Rare monkeys survive on remote island

Published: 29 April 2013

Rare monkeys survive on remote island

An international expedition led by some of our field conservationists has identified a “significant but little studied population" of a Critically Endangered monkey far from its natural home.

The team surveyed the remote Bacan Island, in the North Maluku Archipelago, Indonesia. They were searching for the Sulawesi crested black macaque, Macaca nigra, a species naturally only found on the Sulawesi mainland. Sightings of the monkeys hundreds of kilometres away on Bacan Island date back to the 1830s.

The Trust runs a project in Sulawesi called Selamatkan Yaki, or Save the Sulawesi crested black macaque. WWCT’s Conservation and Research Programmes Manager Dr. Andy Bowkett, based at Paignton Zoo, joined Field Programme Manager Harry Hilser and his team, based in Sulawesi, and macaque expert Dr. Vicky Melfi, from Taronga Zoo in Australia, who set up the project when she was with WWCT.

Andy: “Our findings are mixed. We found macaques almost every time we entered the forest, so they appear to be more abundant on Bacan than in their native Sulawesi. On the other hand, they are still threatened, particularly by habitat loss and conflict with farmers whose crops they raid. This is a highly unusual situation in conservation. We have a Critically Endangered species that appears to be rapidly heading for extinction in its native territory but with a potentially much larger wild population hundreds of kilometres away thanks to a chance introduction.

“Folk stories indicate that the monkeys were originally taken to Bacan as a gift to the local Sultan, and it is certainly true that people have been trading between Sulawesi and North Maluku for hundreds of years. Our observations suggest that the Bacan macaques have all the diagnostic features of Macaca nigra, including the pink heart-shaped bottom and crest of hair, but only genetic research can reveal whether they are pure-bred and how long they have been separated from their Sulawesi counterparts.”

Staff carried out 18 reconnoitres across Bacan Island, with two teams walking up to six kilometres each every day. Macaques were recorded at each site with suitable habitat, with estimates of up to 40 individuals in some groups.

Five villages were visited and questionnaires completed by 40 people in each village. Harry: “On Sulawesi, macaques are considered a delicacy, but we found that most villagers on Bacan do not eat them. Young macaques are kept in several villages, which is sad as they do not make good pets and have to be tied up or caged when they get older. However, overall most people demonstrated positive attitudes towards macaques and the protection of the forest.

“It appears the main threat to the macaque population on Bacan is encroachment into their habitat. We found evidence of logging within several areas of protected forest and nature reserve. We came across traps that had been set for crop-raiding macaques and hunting of other wildlife is prevalent.”

The Selamatkan Yaki team plans to follow up initial findings from Bacan while continuing to work towards saving the macaques on Sulawesi. The Bacan trip was supported by Chester Zoo, with the international expedition members funded by Taronga Conservation Society, Australia, and the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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