There had been no trace of Bouvier’s red colobus monkey (Piliocolobus bouvieri) since the 1970s. In 2008, after almost 40 years without a recorded sighting, scientists considered it extinct. Bouvier’s red colobus is so rare that if you google it, you won’t find a single picture of it on the internet. This monkey lives in swampy forests along the riverbanks of the Congo river, in the Republic of Congo; a place so difficult to get to that visits from scientists are rare. Apart from two primatologists, who set out to find it.
Lieven Devreese is a Dutch primatologist who studies monkeys in captivity and in the wild. He heard about Bouvier’s red colobus and decided to travel to the Congo and find that sneaky monkey. However, research can be costly so he decided to set up a crowdfunding profile and appeal to the public for financial support for his expedition. He also rallied financial and logistical support from the Wildlife Conservation Society and in February 2015, he began his mission: The Elusive Red Colobus Monkey Expedition.
Lieven partnered with a local Congolese student Gaël Elie Gnondo Gobolo, at the University of Brazzaville to gather information from local people about sightings. Lieven and Gnondo Gobolo were excited: “From the start, it was clear that the local people know the species well,” says Lieven “the species has not been seen for several decades by scientists, but this is just because no one looked for them”. Local hunters are the ones with the most information; they name and describe all the monkeys in the area. Lieven and Gnondo Gobolo confirm their knowledge using vocalizations of different known monkeys.
Thus, Lieven and Gnondo Gobolo set off for an extreme adventure: three months in the swampy, dense jungle surrounding the Congo river. The team cruises through the forest on motorbike, bicycles, dug-out canoes and on foot covering a total of 300 km. They hiked through the forest searching along the river for the elusive monkey in extreme conditions. Most of the “transport took place on the river […] and the forest is often not easily accessible because of the water level,” explains Lieven “Wading through waist-deep mud doesn’t make it easy to look for monkeys.” One night, they slept on an island too small to put a tent. That same night Lieven wrote on his blog that “the team’s motivation is still okay, I only hope we will soon find red colobus”.
But these were not the only challenges Lieven and Gnondo Gobolo faced. The research was located in an isolated area where people are not used to seeing biologists with binoculars and GPS. Locals were initially skeptical about the presence of biologists but were eventually happy to collaborate. Guided by local people who know the vocalisations and appearance of the Bouvier’s red colobus well, the research team got to the swamp forests along the Bokiba River in the Ntokou-Pikounda National Park. They were searching Bouvier’s red colobus for two weeks, and just before running out of food, battery, and courage, they finally found a group of Bouvier’s red colobus. Lieven described the moment of excitement on his blog “What a beautiful monkey! The whole team is excited about the unique footage we got”.
The primatologists continued their searches because they believe the species is present all along the Likouala and Sangha Rivers. But because the water level made searching difficult, and animals are rare due to hunting, the team was not able to locate any Bouvier’s red colobus further downstream. Gnondo Gobolo continues: “All hunters told also us there are no red colobus on the right bank of the Likouala and none near the Alima River.” Because this last river had been mentioned before as part of the species’ range, this might indicate red colobus have been locally hunted out in some locations.
Back in Brazzaville, Lieven said “It was not always easy, but I think we can call it a successful expedition!”. The expedition was, indeed, very successful: they had taken the first-ever picture of the Bouvier monkey. “In the meantime, the word has spread: if you type a few keywords in Google, you’ll find multiple articles on the web,” says Lieven.
Bouvier’s red colobus are big, noisy and not very good at detecting predators or hunters. When there is danger, other monkeys hide and wait until they feel safe. Bouvier monkeys rarely hide. They usually show curiosity or are sometimes even aggressive towards hunters. For this reason, these monkeys are an easy target and very vulnerable to hunting. When a hunter finds a group of Bouvier monkeys, up to 50 or 60 monkeys can be killed in one hunting trip. Hunters then smoke the meat and sell it. Bushmeat, the meat of wild animals, is a big source of income for locals.
“When talking to the local people, we learned there is an active trade of bushmeat. When the forests are not flooded, only a couple of months a year, commercial hunters shoot whatever they can and empty the forest,” Lieven says. Traders use rivers as highways and the habitat of Bouvier monkey is full of big rivers. Lieven and Gnondo Gobolo explain that they “are not able to estimate how critical the situation is, but the presence of commercial hunting doesn’t sound promising”. Uncontrolled hunting can be devastating for a species that is hunted so easily.
Hope for Future
There is still hope for the survival of Bouvier’s red colobus. This monkey lives in very remote swampy areas. These areas are often so difficult to access that even the most experienced and motivated commercial hunter will stay away. And beyond having successfully recorded the continued existence of the Bouvier’s monkey, this expedition highlights another positive aspect: the importance of collaborating with local communities and scientists from the countries where the wildlife exists. Information provided by locals was key in supporting the mission of finding this species, which western scientists thought to be extinct. “We hope our discovery will draw attention to the park,” Lieven says, “so that maybe an international NGO could get involved to work together with the Congolese”. In fact, Gnondo Gobolo conducted his Bachelor thesis in collaboration with WCS in Ntokou-Pikounda National Park, which now also employs around 150 local people, working to defend the biodiversity within it from threats such as illegal hunting.
- Devreese (2015) World’s first photo of monkey thought extinct in Congo. Cercocebus.com
- Devreese (2015) The elusive red colobus monkey expedition – fundraising campaign . Indiegogo.com
- Neuman S (2015) Congo Monkey Spotted Decades After Species’ Alleged Demise. National Public Radio (NPR)
- Oates, J.F. & Struhsaker, T. (2016). “Piliocolobus bouvieri”. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T18250A92654006. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T18250A92654006.en
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