Colombia’s cotton-top tamarin faces grave threat from deforestation

By Arjun Harindranath November 14, 2018

The tiny cotton-top tamarin can only be found in the tropical dry forests of northern Colombia. Photo by Fundación Proyecto Tití

Weighing in at less than a pound and about the size of a squirrel, Colombia’s cotton-top tamarins are threatened by continued deforestation. Only around 7,000 of these unique monkeys remain in the wild and are exclusive to the tropical dry forests of northwestern Colombia.

The primary threat to the cotton-top tamarins–affectionately named ‘titís’ in Spanish–is from rampant deforestation as rural areas expand for agricultural purposes, logging for construction, and for the production of charcoal as well.

Given their dependence on contiguous forests, the cotton-top tamarins also suffer from fragmentation, with much of their habitats spread across unconnected protected areas. As the monkeys rarely spend time on the ground or exposed areas, they are more at risk than birds as they wouldn’t pass through a cattle ranch to get to another piece of the forest.

Fundacíon Proyecto Tití, a local foundation hoping to increase awareness of the cotton-top’s plight, has been replanting the forests as a priority to ensure their survival. “They need continuous forest to exchange genetically and survive,” Executive Director Rosamira Guillen told The Bogotá Post. “We create corridors that connect isolated forest fragments so cotton-tops can have continuous forest in the long-term.”

Like Albert Einstein, cotton-top tamarins are known for their intelligence, altruism and their characteristic shock of white hair.

The foundation also has community outreach programs to educate people of the region about the importance of conserving the species and offering alternatives to agricultural expansion.  “If a farmer needs to invest in his land to make it productive, then we help them by teaching them to do it in a way that is sustainable,” Guillen said. “We are very focused on increasing habitat space, ensuring that it is either protected or conserved through different strategies.” Most recently, they began fundraising for a “Buy a Tití Post” campaign where fence posts made of recycled plastic are offered to farmers as an alternative to those made from timber.

In addition to deforestation, the cotton-top tamarins are also vulnerable to other threats. For one, the flooding of their natural habitats–one of Colombia’s most fragile ecosystems–by flooding caused by local hydroelectric projects.  They remain a target for poachers as well, who often sell the miniature monkeys as exotic pets to buyers unaware of how endangered they are.

Previously, more than 20,000 cotton-tops were exported to the United States for medical research, a practice that was prohibited in the 70s though they are still traded regionally.

The monkeys themselves are known to be territorial but, in many ways, have been shown to be human, all too human. The cotton-tops tend to live in small groups until the children are old enough to move out of the house, though some remain to play the guard over their territory, especially watching out for predators like boa snakes, raptor birds and smaller nocturnal mammals. Interestingly, the female cotton-tops frequently give birth to twins and require cooperation from the group in raising the children.

Photo by Fundación Proyecto Tití

And although groups can be seen as territorial towards other groups, research has also shown the herbivorous primates to be highly altruistic. In 2003, a study showed that the cotton-tops would give food to other unrelated cotton-tops–a rare habit in the animal kingdom–if they were initially shown similar generosity. In other words, the cotton-tops are more likely to share with more generous monkeys than they are with monkeys that are being colossal knobs about it.

The foundation hopes that humans can be equally as altruistic in looking after these tiny creatures by preserving their habitat. The cotton-top tamarin in this sense is being used to protect the wider ecosystem as well: “The goal is to use the cotton-top tamarin as the flagship species for the conservation of Colombia’s natural resources.”

Readers interested in helping the Fundación Proyecto Tití’s conservation efforts can find their Buy a Tití Post campaign here.