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Golden lion tamarin
Leontopithecus rosalia


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

L. rosalia
Photo: Lisa G. Rapaport

While great strides have been made to pull the golden lion tamarin away from the brink of extinction, they are still very much at risk. The extremely limited range in which the golden lion tamarins are found is within the most devastated and highly threatened ecosystem on Earth. Only about 7% of the former Atlantic Forest remains, and where it does exist, it is highly fragmented and subject to fuelwood harvesting, illegal logging, plant and animal poaching, mining, urbanization and infrastructure development, and the introduction of alien species (Galindo-Leal & de Gusmão Câmara 2003).


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Habitat loss and degradation is the primary historical and current threat to golden lion tamarins. Lumber extraction, agriculture, cattle ranching, and charcoal production have annihilated the Atlantic Forest and forced the remaining forest species into tiny pockets of forest, highly fragmented and isolated from one another (Kierulff et al. 2003). The pattern of unsustainable forest destruction has a long history starting with European colonization in 1500. Widespread exploitation of brazilwood as a ship-building material coupled with deliberate clearing of forest for settlement and agriculture wiped out extensive areas of forest (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). Cattle-raising was another colonial process that resulted in habitat destruction as herds were driven through forests and pastureland was cleared. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, massive sugarcane plantations, mining activities, and coffee cultivation further eliminated the forests of the region as demand for such products in the global economy fueled the destruction (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). But even with the massive amount of damage inflicted on the forests during the previous centuries, nothing compares to the devastation seen in the 20th century.

Growing human populations and industrialization characterized the first half of the century. Railroads built across the country opened up new areas for cultivation, disorganized exploitation of timber with little regard to regeneration, and the expansion of urban areas. Infrastructure was necessary to support a rapidly growing urban population and the timber industry eliminated nearly all of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). An international oil crisis in the 1970s put further pressure on the remaining coastal forests as alcohol distilled from sugarcane was used as an alternate fuel source. Plantations of sugarcane, nonnative pine, and eucalyptus took over most of the landscape during this time period as the reliance on alcohol for fuel and the paper and pulp industry exploded (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). Forest destruction continues in the region as the ever-growing human population looks to more areas for settlement and more supplies from the shrinking reserve. Golden lion tamarins are found in the most densely populated area of Brazil and the human population continues to expand. All of the activities throughout the last 500 years have adversely affected numerous forest-dependent species, including the golden lion tamarin as their habitats have been destroyed and they are forced into increasingly smaller patches of land in their ranges.

Potential solutions

Despite centuries of uncontrolled exploitation and little tangible protection even with the establishment of protected areas starting in the 1980s, the Atlantic Forest continues to be destroyed. Conviction to protect the remaining remnants of the region is growing among Brazilians and needs to continue if protection is to succeed in the face of strong economic interests, including agriculture and timber industries (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). The Brazilian constitution has newly added provisions specifically protecting the Atlantic Forest through enactment of laws. Legislation strictly protecting the biome through prohibition of cutting down and exploiting any vegetation in any ecosystem in the region was proposed in 1990 but is still being discussed in Congress and was no doubt slowed by politically influential developers (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). Given the constitutional requirement to protect the Atlantic Forest, the Brazilian Congress must pass enabling legislation to stop rampant forest destruction as soon as possible. There exist governmental agencies and organizations that are charged with the protection and conservation of forests and other ecosystems, including the Ministry of the Environment and the National Council on the Environment, that need the legal support to continue to effectively arrest habitat destruction (de Gusmão Câmara 2003). Economic interests in developing the Atlantic Forest region continually defeat environmental interests and this pattern must be stopped by international pressure and lobbying as well as decreased incentives for Brazilian agribusinesses to destroy forests for plantations or pastures.

Apart from the legislative changes that must occur to protect the remaining forests, focus on reestablishing corridors between fragmented pockets of forest as well as broad-scale reforestation efforts must be undertaken (Kleiman & Rylands 2002). Establishing habitat corridors between isolated subpopulations is an important focus in order to increase genetic variability in the total population and to allow for natural dispersal and group formation. Reforestation can be accomplished either through natural revegetation of a once-cleared area or through aggressive restoration planting of saplings. Propagating and raising native saplings can be a long and expensive process. Furthermore, once saplings are mature enough to survive outside of a greenhouse, planting needs to be done in such a pattern that mimics the structure of a natural forest rather than in rows like a plantation (Lugo 1988).

