| Carola Frentzen |
Musanze, Rwanda (dpa) – The group of small monkeys romps through the bush in the dense forests of the Virunga volcanic mountains in East Africa, leaping from tree to tree and chewing on the juiciest leaves.
Long neglected by naturalists, the golden monkey, one of the rarest of primate species, is receiving increased attention in its limited range along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The region is best known as one of the last wild habitats for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, the true kings of the Virunga.
These small monkeys, named for the long groomed golden hair on their backs, are more like court jesters. Classified one level down as “endangered”, little was known of their behaviour and status until relatively recently.
“These monkeys were already here when the Volcanoes National Park was established in 1925. But in those days they weren’t tracked and no one was interested in them,” says Joyce Gashumba, a tour guide taking groups to see the primates.
Biodiversity expert Deogratias Tuyisingize, who works for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund collecting data on wildlife, agrees.
“The golden monkeys are like a hidden treasure. They were an unnoticed primate species in the mountain gorilla habitat until they started to impress scientists in the 1980s.”
It was soon clear that if nothing was done to protect them, these monkeys, whose range is confined to a small region, could become extinct within a short time.
The Cercopithecus mitis kandti was first categorised as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the early 1990s. Current estimates put the number in Rwanda at around 3,500.
“In Rwanda, the 2011 golden monkey survey estimated around 3,500 monkeys in the Volcanoes National Park. We believe this is a roughly 20-per-cent decline from an earlier study in 2007, which found about 4,500 golden monkeys,” Tuyisingize says. “The reason behind the golden monkey’s decline is unknown, but habitat fragmentation and loss is suspected to be behind it.”
There are believed to be around 1,000 individuals in Uganda. And no one knows how many there are in the Virunga range extending across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“So far, no golden monkey survey has been carried out in Congo, but I don’t expect many monkeys there, because of the high level of hunting wildlife for food – also known as the bush-meat trade.”
Individuals of the species, which is characterised by its unusual face and fur, can live to 25 years. Over their lifespan, females may rear four to six young, which are completely dependent on their mothers for the first two and a half years.
The monkeys’ favourite diet is bamboo shoots, but they also eat tubers and leaves, spending most of the day in the quest for food.
At night they climb into trees, sleeping on the thicker branches, as Gashumba explains.
Animal lovers around the world first paid attention to the golden monkey around 2003, and the number of visitors to the region has increased correspondingly since.
“In the past we had about 20 visitors per week, now we often get 20 in a day,” Gashumba says.
Getting to the monkeys is not only a lot easier than the arduous trek to the mountain gorillas, but also much cheaper. A permit costs just 100 dollars, whereas the charge for the hike to the gorillas is 750 dollars.
Explaining his fascination with the monkeys, Tuyisingize says: “They are an endangered species and endemic to the Albertine Rift.
“The species is found in a very densely populated area close to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. If scientists do not conserve it, it may disappear,” he says, adding his belief that the tri-nation golden monkey population might be less than 5,000 individuals now.
But he also highlights the significance of eco-tourism to the Rwandan economy, still recovering from genocide against the Tutsi people in 1994.
“The golden monkey is a charismatic species, contributing to Rwanda’s economy. It is important to help the economy grow through experiences like eco-tourism, but also by protecting nature at the same time,” Tuyisingize says.