University zoologists fighting to save critically endangered Gambian monkey
Zoologists from the University Cumbria have co-authored an emergency global action plan to save the world’s remaining population of Temminck’s Red Colobus monkey (TRC) in The Gambia.
Presently the TRC monkey inhabits only a handful of countries in western Africa, and with only 1500 believed to be left in the wild. The plan is being put to the International Primatology Society in Nairobi later this month as a matter of urgency.
Dr Roy Armstrong and Dr Mic Mayhew drew on their experience gained from over 40 visits to The Gambia delivering the University of Cumbria’s field trips for conservation and zoology courses. Around 400 monkeys reside in the areas Roy and Mic’s teams conserve which equates to a substantial part of the world’s population.
During these visits, students and staff built up a library of data from projects and research and it was this information that has been vital in preparing a plan to avoid the total extinction of the species.
“The Gambia is one of the last places on earth this monkey exists and emergence of a new disease could finish the species off, so it’s vital that we look after every one that we have left in refuge”, said Dr Roy Armstrong, Senior Lecturer, Zoology, the University of Cumbria.
“Next we have to stop hunting, treat diseases, regenerate monkey habitats and forests and make new forests. We have to teach tourists to be more responsible by not touching the animals and not feeding them to avoid spreading diseases. This approach will bring benefits of eco-tourism and help other species to thrive,” he said.
He concluded: “Our students have contributed immeasurably to the knowledge of this species and the skills gained while on these field trips is what’s needed to fight the battle to conserve these undervalued monkeys.”
The university made recommendations for key sites and agreed protection plans with village chiefs for the largest remaining forest in The Gambia.
The team have created a watering hole for lactating females to produce milk for their young. In previous visits, mothers had been seen carrying dead babies and from subsequent research, with Bournemouth University, it was found that this species is water-stressed, probably as a result of climate change. Prior to this research, TRC monkeys were not known to drink water because of the threat of submerged crocodiles and were thought to meet their water needs from foliage.
While on these visits, university staff and students identified another threat to this species. In January 2014, Roy observed signs of a disease in Green monkeys, which live in the same forests as the TRC monkeys. On a trip in the April Mic, a qualified vet joined Roy and collected samples from infected monkeys and by June the samples were identified as a new disease. In 2016, the first cases of this disease were observed in TRC monkeys. In January of this year, Mic, with a team of zoology students, treated infected monkeys with antibiotics delivered by darts from a blowpipe. In April, conservation students confirmed the treatment was successful.
“The students devised a clever method to individually identify TRC monkeys using unique patterns of skin folds on the face which are permanent markings and can be used like human fingerprints. This technique allowed me to monitor the response to treatment and to track the health status of each monkey” said Dr Mic Mayhew, Lecturer in Zoology, the University of Cumbria.
The disease the team identified may transfer to humans, causing the debilitating illness, ‘Yaws’, a tropical infection of the skin, bones and joints, which affects over 50,000 people a year.
There have been two previous attempts at global eradication of this disease, both of which failed. The work by the university and other African organisations suggest monkeys provide a reservoir for the disease – something that is to be considered in any future eradication plans. This research is about to be published in the influential journal ‘Emerging Microbes & Infections’ and was described by the editor as making a “significant contribution to the field”.
Staff and students at the university will visit The Gambia in January and April 2019 to continue their research and conservation work into this and other under-threat species.
It is expected that the convening of International Primatology Society will result in the primate specialists of the world establishing a list of priorities to support the conservation of the TRC monkey in West Africa and will pledge to work together to restore populations of this charismatic primate.