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Associated Press
A golden lion tamarin sits on a branch in Brazil’s state of Rio de Janeiro. The charismatic monkey is bouncing back from near extinction.

Brazil cheers as monkey rebounds

Once endangered species may be Olympic mascot

– Three tiny flaming orange monkeys crouched on a tree branch, cocking their heads as if to better hear the high-pitched whistles and yaps that came from deep within the dense green foliage. Then they answered in kind, rending the morning with their sharp calls and cautiously greeting each other in the forest.

That the cries of Brazil’s endangered golden lion tamarins should fill the air at all on a recent afternoon was cause for celebration, the result of one of the world’s most inspired species restoration efforts. In fact, that campaign has transformed the lush forest where the monkeys live and has become a model widely cited for saving other animals.

“There is no question in my mind that the golden lion tamarin is one of the best examples of international collaboration anywhere in the world,” said Russell Mittermeier, president of environmental group Conservation International and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s group on primates.

“I cite it every couple of weeks. This is how you do this kind of thing.”

Saving the squirrel-sized monkeys, which sport a lush coat and foot-long tail, became a passion for international animal aid groups and Brazilian conservationists. But it also drew in people living in the area, from well-off landowners to farm workers, who learned how to make a living from growing the trees that the monkeys depend on to survive, researchers said.

Its population has grown from just hundreds four decades ago to 1,700 in Rio de Janeiro state.

Now the tamarin is in the running for mascot in Brazil’s 2016 Olympics, and the next step to ensuring its survival might be helped along by another Olympic project: the state’s promise to plant 24 million trees, enough to absorb the greenhouse gases generated by the vehicle traffic, construction and other activities of the games.

That would help further restore the swath of species-rich Atlantic forest that once covered much of Brazil’s coast, and ensure the tamarin population has enough room to thrive.

“It’s an ambitious goal, and it won’t be easy,” said Marcia Hirota, of the environmental group the SOS Mata Atlantica Foundation, aimed at restoring the forest.

“It’s a challenge, but Rio has already cut down on deforestation. With this kind of public policy, Rio can become an example for other states that are in a more critical situation.”

For centuries, the little golden monkeys had been exported as pets and as exhibits in zoos around the world, with even Louis XV’s chief mistress buying one for the French court.

Its popularity became key to its survival: Even as the species faced threats in Brazil, enough monkeys were living abroad in places like in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo to usher in its rebound. Rio state is the only place in the world where the tamarins live in the wild.

The first push to save the tamarins began in the early 1970s, when a Brazilian researcher found their once-teeming numbers dwindling as cities and farms ate into the forest.

Once the alarm was sounded, researchers in Brazil and abroad began working together on a labor of love that would consume decades. Their first goal: learning how to encourage the monkeys to mate.

The rescuers then turned to their most challenging task – reviving the forest, which covers Brazil’s most populated region, and gradually reintroducing the monkey into the wild, explained Mittermeier, who has been part of the effort since he was a student in the early 1970s.

Even in the first few years, the effort broke new ground: The Poco das Antas biological reserve in Rio state, set up to preserve the tamarin’s habitat, was the first of its kind in the nation.

It provides the most stringent form of protection possible, setting aside public land but closing it off to visitors, to be used only for research and education. When the reserve began in 1974, roughly 100 tamarins lived in the area. Now there are 250.

Nearly three decades later, the population has multiplied in all of Rio state, with each tamarin an expert in identifying the 150 types of fruits, berries, shoots and insects it can survive on, said Andreia Martins, field coordinator for the Golden Lion Tamarin Association. The association is the main Brazilian group working to save the monkeys.

“If you’re lost in the forest, follow the tamarin,” she said. “They’ll always find food.”