Congo’s Lost Monkey

Last Kisangani red colobus?

The last Kisangani Red Colobus seen was for sale along the major RN4 road to Kisangani.

Kisangani Red Colobus was designated a “lost species” by Global Wildlife Conservation.  John Hart set out in 2019 to document what was known — either to find the Kisangani Red Colobus or to officially document its extinction.  Below is a record of what he found:

drc_red_colobus MAP

The hatched area is where, in DR Congo, the Kisangani red colobus historically was known to exist.

History:

The animal suddenly disappeared from view at the turn of the century. 

It had first been collected by Herbert Lang during the American Museum of Natural History Congo expedition (1909-1915).  The name it was given in 1925 was in his honor; the scientific name of Kisangani Red Colobus is Piliocolobus langi.

Herbert Lang.  He and James Chapin made a historic collecting trip to Congo for the American Museum of Natural history in the early 20th century.

John led expeditions with Claude Sikubwabo to Maiko National Park between 1989 and 1992 – this was within the P. langi distribution.  Primates were abundant and Red Colobus the most abundant.

Mark Colyn did a general study of Congo’s forest primates in the 1980s and 90s.  He reported in 1991 that the Kisangani Red Colobus was common and frequent as fresh meat in the Kisangani bushmeat market.  By the early 2000s it had disappeared from the market altogether. 

Kisangani bushmeat market_2020

Several major forest roads and the Congo River all bring bushmeat to the major bushmeat market of Kisangani.

What happened? Before 1996 shotguns were almost absent from the Kisangani Red Colobus range. The reigning demagogue, Mobutu Sésé Seko, kept a severe clamp on all privately-owned arms.  Then there was the long-lasting civil war continuing into the first years of the 21st century.  Militias were abundant, shotguns and military rifles suddenly widespread.  Local manufacture of shotguns sprang up in many rural areas.  All controls were off.

meeting and interviewing hunters in the forest

These hunters in the Lobilo forest block are mainly after monkeys.  Only at night can shotguns be used for terrestrial animals and only with powerful headlamps to freeze the animal.

 John found that monkeys were hunted almost exclusively with guns.  Otherwise, hunters mainly used snares for ground-dwelling animals. 

In his 2010 treatise on Red Colobus, Tom Struhsaker (2010) described the P.langi as insufficiently known — and with good reason; no one had ever set out to learn about the Kisangani Red Colobus beyond its presence in the bushmeat market…and well before 2010, it had disappeared. 

Then in 2011 and 2012 two carcasses were seen hung for sale along the main road into Kisangani (see above).  They fit the description of P.langi.

Falay holding interviews in village

In Baego village Paul Falay, John’s student, is using a questionnaire and photos of the 2012 carcass (see lead photo).

But since 2012 there were no reported sightings of the Kisangani Red Colobus.  Did it still exist? 

Kaisala and guide watch red colobus in forest

John’s student, Désiré Kaisala, with guide looking into the branches for red colobus in the Balobe Forest, east of Opienge, where locals told him they still existed.

John Hart organized two search teams each made up of a a forest guide with long experience in inventories and a university trained biologist, Paul Falay and Désiré Kaisala.   John trained them in forest technique, in use of questionnaires, and basic good practices for management of a small cash budget.

langi_interviews v2

Their itinerary through the Kisangani Red Colobus range…..

What that Itinerary meant:  Like most of DR Congo – major roads are barely roads, and most mapped roads no longer exist.

the main road__RN4

RN4 – one of the major arteries into Kisangani, where the lead photo was taken in 2012.

Crossing with bikes to the other side of Lindi River

Crossing bicycles at the Lindi River.

porters carry bikes, tents etc

Backpacking bicycles and loads. Paul Falay’s team on their way back south from Block B towards RN4.

Falay crossing Loko River

And, of course, walking the forest. Here Paul crosses the Loko river.

BUT – They found the lost monkey.

In three months moving from village to village; questioning hunters and following up with forest verification inventories, Paul and Désiré were able to indicate areas of forest where the Kisangani Red Colobus still exists and areas where it has been extirpated. 

map made during mission to interpret interviews

Paul’s field map – kept as he went and gathered answers and red colobus stories from village hunters.

