Tanzania

The search for a recently discovered species, the Kipunji:
2012-03-12

From Kenya we continued to Tanzania where our main goal were to see the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) . It is a monkey which was discovered in December 2003 in some of the most remote forests in the highlands.

So far we have spent more than half of our nights camping or has been invited home to people. In Tanzania, we wished for more and it turned out that we would get what we asked for. After many days bus ride we finally arrived to Iringa , where the researcher Trevor Jones was able to help us with the preparations. Trevor discovered in 2004, one of the only two kipunji populations in the world . It is still to be considered a new species – since findings of new primates are so rare!

Tourism to see the kipunji in this area is almost non-existent . Trevor knows fewer than ten non- Tanzanians who have seen it in this remote forest, including himself and other researchers. The reason is that the kipunji live in such a remote rainforest located in the highlands so there are few who take up the challenge . To maximize our chances of seeing kipunjin we decided to have a bit more then a week in the Ndundulu. With us we had wizard (guide) Biko , chef Njohole and three carriers.  Biko who according to Trevor is the one who knows the forest in this area best and is by far the greatest at tracking the kipunji. They spoke no English , but we also had with us an English speaking ranger the first few days that could act as an interpreter for us, and we tried to improve our Swahiili during this time.

To get to Ndundulu forest reserve where the kipunji lives, we had to first spend a rainy day on a flatbed truck out to the small village Udekwa . As if it wasn’t enough that we would spend seven days hiking in a rain forest in the rainy season, the hellrain made all of our clothes wet even before the journey had started . In the drizzle we set off the next morning in acidic clothes. The terrain was consistently hilly but initially relatively simple when you went on a major dirt road. As it all became heavier and about 12 km of dense fern bushes awaited us ( it stuck like burdocks in my long hair and made me, Wilhelm, almost bold). The worst was the last kilometers of the muddy rainforest. As usual I guess, but this was really heavy. The terrain there was clearly the hardest we’ve hiked so far and the steep hills and muddy surface made ​​it at times impossible to not put your nose in the mud. Our ranger Frank ( who was strongly built ) slid often down in the mud with his only pair of pants. After 20 kilometers of tough terrain completed , we arrived at Vikonga Camp which would be our base camp for the upcoming week.

The kipunji, also falsely called the highland mangaby , ( it ‘s really more related to the baboon than with the mangaby’s ) is listed as a critically endangered species (CR) . It nearly got extinct before it was discovered! So still very little is known about this species. It is estimated that there are about 1,300 individuals left in the wild in two populations. The population that we decided to visit the smallest and at the last count in 2006 found only 105 individuals.

The Ndundulu rainforest is to me and Joel a good example of a place that must be preserved but where the efforts being made are too few . Together with the surrounding forests Ndundulu is a hotspot for biodiversity. However, small budgets often are cost effective and the money put in conservation to this forest has been successfull and the kipunji population in the area is believed to have increased . Trevor told us that despite the sensational discovery of the species , it has been very difficult to get enough money to implement the conservation necessary for the kipunji. WWF Sweden is one of few organizations that have made ​​contributions. A new donation for the population in Ndundulu would be necessary to be able evaluate the small conservation work that have been conducted in the area. Unfortunately, you can sometimes still find kipunji meat in the market in surrounding villages. The farms are coming ever closer to the heart of the forest.

The next day we walked mostly around on the old elephant paths or, trying to catch sight of the kipunji. We often had to crawl forward , dodging the lianas or balancing on logs or rocks across rivers. To walk in a pristine rainforest sounds a bit like a cliché… The canopy was flying 50 feet in the air and all the trunks were covered by a green layer of epiphytes (an epiphyte is a plant that lives on another plant and obtaining access to more sunlight). A task that we undertook daily meant to balance on a 15 meter long log hanging over a big stream, all while the camera equipment dangling around our  necks five meters above.

That it rains every day in the rainforest is no myth, of course. It rained every day and several times strong thunderstorm rolled in over us. The only clothes which ever was dry were the clothes we were wearing at the campfire in the night. The moist air made ​​it very difficult for anything to dry and. The tarpaulin which we had put up over the campfire had plenty of holes where water would pour down on us like from a tap.

Our guide Biko had hearing like a dog and eyes in the back . Before you had even had time to blink , he could squat and point towards a greyfaced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) or a blue duiker (Philantomba monticola). The greyfaced sengi, who live in upland forests is another newly discovered mammal since 2008, and shows that there are still things left to discover here. Trevor Jones recently found a new chameleon species in a forest 20 km away from Ndundulu. Many of the animals in the rainforest are very difficult to photograph . In some rainforests only 2% of the sunlight reach the ground, so it’s bad light conditions. But not only that – the animals are quick. Monkeys makes giant leaps in dense vegetation and if you just happen to catch a glimpse of an antelope your lucky. For the most part , we saw black and white Colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis) and Udzungwa red colobus monkey (Procolobus gordonorum), which is endemic to this area.

There are no collected specimens of the kipunji from the population in Ndundulu forest. No genetic analyzes have been done , and this means that we have very little information about it and how it differs from the other population, located 400 km away. It is therefore difficult to determine how closely related the two populations actually are. It may very well be that these are two distinct subspecies, or even that they would be different species. Either way, both populations so unique and small that they both are in strong need of conservation.

An other species which lives in this area is the sanje mangaby a primate discovered in 1979. Some Danish scientist who worked in Ndunduluskogen in the 90s said that they had seen monkeys in the forest that they thought was sanje mangabys which is the reason why Trevor who discovered the kipunji actually found them . In 2004 he went to Ndundulu looking for sanje mangabys but instead he found kipunjin , one for science entirely new species (!) . The Danish researchers missed out on being first on describing the Kipunji , however, instead they found a new species of bird sticking out of a dinner casserole in the village Udekwa.

When our ranger and interpreter gone home , it became more difficult to communicate in the camp. Our Swahili skills proved inadequate and the communication was done mostly through sign language . Hii niajab (looks funny ) the most popular phrase which we used to almost any situation, and it would make our chef make a big smile. In the forest we found s huge fruits with seeds inside, which we carried with us back and cooked in the glow of the fireplace, and after the daily hikes we could swin in a steam with waterfalls which were along side the camp.

After a long time in the forest we had seen lots the red and the black and white colobus monkeys . However, the species which we travelled a long way into Tanzania to see, now shone with absence and we began to give up hope. Then suddenly during one of our hikes it finally happened. Our guide Biko froze in a muddy slope with a serious expression . The forest was almost completely silent apart from all the frogs that were playing everywhere but always invisable. Biko lit up and nodded vigorously. Kipunji ! he whispered and smiled broadly . We walked up the hill and in the distance we could glimpse the swaying branches further away in the woods. Sneaking with unforgiving boots breaking every twig on the cround,  we came to a spot where we could clearly see the kipunji jumping through the trees. It’s is no colorful monkey , but different nonetheless greatly from other apes with a nice mohawk hairstyle, and a serious elongated face. Biko chose a perfect spot to stand on. Of all the monkeys in the forest, is kipunjin the shyest and therefore it can be tricky to see it. We stood under an opening in the foliage where kipunjin impossible could see us , but where we could clearly see the kipunji. The sun came out a few minutes and lit their hair like a crown.

Our time in Ndundulu was in many ways both a physical and mental effort, but of course also rewarding. After walking over 100 kilometers an acidic clothes, on muddy paths or even more commonly no paths at all, Biotrotters finally got to see kipunji!
/ / Biotrotters

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