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Van Roosmalen grew up in Tilburg, a city in the southern part of the Netherlands. His father was a chemist. He met and married his first wife while living in Utrecht, where he had moved for school at age 17. They had two sons. In early 2008, he divorced his first wife and married his Brazilian girlfriend. He is multilingual and can speak Dutch, English, Portuguese, French, German, and Taki-Taki.
Van Roosmalen studied biology at the University of Amsterdam and did four years of doctoral fieldwork beginning in 1976 studying the red-faced spider monkey in Suriname. He later did two more years of work in French Guiana, following which he published the book Fruits of the Guianan Flora. In 1986 he was hired by the INPA (Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research, where he initially thrived. During this period, he launched a non-governmental organization focused on creating wilderness preserves in the deep Amazon. He became a naturalized Brazilian citizen in 1997. Van Roosmalen considers Alfred Russel Wallace a hero and is an advocate of Wallace's "river barrier" hypothesis that the major rivers of the Amazonian basin serve as barriers that create separate genetically distinct evolutionary regions.
In 2002, he was fined by the IBAMA (Brazilian Ministry of the Environment's Enforcement Agency) for illegal transportation of monkeys and orchids from the unexplored Amazonian region of Serra do Aracá. In April 2003, Roosmalen was fired from his job with the INPA for illegally exportation of environmental genetic samples to outside Brazil. Around this time, his younger son learned of his affair and told his mother, leading to separation. Also around this time, the board of the NGO removed him as president and removed its resources from his control.
In 2007, he was arrested by the Brazilian government for illegally keeping orphaned monkeys in a monkey refuge at his house in the Amazon and for misappropriation of Brazilian public funds. He was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison. Van Roosmalen claims that he applied for permits for his monkey preserve. The bulk of his sentence was for an embezzling charge after he was accused of stealing scaffolding tower in 1996. He was placed in the notorious Raimundo Vidal Pessoa Penitentiary. At one point Van Roosmalen shared a cell with two violent crack cocaine addicts whose drug debts he paid. He is currently free on appeal.
Van Roosmalen told a Wired news reporter that he has a video of two ex-policemen knocking on his door immediately after tucking revolvers into their pants. Believing that he would be killed if he stayed, he and his wife are on the run with no plans to return to their home in Manaus as of May 2008.
Roosmalen's dwarf porcupine and Roosmalens' dwarf marmoset are discovered by and named after him. He named the Prince Bernhard's titi after Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, co-founder and former president of the WWF.
Species discovered or investigated by Van Roosmalen
- Black-crowned dwarf marmoset (Callibella humilis)
- Rio Acarí Amazonian marmoset (Mico (Callithrix) acariensis)
- Satarè Amazonian marmoset (Mico (Callithrix) saterei)
- Rio Manicoré Amazonian marmoset (Mico (Callithrix) manicorensis)
- Stephen Nash’s titi monkey (Callicebus stephennashi)
- HRH Prince Bernhard’s titi monkey (Callicebus bernhardi)
- Giant collared peccary (Pecari maximus)
- Van Roosmalen’s dwarf porcupine (Sphiggurus roosmalenorum)
- Dwarf manatee (Trichechus pygmaeus sp. nov.)
- Lecythidaceae (Brazilnut Family) (Lecythis oldemani sp. nov.)
- Black dwarf lowland tapir (Tapirus pygmaeus sp. nov.)
- Van Tienhoven's fair brocket deer (Mazama tienhoveni sp. nov.)
- Arboreal giant anteater (Myrmecophaga sp. nov.)
- White-throated black jaguar (Panthera sp. nov.)
- Black giant otter (Pteronura sp. nov.)
- Orange coati-mundè (Nasua sp. nov.)
- Orange tayra (Eira sp. nov.)
- Black woolly monkey (Lagothrix sp. nov.)
- Cruz Lima’s saddleback tamarin monkey (Saguinus (fuscicollis) cruzlimai sp. nov.)
- Rio Pauiní white bald-headed uacari (Cacajao (calvus) sp. nov.)
- Rio Aripuanã green-backed squirrel monkey (Saimiri (ustus) sp. nov.)
- Rio Mamurú titi monkey (Callicebus (moloch) sp. nov.)
- Upper Xingú Amazonian marmoset monkey (Mico (Callithrix) sp. nov.)
- Orange woolly monkey (Lagothrix sp. nov.)
- Long-limbed black spider monkey (Ateles sp. nov. –)
- Silvery bellied spider monkey (Ateles sp. nov.)
- Eastern saddleback tamarin monkey (Saguinus (fuscicollis) orientalis sp. nov.)
- Rio Purús collared titi monkey (Callicebus (torquatus) sp. nov.)
- Upper Rio Xingú titi monkey (Callicebus (moloch) sp. nov.)
- Grey saki monkey (Pithecia sp. nov.)
- Southbank Rio Negro saki monkey (Pithecia (Pithecia) sp. nov. )