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Golden-headed lion tamarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas


CITES: Appendix I (What is CITES?)
IUCN Red List: L. chrysomelas: EN (What is Red List?)
Key: EN = Endangered
(Click on species name to see IUCN Red List entry, including detailed status assessment information.)

Leontopithecus chrysomelas
Photo: Luiz Claudio Marigo

Some of the problems contributing to their status in the wild include massive deforestation for commercial agriculture crops, habitat fragmentation, and encroaching human populations. Export for the international pet trade may also be a factor contributing to declining golden-headed lion tamarin populations.


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

The extensive forests that used to blanket the state of Bahia, Brazil have been decreased to about 2% of their former range, being cleared for human activities including farming, ranching, mining, and urban sprawl (Mallinson 2001). In the western part of the state, cattle ranching dominates the economy and has resulted in widespread elimination of golden-headed lion tamarin habitat (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Rylands et al. 2002b). In the eastern part of the state, where the majority of the remaining population survives, habitat destruction for agricultural crops is rampant. Traditionally, cocoa plantations dominated this region and many cocoa farmers continued to maintain more old growth forest than cocoa trees on their farms because of a method of growing cacao trees called cabruca. This is a system of shade cropping in which the middle and understory trees of intact forests are removed and replaced with cacao trees. While this reduces the number of lianas and eliminates much of the forest level where golden-headed lion tamarins live, there are still old growth trees that harbor sleeping sites and some foraging opportunities (Rylands et al. 2002b; Raboy et al. 2004). In the late 1970s, high prices of cocoa resulted in rapid expansion of cacao plantations. Unfortunately, high prices did not last and from 1986 to 1992, international cocoa prices bottomed out at the same time as witch's broom disease began to spread through existing plantations. In 1989, the epidemic of witch's broom disease, a fungus that attacks the cocoa and can only be combated by pruning the affected branches or burning the entire tree, forced farm owners to abandon their plantations, log the existing old growth on their land, and switch to alternative crops not grown in the same shade-cropping system (Rylands et al. 2002b). Old growth forest in cacao plantations that once was still useful to golden-headed lion tamarins was being destroyed either to harvest the trees for lumber, clear land for cattle ranching, or was replaced by other crops including coconut palms, African oil palms and peppers (Rylands et al. 2002b).

Potential Solutions

The rapid rate of habitat destruction within the range of the golden-headed lion tamarins indicates that their numbers will not remain high for long and suggests that forest fragmentation will continue to whittle away at the existing population much like the pattern seen in golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) (Oliver & Santos 1991; Rylands 1993-1994; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). Actions must be taken immediately to stop habitat destruction and begin to reconnect patches of forest that still harbor golden-headed lion tamarins (Oliver & Santos; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997).

The only significant protected area in which golden-headed lion tamarins are found is Una Biological Reserve, a 94 km² (36.3 mi²) park created specifically for their protection in 1980. Though the original governmental decree was for an area of 114 km² (44.0 mi²), this amount of land was not purchased immediately and for the last 25 years, the park has been growing incrementally as the government continues to acquire land (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Cruz pers. comm.). Forests surrounding Una are still relatively intact and it should be a priority to purchase them and integrate them into the biological reserve because, as it exists now, Una is not large enough to support a self-sustaining population of golden-headed lion tamarins (Rylands 1993-1994; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). If purchase and integration is not possible, it will be essential to work with land owners to persuade them to initiate tamarin-friendly land use patterns. Existing programs to educate private land owners in the areas around the reserve should continue while corridors should be grown connecting remaining old growth forests on private lands with Una forests. (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Mallinson 2001). The Landowners' Environmental Education Programme began in the early 1990s and focused on educating the community surrounding the reserve about the importance of protecting not only the reserve itself but contiguous forests. On over 70% of the farms in the area, conservation activities have been undertaken including sustainable agricultural practices that focus on preserving forests and golden-headed lion tamarin habitat (Mallinson 2001). School children, farm workers, hunters, and forest guards have been involved in the education program focusing on conservation, property rights, and land use as well as developing alternative sustainable economic undertakings (Mallinson 2001). As land is purchased for more forest reserves or protected areas in areas other than Una, programs like this should certainly be part of the transition from private to reserve land so that communities neighboring new reserves understand the importance of their actions on the golden-headed lion tamarin's habitat and ultimate survival.

