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Reflections on the Golden Lion Tamarin

By Russ Mittermeier on July 30, 2020   duration 19 min read

Golden lion tamarin, Fazenda Apetiba
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

GWC’s Chief Conservation Officer Shares Long History of Saving Brazilian Icon from Extinction

By Russ Mittermeier, GWC Chief Conservation Officer

This Sunday, August 2, is Golden Lion Tamarin Day, and how appropriate is that?! This brilliant little golden monkey, the scientific name of which is Leontopithecus rosalia, has been a symbol for conservation in Brazil now for half a century. It is known around the world, its image has appeared on Brazil’s 20 Real note since 2002 (in two different versions) and in many ways it has become for Brazil what the Giant Panda is for China. Conservation efforts on its behalf have become a model for international cooperation on how to save an endangered species, and this model has been applied to the other three lion tamarin species, to other Brazilian primates, and to species conservation in Brazil in general. Nonetheless, in spite of all the efforts on its behalf and all the attention it has received, its future still hangs in the balance.

The Golden Lion Tamarin on a Brazilian 20 Real note.

Half a Century of Lion Tamarin Conservation

I have been involved with lion tamarin conservation for this full 50-year period, so perhaps my perspectives on it can help to inform future conservation efforts on its behalf and also to provide some lessons for primate conservation in general. Although I had known of this wonderful little creature since childhood, I first became aware of the conservation issues it faced by reading articles by the then San Diego Zoo mammal curator Clyde Hill (in Zoonooz, 1970) and the National Zoo Assistant Director John Perry (in Oryx, 1971), and decided that I needed to do something to help. In 1971, I travelled to Cornell University to meet Barbara Harrisson, the first chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. She put me in contact with the only Brazilian expert on the species, Adelmar F. Coimbra-Filho, who had not only done the first field studies of the Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia), but had also rediscovered the two other then known lion tamarins, the Black or Golden-rumped (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) and the Golden-headed (Leontopithecus chrysomelas), neither of which had been seen in the previous 50 years.

In 1971, I carried out a nine-country expedition across South America. One of the high points of that trip was to meet Adelmar F. Coimbra-Filho in July of that year. That started a close relationship that would last 45 years. At that time, Coimbra took me to the Rio de Janeiro Zoo and showed me the only Golden-headed Lion Tamarin in captivity in the world.

At Coimbra’s recommendation, I also travelled to the state of São Paulo, where I met up with another great Brazilian conservation pioneer, Paulo Nogueira Neto, and travelled with him to the far interior of São Paulo state to visit the Morro do Diabo State Park, where Coimbra had rediscovered the Black Lion Tamarin.

Greatly inspired by what was going on with the lion tamarins, shortly after entering graduate school at Harvard I started a campaign entitled “Plight of the Lion Marmosets” with a student named John Douglass.

Russ in a baobab forest GWC's Chief Conservation Officer Russ Mittermeier in a giant baobab forest near Morondava, Southwest Madagascar. (Photo courtesy of Russ Mittermeier)

In February of 1972, I participated in the first-ever conference on lion tamarins, entitled “Saving the Lion Marmoset” (although now called lion tamarins, recent studies have shown that these monkeys are in fact more closely related to marmosets, so this title was appropriate!) that was held at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. This event, though seemingly insignificant at the time, turned out to be historic in many ways, and was a turning point for not just the conservation of the lion tamarins but for Brazilian primatology in general. Two Brazilians participated, Coimbra and Alceo Magnanini, then director of national parks. I served as their translator, which also served to strengthen my bonds with these two great pioneers. At that conference, we also met Devra Kleiman of the National Zoo for the first time. Devra was assigned the responsibility of figuring out how to breed Golden Lion Tamarins in captivity, since the world zoo population had been stuck at about 70 animals for a long time and their survival rates in captivity were abysmal. Devra would go on to become one of the key figures in the conservation of this species over the next four decades.