Finally, efforts to increase the golden lion tamarin population through translocation and captive breeding and reintroduction should continue in order to deter the effects of human-induced habitat destruction and degradation. Reintroduction is broadly defined as the return of animals that have spent any portion of their life in captivity back to the wild and is used in cases of extreme endangerment to supplement populations that are critically small or to reestablish wild groups of animals that are extinct in their former ranges (Beck et al. 1991; Kierulff et al. 2002b). In 1984, the first captive-born golden lion tamarins were returned to the wild (Beck et al. 1991). The captive population of golden lion tamarins has been maintained since the late 1970s and careful selection of breeding partners has made the captive population self-sustaining (Ballou et al. 2002). The reintroduction of these animals involved extensive training in captivity to teach them how to locomote through the forest, find and collect insects from small crevices, find and collect water from bromeliads and other sources, and introducing them to predators to gauge appropriateness of response (Beck et al. 1991). After having been trained in captivity at the National Zoological Park, tamarins were transported to Brazil, where they spent six months in quarantine to ensure they were not carrying any diseases or parasites that might infect wild tamarins with which they might come into contact (Beck et al. 1991). After the quarantine period, the captive-born golden lion tamarins were released from their cages into Poço das Antas Biological Reserve and other private lands surrounding the reserve and were supplemented with food items and sleeping sites as well as veterinary support to ensure their survival. Over time as reintroduced groups learned about natural foods and the resources within their territories, they become less reliant on food provisioning and eventually were no longer provisioned (Beck et al. 1991; Kierulff et al. 2002b). To date, about 40% of the total wild population of golden lion tamarins represents captive breeding and reintroduction efforts. Starting with 18 captive-born individuals, the population has grown as those founders produced wild-born offspring (Kierulff et al. 2002b).

A program of translocation of golden lion tamarins has been another approach to protect threatened subpopulations by moving them from a degraded area to a protected reserve or private land. Translocation involves moving wild animals from one area of their natural range to another area of suitable habitat (Kierulff et al. 2002b). This is often done an emergency basis as groups come under threat from imminent habitat destruction or other danger. Being able to move wild populations into protected areas may prevent those groups from being lost completely (Kierulff et al. 2002b). Translocated individuals have a high rate of survival and most causes of death are related to injuries obtained while fighting with another group or predation (Kierulff et al. 2002b).

Threat: Invasive Alien Species

Rapidly expanding international trade and travel coupled with ongoing changes in land use and climate in Brazil has had far reaching effects on the diversity of native flora and fauna as nonnative species are introduced and are either purposely cultivated or thrive and outcompete other species. Problematic new species include pine species, sand olive, patient lucy, guava tree, white ginger, and eucalyptus (Reaser et al. 2003). When these are planted they usurp native species and often spread so successfully that they create vast areas of monocultures. Golden lion tamarins have not evolved with these species and cannot always use the fruits they bear and may be restricted from moving within vast tracts of these plants (Coimbra-Filho & Mittermeier 1977).

Potential solutions

Once nonnative invasive species have taken root, it is often very difficult to remove them or control their spread to other areas (Reaser et al. 2003). Well-coordinated international policies are necessary to limit the transport and spread of some of these species and need to include border patrol agencies, intergovernmental organizations, agriculture and forestry industries, and nongovernmental organizations. Furthermore, for those species that are purposely imported and planted for economic purposes, it is necessary to remove the fiscal incentives to plant these species or encourage systems of multi-cropping and shade growing to provide alternate income earning opportunities (Coimbra-Filho & Mittermeier 1977).

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

Golden lion tamarins have been a popular pet and kept in captivity since the sixteenth century (Ballou et al. 2002). Their export continued for the pet trade, zoo exhibits, and biomedical research throughout the twentieth century. From 1960 to 1965, it was estimated that they were exported at a rate of 200 to 300 animals per month, a serious depletion of the already compromised population (Coimbra-Filho & Mittermeier 1977). Though it has been illegal to transport or sell golden lion tamarins in Brazil since 1968 and the international trade has been restricted since 1975, invariably some monkeys are still trapped and sold into the pet trade because of continuous demand (Ballou et al. 2002). Not only have they been trapped and sold as pets, but golden lion tamarins have been subject to hunting pressure, further decreasing their numbers in the wild (Kierulff et al. 2003).

