Scientists fear loss of colobus monkey heralds beginning of 'extinction spasm' of many West African species

September 20, 2000

DURHAM, N.C. -- The researchers who documented the extinction of the little-studied "Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey" say it may be the first obvious manifestation of an extinction spasm that will soon affect other large animals in West Africa unless more rigorous protection is applied immediately.

The extinction of Miss Waldron's red colobus is the first documented case of a primate extinction in the 20th century. The scientists who conducted an exhaustive search for the monkey said five decades of warnings did little to save the monkey from extinction by hunting and habitat loss.

"We suggest that the lack of recent primate extinctions is fostering complacency, and that such complacency may allow taxa to become extinct that could have been saved by more rigorous and timely action," the scientists wrote in a report to be published in the October 2000 Conservation Biology. However, they emphasized that urgent measures could save what remains of the indigenous flora and fauna in West Africa.

Co-authors of the report are John Oates of Hunter College, Michael Abedi-Lartey of the Ghana Wildlife Department, Scott McGraw of Ohio State University, Thomas Struhsaker of Duke University and George Whitesides of Guilford Technical Community College.

The monkey was first discovered in 1933 by naturalist Willoughby Lowe and named after his companion on the collecting trip, Miss F. Waldron. However, almost no study had been done of the animal after the initial discovery, said Struhsaker, a conservation biologist who is a research scientist in Duke's department of biological anthropology and anatomy.

"The Miss Waldron's monkey was a special animal in that it lived in a very restricted area," said Struhsaker. "In the 1970s, an unpublished study listed some of its plant foods and a few census data, but that's about it.

"We know so little about rainforest primates anyway, it is difficult to know what we might have learned from this species," he said.

Suspecting that the monkey's restricted range in Ghana and the Ivory Coast and heavy hunting may have caused it to go extinct, the researchers launched a series of surveys in 1993 to find the animal. They were quite confident that if the monkeys still existed they would observe or hear them, since the researchers were experienced in such surveys and the monkey is large, colorful and noisy, with distinctive loud calls.

After surveys over six years in 19 different forest areas, as well as extensive questioning of local residents, hunters and park and forest department personnel, the scientists concluded that the monkey had gone extinct.

"Confirming the presence of an animal is easier than proving its absence, and we cannot be absolutely certain that a few Miss Waldron's red colobus monkeys do not linger in one of the forests we surveyed, or in some other area," the scientists wrote. "But our observations have convinced us that no viable population of this species or subspecies remains."

What's more, the scientists found that other large-bodied monkeys in the regions were becoming rare, almost certainly due to hunting exacerbated by habitat loss. Such hunting abounds because "laws protecting colobus monkeys have not been enforced, and forest areas set aside specifically for wildlife protection ... have been poorly protected against the activities of poachers," the scientists wrote. According to Struhsaker, the extinction of the monkey is only the beginning of a larger ecological disaster.

"We are losing a great deal of the mega-fauna of West Africa, as well as Central Africa," he said. He included not only primates, but also forest antelope called duikers, pygmy hippo, forest buffalo, bongo and in some places, elephant.

Struhsaker called for a multi-pronged program of urgent measures including improved law enforcement, establishing more protected areas, enlisting government support and extensive conservation education and family planning programs, particularly for communities near protected areas. He also called for steps to reduce or even eliminate immigration into areas near parks and forest reserves.

"Such measures would not only benefit the integrity of the protected areas, but the welfare of the local community as well," he said. Struhsaker also cited misguided international conservation policy as contributing to the extinctions.

"Much of the money being invested by organizations such as the World Bank, European Union, and U.S. Agency for International Development is being directed inappropriately," he said. "A great deal, if not the majority, of this support is going into economic development, in the hope that improved living standards in communities neighboring protected areas will result in the local people leaving the forests and animals alone.

"However, there is absolutely no proof that this strategy works," said Struhsaker. "In fact it can be quite counterproductive by attracting immigration into the area, increasing populations and thus, pressure on the forest resources. Even in our own country where we are rich and educated, we still over-exploit our resources and are fighting like crazy to save the last old-growth forest in the Northwest and marine ecosystems nearly everywhere.

"Nevertheless, the economic development approach is intuitively appealing, politically correct and lucrative, so the conservation organizations are buying into the concept as well," he said.

Instead, Struhsaker said, a relatively small amount of money devoted to enforcing conservation laws and conducting conservation education would pay large dividends in protecting the animals and their habitat.

"Most of the park rangers are very poorly paid ­ one or two dollars per day at best. And they are poorly equipped, trained and supervised. There are also insufficient numbers of rangers to deal with the armed hunters."

While educating local people to appreciate the importance of their natural heritage is a long-term goal, said Struhsaker, just as important are programs to limit population growth. Ghana's human population, for example, is expected to double within the next 20 years or so.

"This is an issue that none of the agencies involved wants to touch," he said. "They argue that family planning imposes on the local people's culture and traditions. But we have already encroached upon their culture and traditions in far more intrusive ways by selling them our Western technology, medicine and values."

"In any case, both education and family planning are very long-term approaches to conservation. Unless better protection is implemented immediately, there will be little left to protect," he said.

Finally, Struhsaker said, while ecotourism can play a modest role in species preservation, it is highly variable, plummeting whenever a region experiences any political disturbance.

"Furthermore, rapidly increasing human populations will soon swamp any economic incentives for supporting conservation that may accrue from tourism, employment or other forms of economic development associated with parks.

"Also, if you constantly rely on monetary benefits to the neighboring communities for conservation, you're in deep trouble, because someone is always going to come along with a better-paying alternative use of that resource," Struhsaker said.

In their study, the scientists were supported by the American Society of Primatologists, the Chicago Zoological Society, Conservation International, Primate Conservation Inc., the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the World Bank.
Note to editors: A color photo showing Struhsaker in front of a drawing of the monkey is available on in the Duke News Service folder under monkey.jpg.

Duke University

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