The cotton-top tamarin is one of the most endangered primates in the world. This Callithricid species lives in the northwestern part of Colombia in small and separated populations. An estimated 6.000 specimen lives in their native habitat, therefore the cotton-top tamarin is listed as a Critically Endangered species by the IUCN Red List. It is especially important to make great efforts to save this species – with the help of ex situ conservation, but especially in their natural habitats.
Status in Colombia
Cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) occur in northwestern Colombia from sea level up to 1.500 meters. They prefer humid forests in the south part of their distribution where the annual rainfall is between 2.000-4.000 mm, and dry deciduous forests in the north where the average annual rainfall is approximately 1.500 mm, both primary and secondary forests. Although there are some protected areas in the habitat of cotton-top tamarins, due to the growth of the human population forest are cleared for agriculture and road constructions.
Although cotton-top tamarins have been protected in Colombia since 1969, the major threat to them was their export for the pet trade, zoos and biomedical research and the export was only banned in 1974. Since then habitat loss is the major threat to the species, as you can see above. In the late 1960s and early 1970s between 20.000-30.000 individuals were exported to the United States. It is estimated that altogether 6.000 individuals live in Colombia today, which includes approximately 2.000 mature specimens.
Protection in nature
Proyecto Tití was established in 1985 with the aim of raising awareness in local communities. The first field research programmes started in 1987. These programmes’ target was to be able to gain more information about the biology of cotton-top tamarins living in nature. Based on the results of the field studies new conservation programmes were started which lead the Colombian government to save the cotton-top tamarins. Proyecto Tití is managed by Fundación Proyecto Tití. In addition to the field research programmes and the conservation of cotton-top tamarins, the main objectives of this non-profit organization are the education of the residents of Colombia, development of alternative technologies in the economy and agriculture, which can help reduce the pressure on the forests. The cotton-top tamarin is the flagship species of Proyecto Tití in saving native flora and fauna in the habitats of the species.
Protection in zoos
Proyecto Tití works together with AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums in North America) and EAZA (European Associations of Zoos and Aquaria). Both regional zoo associations coordinate an endangered species breeding program for the conservation of cotton-top tamarins. More than 300 cotton-top tamarins live in more than 80 zoos in the SSP (Species Survival Plan) of the AZA. At the same time more than 600 specimens are coordinated by the EAZA EEP (European Endangered Species Programs). But these programmes – as most breeding programmes – have some difficulties. Probably the most important of these is that although pleased with the relatively high population in zoos, it is difficult for them to find enough space for surplus animals in the 100 or so European holder institutions. For that reason the work of the coordinator of the cotton-top tamarin EEP, Dr. Miranda F. Stevenson, is extremely important in reviewing the breeding pairs to maintain the genetic diversity in the population of European zoos.
Not only can European zoos help cotton-top tamarins through breeding, but also through the Cotton Top Club which was established by the EEP to make contact between European zoos, visitors of these and Proyecto Tití in Colombia. This way European zoos and European communities could help direct attention to the conservation of this amazing species. This comprehensive international unity could successfully help cotton-top tamarins survive in their native habitats in Colombia.