Potential solutions

Growing in popularity as a flagship species, one that captures the attention of many people and signifies a conservation effort in an area, golden lion tamarins have successfully been used in conservation education programs in Brazil and other countries (Padua et al. 2002). One of the benefits of using an easily recognized and likeable species is the ability to raise awareness about conservation efforts and educate people about individual species and the ecosystems in which they live (Dietz et al. 1994b). Through education and outreach efforts in areas surrounding Poço das Antas, educators have been successful in teaching local communities about the unique primate population in their region. This has been substantiated by the return of over 20 illegal pet golden lion tamarins and the decrease of hunting of these monkeys (Padua et al. 2002). Returned and confiscated pets are rehabilitated and often returned to the wild (Kierulff et al. 2003). Conservation education efforts should continue to involve community members in monitoring the animals, teaching them about tamarin ecology and behavior, and patrolling reserve borders.

Threat: Accidental Mortality

The only data on accidental mortality of golden lion tamarins come from studies on captive-born, reintroduced animals. Losses due to eating toxic fruit and head injuries due to falls have been recorded and are attributed to the naivete of the animals about appropriate food sources and the inability to move between trees on the thin ends of branches (Beck et al. 1991). Another source of accidental mortality in reintroduced golden lion tamarins is death caused by bee stings (Bales pers. comm.).

Threat: Pollution

While there is scant data on the adverse effects of pollution on golden lion tamarins, throughout their region, water quality and habitat are degraded due to acid rain caused by nearby centers of industry with no pollution or emissions control in effect (Aguiar et al. 2003). One case of a golden lion tamarin poisoned by insecticides sprayed near a biological reserve and resulting in death has been reported. Presumably the animal ingested contaminated insects (Pissinatti et al. 2002). It is plausible that a situation like this could occur again, especially in forest fragments near plantations, though there have been no other reports.

Potential solutions

Legislation by the Brazilian government and enforcement by officials could have some effect in controlling the pollutants released by industrial factories and sites that are the leading causes of acid rain. Plantation owners should be restricted from spraying insecticides within a certain distance of forests to decrease the likelihood of contaminating insects, a food source for golden lion tamarins. Education programs about the effects of insecticide on native species, including plants, animals and insects, could also help change patterns of use among some agriculturalists.

Threats: Changes in Native Species Dynamics

Predators of golden lion tamarins include hawks, owls, boa constrictors, and small cats. Normally a group only loses one or two individuals per predation event (Franklin & Dietz 2001). At Poço das Antas, predators have contributed significantly to the loss of golden lion tamarins. Entire groups, up to 10 individuals, are being sought after in their sleeping sites at night and eaten with the only evidence left behind being a few remains and the radio collar used by researchers to track the monkeys. In one year alone, five groups were taken by predators, reducing the population from 350 individuals to 220 in the reserve (Franklin & Dietz 2001). This represents a serious threat to the largest wild population of golden lion tamarins as the population is decreasing, group size is decreasing, infant survival to weaning is decreasing, and tamarin density within the reserve is decreasing (Franklin & Dietz 2001; Rylands et al. 2002a). Unfortunately, it is not clear what kind of animal is responsible for the carnage or if these predation events represent a change in predator-prey dynamics because of the loss of habitat (Franklin & Dietz 2001). It may be that because there is so little habitat remaining and predators are restricted to unnaturally small ranges that they have changed their foraging patterns thus adversely affecting the golden lion tamarins.

Parasites and pathogens represent another threat to wild golden lion tamarins and may change the native species dynamics of a population. Parasitic infections caused by eating rodents or coming in contact with cockroaches and some species of beetles may cause sickness or death in some cases (Pissinatti et al. 2002). Ticks, chiggers, and mites are the most commonly found ectoparasites among golden lion tamarins but probably have little to no effect on the overall health of individual monkeys.

Potential solutions

One effort to identify the predators responsible for killing entire groups included stationing heat/motion cameras at sleeping trees in an attempt to capture the predator on camera, but no definitive evidence has been found (Franklin & Dietz 2001). If a predator is identified, biologists may be able to modify the sleeping sites, which are used repeatedly by groups of tamarins, in order to "predator-proof" them according to the type of predator involved. Expanding forest fragments may be another method of decreasing predation pressure on golden lion tamarins so predators have larger areas in which to hunt and may not rely as heavily on the highly endangered animals.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

