OSLO Almost half the world's monkeys and apes are facing a worsening threat of extinction because of deforestation and hunting for meat, an international report showed on Tuesday.
"We have solid data to show that the situation is far more severe than we imagined," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) primate specialist group.
An assessment for an IUCN "Red List" of endangered species found that 48 percent of the 634 known species and sub-species of primates, humankind's closest relatives such as chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons and lemurs, were at risk of extinction.
In a previous report five years ago, using different yardsticks, just 39 percent of primates were judged at risk. The IUCN includes governments, scientists and conservation groups.
Habitat destruction, led by burning and clearing of tropical forests for farmland, and the hunting of monkeys and apes for their meat were the main threats. Some species were "literally being eaten into extinction," a statement said.
"Gorilla meat, chimpanzee meat and meat of other apes fetches a higher price than beef, chicken or fish" in some African countries, Mittermeier told Reuters.
He said that deforestation was aggravating hunting. Roads cut to help loggers and burning of forests to create farmland were opening previously inaccessible regions to poachers.
Primates were suffering most in Asia, with 71 percent of all species at risk, against 37 percent in Africa. The report was to be released at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In southeast Asia, human populations were higher than in Africa and habitats for orangutans, gibbons or leaf monkeys were getting ever more fragmented. Demand for pets and Chinese hunger for traditional medicines were adding pressures.
Among species most at risk, or "critically endangered", were the Bouvier's red colobus, an African monkey which has not been seen in 25 years, and the greater bamboo lemur of Madagascar totaling only about 140 in the wild.
"If you took all the individuals of the top 25 most endangered species and assigned each of them a seat ... they probably wouldn't fill a football stadium," Mittermeier said.
Chimpanzees, the species most like humans, stayed "endangered", the middle of a three-stage scale of risk between critically endangered and "vulnerable". The mountain gorilla, found in jungles in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, stayed critically endangered despite a rise in numbers.
Mittermeier said that the outlook was not all gloom. In Brazil, the black lion tamarin and the golden lion tamarin were downlisted to endangered from critically endangered after conservation efforts.
"There's no question that we can win the battle," he said.
Wider efforts to slow deforestation as part of an assault on climate change would help primates -- burning of forests releases about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases widely blamed for raising world temperatures.
Mittermeier said that he would like to see more than $100 million a year going to conserve primates in five years' time, up from less than $10 million now. And tourism might help -- such as arranging trips to spot lemurs, baboons or gibbons.
(Editing by Richard Williams)