Heartwarming Arrival: Precious Small Golden Lion Tamarin Born at Bristol Zoo

A family of golden lion tamarins is on the move. With two babies on his back and his mate beside him, the father tamarin reaches for a branch in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Just a few years ago, this land was a treeless cattle pasture. But conservationists knew that if more forest was lost, then the golden lion tamarins—which live wild nowhere else on Earth—would be gone too.

Disappearing forests

The Atlantic Forest was once about the size of Egypt. But in the 1500s, Europeans started cutting trees to build ships and make room for settlements—and the forest clearing didn’t stop. Over the past century, farmers cut down more trees to make way for sugarcane, coffee, and cattle farms until the forest was less than 10 percent of its original size.

Golden lion tamarins spend most of their time in the tree canopy, using branches to travel in search of food and mates. As the forest shrunk, habitats became cut off from each other—and so did the primates. By the 1970s, concerned biologists estimated that only about 200 golden lion tamarins were left in the Atlantic Forest.

Monkey boot camp

Conservationists gathered at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1972 to develop a plan to save the species in the wild. Some zoos already had golden lion tamarins in captivity; all they had to do was breed more tamarins, then prepare some of the families to return to the wild. How? “We sent them to boot camp,” says Kenton Kerns, assistant curator of small mammals at the National Zoo.

While the monkeys were in training, Brazil’s Golden Lion Tamarin Association was busy restoring the tamarins’ habitat. The group bought land from private owners and worked with farmers to plant trees on their property, connecting patches of forest and protecting over 40 square miles of habitat. The organization also gave local citizens jobs managing tree nurseries and trained teachers on environmental issues. “People were proud to have tamarins on their land,” says Denise Rambaldi, former director of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association.

Going green

Nearly 2,500 golden lion tamarins now live in the Atlantic Forest. About a third of them are descended from 147 captive-born tamarins from the zoo program.

But conservationists aren’t done. They continue to reforest the land and inspire young people to protect the animals. Says Lou Ann Dietz, current director of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association: “Seeing tamarin families chirping and jumping around in the trees overhead, their fur reflecting the sun- light like fire, makes it all worth it.”