Genetic studies on the small population of golden lion tamarins have revealed high levels of inbreeding and low levels of genetic diversity despite scientists' best efforts to manage proper breeding in captivity and through translocation. These patterns occur because golden lion tamarins mate with relatives they do not recognize as kin or because they do not reject them as mates (Dietz et al. 2000). This may be compounded by the fact that in small, isolated fragments, individuals have limited dispersal opportunities and are unable to enter groups that do not have their relatives. Both inbreeding depression and loss of genetic diversity have potentially serious consequences in small, fragmented populations because they may be responsible for decreased survivability or poor recruitment (Dietz et al. 2000). Inbred infants at Poço das Antas have lower survival rates than those of non-inbred infants and survivability decreases with higher rates of inbreeding. About 10% of all infants at the reserve are inbred, but this may be an underestimate because researchers assumed that all adults at the beginning of the study were unrelated (Dietz et al. 2000). Currently, this rate of inbreeding is not a threat to the viability of the population at the reserve but may not be a good indicator of other levels of inbreeding of wild golden lion tamarins groups. Because Poço das Antas is the largest reserve with the highest number of golden lion tamarins in Brazil and inbreeding levels are at about 10%, it is reasonable to assume that other forest fragments containing tamarins may be so small that inbreeding occurs at even higher rates (Dietz et al. 2000).

Potential solutions

Genetic management of all golden lion tamarin populations may be necessary to prevent inbreeding depression from negatively impacting the survival of the species (Dietz et al. 2000). While the levels at Poço das Antas are not a hazard to the survivability of the population, models of areas with less than 50 individuals project that inbreeding depression may decrease the probability of survival of an entire population to only 60% (Dietz et al. 2000). Collecting genetic material, creating pedigrees, and managing the population based on level of relatedness in forest fragments is one way to assess the true threat of inbreeding depression and avoid its negative effects. Translocation of individuals or groups between forest fragments may enhance genetic diversity as tamarins from geographically distant forests are unlikely to be related. This is expensive and risky, though, because researchers need to be careful to avoid serious aggressive encounters between groups that might jeopardize individual tamarins (Beck et al. 1991).

Threat: Human Disturbance

Poço das Antas is surrounded by pasture maintained by cattle-raising landowners and parts of the reserve are subject to destruction by fires. Fires started by landowners to clear pasture land spread to nearby forest areas and can be especially destructive if they reach peat bogs, areas of high acidity and gaseous emissions (Pessamílio 1994).

Potential solutions

One preventative measure is to plant a buffer of vegetation between forested areas and ranches which can act as a barrier to spreading fires. Another important component of keeping fires from spreading and destroying large areas of the reserve is to train park personnel as fire monitors and firefighters. The reserve is already equipped with fire detection infrastructure and equipment including lookout towers, fixed and portable radio-telephones, and fire-fighting equipment. The reserve's meteorological station can be helpful in the event of a fire to determine wind direction and other variables affecting the spread of a wildland fire (Pessamílio 1994). Being prepared for a fire in the reserve is crucial, but so is educating surrounding land owners in proper burning techniques, including how to execute controlled burns and what time of year burns are least likely to get out of control. Given that the US Forest Service is already involved in training of reserve staff in firefighting techniques, perhaps they could lend their expertise to surrounding ranch owners about fire safety and management to decrease the risk of fire.


Captive breeding and reintroduction of endangered species resulting in viable wild populations has been met with limited success (Beck et al. 1994). In general, as a conservation tool, it has been expensive and rarely met the goal of creating self-sustaining populations except for a few notable instances: the North American red wolf, the Arabian oryx, and the golden lion tamarin (Beck et al. 1991; Kierulff et al. 2002b). The success of the golden lion tamarin reintroduction program can be attributed to dedicated researchers doing follow-up studies of behavioral deficiencies and survivability of captive-born reintroduced tamarins. Armed with the behavioral and mortality data, managers were able to make adjustments in the pre-release training, including novel food foraging, structural changes to enclosures to more adequately mimic forest conditions, and introduction of a variety of predators to measure fear and alarm responses (Beck et al. 1991; Stoinski & Beck 2004). Post-release support was also modified based on the results of behavioral studies and included food supplementation, provision of nest boxes for sleeping sites, and veterinary care and intervention when necessary (Beck et al. 1991; Stoinski & Beck 2004). This type of approach is a good model for other species reintroductions, both primates and other animals, and perhaps can be useful in saving other critically endangered species from certain extinction.




Content last modified: December 1, 2010

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Karen Bales and Lisa G. Rapaport.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2010 December 1. Primate Factsheets: Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2014 April 19.