One look at these quirky primates and you’ll get why they are called cotton-top tamarins. Atop their head sits a fountain of cottony white hair – known as a sagittal crest unique to their species – flowing down their chest and soldiers.

They are one of the world’s smallest primates with a body length of 8 to 10 inches, a tail length of 13 to 16 inches, and a weight of 1 pound. However, their character is anything but small – from their altruism and sociel heirarchies to their sophisticated language, cotton top-tamarins come packed with personality.

Endemic only to the northwestern region of Colombia in its tropical dry forests, these new world monkeys – commonly called “titis” by locals – have gained international recognition, albeit for the wrong reasons as they are now critically endangered and facing grave threats to their once unbothered existence.

As their population dwindles and they remain vulnerable to threats, on can’t help but wonder, is it too late to save them from impending extinction? What can we do to help them keep hanging onto trees… and not for dear life?

Critically endangered

In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red-listed the cotton-top tamarin as critically endangered.

Threats to the existence of these rare primates arose in the late 60s and early 70s when 20,000 to 30,000 individuals were captured from their rainforest homes and brought to the United States for biomedical research. Today, there are only 7,400 individuals left living in Colombian dry forests with approximately 2,000 mature individuals, the IUCN reports. Cotton-tops remain in danger due to continuous threats from humans.

Threats to cotton-top tamarins

1. Deforestation

According to the IUCN, the most significant threat facing cotton-top tamarins today is the deforestation of their tropical forest home to give way to agriculture, mining, illegal logging, and urban expansion.

2. Illegal trafficking

To make matters even worse, cotton-tops are relentlessly captured by wildlife traffickers for the illegal pet and zoo trade. In rural communities in Colombia, it is not unusual to see cotton-top tamarins as “pets,” and they are, unfortunately, kept in poor conditions.

We had the opportunity to interview Noel Rafael, curator and conservation program director of Avilon Wildlife Conservation Foundation, where four cotton-top tamarins currently reside. We asked him if there were any misconceptions about cotton-top tamarins that he would like people to become aware of. “They’re not pets. They should be left sa [in the] wild. ‘Yun lang [That’s all],” Rafael said.

Rafael further emphasized the critical condition that these primates are in and shared his sentiment about what he hoped people would realize. “Ang pinaka-kailangan malaman ng tao is critically endangered itong mga animals na ito, and ang pinaka-problem [na kinakaharap] nila is illegal trade and loss of habitat na ‘yun sana ang makita ng mga tao. Otherwise, I would not be surprised na in 50 years of our lifetime, mawala ang mga “cute” [na mga hayop] na it. (What people need to know is that these animals are critically endangered, and the biggest problems [that they are facing] are illegal trade and loss of habitat, and we hope that people will become aware of this. Otherwise, I would not be surprised that in 50 years, in our lifetime, these “cute” [animals] will be gone.)”

Less than 50 years

According to the IUCN, “a potential population reduction of 80% or more is suspected over 18 years” within three generations from 2018 to 2036,” due to an ongoing, unregulation exploitation of this species for the pet trae, and a continuation of accelerated annual rates of forest loss throughout the species’ range.” Studies show that the remaining forest habitat is not suitable for their survival, the IUCN added.

It doesn’t help that most people lack the awareness and understanding of how stripping animals of their freedom and keeping them as “pets” and in cages impact the very future of these animals. How ironic is it that these beautiful animals are met with such an ugly fate?

Because of the lack of awareness and education about cotton-top tamarins and seeing how the conditions for thee animals are going south at an alarming rate, a local organization decided to step up. Considering experts in wildlife conservation, environmental management, biology, and community education, the group fights to champion the conservation and protection of cotton-top tamarins.

Proyecto Titi

Enter Proyecto Titi – a local grassroots organization founded by leading cotton-top expert Dr. Ann Savage, dedicated to the conservation and protection of cotton-top tamarins. Although the organization officially formed in 2004, informal education began as early as 1987 in the small town of Coloso in the northern region of Colombia.

The organization strengthens its conservation programs by working with local partners and communities. On their official website, the organization states that “through public education and engagement, protection and restoration of forest habitat, creating of community empowerment programs and field research we are helping to ensure that cotton-top tamarins continue to have a future in the wild.”


Proyecto Titi is a multi-disciplinary conservation program whose mission is to protect the critically endangered cotton-top tamarins and then forests they call home in Colombia. Our work supports the vision of a healthy population of cotton-tops living in forests that are protected by individuals, communities, and the Colombian government. We envision a world where cotton-top tamarins are the symbol of the natural patrimony of the Colombian Caribbean region and the citizens of Colombia live in harmony with nature and ensure the survival of the cotton-top tamarin and the rich biodiversity found in this region of the world.

(text taken from Proyecto Titi’s website)

Cotton-top conservation

According to their website, Proyecto Titi takes a multidisciplinary approach to their conservation program and undertakes these actions to minimize the threats to cotton-top tamarin survival.

  1. Protecting, restoring, and connecting forest to increase the amount of habitat for cotton-tops and working to develop effective management programs that insure the long-term survival of the cotton-top tamarain in Colombia.
  2. Understanding the factors that influence the survival of cotton-top tamarins and the impacts to their forest home through our long-term field research program.
  3. Providing conservation education programs that focus on increasing knowledge, changing attitudes and influencing the behavior of students to become trusted stewards of Colombia’s natural resources.
  4. Creating community empowerment programs that increase personal commitments to protect forests and cotton-top tamarins.
  5. Engaging the public through an effective communication program to increase awareness and willingness to support cotton-top tamarin and forest conservation efforts.

Results from a research conducted by Savage and colleagues in 2012 published in the Public Library of Science in 2016 titles An Assessment of the Population of Cotton-top Tamarins (Saguinus Oedipus) and Their Habitat in Colombia saw that the population of cotton-top tamarins remained stable from 2005 to 2012 in the regions that they surveyed. Proyecto Titi stated that they “attribute this relatively stable population to the increased conservation efforts of conservation organizations and the Colombian government.”

What you can do

On an individual level, we can help secure a future for cotton-tops by doing these simple actions:

  1. Donate – Every peso counts. Proyecto Titi makes use of donation and funding on research, in aquiring forested habitat for the cotton-tops, on conservation education, and on community engagement and involvement. Donations can be placed through their website
  2. Raise awareness – The more people know about these critically endangered animals, the more likely they’ll take action, too. Raising awareness can mean holding a fundraising event, starting a petition, or simply sharing information on your social media pages.
  3. Go vegan – Time and time again, we hear that animal agriculture is responsible for the burning and clearing of forests that results to thousands of animals becoming displaced, increasing their risk of becoming vulnerable and endangered. By going vegan, you’re not only helping spare the lives of animals who are killed for food but also the animals who live in the wild. It’s a win-win!
  4. Reduce, reuse, recycle – Mining and logging have always been problematic, as these industries rely on ruthless resource grabbing for profit that harms both non-humans and humans. Choosing environment-friendly options, as simple as going paperless, using reusable containers or eco-bags, and buying second-hand products or products made with recycled materials (among many others), is a great way to show support for our earth and all its inhabitants.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November-December 2020 issue.

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