RIO DE JANEIRO
A bridge sticks out of the jungle and crosses a four-lane highway in a rural area on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It is for very special users: golden lion tamarins, small orange primates that for decades have been in danger of extinction.
The habitat of these creatures, whose name derives from the tuft of orange hair that surrounds their head like a mane, has been decreasing due to deforestation. Animal traffickers have also trapped these brightly colored monkeys for decades.
Yielding to pressure from an environmental association – and in compliance with a court order – the highway administrator concluded at the end of July the construction of the overpass that is intended to contribute to the conservation of the species.
The bridge, about 20 meters (65 feet) wide and twice as long, connects the Poco de Dantas biological reserve, in the municipality of Silva Jardim, in the state of Rio, with a farm that the Asociación del Tamarino León Dorado (AMLD for its acronym in Portuguese) acquired to turn it into an ecological park.
The newly planted trees on the bridge are only a few inches tall, but it is expected that in a couple of years they will reach a height such that the monkeys can cross from one strip of the forest to another.
Some monkeys, weighing about half a kilogram (one pound), can be seen in the trees in the nearby jungle.
“Our goal is to consolidate a conservation landscape for monkeys. The biggest problem is the fragmentation of the forests, which were already heavily deforested due to the expansion of urban centers ”, declared Luiz Paulo Ferraz, geographer and executive secretary of the AMLD. Connecting the jungles means more space for primates to roam and reproduce, thereby conserving genetic diversity, he added.
Before colonization, the Atlantic littoral rainforest biome covered more than 130 million hectares (330 million acres) near and along the coast of Brazil, of which more than 85% was cleared, threatening plants and animals, according to the environmental group The Nature Conservancy.
More than 70% of Brazil’s population lives in areas that are or were once forests on the Atlantic coast, according to Rafael Bitante, director of jungle restoration at the Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica.
And while few Brazilians have seen a golden lion tamarin in person, virtually everyone has had one in their hands: it is found on Brazilian 20-real bills. This creature has become a symbol of the preservation of wildlife in Brazil and beyond.
In the 1970s, when scientists undertook conservation programs, there were only 200 specimens, according to the AMLD. The creation of the Poco de Dantas reserve in 1974 was the starting point to recover the population and habitat of these animals in the interior of the state of Rio. In 2003, the international conservation status of this primate improved from a “critically endangered” species to an “endangered” species.
The number of golden lion tamarins reached 3,400 in 2014, the most recent census year for AMLD. An outbreak of yellow fever in 2016 and 2017 caused the death of some 900 specimens, the biggest blow to this species since the beginning of conservation efforts.
These primates need more habitat to increase their numbers, according to Carlos Alvarenga Pereira, coordinator of AMLD’s jungle restoration program.
“It is a local challenge, and the participation of rural communities is needed, to convince farmers to convert unproductive agricultural lands into reclaimed forests,” said Pereira.
Prosecutors had to go to court to get a court order forcing the highway operator to build the bridge, a condition included in the public tender to concession the highway.