shortages.

“The world’s primate fauna, distributed in the Neotropics, Africa and in South and Southeast Asia, represents an important global component of the Earth’s land-based biodiversity,” the study’s three authors explain. “The presence and activities of primates support a range of tropical community-wide ecological functions and services that provide vital resources to natural ecosystems, including local human populations.”

Alarmingly, however, “around 60% of primate species are now threatened with extinction and ~75% have declining populations as a result of escalating anthropogenic pressures resulting in deforestation, habitat degradation, and increased spatial conflict between an expanding human population and the natural range of primates,” they add.

This drastic decline in primate populations has several causes, including rampant poaching and deforestation. Yet the primary cause is invariably market demands whereby richer nations export food and nonfood commodities from poorer ones, which produce these goods at the expense of local ecosystems.

“Growing global consumer demands for food and non-food commodities from primate range regions are placing primate populations at risk of extinction,” the researchers explain. “These increasing demands have resulted in an accelerated global expansion of agriculture and of extractive industries and in the growth of infrastructure to support these activities leading to widespread primate habitat loss and degradation.”

Forests are cut down to make way for palm oil plantations in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia where orangutans once thrived but are now increasingly endangered. In countries like Brazil, meanwhile, the Amazon’s forests are routinely cut to make way for pastures for beef cattle or convert them into agricultural land to grow food for export.

Between 2001 and 2015, the authors note, 160 million hectares of forest were felled in the tropics and more than half of that loss was commodity-driven. In other words, “forests were converted to agricultural fields, cattle pastures, mines to extract minerals and metals, fossil fuel exploration, and urbanization.”

And matters are set to get even worse. The current rate of 85 tons of global commodity resource extraction is likely to balloon to 186 billion tons by 2050, which will cause yet more deforestation and habitat destruction in the tropics.

The only way to avoid this environmental calamity, the researchers say, is to change and rein in our consumption habits, such as by using fewer oil seeds and consuming less beef, both of which require vast land areas and quantities of natural resources.

“Primates and their habitats are a vital component of the world’s natural heritage and culture and as our closest living biological relatives, nonhuman primates deserve our full attention, concern, and support for their conservation and survivorship,” the authors stress.