With poaching and climate change looming over us, we’ve become used to a narrative in which a growing number of species are endangered, nearing extinction.
What you may not be aware of is that new species continue to be discovered.
Take the Kipunji monkey for example: a species that eluded scientists into the twenty-first century and continues to baffle them today. First spotted in 2003 in Tanzania, Africa’s rarest monkey was once believed to be a myth, a sprit animal thought up by people indigenous to the Rungwe Nature Reserve in the country’s Southern Highlands.
Tim Davenport is the man translating hearsay in to hard facts, documenting the many firsts to have emerged from this patch of rainforest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Davenport, a conservation biologist and country director for The Wildlife Conservation Society, says that though many insects remain unidentified – he says presently there’s more undescribed species of beetle than there are described – it’s rare for new vertebrates to emerge.
What’s remarkable is that in the Rungwe Nature Reserve has already yielded around 20 new plant and animal species in the relatively short time it has been studied.
“I first came to the Southern Highlands in 1999,” says Davenport. “No one had really done any zoological research, (but) in our initial surveys and biodiversity research, it became quite clear that actually this place is pretty interesting.”
In the two decades since, the conservationist has been able to name one of his own discoveries: the Matilda’s Horn Viper, named after his daughter in 2012. As recent as early 2016, the Msuya’s Chameleon was first identified.
Africa’s newest primate
However, the Kipunji, which is nearly three feet tall and is known for a distinctive honk bark call, has become the main focus of his attention. Davenport’s first real opportunity to study the animal at close quarters came under sad circumstances in 2005, when his team was notified that a Kipunji had been killed by a log trap.
“Clearly looking at it very close up, (it was) unlike anything that science knew,” he recalls. “There was only one logical conclusion: it was a new genus entirely. It was a sister genus of the baboon, which is incredibly exciting because it was the first new genus of monkey (discovered) in Africa for 80-something years.”
It was then that the Kipunji was first formally recognized, and a year later accredited as a new genus. Almost inevitably, in 2008 it was placed on the critically endangered list.
Just over 1,000 Kipunjis are believed to be left on the planet, and Davenport and his team are doing everything in their power to prevent that number from dipping.
A dedicated team at the WCS have tracked the animals in the reserve every day for the past eight years, studying their behaviors while monitoring the threats posed against them. It’s not an easy task however.
“The Kipunji are extremely shy,” says Davenport, “they are very wary of people… it took over a year until we could get within 20 meters – that’s their survival mechanism.”
The conservationist notes that they have been hunted in the past. Kipunjis raid maize farms bordering the reserve, and land owners will target the creatures in retaliation for their pilfering.
Davenport’s team has devised a solution, applying a mixture of cow dung and chilli pepper – foul smelling and irritant – to maize as a means to ward off Kipunjis. And it’s working.
It’s a small step in a much longer path to securing the future of Africa’s rarest monkey. Establishing the reserve itself has been a significant move, which has stymied illegal logging practices while gradually changing attitudes of the communities surrounding the forest.
A census is on the horizon, ten years on from the last, which will establish whether their efforts have worked.
“It would have been tragic to discover such an exciting animal, only to see it disappear a few years down the line,” says Davenport. “I think I’m fairly confident, optimistic that we’ll show that at the very least the Kipunji population has stayed – and hopefully increased.”