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Cotton-top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus


CITES: Appendix I (What is CITES?)
IUCN Red List: S. oedipus: CR (What is Red List?)
Key: CR = Critically endangered
(Click on species name to see IUCN Red List entry, including detailed status assessment information.)

Saguinus oedipus
Photo: James & Suzanne Hampton

While they were exported for use in biomedical research in the tens of thousands in the 1960s and early 1970s, the cotton-top tamarin is now restricted from international trade and has, since 1976, the highest level of protection afforded by CITES (Mast et al. 1993). Surveys reveal that there are only between 300 and 1000 cotton-top tamarins left in the wild (Savage 1990).


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Losing more than 4000 km² (1544 mi²) of forest or 5% of the tropical habitat per year, Colombia is one of the top ten countries worldwide in terms of deforestation (Savage et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993). This astonishing rate of deforestation can be attributed to removal of forest products for subsistence and traditional uses, swidden agriculture, and large-scale clearing for industrial agriculture and cattle grazing (Savage et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993). The lowland forest on which the cotton-top tamarin depends has been reduced to a mere 5% of its former geographic range, posing a considerable threat to the monkey. The northern part of Colombia is the most densely populated area in the country and only three blocks of high-quality forest remain (Alderman 1989). Fragments of forest dispersed across the landscape in this part of the country hold remnant populations of primates, and luckily, cotton-top tamarins seem to adjust and can live in these disturbed habitats (Alderman 1989). If deforestation does not stop or if restoration does not become a top priority, the cotton-top tamarin will simply not have a place to live (Defler 2004).

The major cause behind deforestation is the overuse of forest products by an exploding human population. Whether pressure from subsistence users, swidden farmers, or exploitative timber corporations, large-scale forest loss has occurred in Colombia and other parts of the world at unprecedented and ever-increasing rates (Mittermeier et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993; Defler 2004). Removal of selected plant products by traditional means in Colombia does not involve the same kind of overt destruction of habitat as is seen with large-scale clearance, but it does pose a threat to cotton-top tamarins because some of the targeted tree species are important to the feeding ecology of the tamarins (Alderman 1989). Specifically, removal of plants that are important dry season resources can be detrimental to monkeys that depend on those species during stressful times of year. Clearance or damage to the understory for obtaining subsistence usage firewood and charcoal may have detrimental side effects as well, damaging the layers of forest important for insect foraging (Alderman 1989). In particularly poor areas where the only available cooking fuel is wood, a family of five consumes about 15 logs of wood per day (Savage et al. 1996/1997). If these logs are cleared from an area and no replanting occurs, it is understandable that large swaths of land may be cleared over time, resulting in significant habitat loss for the tamarins.

On a larger scale, commercial logging can result in massive forest removal through clear-cutting. Forests take a long time to recover from clear-cutting while the ecosystem is completely disrupted and may not recover. Commercial logging also directly affects colonization rates because as timber companies go deeper into forests, they clear roads for their trucks and leave tracts of land cleared and ready for human settlement (Marsh et al. 1987). This process occurs in Colombia because, like in many clear-cut areas, vacant tracts are not being replanted (Alderman 1989). Land cleared for agriculture, both small-scale shifting cultivation and large-scale plantations and ranching, is also increasing in Colombia.

Exploring for oil in the lowlands of Colombia is a growing threat to cotton-top tamarins as well. The area is rich in hydrocarbon reserves and the economic boom associated with oil extraction certainly will bring even more people to the area in search of jobs as well as opening up forests to roads and settlement (Mittermeier et al. 1999).

Another serious human-induced threat is damming for hydroelectric power. Proposed dams would flood the forest and destroy about 540 km² (208 mi²) of primary and secondary forests within Paramillo National Park, one of the last protected areas in which the tamarins are found (Mast et al. 1993). Hydroelectric power is an inexpensive, renewable source of energy for Colombia, but damming areas of high biodiversity not only wipes out fragile ecosystems but also displaces indigenous peoples living in the forest, forcing them into remaining forest fragments and increasing pressure on those areas of forest that are not flooded (Mast el al. 1993).

Potential Solutions

While 10% of the land in Colombia is legally protected in national parks, at least 30% of national parks are invaded by colonists or subject to other claims (Defler 2004). The protection of these parks on paper must be translated to real regulation to make them more effective. Even more important is to find ways of providing services that the forest would provide to colonists including fuel, protein sources, and income.

Providing alternate fuel sources is an important step in reducing the amount of forest products used on a daily basis in Colombia. Proyecto Tití, a conservation project sponsored by Roger Williams Park Zoo, the Ministerio de Ambiente (the environmental protection agency of Colombia), and CARSUCRE (a regional environmental organization), has worked to provide alternate cooking methods that minimize the amount of non-sustainable forest product usage. By working with local communities to see which cooking methods worked best and which they preferred, the project managers determined that by modifying a traditional clay oven, they could use corn husks, coconut shells, and other vegetative waste products as efficient fuel sources and decrease pressure on surrounding forests (Savage et al. 1997c). These low-cost ovens have been distributed to community members and are being used with great success. Similar technology could be used in other villages that border cotton-top tamarin habitats. If alternate fuel sources cannot be obtained or cooking methods do not change, some effort should be concentrated into replanting frequently harvested areas to hasten the regeneration of important food sources for the tamarins as well as provide future resources for local communities.

