Why killing Amazon monkeys is like burning $14 trillion

Over-hunting of large mammals for bush meat is degrading forests worth trillions on carbon markets, study finds

The tamarins are squirrel-sized New World monkeys from the family vMárcio Cabral de Moura

A tamarin monkey in Brazil (Flickr/ Márcio Cabral de Moura)

By Alex Pashley

Depleting the world’s largest tropical rainforest’s creatures could come at a cost bigger than the size of China’s economy, according to a study on Monday.

Fruit-eating animals like tapirs and spider monkeys in the Amazon disperse the seeds of hardwoods, the backbone of a biodiverse canopy.

Declining populations due to overhunting and habitat loss are in turn hitting the reproduction of hardwood trees. Filling the gap are thinner species that suck less carbon dioxide out of the air, say researchers.

As a result, nearly 6% of carbon stored above ground could be lost in South America’s “green lung”, which covers vast tracts of countries like Brazil, Colombia and Peru, said the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

That’s calculated at 313 billion kilograms of CO2 – worth US$5.9-13.7 trillion on global carbon markets. That could be more than China’s economy, which the World Bank said grew to US$10.4 trn in 2014.

Researchers carried out a survey of over 2,300 one-hectare plots of land, containing nearly 130,000 large trees.

Analysis: Forests enshrined in Paris climate pact after ten-year effort
Report: Brazil inflames forest fires with pro-deforestation laws

Monkeys are hunted for bush meat in the region, which is widely sold in markets.

“Our research shows that if people continue to overhunt large mammals, tropical forests could lose much of their capacity for carbon storage,” said lead researcher Carlos Peres, from the University of East Anglia in England.

Taal Levi, from Oregon State University at a co-author, said: “In recent decades, Amazonian countries have made major strides in expanding parks and strengthening indigenous land rights. And our study shows that properly managing wildlife can have big benefits for biodiversity and forest ecosystem services.

“The loss of forest biomass may not sound like a lot but in an area as vast as the Amazon, the impact could be huge – a projected 313 billion kilograms of carbon not being absorbed.”

Read more on: Climate science | Forests