The field maps were refined by reviewing each interview, putting different answers together, combining answers with geographic realities and finally tending towards a conservative interpretation to generate the forest blocks identified in the maps below.

Forest blocks where P.langi still occurs

Mapped results show forest blocks that still have Kisangani red colobus, those that probably do and others that don’t. They hiked into some forest blocks for verification. For the distant forest blocks Paul and Désiré found scant information, but there were also few hunters who ventured into the most remote areas.

Everywhere they looked the Kisangani Red Colobus was suffering.   As expected, the principal loss was from shotgun hunting.  Where there was the most hope for continued healthy populations was in the most distant forests, rarely visited by hunters and for which little information was available.

Two activities that picked up in the 1990s and continue today have undermined Red Colobus security: An abundance of gold and diamond mines in the forests.  Hunters with shotguns often set-up in the mining camps as both animals to hunt and people to buy the meat are close by.

langi_mines

Some forest blocks had long-standing gold operations.

langi2

A P. langi interested in the observers.

A second complication is the abundance of military and armed militia.  The presence of military rifles and often inadequate supervision at far outposts allowed slaughters.  Kisangani Red Colobus, are particularly susceptible to these killing sprees as they do not flee when gunshots bring down other members of their group.

langi_mass_killing

Military at far outposts perpetrated mass killings of red colobus.

John believes that relatively modest funds could mobilize projects able to reduce the hunting problem.  All red colobus taxa are totally protected species.  Already there is a barrier to detect illegal bushmeat on the principal roads into Kisangani.  More outreach, particularly to the military, could also have an impact; as would efforts to control unregistered shotguns.

There is one repeating threat to Kisangani Red Colobus that we are unable to control: Epidemics.   Not unlike people with plague, ebola, corona virus – the red colobus, too, seem particularly susceptible to epidemics.

Epidemics killed whole populations

Epidemics greatly reduced or obliterated red colobus populations from certain forest blocks.

P. langi lookng through branches

Red colobus peeks through the leaves.

Despite this, the news is not all bad.  The Kisangani Red Colobus was suspected of having been largely wiped out, instead, John’s teams found it in a number of areas (43 of 92 survey localities and probably present in another 24).  They also found that where epidemics happened the red colobus populations seemed capable of rebounding.

Kaisala inspecting photos taken

Kaisala examining his photos.

olive sunbird on nest

Olive sunbird on her nest .. such sightings are among the unexpected pleasures of spending time in remote forest.

So, the lost monkey has been found.  Particularly good news is that at least some of the communities are interested in protecting their remaining Kisangani Red Colobus.

A little comment John has at the end of this study is   “And there is probably a lot more out there that was lost, but is just waiting to be re-found … or that has not yet been ‘discovered’ and must be found for the first time.”  This is after all the Big, Little-known Congo.

Find the full report here – with the astonishing conclusion that part of the range is not Piliocolobus langi, but an entirely other red colobus taxon.

The investigations reported above were made possible with support from Global Wildlife Conservation and Frankfurt Zoological Society.

4 Comments

  1. ingrid weiersbye
    Posted 2020-03-12 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Truely fascinating and inspiring – a record of a species hanging in despite all odds . I pray that the practice of eating these primates, with such close DNA to our own, is shown once and for all to be humanity’s undoing. That we devour these species at our peril. I look forward to the day when i can experience the biodiversity of this vast area.

  2. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2020-03-12 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Fantastic work, what a wealth of information on a tight budget! I read this post from Abidjan, on the search of another lost red colobus, P. waldroni. I hope to share in your success in shedding light on these dissapearing colobus monkeys.

  3. Tom Hart
    Posted 2020-03-15 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations John and Ter,
    Excellent work accomplished by two of your young trainees. Hopefully the poaching can be slowed/arrested. Haunting photo of the p.langi peering down at its fellow primate with a camera.
    Wish you were here in Lagrasse
    T&M

  4. Joel Masselink
    Posted 2020-03-25 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Excellent work! I’ll read the report with great interest – particularly in regard to what you found re: epidemics. I had a chance to work with Claude many years back and am glad to see that his scientific career is flourishing.

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