Research on the use of cabruca by golden-headed lion tamarins indicates that they will use this forest type more frequently than secondary forests as there are higher abundances of fruit, flowers, animal prey, and sleeping sites in cocoa plantations than in degraded, successional ecosystems (Raboy et al. 2004). Farmers that maintain cabruca with primary forest as the shade source rather than converting their land to a monoculture system provide better habitat for golden-headed lion tamarins. A reasonable compromise between farmers and conserving habitat might include economic incentives in order to maintain this system as opposed to logging the primary forest and converting the land to cattle ranching, in which no available habitat is left for the tamarins. Alternative economic opportunities in and around Una involve the establishment of an ecotourism facility. Trails, a canopy walkway, and a visitors' education center have all been built for tourists to enjoy Una and the unique flora and fauna found there (Mallinson 2001). Responsible expansion of this program and stronger marketing both within Brazil and abroad might make it a more profitable venture for community members.

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

In the early 1980s, large numbers of golden-headed lion tamarins were illegally exported from Brazil to countries like Belgium, France, French Guiana, and Japan in order to supply the booming pet trade and exotic animal collectors (Mallinson 2001; Rylands et al. 2002a; b). The Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA concentrated efforts on recovery of illegally exported tamarins and, in 1986, was able to begin a captive breeding colony with seized animals (Mallinson 2001). The large numbers of recovered animals helped establish a genetically diverse founder population from which to begin captive breeding programs in Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the United States (Ballou et al. 2002). Seizures of golden-headed lion tamarins continue today, though not nearly at as high of a rate as was seen in the 1980s. The international demand for these animals as pets still exists, and though it is not nearly as high, coupled with the other threats to the population, it may affect the future potential of the population to survive.

Generally hunters in this region are either leisure hunters or subsistence hunters and though golden-headed lion tamarins are seldom hunted for food, there are a few reports that hunters kill and eat them (Oliver & Santos 1991; dos Santos & Blanes 1997).

Potential solutions

Administrators of Una Biological Reserve continue to confiscate illegally kept golden-headed lion tamarins and, in 1999, the captive population was over 600 individuals (Ballou et al. 2002). One effort to decrease the number of animals taken as pets or killed for food is education. When poachers or hunters are encountered, they receive information about the importance of conservation and the Brazilian laws that forbid the activity (Padua et al. 2002). This simple message has been successful in decreasing hunting rates by 50% according to IBAMA (dos Santos & Blanes 1997; Padua et al. 2002). Not only are hunters directly confronted if caught, education programs for all land owners and community members have been aimed at educating people about the endemism present in nearby the forests (dos Santos & Blanes 1997). Armed with information about conservation of their unique surroundings, community members begin to see golden-headed lion tamarins not as food or a potential source of income, but as an important part of the ecosystem and part of the local heritage.

Threat: Accidental Mortality

There is scant data available on accidental mortality but there have been some unpublished reports of golden-headed lion tamarins getting caught in snare traps set for other animals and accidentally being killed (Oliver & Santos 1991).

Threat: Natural Disasters

In the eastern half of their range, golden-headed lion tamarin habitat is characterized by wet conditions throughout the year, but in 1995, a severe drought occurred and resulted in a serious wildfire that threatened Una Biological Reserve (Anonymous 1995). The fire was started when neighboring farmers lost control of a fire they started to help clear their fields, a common technique used in South America to clear land of growth and add nutrients to the soil before planting crops.

