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Bouvier ’s Red Colobus Monkey _2015_04_20
The rare Bouvier's red colobus monkey, photographed in the Republic of Congo's Ntokou-Pikounda National Park. Image: Lieven Devreese

Last seen by scientists all the way back in the 1970s, the Bouvier’s red colobus monkey has been sighted – and photographed! – by researchers in the Republic of Congo. The close-up photo, which shows a female and her infant, is likely the first ever taken of the species, and confirms that the monkeys are not extinct.

Independent researchers Lieven Devreese and Gaël Elie Gnondo Gobolo set off in February with the sole purpose of finding out whether the monkeys (Piliocolobus bouvieri) still survived in the forests of Central Africa. If they came across them, the team hoped to photograph the species for the very first time. 

Guided by locals and armed with logistical support and survey records from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the small team headed into Ntokou-Pikounda National Park. The park, which covers an area of 4,572 square kilometres (1,765 square miles), was established in 2013 to protect endangered species like chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants.

The expedition to track down the elusive monkeys was crowdfunded through contributions on Indiegogo. On the expedition page, Devreese described his proposed journey: “I want to set off and spend three months looking for monkeys in Congo. It will be an adventurous expedition, mainly in a dug-out canoe and on foot through extremely remote areas. We will hike from one faraway village to the next, covering four forest blocks, a total of 300 or more kilometers.”

While locals claim to have seen the monkeys from time to time and are familiar with their calls, the scientific world knows close to nothing about these beautiful red primates. The WCS included the species in its surveys from 2007 and 2014, but no photos have ever been taken, and the last (unverified) sighting occurred in the 1970s. In fact, only a handful of specimens have ever been collected, all of them over a century ago. 

While news of its rediscovery has filled conservationists with some hope for the species, the monkeys' future remains uncertain in the face of a growing number of threats, including an increasing demand for bushmeat. Because they typically lack fear in the presence of humans, red colobus monkeys (there are several species) make easy targets for bushmeat hunters. “Thankfully, many of these colobus monkeys live in the recently gazetted national park and are protected from threats such as logging, agriculture, and roads, all of which can lead to increased hunting,” said Dr Fiona Maisels from the WCS in a statement. 

James Deutsch, the Vice President of Conservation Strategy at WCS remains optimistic that threatened species like the Bouvier’s red colobus monkey can be preserved if we ramp up conservation efforts. “Confirmation that Bouvier’s red colobus still thrives in this area reminds us that there remain substantially intact wild places on Earth, and should re-energise all of us to save them before it is too late.”