What can we do about the extinction crisis?

June 15, 2020

College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters faculty and American Society of Primatologists colleagues form action network for primate conservation.

Associate Professor Francine Dolins with a common brown lemur

Associate Professor Francine Dolins recalls seeing a sportive lemur high in a tree in the forest in Madagascar while she was studying endangered lemur species.

Days later, when returning to the tree, Dolins, a primatologist, noticed axe marks and a hole in the trunk. The lemur was gone. “At least 30 researchers were in the forest, and yet lemurs were poached right underneath our noses — in a national forest,” she said. Upon leaving that protected area in Madagascar, Dolins also noticed the forest line had receded nearly two miles from when she entered it three months earlier due to logging for wood and for agriculture.

Dolins — a longtime advocate for primates, both human and non-human — is a dedicated educator who’s taught at UM-Dearborn for more than a decade and has students engaged in her research to better understand animal cognition, ecology and the evolutionary foundations of behavior of non-human primates, Dolins has traveled to Madagascar to study lemurs, and also Peru and Costa Rica to study New World Monkeys. Her work is recognized around the globe, most recently through a nearly $1M grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

With available evidence pointing to COVID-19 coming from a zoonotic source, animal extinction increasing at an alarming rate, and environmental concerns like climate change, Dolins says she’s strengthening her stance from advocate to activist. 

Dolins, along with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Emeritus Paul Garber, another renowned primatologist, started a subcommittee through the American Society of Primatologists, the Conservation Action Network (ASP-CAN). 

Their goal is to inform the public about the primate extinction crisis and provide ways that people can take action to protect non-human primates, their habitats and the other animals who live there. Dolins has also been working with UM-Dearborn Eco Club members to highlight the issue of palm oil production in orangutan deaths and rainforest destruction.

Dolins and Garber recently spoke to the Reporter about the primate extinction crisis and why we should care.

Why did you start ASP-CAN?

Francine Dolins: Knowledge gives empowerment. We want to connect people to information. Talking with people — and I’m always learning too — we don’t always know a simple decision we make, like what to eat for dinner, may have a negative effect on national and international environmental justice and conservation efforts. (For example, the Amazon rainforest is deforested to make more space for cattle to meet consumer beef demands; the U.S., which imports beef from Brazil, is the largest beef consumer in the world.)

Consumer demands in a small number of countries like the U.S., China, Japan, Canada, and the E.U. are driving deforestation. People know it is not good to destroy forests or kill monkeys, but we might not understand how it’s all connected. We don’t always realize that the decisions we make can have an impact way beyond our local communities. Knowing how things are globally connected might empower us to make different decisions.

Primatologist Paul Garber

There are many issues in the world that need to be addressed. Why should we care about this now?

Paul Garber: We are going to lose all these animals if we don’t do something. (Three-quarters of primate species are in decline, the researchers found, and about 60 percent are threatened with extinction.) And the reality is that monkeys are like the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t act to save the habitat for the monkeys, a few years after their extinction, the environment will not be habitable for humans either.

Dolins: Primates are our closest biological relatives; studying the 500 species of living primates provides insight into our history, biology and evolution. I’ve studied them for years — if you saw their mother-child connection and their cognitive abilities, you’d realize that it’s like looking at ourselves.

In addition to that, the more we shrink animal habitats and decrease the barriers between species — through actions like deforestation and poaching protected animals for consumption  — the more we lay the foundation for serious infectious disease to jump from animals to us and from us to them. We’ve seen it with Ebola, AIDS, coronaviruses and more. I’m developing a course at UM-Dearborn that looks at the links between habitat destruction, social and environmental injustice and how the pandemic occurred. It’s important to know that our actions are causing these things to happen. We are doing this to ourselves. If we were informed, we may choose to do things differently.

So what can we do?

Garber: I’ve been doing research on primate conservation  for over 30 years. I’ve learned a lot — one of my most important lessons has been that we are at a moment in which action and public engagement are the most powerful tools we have to protect biodiversity and save our planet. 

Dolins: Seek out information. ASP-CAN recently started a monthly action  letter with cited information and actions to take — anyone can email me or Paul to sign up for it. 

Buy and consume less if you can. I say this because the U.S. has the largest amount of consumption in the world. If we bought less, the demand wouldn’t be there. We also have a throw-away culture — in the U.S. 40 percent of prepared food is discarded. Just think about these things before acting and know that we are in a very connected global society where one simple action can have a big effect in another part of the world. 

If you would like to assist the American Society of Primatologists -Community Action Network with their activism work, please contact UM-Dearborn Associate Professor Francine Dolins or University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Emeritus Paul A. Garber