Potential solutions

The Landowners' Environmental Education Programme needs to incorporate information about burning fields and the potential harm that can be done to neighboring forests, especially under certain environmental conditions. While the newly established buffer zone between the reserve and other lands might decrease the chance of a fire spreading too quickly to the center of the reserve, in some situations, Una, and the golden-headed lion tamarins that live there, might be subject to serious natural disasters.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

The limited data available on fecundity and mortality in golden-headed lion tamarins suggests that the population grows more slowly and is subject to higher levels of predation compared to golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) (Dietz 1997). Wild golden-headed lion tamarins have never been seen producing more than one litter per year, so population growth is relatively slow. Furthermore, disappearance rates are high within the population at Una Biological Reserve and may be attributed to density of predators. Mammalian and avian predators are a threat to these small animals, and when forest conditions are right, the predator population can thrive and have a negative effect on golden-headed lion tamarins (Dietz 1997). Unidentified disease is another contributor to mortality at Una. Certain illnesses can sweep through a group and kill all of the members within a few days (Dietz 1997).

The nature of habitat fragmentation throughout the golden-headed lion tamarin's range will probably lead to problems associated with inbreeding including inbreeding depression, genetic drift, lack of genetic diversity, and lower recruitment rates. The total population at Una is estimated to be between 240 and 460 individuals. Though there is a wide discrepancy between estimates, the population is still thought to be less than the 500 breeding individuals necessary to maintain genetic diversity over the long term (Dietz et al. 1996). Additionally, the population at Una represents the largest population in the most intact forest in the entire range of the golden-headed lion tamarin, so it is clear that other subpopulations are subject to loss of genetic diversity over time.

Potential solutions

Having a healthy predator population within Una is essential for the functioning of the ecosystem, but other efforts to decrease golden-headed lion tamarin mortality have been undertaken. Current studies require that habituated animals be captured every six months to replace radio transmitter batteries. At this semiannual event, veterinary care is provided for the animals as a routine way to check their health and evaluate any concerns (Dietz et al. 1996). By monitoring the health of the animals over time, changes can be noted and care can be provided in certain circumstances. Monitoring and attempting to provide care for sick tamarins is an expensive and relatively futile process compared to eliminating sources of inbreeding depression that might cause certain individuals to be at higher risk for health problems. It is essential that Una does not become an island of forest, cutting off dispersing golden-headed lion tamarins from entering new territories, starting new groups, or immigrating into the breeding position of existing groups. Efforts to connect patches of forest throughout the range will increase the likelihood of gene flow in the population and will help to decrease the chances of the loss of genetic diversity (Dietz et al. 1996). Currently, studies to evaluate and prioritze areas for forest linkage are underway and will hopefully lead to management strategies and eventual reconnection of forest fragments (Raboy pers. comm.).

Threat: Human Disturbance

Following the drop in cocoa prices and the spread of witch's broom disease, unemployment rates soared in the region surrounding Una Biological Reserve. Displaced workers swarmed to the forests, both protected and unprotected, clearing the land for subsistence agriculture because of their lack of economic prospects (Padua et al. 2002). Additionally, cocoa plantation owners began to cut the primary forests of the cabruca and sell the lumber to supplement income. This resulted in an increased rate of forest fragmentation both within Una and in the surrounding areas and directly impacting the golden-headed lion tamarin (Padua et al. 2002).

Potential solutions

Economic opportunity that does not involve resource extraction and deforestation of Una needs to be created or sustainable use of resources needs to be highlighted in education programs for community members. One solution that has been implemented is the establishment of a buffer zone surrounding the reserve. This 10 km (6.21 mi)-wide strip of vegetation borders the perimeter of the reserve and serves to protect the inner park from invasion of squatters, hunters and poachers through environmental education, agricultural outreach, and studies of land use in the region (Mallinson 2001; Raboy pers. comm.).




Content last modified: July 20, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Becky Raboy.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2018 December 16.