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Red colobus monkeys are threatened by poachers in Africa

The Tai Forest Monkey Project, operating a research field station in Ivory Coast for three decades, experienced a significant setback on the sole day it was unstaffed due to nearby conflict in Liberia, resulting in the poaching of 18 endangered monkeys. 

This incident highlights the vital role that such field stations play in not only advancing scientific knowledge but also protecting biodiversity by deterring poaching and illegal resource extraction.

According to a recent study published in the journal Conservation Letters, it is highly important to conserve the red colobus monkey species found across Africa, including those in the Tai Project field station area. 

These monkeys are recognized as a conservation priority due to their vulnerability to hunting and climate change impacts. 

Endangered red colobus monkeys

“One of the primates at our field station is a red colobus species that is endangered,” said study co-author W. Scott McGraw, a primate behaviorist at OSU, and co-director of the Tai Monkey Project. 

“If we were to stop our work and pull out of the forest, I would not be surprised to see the numbers of all animals just crash. By simply being at the field station, we are protecting what we’re studying in addition to generating knowledge. Every one of those species of red colobus in Africa is in danger. And the places where they’re protected the most are those that have research field stations.”

Conservation efforts for red colobus monkeys

The ongoing efforts to protect red colobus monkeys and their habitats involve collaboration between nearly 20 institutions from the United States, Europe, and Africa. 

Experts from these institutions focus on actions such as designating red colobus as priority conservation species, conducting ecological surveys to identify populations needing protection, increasing investment in protected area management, and engaging with local communities living near these habitats.

Red colobus monkey extinction

The urgency of these efforts was highlighted by the tragic confirmation of the first primate extinction in 500 years, Miss Waldron’s red colobus, which McGraw and his team documented in the late 1990s. 

“People would say, well, there are lots of other primates – who cares if we lose one? But we argued that this could be the beginning of a wave of extinction that could make its way across all of Africa,” McGraw explained. 

“This was the tip of the iceberg suggesting we were on the edge of catastrophe. What’s next? Then the leopards go, then the hippos go.”

The role of field stations

Further emphasizing the role of field stations, a companion article by McGraw and 172 other scientists outlined how these outposts significantly contribute to wildlife and forest conservation. 

The analysis, based on a survey of 157 field station leaders in 56 countries, showed that the presence of a staffed field station greatly reduces hunting and enhances enforcement of anti-poaching laws, impacting over 1,200 threatened animal species and nearly 50 square miles of habitat per station.

Despite the crucial conservation work these stations perform, many still struggle with funding, especially following the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Most of these field stations are located in biodiversity hotspots, and operate at a relatively low cost,” McGraw said. “We work in a well-known national park, but every day we hear gunshots around us. We’ve collected good evidence over 30 years that the density of animals drops off dramatically immediately outside of our primary study area. So just by being there, we are affording protection.”

Continued threats to biodiversity 

The plight of red colobus monkeys in Ivory Coast exemplifies broader challenges, where illegal cocoa farming and hunting in protected areas are rampant due to the high demand for chocolate. 

McGraw and his team found that patrolling two forest reserves significantly reduced illegal activities, yet the conversion of protected lands into cocoa farms continues to threaten biodiversity.

“In the eastern part of Ivory Coast, where there should be forest, it looks like a bomb has dropped,” McGraw said. “So much of the forest has been cut down, and that which remains is under increasing pressure from us.” 

“The human population growth is so steep and is taking place in areas often containing the largest number of threatened taxa. People are, in many cases, eking out a living right next to a forest containing biodiversity that they’ve grown up with. It’s a real conservation crisis.”


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