The First Concrete Measures

In 1973, Coimbra and I published two papers on the lion tamarins, one in the proceedings of the conference and another in the journal Primates, summarizing everything we knew about the animals up to that time. In that same year, Coimbra pulled off a real coup, convincing the Rio de Janeiro state government to create the Banco Biológico dos Micos-Leões in Tijuca National Park in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where he housed a captive population of Golden Lion Tamarins, the first family groups of Golden-headed Lion Tamarins, and the first captive individuals of the Black Lion Tamarin. His aim was to breed them in captivity as a safety measure in case they went extinct in the wild.

The Golden Lion Tamarin population went from 200 in the 1960s to 3,700 in recent years to 2,500 in 2019 as the result of an unexpected yellow fever outbreak. (Photo by Russ Mitermeier, Global Wildlife Conservation)

I also based myself at this new Biological Bank for parts of 1973 and 1974, while carrying out research in Amazonia and the Atlantic Forest. During this period, Coimbra and I collaborated to update some of the very early Red Data sheets for many Brazilian species for what is today the IUCN Red List. This was my first involvement with IUCN, which continues to the present day.

In 1974, thanks to Magnanini and Coimbra’s efforts, a protected area for the Golden Lion Tamarins was established in the municipality of Silva Jardim in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Known as the Poço das Antas (Pool of the Tapirs) Biological Reserve, it was the first biological reserve to be created in Brazil.

The International Community Steps Up

Over the next three years, Coimbra and I participated in two other international conferences that again raised the profile of the lion tamarins and the family Callitrichidae (marmosets and tamarins) in general. One of these was in 1975, again at the National Zoo, organized by Devra Kleiman, and entitled “The Biology and Conservation of the Callitrichidae,” and the other was in 1977 in Göttingen, Germany, “The Marmoset Workshop,” the latter clearly demonstrating an increasing interest in tamarins and marmosets in Europe—perhaps not all that surprising since both tamarins and marmosets had been popular as pets in Europe going back to the earliest days of New World exploration, to the point that Madame de Pompadour of the French court in the 18th century even kept a lion tamarin as a pet. At the German conference, Coimbra and I began planning a broad survey of the primates of Brazil’s Atlantic forest.

Also in 1977, Coimbra and I published a major review paper on the lion tamarins in a book entitled Primate Conservation,  edited by Prince Rainier of Monaco and Geoffrey Bourne—the first book on primate conservation at a global level.

In 1978, I was awarded a grant from the World Wildlife Fund - US to carry out that major survey of primates in the protected areas of the Atlantic Forest that Coimbra and I had been discussing. This program began less than a year later when I started work for WWF-US as director of their first primate program—actually the first primate program in any conservation organization.

This decade-long project was carried out in close collaboration with Coimbra, Célio Valle of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, and Admiral Ibsen de Gusmão Câmara, president of the Brazilian Foundation for the Conservation of Nature (FBCN), Rio de Janeiro, and another pioneer of Brazilian conservation. The first place we visited during this survey was the Poço das Antas Biological Reserve, where I was fortunate to be able to take the first-ever photo of this monkey in the wild.

The first-ever photo of a Golden Lion Tamarin taken in the wild. (Photo by Russ Mittermeier, Global Wildlife Conservation)

On November 8, 1979 (my 30th birthday), Coimbra conjured up another miracle with the opening of the Rio de Janeiro Primate Center, in Mage, about 1½ hours from the city. It replaced the old Biological Bank in the city, and remains one of the world’s premiere centers for primate conservation to this day.

In early 1980, as part of this survey, Coimbra and I visited the Una Biological Reserve, created that year and another of the miracles that Coimbra produced on behalf of lion tamarins. There we met Anthony Rylands, then a graduate student at Cambridge in the U.K., who was conducting the first-ever study of the Golden-headed Lion Tamarin. He and I developed a long-term relationship that continues to the present day, with Anthony now serving as director of GWC’s primate program and the go-to person for the entire global primate conservation community on issues of taxonomy and conservation.

The Atlantic Forest and Returning Golden Lion Tamarins to the Wild

In 1983, Coimbra facilitated the start of a long-term field research project on the Golden Lion Tamarins, the “Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program”, sponsored by the National Zoo of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This major initiative was created by Devra Kleiman, and its core leaders included James and Lou Ann Dietz (field research and environmental education, respectively), and Benjamin B. Beck (the reintroduction program). The aim was to understand the possibilities and means of protecting the species and of reintroducing captive lion tamarins back into the wild.

