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Scientists Make Breakthrough Discovery of Monkey Population in Kenya

After much news of late about how primates are being threatened across Africa, there’s good news from Kenya. A new population of an unusual species of monkeys has been found in a most unexpected location. Scientists are calling it a breakthrough discovery in primate research.

The De Brazza Monkey can grow up to five feet in length, counting its tail, and weigh more than seven and a half kilograms. But what really stands out is the De Brazza’s snowy white beard and mustache.

Up until recently, it was thought there were only 700 such monkeys in Kenya. Conservation officials say the discovery was made in an arid region of northern Kenya, in “one of the last intact indigenous forest ranges.”

Iregi Mwenja is a research scientist with the Institute of Primate Research. It’s a department of the National Museums of Kenya. He also works closely with the conservation group Wildlife Direct. He confirmed that the monkeys were indeed De Brazzas, not known to exist east of the Great Rift Valley.

“De Brazza Monkeys in Kenya, we say they are endangered. But in Africa, we have stable populations in Congo, which is in the central part of Africa, but Kenya being the easternmost range of the species. We have a very low population. They have been estimated to be less than a thousand. So, before the discovery it was estimated to be at least 700. So, at least an additional 25 percent is significant to the conservation of the species in Kenya,” he says.

The habitat of the new population – the Mathews Range Forest Reserve – is described as “an island of biodiversity.”

“First you must understand the nature of the De Brazzas. They are very shy. The habitat that they occupy is usually very dense riverine forest. So, it is difficult to just spot them, apart from just walking along a river. Unless you deliberately, you know, go for them. So, this particular case the habitat is isolated. It’s in a very remote part of Kenya where we have very low human traffic. Of course, the local people knew about it and they had already given it a name. So they knew about them. They knew it very well,” he says.

In other parts of Kenya where the De Brazzas live, deforestation is a threat, as humans make room for agricultural land.

Mwenja says, “They have been saying that in probably 40 or 50 years there would be no suitable habitat remaining for the De Brazzas. But in this case what we found is that this is a new habitat relatively safe from human degradation. And this offers new hope for the species. They are not under serious threat, so we’re sure they’ll be there for longer.”

Mwenja says scientists aren’t sure how or when the De Brazzas arrived in the northern party of Kenya, since none were thought to exist east of the Great Rift Valley. The valley was formed about two million years ago and separated some species. However, the primate expert theorizes that at some point in its history there was some “connectivity,” as he puts it, between the eastern and western parts of the valley. A connection – possibly a wet forest corridor - that no longer exists.

Dr. Richard Leakey, chairman of Wildlife Direct and well-known paleontologist and conservationist, writes, “It is a critical issue for study as it puts climate change again as the most critical consideration as we plan for the future.”

A recent study – Primates in Peril – warns that at least 25 species of primate are at risk of extinction around the world.