Anne Savage first became entranced with the rare cottontop tamarin in the 1980s as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, where she studied the reproductive biology of the squirrel-size primate in captivity. Her fascination with the monkey eventually brought her to the dry tropical forests of northwest Colombia to study the tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) in its only natural habitat -- and to help protect it from extinction.
As many as 30,000 cottontops were exported to the United States for biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s, leading the tiny monkey to become one of the most endangered primates in the world. It has the unfortunate characteristic of being the only species, besides humans, to spontaneously develop colon cancer, making it an ideal subject for research on the disease and its possible cure. The tamarin was listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1973, and international agreements have since banned the cottontop trade. Yet new threats emerged that decimated the animal's historic habitat: To subsist economically, local villagers were cutting down forests in which the primates lived for slash-and-burn agriculture, for cattle-raising, or simply for firewood. They were also capturing tamarins for the domestic and international pet trade.
Savage's desire to protect the cottontop collided with the reality of a human population that survived on less than two dollars a day. The key, she soon realized, was to make conservation practical and beneficial for the local people. In 1985 she founded Proyecto Tití, one of Colombia's first community-based conservation projects. "It doesn't matter how many people from the United States or from Proyecto Tití say, 'Don't capture tamarins,' " says Savage. "It will stop only when local people become involved."
Today only a few thousand cottontops survive. Setting aside habitat as national parks and reserves is one part of the conservation solution. The cottontop's range includes three protected areas: the 1,766-square-mile Paramillo National Nature Park and the smaller Montes de María Reserve and Los Colorados Sanctuary for Fauna and Flora. But Savage, who continues to oversee Proyecto Tití as a senior conservation biologist with Disney's Animal Kingdom, found that parks had to do more than exist on paper.
Using aerial photographs to analyze deforestation, she found that Paramillo has lost more than 40 percent of its forest cover and Los Colorados 71 percent since their establishment in 1977. Montes de María has lost 70 percent since it was created in 1983.
Although Proyecto Tití, now working with the Nature Conservancy, continues to look for more land to purchase, this alone will not be enough to protect the cottontop. Savage knew that its habitat would continue to fall under the ax as long as people lacked a viable alternative source of income. So in 2003 Proyecto Tití began an income-generating project that involves recycling plastic trash. Men, women, and children gather up discarded plastic bags, clean them, cut them into strips, and then crochet these into beach bags and purses. The work is surprisingly lucrative: In the village of Los Limites, Mercedes Olivares now brings in around $6,000 a year making these eco-mochilas.
Along with money have come changed attitudes -- the foundation of Proyecto Tití's approach. With a team of Colombian colleagues, Savage has now spent more than two decades helping local villagers appreciate the cottontop's value. This kind of effort requires a mosaic of small initiatives, such as a school curriculum to teach kids about Colombian ecology and a toys-for-slingshots exchange, which Savage began in 2000. This program has collected 500 slingshots that might otherwise have been used to capture tamarins for the pet trade.
Savage and her colleagues ask three questions in assessing the impact of Proyecto Tití: Have we increased knowledge? Have we changed people's attitudes so they become part of the conservation effort? Have we changed their behavior? The answer seems to be yes on all counts. Surveys of local communities show that today more than 98 percent of people understand the cottontop's rarity, and many say they have become passionate about protecting their "ambassador monkey." Savage is now completing the first full cottontop census and hopes that these attitudes will be reflected in rebounding tamarin populations.
The success of Proyecto Tití has attracted the attention of the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), based in Los Altos, California, which began supporting the project in 2006. Less than 0.1 percent of U.S. philanthropy goes to support international wildlife conservation, says WCN's executive director, Charlie Knowles. Knowles, who has a business background in Silicon Valley, believes that "conservation entrepreneurs" are the key to protecting endangered species such as the cottontop. "Governments come and go," says Knowles, "but local people are always there. They are the real stewards and protectors of the land."
-- Wendee Holtcamp