This was the first major reintroduction program of its kind for a South American primate, and it was made possible by the fact that over the previous decade Kleiman had succeeded in figuring out the captive husbandry of the lion tamarins. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the reintroduction program was that it not only put captive lion tamarins into the government reserve, it also put them into forests on private lands. After a few years, having successfully established a reintroduced population, the lion tamarins became a major status symbol for landowners in the region.

A half century of commitment by an international group of partners has helped to bring Golden Lion Tamarins back from the brink. (Photo by Andréia Martins/AMLD)

From 1979 to 1989, our WWF-US program on the primates of the Atlantic Forest provided multiple grants to lion tamarin conservation all over their ranges, and supported many studies of the other 20 primate species that occur in the region. Through this process, the program also trained an entire generation of Brazilian primatologists, many of whom have gone on to occupy key roles in national and international conservation organizations, something that makes me especially proud.

In 1989, I moved from WWF-US to Conservation International, and by early 1990 had created a Brazil Program at that organization. That CI-Brasil Program is right now celebrating its 30th anniversary. The initial focus was heavily on the Atlantic Forest and we continued to support lion tamarin conservation as well as many other primate conservation projects.

In 1996, thanks to a generous gift from the late Margot Marsh of La Jolla, California, we were able to create The Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, focused exclusively on primate conservation and with me as its president. This greatly enhanced our ability to support primate projects around the world. Needless to say, this has yet again included support for many important lion tamarin projects over the years, including the program to capture golden-headed lion tamarins released into golden lion tamarin territory and, most recently, efforts to protect golden lion tamarins against a yellow fever epidemic in southeastern Brazil.

The First Range-wide Survey and a Second Protected Area for Golden Lion Tamarins

In 1991-1992, one of Devra Kleiman’s students, Cecília Kierulff, carried out an 18-month range-wide survey to estimate the wild population of the Golden Lion tamarin. At the time, it was known that there were 290 lion tamarins in the Poço das Antas reserve, and she located a further 272 spread widely in 14 forests elsewhere. Ten of these forests accounted for a mere 12 groups, surviving precariously in very small and isolated patches. These valuable groups were evidently doomed, and shortly thereafter at least one them disappeared (probably captured for sale in Rio) and one of the forest patches was cut down. Cecília was able to capture six of the groups and took them to a forest just north of Poço da Antas, in the Fazenda União—a forest where the lion tamarins had evidently been extirpated that was maintained by the regional railway company to supply sleepers. The lion tamarins thrived and they rapidly occupied the entire forest available. While monitoring the introduced groups, she and Paula Procópio were able to obtain the first data on their diet and feeding habits and on how the different groups spread and occupied the forest. It was necessary of course to protect this new and valuable population and, conversing with the federal authorities, Cecília was able to arrange for the decree of the União Biological Reserve of 3,200 ha in 1998—a major accomplishment and a very important complement to the Poço das Antas Biological Reserve.

International Collaboration Among Researchers, Zoos and Government

Another feature of lion tamarin conservation was that it led to the creation of a model for international collaboration in the conservation of endangered species in the form of the international conservation and management committee. In 1981, Devra Kleiman set up an international committee to advise on and manage the, until then, chaotic zoo population of Golden Lion Tamarins. Along with the needed physiological, veterinary, and behavioral research, this committee was key in establishing the successful husbandry and management protocols for the species, and by 1990 the captive population was healthy and growing fast.

In 1983, it was revealed that large numbers of the Bahian Golden-headed Lion Tamarins were being illegally exported from Bolivia to France, Hong-Kong and Japan, and principally to Belgium. Due to his stature and experience in the European zoo community, Jeremy Mallinson, director of the Jersey Zoo in the British Isles, was invited by the Brazilian government to work to obtain the return of these lion tamarins. With his immense perspicacity and talent for diplomacy, he succeeded, and in 1985 formed a second international committee. Its initial task was to resolve the fate of the lion tamarins upon their return and establish a breeding program and studbook for the zoos worldwide that would receive them.

