Golden lion tamarins practice foraging, 1983, by Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image no. SIA-SIA16-065_B31_F03_S04_15.

Going Wild with Golden Lion Tamarins

In 1984, the National Zoo began reintroducing golden lion tamarins to the wild resulting in a conservation success.

Thirty-five years ago today, eight golden lion tamarins were reintroduced to the wild at the Reserva Biológica de Poço das Antas in Brazil. They had been born in zoos in the United States and learned to forage in “free-range” habitats before making the long journey back to their ancestral homeland.


In 1972, golden lion tamarins were facing extinction. It was estimated that there were only about 200 individuals left in the wild, and captive birth rates were low. Research zoologist Dr. Devra Kleiman, a recent hire at the National Zoological Park, established the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program, which ultimately became a partnership of many conservation organizations and zoos.


A man and woman watch a small, orange monkey on a branch indoors. A carton of food is hanging on a b


The first goal was to increase the captive birth rate. Through research and experimentation, the researchers found that changes in diet, specifically additional protein, greatly increased the number of births. By the early 1980s, there were more golden lion tamarins in captivity than necessary to support the breeding population. Reintroduction to the wild was the second goal.


Captive animals cannot simply be let loose in the wild. They need to learn to forage and protect themselves. Many golden lion tamarins were moved from indoor enclosures to “free-range” habitats—larger outdoor areas with natural vegetation, insects, birds, and other animals. They were still provided with food, but it was often hidden in order to teach them to forage. Shelter would often be a nest box designed to mimic a hole in a tree.

Crates containing golden lion tamarins are weighed before being flown to Brazil, 1983, by Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image no. SIA-SIA16-065_B31_F04_S03_06.

Golden lion tamarin shipping crate, 1983, by Jessie Cohen Smithsonian Institution Archives,Image no. SIA-SIA16-065_B31_F04_S06_16.

In November 1983, fifteen golden lion tamarins were carefully crated and shipped to Brazil. Upon arrival, they were quarantined, where one tamarin gave birth to twins. On May 2, 1984, nine of the golden lion tamarins were moved to a large temporary enclosure that had been erected within the forest itself. A wild golden lion tamarin, found in a patch of forest too small to sustain the animal, was also introduced to this enclosure. Twelve weeks later, on July 25, eight of the golden lion tamarins were released from the area.


After reintroduction, the animals were closely monitored by both American scientists and trained locals. The free-range habitats had not prepared them to survive in the wild. Several died and food and other essentials had to be provided to many others. The effort was not a total loss though. Two females gave birth in the wild and the young adapted quite well, quickly becoming self-sufficient. 


Image of two small, orange monkeys on a branch.


Reintroduction efforts continued with the release of a new group of captive-born golden lion tamarins each year. Survival rates increased and each successive generation gave birth to their own young. Efforts have also been made to protect and expand their habitats. Today, there are approximately 3,200 golden lion tamarins living in the wild, about one-third of which are descendants of captive-born animals. 


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