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International interest in the Mountain Marmosets

In July 2108, I travelled out to Brazil to catch up with Dr. Rodrigo Salles de Carvalho who coordinates the Mountain Marmoset Conservation Program (MMCP). The MMCP originally focused on the conservation of the Buffy tufted-ear marmoset, Callithrix aurita, but the project has now been expanded to include the Buffy headed marmoset, Callithrix flaviceps, as the threats that face the two species are essentially the same. Rodrigo monitors the status of the two species and reports back to ICMBio, the section of the Environment Ministry that is responsible for biodiversity conservation in Brazil.

As the project’s name suggests, the two marmosets in question come from mountainous areas, but I was overwhelmed by

the beauty of the landscape that Rodrigo took me too the day after I arrived at Rio airport. The Serras des Orcas Mountains towered up above us, huge rock pinnacles piercing the remnants of the forest. Rodrigo told me that the terrain is incredibly difficult to survey and the marmosets can exist in the forest even at these high altitudes.

The Buffy tufted-ear marmoset is found only in upland areas of South-eastern Brazil. Its habitat has been severely reduced, with clearance mainly for cattle ranching. The remaining forest is fragmented, with the larger patches clinging to the slopes close to the peaks. We drove high up into the mountains, stopping several times to listen out for marmosets. Rodrigo has been searching here for the last groups of the species for the last two years, with vital funding coming from Beauval zoo and the French Zoo Federation.

However, we were on a tight schedule and had a packed but exciting week ahead of us, and we headed by car to Minas Gerais state to meet with a land owner who is very keen to start rewilding vast areas of mountainous land that he is buying. Minas Gerais is the state of mining and dairy farming, so, as you can imagine, the forests haven’t fared too well. Ibitipoca is a state park situated high up around a mountain top known for its geological features and natural beauty. The land around the park is being systematically bought up by Renato Machado to create a large reserve, the Ibitipoca reserve, which is connected to the state park. The area is incredibly dramatic with huge mountains and sheer cliffs rising out of the forested slopes. Large areas on the lower slopes are covered with scrub as the cattle have been removed and the land has started to regenerate. Renato is incredibly enthusiastic about restoring the forests and animals to an area where wonderful species such as the muriqui, jaguar and harpy eagle once roamed the land, and no doubt the little Buffy tufted-ear marmosets inhabited the forests in large numbers.

We stayed several days in the magnificent reserve and discussed setting up a primate breeding and research station, which would be a staging post for re-introductions. Renato has already started to build an enclosure for muriqui as only two males now remain on the land. He plans to bring a female in to breed with them and then gradually release them into the reserve. This is a truly exciting project, and we hope that we can start doing the same with C. aurita in time. The area has huge potential as a sanctuary for the species and we hope to work closely with the Ibitipoca reserve in the future.

After a few days in the reserve, we travelled through the mountains to the beautiful town of Nova Friburgo, a city in the Serra do Mar. Rodrigo had been discussing with one of the town councillors the possibility of setting aside an area of land just outside the town as a protected area for Callithrix aurita. During his survey work in the area, Rodrigo had found some pure aurita in forest away from invading non-native marmosets. He also met Alexandra, a town councillor who is a great advocate for local wildlife. That chance meeting has turned out to be very beneficial for the marmosets. In fact, on the day we arrived in the city, the local councillors were voting on the creation of the new reserve. Rodrigo had told me that we were going to meet the mayor with Alexandra to thank them for supporting the creation of the new reserve and explain how it was such a forward thinking move, both protecting an endangered species, and protecting the city’s watershed and reducing the risk of landslides. So when we turned up at the council chambers with the public meeting in full swing, I expected us to be seeing the mayor in the back rooms, but no – to my horror, Rodrigo and I were called up on to the stage, whereupon a microphone was given to me, lights and cameras were pointed in my direction, and Rodrigo said, “Say some nice things about the plan to make the reserve”.

I wasn’t expecting that as you can see from my face in the clip but it was easy to say 'nice things' as I have deep admiration for the whole team involved with making the reserve become a reality. (I start talking at about 1.50.)

As I said, I think it is a fantastic decision for the town council to create this reserve, the first ever for the species. We went off for a few beers to celebrate that night. Seeing on my brief visit all the contacts and work that Rodrigo has achieved with very little resources in such a short time was amazing. And then the next day we were off again, travelling to the city of Viçosa to catch up with Fabiano Melo, a professor of primatology who has managed to secure the use of a disused animal holding facility in the grounds of the university, and plans to convert it into a specialist research and breeding station for Callithrix aurita, the first of its kind and much needed. The city of Viçosa is situated in the species’ range and there are some remnant populations near the university. However, these are threatened by invading marmosets: pet common and black-pencilled marmosets that have been released are now spreading across the range of both Callithrix aurita and C. flaviceps, evicting them from what little habitat is left and hybridising with them, which is causing an enormous problem. We arrived late in the afternoon after a long drive. The city and university were a lot larger than I had thought, but we managed to find Fabiano in an office down a maze of corridors. He has worked for many years with the critically endangered muriqui in the region and is very keen to extend his work to the threatened marmosets, getting involved in more areas of conservation work with his department and his army of very enthusiastic students.

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The new centre at Viçosa will have several roles. First and foremost it will breed the threatened marmosets, and also carry out vital research, as very little work has been done in captivity on either species. There are large stands of native forest in the university’s grounds, which looked perfect for free ranging groups of marmosets to roam in. The centre will also act as a point where individuals that have been rescued from threatened habitats can be brought in and health-checked before being reintroduced to safer areas. It will also be able to coordinate the management of the wild marmosets in the surrounding habitat, moving individuals around so that genetic diversity can be maintained in the fragmented population. Managing the species in this landscape with populations dispersed in tiny pockets of forest across a great area is going to be a huge task over the coming years, and the growing threat of invading marmosets hybridising with the last remaining groups of C. aurita will make the task even harder. But we have to make a start now. Rodrigo was one of the first to raise the alarm about the plight of the buffy-tufted-ear marmoset and its likely extinction if nothing was done.

Just three years ago there was no managed captive population and no action plan for the species, so a lot has been achieved in a short period of time. But much more has to be done if we are going to save this wonderful primate!

Dominic Wormall

Head of mammels at Durrell Wildlife Conservation, Dominic is one of the MMCP international Advocates and brings with him a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for conservation of a/b/c


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