Primal Needs: How a local organization is helping to save the world’s primates

Primal Needs: How a local organization is helping to save the world’s primates

Written by Crystal Ward Kent

Orangutan in the forest of Borneo Indonesia.

In jungles and rainforests around the world, the number of primates is steadily dwindling. ALL of the world’s 703 primate species are in trouble, from the majestic mountain gorillas of Rwanda to the gibbons of Asia and the elusive tamarins of Latin America. Sadly, it is conceivable that within 20 years, 66 percent of these marvelously intelligent animals will be gone from the planet or exist only in captivity. This will be a horrible loss, not only because the disappearance of any species is a tragedy, but also because primates fill critical roles within every ecosystem that they inhabit. 

A world away from the natural territory of primates is the New England Primate Conservancy, a nonprofit organization located in Merrimac, Massachusetts. The Conservancy seeks to help save the world’s primates through concerted educational efforts. Two of their main missions are promoting the protection of primate habitat, and reducing the number of primates used for medical research. 

Purple-faced langur – monkey in natural habitats – Sri Lanka wildlife

Debra Curtin, founder and president of the Conservancy, did not initially see primate work in her future. In 2002, she was a successful businesswoman, working in the technology field. One day, as she was painting her living room, she had an Animal Planet program playing in the background. Suddenly, the story being told caught her attention. In Africa, elephants had been exterminated from a particular region. While the elephants lived there, the region was lush and green. Once they were gone, it became dry and barren. Through a successful relocation program, elephants were returned to the area, and within months, the environment was restored and healthy. “It was a huge wake-up call for me,” recalls Curtin. “It was obvious that every bird, animal and tree in an ecosystem is there for a reason, yet here we are causing needless destruction by systematically removing them. I asked myself, ‘What are we doing to our planet?’ I started researching environmental issues and was both horrified and encouraged by what I found. I was horrified at the destruction of ecosystems and the decimation of species, but I was amazed at the Earth’s ability to heal itself when given a chance. I knew I needed to be part of an effort to increase awareness regarding habitat restoration. When I took stock of my business skills, I realized I could make a difference in some fashion. I chose primates because they are our closest relatives within the animal kingdom. We, too, are primates. Helping these beings, so like ourselves, seemed like a good place to start in terms of addressing the crises facing all animals.”

Fading Away

According to Curtin, two-thirds of the world’s primates are endangered due to loss of habitat. Such destruction signals trouble not just for the animals, but also for the planet. “For example, as the rainforest is destroyed, we lose not just critical primate habitat, but also one of the planet’s most complex ecosystems. The rainforest is the Earth’s lungs.  As it shrinks, we lose a key part of our oxygen supply. Whenever we destroy a forest, we destroy the food supply and shelter; when those are gone, the animals are gone—and the ecosystem is gone. Soon, every species is at risk.

“It’s also essential to understand the vital role that primates play within that ecosystem,” she continues. “Primates are environmental indicators. If they are thriving, the ecosystem is thriving. If they are in trouble, we are in trouble. Primates are essential for propagating vegetation. As they eat fruit and plants, the seeds pass through their digestive systems and back to the soil, where they germinate and the forest blooms again. It’s important for seeds to be moved away from the mother plant for optimal growth, and as primates move through the trees and the jungle, they spread the growth of the forest. In fact, some seeds won’t germinate UNLESS they pass through the digestive acids of an animal’s stomach.  Primates are also pollinators. We tend to think of pollinators as bees, butterflies and birds, but primates come in all sizes. Some of the smaller species drink nectar and eat flowers; as they do so, pollen gets on their hair and is then transferred elsewhere, thus passing that genetic information along.”

What You Can Do

Despite the significant threats to primate habitat, Curtin is optimistic that these ecosystems can be restored. “The bad news is that most of the habitat destruction and issues threatening primates are driven by humans—but that is also the good news. We can change behaviors; we can find new solutions, and we can educate others. The Earth is like the human body; it wants to heal itself. All it needs is a helping hand.”

Curtin explains that everyone can help conserve the world’s primates, and their habitats, through a few key steps.


Eat less beef. Much of the rainforest and other habitats are being destroyed to make way for cattle ranches and to feed the world’s demand for beef. In addition, the growing number of cows has a dangerous impact on the environment. Cows release methane gas when they process their food, and methane is harmful to the environment. Reducing your beef consumption by just one meal per week can make a difference.

Avoid products that use palm oil. All orangutan habitat is being decimated due to the intense harvesting of palms, and animals are being left to starve in these ruined forests. Seek products that are palm oil free; you can find more information at

The exotic animal trade takes a toll on primates and other species. Avoid the purchase of exotics; boycott live animal entertainment such as circuses, and opt out of sharing videos of exotic pets. Nearly all exotic pets have been violently taken from their mothers or had their mothers killed in the process. The sale of exotic animals is directly linked to practices that harm these species. “Exotic animals will always have a wildness in them and do not make good pets,” says Curtin. “It is better to leave them in their natural worlds. In terms of animals in entertainment, CGI effects have become so realistic, that there is no need for wild animals to be trained for films.”

Support organizations such as the New England Primate Conservancy, and others that do similar work. You can visit to learn many key facts about primates and their worlds, see incredible photos, download amazing educational games, and watch videos that illustrate how you can make a difference. 

“We have long lived in a human-centric world, and now it is time to live in an Earth-centric world,” says Curtin.  “We are not the only species inhabiting this planet. We lost sight of the big picture in the past, but now we have to change our viewpoint. Once you understand how marvelously interconnected we all are, and how beautifully the natural world functions, then you understand what needs to be done.  Saving a place for primates, and for all species, enriches us all and ensures a healthy Earth.”

SideBar: Monkeys & Medical Research

Many people are unaware that significant numbers of primates, especially monkeys, are still being used in medical research. In Massachusetts alone, 13,000 monkeys are being used for medical testing, due to the state’s high number of medical research facilities. More than 114,000 are used nationwide. “This is horrifying because these are highly intelligent and emotive animals,” says Curtin. “They have thoughts and feelings. They are being tortured by these tests, and by being in cages day in and day out. They never go free; they never go outside, and so they go insane. In the early days of medical research, there was no alternative but to test on primates, because they are our genetic cousins. But today, technological advances allow us to create sophisticated models that make much of this testing on primates unnecessary.  It’s also important to note that while we are closely related to primates, that slight genetic difference DOES make a difference, and a number of tests have proven inaccurate because we are different species. Thousands of animals have suffered for nothing.” Learn more at

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