In the extremely dangerous and challenging environment of the marshy forests of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, conservationist Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh is toiling hard to save one of the world's '25 most endangered primates.' The Niger Delta red colobus monkey (Piliocolobus epieni) numbers only around 500. Its highly restricted habitat is plagued by a multitude of threats - deforestation due to logging and expanding farms, illegal bushmeat trade, pollution from the oil industry, and armed resistance by militant groups. In the presence of such extreme threats, conducting conservation work to restore the populations of a disappearing species seems almost impossible. But Rachel is not ready to give up. This article discusses the stupendous efforts made by Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, the founder and director of the SW/Niger Delta Forest Project, and her team, to protect the critically endangered Niger Delta red colobus.
The project was initially launched to study the evolutionary linkage of chimpanzee populations in southwestern Nigeria and the Niger Delta. Rachel and her team conducted a genetic study that discovered that the chimpanzees in southwest Nigeria were genetically unique and on the verge of extinction. The results of the study meant that these unique chimpanzees needed immediate attention from the government and conservationists to ensure their future survival. In 2020, Rachel's efforts at conserving these chimpanzees were recognized when she was awarded the prestigious Whitley Award, also called the "Green Oscar." However, it was not just the chimpanzees that caught Rachel's attention but she also expanded her activities to protect other species as well.
"During my work for chimpanzees, I was confronted with another primate population endemic to Nigeria and in critical need of conservation efforts – the Niger Delta Red colobus monkey. The population of this species had drastically reduced to such an extent that only a few hundred individuals remained in the wild wholly unprotected," Rachel informed World Atlas.
The Niger Delta red colobus is identified by its black scalp, hand, and feet, orange-brown coat, and white whiskers. Rachel mentioned some unique features of her favorite primate: "One of the most interesting physical features of red colobus monkeys is that they are probably the only primates without thumbs. I also find it interesting that they are primarily arboreal and prefer the upper canopy. I also find that they lack the agility seen in other monkeys, but this is just an observation in my project site and may not reflect behaviors observed in other red colobus populations. They are also very adapted to a diet mainly consisting of leaves, almost as if they are privy to a secret on the value of leaves to the body that no one else knows."
In the 1990s, the population of the Niger Delta red colobus was estimated to be around 10,000. In 2000, a study identified the Niger Delta red colobus' presence near 16 forest communities. However, a follow-up study in 2013 by Rachel found that only four of these areas hosted the primate.
"The Niger Delta red colobus monkey is critically endangered and currently considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. In reality, this range-restricted species of red colobus monkey is on the brink of extinction. The monkey has disappeared from most of its historical range, covering 1,500 square kilometers, and currently survives in small populations in patchy forest areas cumulatively of no more than 200 square kilometers. Today, less than 500 Niger Delta red colobus exist in the wild, whereas no individual survives in captivity. Red colobus monkeys generally do not fare well outside their natural habitat," Rachel summarized the conservation status of the species.
Recognizing the need of the times to save highly threatened species like the Niger Delta red colobus, Rachel and her team at SW/Niger Delta Forest Project fully transitioned from doing mainly conservation research to implementing conservation management.
"We are currently working closely with indigenous communities to establish and manage a community conservation area. This area harbors the last significant population of the Niger Delta red colobus monkey. Years of political and international advocacy are getting a boost with increased government interest in conserving this unique primate species through our efforts," stated Rachel.
The work of Rachel and her team is, however, riddled with massive challenges.
"Red colobus monkeys generally are most vulnerable to habitat loss and hunting. However, in the Niger Delta, it gets even more complex," said Rachel.
"Habitat destruction is driven by several factors, including oil exploration and extraction, yet that is the bedrock upon which Nigeria’s national income has been built and to this day relies almost entirely on it. Poverty and under-development in remote Niger Delta communities is also a major driver for widespread (unregulated and excessive) artisanal logging combined with a poorly regulated oil industry that has almost destroyed the forest ecosystem in the region. Not to mention the deeply-rooted and long-lasting socio-political conflict that degenerated into armed violence during the last decade, which has been the basis for entrenched insecurity in the region to this day, limiting conservation efforts," Rachel continued.
Today Rachel and her team are an inspiration to many working in difficult environments to protect threatened species. They are championing the creation of protected areas and advocating for laws/policies (new or revisions) that protect the red colobus. They are also working hard to increase conservation awareness through media, community outreach, and education. The team has also received a grant of $41,900 from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Fund (MBZ Fund) to establish community-based conservation efforts and bring about the creation of a vital conservation zone for the Niger Delta red colobus.
If not for the efforts of dedicated conservationists like Rachel, highly threatened species like the Niger Delta red colobus monkey would have disappeared by now. Like every other species in nature, this primate plays a vital role in the ecosystem as explained below by Rachel:
"The Niger Delta red colobus monkey is an important primate species surviving in one of the most volatile environments in the world. They play very vital roles in maintaining the ecosystem. Helping support the second-largest swamp forest on the continent, covering about 15,000 square kilometers, and the third-largest contiguous mangrove forest globally, there are no formal protected areas. Conserving them will mean conserving their marsh forest habitat and surrounding mangrove. These areas are essential for other wildlife species like fishes, frogs, pangolins, reptiles, and birds but valuable to preserve local livelihoods and cultures. Most importantly, human environments will have increased chances to avert and or mitigate the effects of climate change."