Hydroelectricity makes up about 70% of Colombia's electric power while only 6% of the hydroelectric potential is currently being exploited. Power companies as well as the Colombian government must take into consideration environmental and socioeconomic factors when building dams. Fortunately, Colombia's power sector has historically avoided major negative environmental and social impacts resulting from erecting dams, but as the human population grows and the demand for electricity also increases, this record will be difficult to maintain (Mast et. al 1993). Power companies must work with the Colombian government to assess impacts on biodiversity and Colombian citizens to avoid disastrous engineering decisions.

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

Primates have little value in Colombia other than for their meat and as export commodities (Defler 2004). Live capture for biomedical research and the pet trade has historically been a serious threat to cotton-top tamarins. By the early 1970s, as many as 40,000 cotton-tops had been caught and exported from Colombia, with about 14,000 of those animals imported into the US (Mittermeier et al. 1994). This massive exportation of tamarins seriously reduced the wild population.

Potential solutions

Though cotton-top tamarins are now protected under Appendix I of CITES, and importation into the US has ceased, they are still being used in biomedical research. The captive population outnumbers the wild population and has been carefully maintained through selective captive breeding programs so that animals do not need to be taken from the wild to supplement captive populations (Savage 1997). At the present time, the captive populations are self-sustaining and one of the goals is that the captive populations may be sufficient enough to supply animals for reintroduction in Colombia in the future (Mittermeier et al. 1994).

Another facet of Proyecto Tití which has decreased hunting of wildlife is an innovative exchange program. Members of a community living close to the forest were able to exchange their slingshots, a common hunting implement, for stuffed cotton-top tamarin toys (Savage et al. 1997c). Plush stuffed animals are a rarity in this small village and interest in the exchange was very high. By retiring their slingshots, members of the community significantly decreased the amount of hunting and capture of wildlife for the pet trade, certainly benefiting the cotton-top tamarins in the nearby forest (Savage 1997). Programs like this that discourage hunting and wildlife capture and provide a commodity for local community members are important to increase awareness. They also are easily replicated in other areas and may be one part of the solution to decrease poaching of endangered species.

Threat: Natural Disasters

During periods of severe drought, pregnant cotton-top tamarins overwhelmingly fail to deliver viable offspring (Savage et al. 1996a). During one drought, none of the pregnant females in the study groups gave birth to viable infants. Environmental stress such as drought could have potentially harmful effects on small populations of cotton-top tamarins, though even after fetal loss, they can conceive again within the breeding season (Savage et al. 1996a).

Potential solutions

Intermittent severe droughts that lead to fetal loss cannot be solved or planned for but will likely not have enormous detrimental effects on the size of the cotton-top tamarin population because of their high fertility rates and ability to conceive more than once per year (Savage et al. 1996a; Achenbach & Snowdon 2002).

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

With offspring survivorship around 86% in the wild, cotton-top tamarins are well-equipped to maintain the size of their population if they have habitat in which to live (Savage et al. 1996a). As habitat disappears and becomes more fragmented, though, dispersal may be limited and offspring survivorship may decrease as inbreeding increases. The potential problems associated with inbreeding are particularly devastating in small communities and include inbreeding depression and genetic drift (Marsh 2003).

Threat: Human Disturbance

Civil disturbance by guerrilla fighters and paramilitary operations have actually resulted in positive results for the cotton-top tamarin population in some areas of Colombia. Because local people have been removed from their land by these rebels, fuelwood acquisition has ceased and they are not able to clear land for planting gardens. While these circumstances are very unfortunate for the victims of these paramilitary operations, cotton-top tamarins are benefiting through decreased pressure on their habitat (Defler et al. 2003). Generally speaking, guerrilla fighters and civil instability are bad for primates and other forest-dwelling animals because operations taking place primarily in the forests results in increased hunting pressure by fighters and displaced people. This is especially prevalent in Africa, but could also be the case in South American countries as well (see Coxe et al. 2000). Furthermore, areas governed by armed fighters are often used to cultivate crops of illegal drugs, requiring that forest is cleared and habitat is destroyed. As the market for these drugs continues to be lucrative both within Colombia and abroad, economic incentives to plant these types of crops persists and larger amounts of land will be converted to maintain the supply (Álvarez 2002).

Potential Solutions

Instability due to civil unrest has prevented researchers from maintaining their presence in some areas of the cotton-top tamarin's range. Satellite imaging of unstable areas has continued, allowing researchers to remotely collect data on forest destruction and fragmentation. Work on cotton-top tamarins continues in safer regions of Colombia that have populations (Defler et al. 2003).

Decreasing the demand for illegal drugs is an ongoing battle in the United States and elsewhere. Until demand decreases, incentives will continue to exist to clear forest and grow drugs.

Links to other information about cotton-top tamarin conservation: /cottontop/SSP/Enghome.htm


Cotton-top tamarins have been used in biomedical research because they are especially useful as models for the study of Epstein-Barr virus, colitis, and colon cancer (Mittermeier et al. 1994). In captivity, as many as half of the adult cotton-top tamarins spontaneously develop colitis, characterized by prolonged, repeated bouts of diarrhea, severe weight loss and even death (King et al. 1993). This type of colitis is linked to an increased risk of developing a certain type of colon cancer, colonic adenocarcinoma (Clapp et al. 1993). Since these diseases affect humans, cotton-top tamarins have been studied extensively in captivity to understand the causes of these diseases and how they relate to one another, as well seeking potential cures (Clapp et al. 1993).





Content last modified: May 18, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Anne Savage.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 May 18. Primate Factsheets: Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2020 July 6.