WASHINGTON – Monkeys have something to do with chocolate,but don't think about pleasing them with sweets the next time you visit the zoo.
The source plant for chocolate – cocoa – constitutes an important environment for golden-headed lion tamarins,according to Becky Raboy,a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park.
The golden-headed lion tamarin is an endangered species of monkey residing in Brazil's eastern coast.
Raboy discovered that the animals sleep in holes in the large tropical trees that shade cocoa plantations. Moreover,the forests around the cocoa plantations have abundant food resources,including insects and fruits.
“Before going to Brazil,I didn't realize that chocolate comes from a plant,” she admitted last week during a lecture at the National Zoo.
She started studying golden lion tamarins,a different species,at the National Zoo as an intern. She traveled to Rio de Janeiro in 1993 to meet the monkeys in their natural habitat.
“While I was doing that internship,I learned that the golden-headed lion tamarins were also an endangered species and that there was much left to know about them,” she said in an interview.
Raboy decided to study the golden-headed lion tamarins for her dissertation. She returned to Brazil,this time to the Northeast,in Bahia,to observe and research the biology and behavior of the golden-headed lion tamarins in their natural habitat.
Raboy explained that there are four species of lion tamarins. The golden-headed lion tamarins are the only ones that live in the trees that shade cocoa plantations.
Their population is scarce. Raboy said that the last published research,conducted from 1991 to 1993 and published in a Brazilian journal,estimated there were 4,000 to 6,000 individuals remaining in the wild. But Raboy said it is likely the numbers have declined because of habitat loss.
Cocoa plantations are also endangered – as the price of cocoa falls,farmers are transforming cocoa plantations into cattle ranches,seeking other ways to make profits.
Raboy said she believes that the long-term survival of the golden-headed lion tamarins relies on preserving cocoa plantations.
Buying eco-friendly chocolate might help preserve the cocoa farms,she added.
“Of course,I am not a market specialist,I just know about monkeys,” Raboy said. “The more people know about the situation,the more I think they will actually demand of the market that there is this type of chocolate for them.”
Raboy is working on a project in Brazil called Mico Leao da Cara Dourada,which is Portuguese for golden-headed lion tamarin,in which she studies the behavior of the monkeys in a biological reserve.
She is also directing the Conexao Mico Leao,Portuguese for lion tamarin connection,a project that aims to provide new data about the monkeys' population across their entire range and their genetic diversity. She said the project is in the first phase – trying to locate all of the golden-headed lion tamarins.
Raboy said that,in addition to preserving the cocoa agricultural ecosystem,including pristine forests,there is a need to educate landowners and create more reserves.