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Conservation group tracks elusive mandrills

Known to be the most colorful mammal on the planet, mandrills nevertheless prove to be elusive   

January 12, 1999
Web posted at: 2:00 PM EST

(ENN) -- Conservation researchers in the rainy jungles of Gabon, Africa, are radio-tracking one of the least-studied monkeys, the colorful and yet elusive mandrill.

Last month, WCS researchers Kate Abernethy and Lee White, with the help of field veterinarian Billy Karesh, equipped three female mandrills with radio collars in the Lopˇ Reserve in Gabon, to learn where they feed and how their social structure functions. The batteries in the radio collar are expected to last about two years.

Mandrills, members of the baboon family, are the largest monkeys. They can be up to 30 inches long and weigh 55 lbs. The males are the most colorful mammals found in nature. Very little is known about them, but scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society are hoping to change that soon.

Found only in the tropical forests of Gabon, Cameroon and Congo and known best for the male's striking blue and red facial markings, mandrills are now considered endangered due to habitat loss and poaching.

"This is the first time a mandrill has been radio-collared for tracking," says Karesh, "No one knows where these endangered animals spend most of the year. Now we have a chance to finally find out and start making sure these areas are protected."

Using an antenna which picks up a signal emitted from the collars, Abernethy and White have already begun plotting the coordinates that show where the troops have traveled, and putting the data on the Internet.

Mandrills spend most of their time on the ground, lifting stones or dead branches to find insects, picking grains, looking for mushrooms or collecting fruit. They'll eat almost anything, from tubers to snakes. At night they sleep in the trees.

Only the male mandrill has the stunning color patches on its face, and the brighter the color, the more dominant the mandrill. One study has confirmed that most of the young are sired by the dominant monkey in the troop.

Because of the destruction of the forests in Africa, the mandrill has been on the endangered species list since 1980. Their societal structure is something of a mystery. Sometimes they are seen in enormous groups of 800 monkeys. It is thought that the more usual pattern is a small troop. Their main enemies are leopards and cheetahs.

At the team's research site, Reserve de Lope-Okanda, the mandrills appear seasonally (usually May-June) in very great numbers, estimated at between 500 and 1,000 individuals. They eventually leave the research site after weeks or months and migrate to unknown locations. Family groups consist of an old male and several females and their young. These troops will sometimes join with several others temporarily.

Mandrills can live to be 46 years old in the wild. They reach sexual maturity in around four years and the female comes into estus every 33 days. Gestation is 30 weeks, and she gives birth to one young.

Gabon is one of Africa's major oil producers and also has stores of uranium, manganese, gold and iron. In recent years, logging has increased in the rainforests. "Traditionally, they cut only trees that they could float down the river, but with the advent of a railway, the catchment area for logging has increased, because now they can drag the logs to the railway station," says a spokesman for the project. An additional threat to loss of habitat is the increasing market in the cities for mandrill, which is viewed as a delicacy. They have long been hunted as a food source for local people, with little effect on their population size. Now, however, commercial hunters are culling many more animals, sending the meat "down the train line" to coastal hotels.

After finding out the mandrills' habitat needs, the Bronx Zoo-based WCS will work toward establishing protected areas in the region to ensure the survival of this spectacular species in the wild.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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