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Monkey's extinction may be a sign
For the first time since 1800, a primate has vanished from the face of the Earth, scientists report in the October issue of Conservation Biology.
According to the study, the disappearance of the Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey may be the first obvious sign that an extinction wave will soon wipe out other large mammals.
"We suggest that the lack of recent primate extinctions is fostering complacency and that such complacency may allow extra taxa to become extinct that could have been saved by more vigorous and timely action," wrote lead author of the study John Oats, one of the world's leading primatologists.
The monkey has not been seen in the Ivory Coast or Ghana on the West Coast of Africa since 1978, scientists said.
"The species had a limited distribution between two rivers in both countries and it could only survive in high-canopy forest," explains Scott McGraw, an anthropologist at Ohio State University who co-authored the paper.
McGraw was one of five scientists who spent a total of six years surveying 19 forest areas for signs of the boisterous monkey.
Because the large brightly colored primates typically lived in groups of 20 or more and called to each other frequently, they were usually easy to find.
"There's nothing cryptic about these monkeys at all" said McGraw, "you can't miss them."
Due to their conspicuous nature, the animals were easy to hunt.
McGraw offered local hunters a $100 reward to hear the red colobus and $200 for a sighting, with no luck. While most hunters were eager for the financial gain, McGraw notes that others may have deliberately mislead him, fearing that a sighting of the rare primate would turn the forest into a protected area.
There are five more sub-species of red colobus, all of which are rare.
Although the authors of the study blame hunting as the main reason for the species decline over the last 20 years, habitat loss may have pulled the initial trigger.
"Over 90 percent of the original tropical rain forest in West Africa has been wiped out," McGraw said. "While logging has thinned out in some areas, poaching has dramatically increased."
Miss Waldron's red colobus was so sensitive to habitat alteration that scientists could not replicate its diet and had no success with attempts to breed the endangered animal in captivity.
"Given the fact that so little good healthy rain forest is left, it is not surprising that this monkey is gone," McGraw said.
The study adds to a growing body of knowledge about the implications of habitat loss on species extinctions.
Extinctions are likely to occur for up to a century after a tropical forest has been logged, according to an October 1999 study.
"We should not be lulled into a false sense of security when we see that many species have survived habitat loss in the short term," said Guy Cowlishaw, a biologist at the Zoological Society of London. "Many are not actually viable in the long term. These might be considered 'living dead'."
Cowlishaw suggests that the amount of deforestation so far has left Africa with a sizeable extinction debt. For example, without losing any additional forest, six countries (Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Nigeria) could lose more than a third of their primate species within the next few decades.
But actual extinction of species could be much higher due to the fact that forest loss is expected to proceed at an alarming rate. By the year 2040, scientists predict West Africa will lose 70 percent of its remaining forest and in East Africa the loss could be as high as 95 percent.
"Extinction is a process, not a single event," McGraw emphasizes. "This loss really didn't sneak up on anyone."
"This was a complex, highly evolved species, showing that extinction does not only occur within smaller (more obscure) organisms," said Ahab Dower, a conservation biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Because this animal resembles us, I think it will help bring the message home. This will hopefully send up a red flag and make a difference in reversing the trend of biodiversity loss."
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