Here again, gone tomorrow?

Evidence: A rare creature called Miss Waldron's red colobus was declared extinct four years ago, but fresh carcasses keep turning up.

Medicine & Science

March 08, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Reports of Miss Waldron's demise have been exaggerated, it seems. Not greatly, but exaggerated nonetheless.

Miss Waldron's red colobus - a lumbering, finicky, tree-dwelling monkey that lives in parts of West Africa - is not extinct after all, scientists say. All but written off four years ago, the species has since made several ghostly appearances.

The same scientists who first announced its demise now say the creature is likely still with us, just barely.

"There do seem to be a few Miss Waldrons hanging on in the far corner of Ivory Coast," said New York University primate expert John Oates, who co-wrote the original paper.

That article, which appeared four years ago in Conservation Biology, caused a stir among conservationists and the public. No primate had become extinct for more than a century, and many observers were distressed that humans had allowed such a close relative to disappear forever.

But the monkeys themselves apparently hadn't heard the bad news. A few months after the article appeared, a hunter in Ivory Coast approached one of the authors, anthropologist Scott McGraw, and showed him the tail of a monkey he had recently killed. DNA tests proved the tail came from a Miss Waldron's.

Then in 2002, McGraw walked into a village in Ivory Coast and saw a monkey hide hanging on a clothesline. The hide, which was spotted with freshly dried blood, had red fur on its thighs and brow, unmistakable Miss Waldron's markings. Then last year, McGraw's former employee in Ivory Coast sent a recent photo of himself next to a monkey carcass. McGraw is sure the corpse was a Miss Waldron's.

`Can't find a live one'

So McGraw has written a paper describing the macabre new evidence. It will appear this spring in the International Journal of Primatology.

"I'm thrilled, but the maddening thing is we can't find a live one," said McGraw, an associate professor at Ohio State University. In 2002, he spent three weeks tromping through the forest where Miss Waldrons most likely dwell, but didn't see any. He hopes to return this summer to continue the search.

Compared with many animals, primates have suffered few extinctions. The last one to vanish was the giant aye-aye, a lemur that lived in Madagascar until the 19th century. But many primates are declining, and 55 of the world's 640 species are in serious danger of extinction, says primate expert Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International.

Among these animals is the Cross River gorilla. Only 150 or so still survive, along the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Mittermeier thinks a few Miss Waldrons still survive. If a group of the monkeys can be found, Conservation International would fund a program to protect them, he said.

Local hunters familiar with the forest say the species is not hard to find. "Everyone we talked to said they were in there," McGraw said.

But finding the monkey will not be easy. The region, which spans the border between Ivory Coast and Ghana, is a fetid swamp. "It's a horrible place, a very unpleasant place to work," said McGraw. "You get leeches all over you." The area has no name; McGraw calls it the Ehy Forest because it stands beside the Ehy (Ee-hie) Lagoon.

If it is still around, Miss Waldron's red colobus is not out of the woods, so to speak. "It doesn't change the larger picture. It's still a desperate situation," said Oates, McGraw's partner in the quest for the missing monkey.

The population of the creature, which stands 3 feet tall and weighs about 20 pounds, has been ravaged by habitat loss from rampant logging, as well as by the explosion in "bush-meat" hunting - killing wild animals for food. In 2002, civil war broke out in Ivory Coast, flooding the region with small arms and pushing refugees into the bush, where they eat whatever they can find.

The monkey is not the only endangered creature in the region. Bush-meat hunting has emptied huge tracts of West African forest. "You can walk for hours or days without seeing any large mammals," said Oates.

Miss Waldron's is particularly vulnerable to hunting, scientists say. "They're loud, conspicuous and somewhat clumsy," said Oates. They tend to stay in large groups - as many as 100 when they were plentiful. McGraw describes them, affectionately, as "not too bright."

(Humans are not alone in exploiting these flaws: chimpanzees hunt and eat their smaller relatives. "The poor things get a double whammy from the human evolutionary lineage," Oates said ruefully.)

Miss Waldron's has other weaknesses. Unlike some colobus species - there are more than 15 - Miss Waldron's does not adapt well to habitats besides its native rain forest.

The creature is also a very picky eater: It cannot survive in captivity because no one has been able to replicate its varied diet of plants, fruits and seeds. "The recipe is too precise," said McGraw.

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