Russ Mittermeier in Tanzania during a trip to see the Kipunji Monkey, the 79th and last genus of monkey on his primate-watch list. Credit: Stuart Dunn/BBC Russ Mittermeier in Tanzania during a trip to see the Kipunji Monkey, the 80th and last genus of monkey on his primate-watch list. (Photo by: Stuart Dunn/BBC)

In 1990, during the first of eventually three Population and Habitat Viability Analyses organized by IUCN’s Captive Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), the committees, as ordained by the Brazilian government, were given the mandate of also overseeing efforts for their conservation in the wild. Similar international committees were subsequently set up for the other two species, the Black Lion Tamarin in São Paulo state and the Black-faced Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara), which was discovered only in 1990 on the coast in the states of Paraná and southern São Paulo. Besides bringing the Golden-headed Lion Tamarins back to Brazil, Jeremy Mallinson carried out a feat of immense significance for the management of the captive population. He convinced the zoos and captive breeding facilities to accept that all the captive lion tamarins that were to be given to them for their care would be the property of the Brazilian government. This allowed for centralized and precisely managed breeding and husbandry as determined by the committees. The four international committees met every year right through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

In my opinion, these lion tamarin committees were among the most successful and productive examples of international collaboration ever assembled on behalf of endangered species, and they truly should be seen as a model for such efforts in the future.

In 2000, Rylands moved to Conservation International from his position at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and became part of our new Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) in Washington, D.C., and a couple of years after that he and Devra Kleiman edited a book on the lion tamarins to provide a summary of the more than three decades of conservation efforts since Coimbra’s initial alert of their plight in the 1960s.

The Top 25 Most Endangered Primates

Also in 2000, Rylands and I, and several other leading primatologists, launched a list of “Top 25 Most Endangered Primates,” now published every two years. This collaborative effort of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, the International Primatological Society, and now Global Wildlife Conservation, serves as a warning, a demand for attention, regarding species that are in dire straits and urgently in need of conservation measures to ensure their survival. Lion tamarins featured prominently in the first four of these lists, adding to their international visibility. Since that time, however, we have removed them from our Top 25 lists because of the many successes that have been achieved on their behalf.

The Future of Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation

During the 1980s and 90s, the in-country partner managing the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program was the Brazilian Foundation for the Conservation of Nature in Rio de Janeiro. In 1992, however, we saw the creation of the Associação Mico-Leão-Dourado, with the next generation of Brazilians taking over the now diverse conservation activities for this important species. It was initially most ably led by Denise Rambaldi, and today by Luis Paulo Ferraz, who took over as executive secretary in 2011.

After years of studying the lion tamarins in captivity and in the wild, we now have a secure, expertly managed captive population, and to a large extent, likewise in the wild. However, it became evident that a continued growth of the population was constrained simply by the amount of forest available for them to live in. The Golden Lion Tamarin Association’s focus is now on increasing the available habitat, planting forest, and creating forest corridors to connect isolated forest patches.

Conservationists are cautiously optimistic for the future of the species. (Photo by Andréia Martins/AMLD)

In recent years, lion tamarin conservation has had many ups and downs. Despite the solid progress achieved since Adelmar Coimbra-Filho first raised the alarm, complacency is inadmissible, and vigilance is now the Association’s mission—to monitor the population and deal with any natural or man-made catastrophes that may arise due, for example, to infrastructure development, pollution, demand for land, disease outbreaks, and even from invasive species that would compete for the golden lion tamarin’s habitat. These threats have actually emerged in recent years.

In 2002, Golden-headed Lion Tamarins, native to the state of Bahia, were spotted for the first time in a forest fragment, within the city limits of Niterói, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, part of the original range of the Golden Lion Tamarin and not far from their remaining natural populations. They had been released by a private collector, their numbers increased rapidly, and they were approaching the range of the golden lion tamarins where they could well hybridize with or entirely replace the Golden Lion Tamarins. In 2009, Cecília Kierulff created an NGO called Pri-Matas to set up a campaign to capture them and take them back to their forests in Bahia. From March 2011 to December 2013, she caught 55 groups (340 individuals) and translocated the majority to forests owned by a paper company, Veracel Celulose, in Belmonte, Bahia. By June 2020, she had captured 961 golden-headed lion tamarins (175 social groups). The Veracel forests were quickly crowded and, with the help of the Rio de Janeiro Environmental Agency (INEA) and the Rio de Janeiro Primate Center (CPRJ), the more recent captures have had to be maintained in captivity. The project is ongoing and will demand at least two years of surveys that make sure that no further invasive lion tamarins remain. Just one mated pair could result in a resurgence and start the whole cycle over again.

