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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primate Crisis Takes Scientists by Surprise

Dozens of primate species are teetering on the brink of oblivion in a new extinction emergency that has left scientists astonished and angry.

"It's all been happening at a time when we knew better,'' said David Chivers, a Cambridge University gibbon expert who has chased the world's smallest ape through treetops from the Himalayas to the islands of Indochina.

"I've spent 30 years on this, and now we don't seem to be getting anywhere,'' Chivers said. "It's ridiculous.''

No primate has gone extinct in the 20th century. It was a remarkable feat of endurance for humankind's closest relatives at a time when 100 species - especially cats, bats, insects and birds - were vanishing every day.

But what had been hailed as a conservation triumph is beginning to look like a sad illusion. Leading field biologists, veterinarians and zoo curators will meet for four days in suburban Chicago beginning Wednesday to devise emergency strategies.

New estimates suggest that 10 percent of the world's 608 primate species and subspecies on three continents are critically imperiled.

Renewed surges of deforestation and poaching in the 1990s, as well as shrinking genetic diversity, suddenly are thinning the ranks of many species to just a few hundred, or a few dozen. At any moment, they could vanish forever.

An additional 10 percent of primate species might not be in immediate jeopardy, but will disappear without protection, researchers warn.

In a few cases, scientists aren't even sure if a species still exists. Take the Miss Waldron's red colobus. In the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa, farming has all but eliminated the obscure monkey's swampy habitat. Or the golden-headed langur on Vietnam's Cat Ba Island. This rare leaf eater has been a favorite target of hunters who sell its bones, tissues and organs as traditional medicines.

"We're doing surveys to find them. There are some we haven't seen in a few years,'' said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

"We've arrived at a critical time for the world's primates,'' said William Konstant of the World Conservation Union. "Close to 20 percent stand a reasonable chance of disappearing in the next 20 years unless we take decisive action.''

But what action will be effective? Some ideas likely to be discussed: artificial insemination of females with laboratory-engineered embryos and the introduction into the wild of families born in captivity.

Primates have been in worsening trouble for decades as the world's human population crashed the 6 billion barrier. Many of the world's foremost field researchers, including pioneering chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, switched their focus from science to salvation as their cherished research subjects began disappearing.