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Cotton-top Tamarins

May 4, 2009

Some species end up with an endangered label as a result of competition with another species or their own fondness for kinky sex. For other species, endangered-ness is absolutely, positively human-induced.

Meet the cotton-top tamarin—a squirrel-sized Albert Einstein-ish primate found in the forests of Colombia. (No offense intended to Einstein—the cotton-top tamarin is adorable.)*

In the 1960s and ‘70s, 20,000 to 30,000 cotton-top tamarins were removed from the wild and shipped to the United States for biomedical research. (The fuzzy little guys have a tendency to develop colon cancer, making them ideal subjects for medical research.) The removal of all of those tamarins obviously took a pretty big chunk out of the cotton-top population, but then humans started tearing down the forests, taking the habitat right out from under the tamarins and leaving them with nowhere to live. A 1978 study estimated that 75% of the cotton-top tamarins’ original forest habitat had already been cleared for agricultural uses.

Thanks to this human handiwork (the habitat destruction and removals for research, plus an ongoing illegal pet trade), the number of cotton-top tamarins in the wild has dropped 80% over the last 18 years. The IUCN—which lists the species as critically endangered—estimates that there are now just 6,000 cotton-top tamarins left in the wild. And of those, only 2,000 are mature individuals. (That means only 2,000 cotton-top tamarins currently have the potential to produce baby cotton-top tamarins.)

So you see, we clearly f***ed things up for the cotton-top tamarin. Now, the question is: can we undo what we did? Well, no. There’s no “undo” button in life. But, by protecting the remaining 6,000 cotton-top tamarins, perhaps we can give the fuzzy little Einsteins a fighting chance.

The method: Community-based conservation, an approach in which local communities become part of the solution. Community-based conservation efforts have been successful all over the world, especially in instances where the community IS the problem.

For the cotton-top tamarin, conservation efforts must focus on the primate’s habitat (exporting cotton-tops has been illegal since 1974). But how do you get a community that’s destroying an animal’s habitat to protect it? Simple. Give the residents another source of income so they don’t have to destroy that habitat to survive. This is exactly what happened in Los Limites, Colombia.

Inspired by the cotton-top tamarins and surrounded by a whole lotta trash, the women of Los Limites began making Eco-Mochilas. (Since there’s no formal trash collection in the village, plastic bags were scattered throughout Los Limites and the surrounding cotton-top tamarin-inhabited forest.) Now, villagers collect plastic bags from the forest and throughout the village and deliver them to the Asoartesanas (the women who make the bags). The Asoartesanas cut the plastic bags into strips and crochet the strips together to create a tote bag or purse (an Eco-Mochila). Making Eco-Mochilas doesn’t just clean up the cotton-tops’ habitat. Sales of the bags support cotton-top conservation efforts and provide villagers with a source of income that doesn’t destroy the forest.


*Cotton-tops play a critical role in their forest habitat. They are super poopers (a.k.a. seed dispersers) who can “ingest and void” (translation: swallow and poop) larger seeds than much larger primates like baboons and chimpanzees. After passing through the cotton-top’s digestive system, seeds show higher germination success than those that haven’t been pre-processed by the tamarins.


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