Friday, September 28, 2018

South County's role in monkey conservation

            Down a long unpaved driveway deep in the woods of northern Charlestown is not the place that one would expect to find an international organization dedicated to protecting monkeys and other primates around the world. After all, the only wild primates for more than 1,500 miles are humans.
            Nonetheless, this unexpected location is the headquarters of Primate Conservation Inc., a non-profit foundation that funds research on many of the world’s 511 species of primates. Led by the group’s founder and director Noel Rowe, the organization plays a vital role in studying
Noel Rowe with a Barbary Macaque (photo by Marc Meyers)
rare primate species, protecting their habitats, and defending them from hunters.
            “Generally, primates aren’t doing well in the wild,” Rowe said. “The weed species – the macaques, howlers, capuchins, the generalists that get along with people – they’re doing all right. But a lot of the others are in trouble. The gibbons, for instance, are all in trouble. They need big ranges and big forests. They’re targets because they’re loud and easy to hunt. And a lot of the Asian leaf monkeys are critically endangered.”
            Primate Conservation provides small grants to graduate students and scientists to study primates of all sorts in tropical locations around the world. Since 1993, Rowe has raised more than $1 million and awarded 650 grants for primate studies in 29 countries.
            The key to protecting primates is having researchers in the field as often as possible to discourage hunters and those that might destroy the animals’ habitat, Rowe said. “The science is part of it, but it’s mostly just having people there. They know where the animals are, and they’re hiring local people who start to take pride in them.”
            Retired from a long career as a photographer, Rowe grew up in Cincinnati but spent many summers in Weekapaug. He became interested in primates as a child after visits to the Cincinnati Zoo.
            “I worked at the zoo, I went to a school that had a zoo, and I was always interested in wildlife. But mostly, I always wanted to grow up to be a monkey,” he said with a grin. “They climb, they play, and they always seem like they’re having a good time.”
            In the 1980s, Rowe served as a volunteer on primate research projects in Madagascar, Borneo, Ethiopia and Thailand. While enrolled in a class at Stony Brook University with noted primatologist Patricia Wright – who is now Rowe’s fiancé – he asked if there was a book showing all of the primates in the world. Wright said there wasn’t one, and she suggested that he take on the project himself. It took him four years and the formation of his own publishing company, but his Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates came out in 1996 featuring all 234 species known at that time.
            Since then, more than 100 new primate species have been discovered in the wild, and behavioral and genetic studies have revealed nearly 200 more. So he spent 12 years editing an 800-page volume called All the World’s Primates, which came out last year and includes 505 species. Six more species have been discovered since it was published.
“We just lived through the golden age of primate discovery,” he said. “It’s been a revelation.”
Rowe was responsible for one of those discoveries. The Tonkin snub-nosed monkey of northern Vietnam hadn’t been seen since before the Vietnam War, but in 1992 Rowe was shown a recent photo of an infant Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. So he and a friend traveled to Vietnam – when it was still illegal for Americans to do so – and met with local scientists.
“They were sure we were from the CIA, but they took us to the forest where they’d found the baby, and three days before Christmas we had a glimpse,” he recalled. “I took the first bad picture of the species in the wild. But we proved it was there and saw a whole group of them. I came back and got the Wildlife Conservation Society involved to study them.”
Rowe still travels the globe regularly to photograph primates, attend conservation conferences, raise money for his foundation, and meet with people who study primates.
"Noel is fully heart, soul, and mind dedicated to primate conservation and helping his fellow humans in the cause," said University of Rhode Island anthropologist Holly Dunsworth, who studies the evolution of primates. "He's a fantastic photographer and he writes authoritative, highly respected reference volumes on primates, with his color photos of their wonderful diversity in appearance, behavior and ecology. Anthropologists, primatologists and zoologists around the world rely on Noel's work for their science, scholarship and conservation."
He is also always looking for ways to raise awareness about the threats facing the animals.
“There are a lot more people involved in primate conservation than there used to be, so that’s a very good sign. And some species are recovering, like the golden lion tamarin in Brazil,” he said. “But the human population keeps expanding, so the forest keeps getting smaller. And then you have climate change, which is throwing a monkey wrench into things, because sea level rise is going to flood the low forest and the high elevation species can’t go any higher.”
While Rhode Islanders may think there is little they can do to improve the situation for primates in distant countries, Rowe has a long list of suggestions, starting with writing your Congressional delegation to protect the Endangered Species Act. The landmark legislation, which is constantly under threat of being weakened, has been instrumental in slowing the primate pet trade and the trade in bush meat.
“And if you travel to the tropics, be aware of where your money is going,” he said. “Is it going to an ecotourist operation or a local group protecting the animals you’re going to see, or is it going to some big business that’s taking the money out of the country? Responsible tourism is very important.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment