Newfound Monkey Species "Rarest in Africa," Expert Says

Steven Stanek
for National Geographic News
August 4, 2008

A recently discovered African monkey could soon be extinct, scientists report.

The first comprehensive study of a three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall) monkey discovered in Tanzania found that just 1,117 individuals exist, according to researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The Rungwecebus kipunji on Monday was listed as "critically endangered"—the highest possible threat level before extinction—by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in response to the WCS research.

"Without a doubt, they are the rarest monkey in Africa, and I would imagine there are very few with such small numbers in the world," said Tim Davenport, Tanzania country director for the WCS, who led one of the two research teams that separately identified the primate in 2005.

Davenport helped IUCN to assess the conservation status of the kipunji.

Mike Hoffmann, a Washington-based program manager for IUCN, said his organization relies on information from researchers in the field about animal populations to determine a species' conservation status.

"They've got very good information," Hoffman said of Davenport's teams. "This is information from people working on the ground conducting detailed surveys."

New Genus

Davenport said the main threats to the kipunji are poachers and illegal logging in its habitat in Tanzania's southern highlands and the Udzungwa Mountains, which rise 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters) above sea level.

As adults, the brownish gray, long-haired monkeys weigh up to 40 pounds (18 grams) and emit a unique "honk-bark," so named because it sounds like "a goose followed by a dog," Davenport said.

Originally scientists thought the monkey was a new species of mangabey, but in 2006 DNA analysis revealed it to be an entirely new genus of primate named Rungwecebus—the first genus discovered in Africa since 1923.

Patricia Wright, a primatologist at New York's Stony Brook University, said: "If it is indeed its own genus, then it becomes even more important that we save it."

The primate could disappear in 20 to 50 years without safeguards to preserve it, said Wright, a member of National Geographic's Conservation Trust Advisory Board.

(The Conservation Trust is part of the National Geographic Society, which also owns National Geographic News.)

Counting Each Individual

The WCS study—published in the July issue of the journal Oryx—was the result of more than 2,800 hours of fieldwork by scientists.

Davenport said most primate censuses estimate populations through sampling and statistical extrapolation.

"What we decided to do was a little bit more time consuming ... actually try and count every individual," he said. "It was a bit of an unusual study."

It took 20 researchers six months to map the movements of 34 separate groups of kipunji, using GPS mapping systems. Each group has 30 to 36 individuals.

The team found the monkeys—which sport distinctive, upright crests of hair on their heads—live in a range of just 6.8 square miles (17.7 square kilometers) in two remote regions, which explains why they eluded Western scientists for so long.

The researchers said the kipunji's tiny population and "shyness" also contributed to the primate's obscurity.

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