Last Updated on May 2, 2024

Conservationists and scientists from almost 20 institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Africa have concluded that immediate conservation efforts to protect red colobus monkey species could have cascading net positive impacts on African tropical forest health in the face of a growing biodiversity crisis.

If you’ve ever been to the rainforests of Africa, as I have, and are an avid supporter of protecting the world’s precious ecosystems, you’ll understand why this latest scientific conclusion is of vital importance.

At a time when hunting of wildlife and habitat loss are driving long-term changes to ecosystems, including stark wildlife population declines and greater vulnerability to climate change and zoonotic disease transmission, the scientists identified red colobus monkeys as key indicators of tropical forest health and flagships for local and international conservation initiatives.

Writing in the journal Conservation Letters, the group of authors focused on five priority action areas:

  • Providing legal protections for all red colobus and including them as priority conservation species in national laws and international treaties
  • Carrying out ecological surveys to determine populations in need of protection
  • Supporting greater investment in protected area creation and management
  • Prioritizing support to and engagement with people living in proximity to red colobus monkeys
  • Investing in greater conservation education and awareness-raising

These actions build on the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan, initiated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group and the African Primatological Society (with major support from Re:wild, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, National Geographic Society and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund).

“Protecting red colobus monkeys isn’t just about saving a species; it’s about safeguarding Africa’s tropical forests, mitigating climate change, enhancing food security, and ensuring a thriving ecosystem for generations to come,” Drew Cronin, Associate Curator of International Conservation of North Carolina Zoo, said. “Their survival symbolizes our commitment to conservation, urging us all to unite in action for a brighter, biodiverse future.”

The action plan aims to make red colobus a priority conservation target helping to secure Africa’s tropical forests and reduce unsustainable hunting for wild meat. A Red Colobus Working Group (RCWG) has been formed to guide the implementation of the action plan and a Red Colobus Conservation Network (RCCN) has been created to promote communication, capacity-building and monitoring of red colobus conservation efforts.

“The Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan provides the blueprint for the conservation of red colobus monkeys,” RCCN Coordinator Florence Aghomo said. “Through the collective efforts of the Red Colobus Conservation Network, we are striving to elevate red colobus monkeys to flagship species status, ensuring their survival for generations to come. With a focus on science-based solutions, community engagement, and capacity building for young African primate conservationists, the RCCN is forging a united front to address the urgent threats facing red colobus monkeys across Africa.”

Protecting Red Colobus Monkeys

Temminck's Red Colobus monkey.
Temminck’s Red Colobus monkey. Photo credit James Slade Rewild

In Africa, the 17 red colobus species (18 if you count one species with two subspecies) range widely from Senegal in the west to the Zanzibar Archipelago in the east. One of the most imperiled and understudied primate groups, all 18 are threatened with extinction and 14 of the 18 are listed as endangered or critically endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the IUCN.

The authors concluded that declining populations of red colobus “forewarn the fate of other large-bodied terrestrial vertebrates across African tropical forests and portend a bleak future for Africa’s biodiversity if a business-as-usual approach is followed.”

“Red colobus are among the first mammal species to vanish from African forests because they are large-bodied—providing a lot of meat with a single shot—and because they tend to look with interest at the hunter, rather than fleeing sensibly like most other monkeys,” Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) research scientist Fiona Maisels said. “They often form large, noisy groups that are easy for a hunter to find compared with many of the smaller monkey species. The result can be that a perfectly good forest can swiftly be rendered red-colobus-free within just a few years of hunting starting within it. Many of our priority action areas are in fact applicable to the conservation of a wide range of species, and, indeed, of landscape protection as a whole.”

The authors also called for scientists, civil society groups, local communities, governments, funding agencies and others to invest in red colobus conservation efforts to help protect Africa’s tropical forests and biodiversity, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and improve food security and public health.

“As the first species to be hunted out of the tropical forests of Africa, red colobus monkeys are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for biodiversity loss in these forests,” Barney Long of Re:wild said. “Forests with red colobus remain healthy and so these monkeys should be elevated to be a key indicator of forest ecosystem integrity and closely monitored to track conservation effectiveness. Given the first primate extinction in modern times, may be a red colobus monkey… – all conservation efforts should be made to prevent the loss of additional species and subsequent degradation of forest ecosystems across Africa.”

Red Colobus Conservation Network

The Red Colobus Conservation Network (RCCN) unites and connects individuals, institutions, and organizations dedicated to conserving red colobus monkeys and the landscapes they inhabit.  The role of the RCCN is to facilitate and catalyze priority conservation actions identified in the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan, to build an engaged community of conservation practitioners working on red colobus conservation, and to support the next generation of African conservationists. The RCCN is supported and advised by the Red Colobus Working Group of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist group.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

WCS’s mission is to save wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve its mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 countries and in all the world’s oceans and within its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by four million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.

Those interested in following continued news from WCS’s zoos, aquarium and field conservation programs across the globe can follow news releases and research results on its newsroom website. In addition, the WCS Wild Audio podcast is available for listeners.

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