A population survey of the Golden Lion Tamarins in 2014 revealed a much larger population than had been expected, more than 3,700 individuals. We were elated. However, in 2018, yellow fever struck the region for the first time in many years. The lion tamarins and other primates are vulnerable to this African virus, and tragically we lost a third of the lion tamarin population, not to mention a large number of other primate species. Efforts are now underway to find a vaccine that can be used to protect lion tamarins and ensure their future, but there is always uncertainty with species such as this that live at low population numbers in fragmented habitats.

The Poço das Antas and União biological reserves are both beside the interstate toll road BR-101, and a recent widening of the highway has made it a near impassable barrier for wildlife. The Association negotiated with the environmental agencies to make a wildlife bridge a mandatory condition for issuing the environmental permit. The toll-road concessionaire was eventually, after seven years of negotiations, forced to build it. The first of its kind in Brazil, it has now become a model, a precedent, for wildlife protection measures in highway construction for the country.

Fortunately, there is a strong captive population of Golden Lion Tamarins in Brazil and around the world, so they could once again be reintroduced if populations disappear or go down to critically low numbers in the wild.

Even when taking into consideration the fact that there are no final victories in conservation and that we must remain eternally engaged and vigilant, as I look back over the past half century of my involvement with lion tamarin conservation I am very proud of what we have accomplished. From a single Brazilian primatologist back in 1971, we now have a very large and highly competent cadre of hundreds of Brazilian primatologists and a strong Brazilian conservation movement. Much of this movement can trace its roots back to the earliest days of Golden Lion Tamarin conservation in the Atlantic Forest, a single species having an extraordinarily large role in species conservation in one of the world’s richest megadiversity countries.


Bridgewater, D. D. (ed.). 1972. Saving the Lion Marmoset. Wild Animal Propagation Trust, Wheeling, WV, US.

Coimbra-Filho, A. F. and Mittermeier, R. A. 1973. Distribution and ecology of the genus Leontopithecus Lesson, 1840 in Brazil. Primates 14: 47-66.

Coimbra-Filho, A. F. and Mittermeier, R. A. 1977. Conservation of the Brazilian lion tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia). In: Primate Conservation, H. S. H. Prince Rainier III of Monaco and G. H. Bourne (eds.), pp.59-94. Academic Press, New York.

Hill, C. A. 1970. The last of the golden marmosets. Zoonooz 43: 12-17.

Kleiman, D. G. 1978. The Biology and Conservation of the Callitrichidae. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.

Kleiman D. G. and Rylands, A. B. (eds.). 2002. Lion Tamarins: Biology and Conservation. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.

Mallinson, J. J. C. 1984. Golden-headed lion tamarin contraband a major conservation problem. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group Newsletter 4: 23-25.

Mallinson, J. J. C. 1989. A summary of the work of the International Recovery and Management Committee for Golden-headed Lion Tamarin Leontopithecus chrysomelas 1985-1990. Dodo, Journal of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust 26: 77-86.

Perry, J. 1971. The golden lion marmoset. Oryx 11: 22-24.

Rothe, H., Wolters, H.-J. and Hearn, J. P. (eds.) 1978. Biology and Behaviour of Marmosets. Eigenverlag H. Rothe, Göttingen, Germany.

About the author

Russ Mittermeier

Dr. Russ Mittermeier is Global Wildlife Conservation’s Chief Conservation Officer. In this role, he leverages his extensive experience and network to protect wildlife and wildlands—enormous reservoirs of biodiversity and key components in preventing runaway climate change— particularly in biodiversity hotspots and critical wilderness areas. Mittermeier came to GWC from Conservation International, where he served as president from 1989 until 2014, and most recently as executive vice chair. He also chairs the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.

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