Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The golden monkey—often confused in name with the golden snub-nosed monkey of China—is an Old World guenon native to Central and East Africa. It is endemic to the Virunga mountains and can be found in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The key necessity for a golden monkey habitat is bamboo. They seek bamboo forests at high elevations, and groups of monkeys grow smaller in size in relation to the elevation at which they live. It is their main food source—they eat both bamboo shoots and leaves. Additionally, they sleep atop bamboo.
The golden monkey was recognized as a species unto itself in 2001 and again in 2005. Prior to 2001, and again in 2003, it was considered a subspecies of the blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis. Since then, scientists have moved its placement several times, considering it a species, a subspecies, and/or part of a superspecies. In 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature followed the recommendations of the scientists who consider it a subspecies of the blue monkey. If a subspecies, it’s scientific name is Cercopithecus mitis kandti. In any case, the species has unique characteristics not shared by other blue monkey subspecies.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Male golden monkeys range from 19 to 26 in (48-67 cm) in length, and weigh between 10 and 15 lb (4.5-7 kg), but have been known to weigh as much as 26 lb (12 kg). Females are a little smaller, at 18-20 in (46-53cm) in length, and weigh anywhere from 8 to 10 lb (3.5-4.5kg). These primates can live up to 19 years.
The golden monkey’s face is hairy, its cheeks adorned with ombre bristles that look like a bushy beard. Around the mouth and nose, whiskers are white—like a little goatee. Its nostrils face downward. Its eyes are vigilant—almost owl-like—and a deep brown. The monkey’s “golden” name comes from the reddish-gold fur on its back, which is in striking contrast to the black coloration of its feet, legs, and tail. Females are a bit lighter in coloration than males.
Bamboo is the backbone of the golden monkey’s diet. Essentially all parts of the plant are consumed. This species has also been known to feed on fresh fruit when available, and on flowers and shrubs. From time to time they will eat larvae. When they aren’t eating bamboo, golden monkeys have been known to weave it together to make structures for sleeping.
Behavior and Lifestyle
The golden monkey is a diurnal primate and a social species. They typically live in groups of between 30 and 80 individuals; sometimes groups can even have up to one hundred monkeys. The higher the elevation a group lives at, the smaller the group tends to be. These groups are patriarchal, which means they are led by a single adult male. When it comes time to sleep, the group breaks off into smaller groups, typically of about four animals. Golden monkeys return to the same sleeping and feeding areas for multiple days at a time.
“Monkey trekking” is a popular tourist activity in the Virunga Mountains. Tourists who want to hike around to view golden monkeys often do so in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks.
The daily lives of these monkeys is still shrouded in a fair bit of mystery. They live in large, social groups. As stated earlier, a male is the leader of the group, but females play an integral role in maintaining group cohesion and communication. Since they live in bamboo and also eat bamboo, they don’t need to travel very far to forage. Females remain in the group at all times, while males sometimes venture off and wander. Groups stay within close proximity to food, which has earned these monkeys a reputation as sedentary creatures.
The golden monkey communicates vocally but is also able to communicate through facial expressions, much like humans. Vocally, males will call out to defend their territory and to assert themselves. Females serve as sentries, calling out when they sense a threat or when they need to get the attention of the troop. Younger monkeys use vocalizations to express deference to more senior members of the troop.
Observations of the golden monkey’s family life are limited, but they are believed to be polygynous. While the male is in charge of the group—and is not limited to one female mate—he does not pursue females; the pursuing is done by females, who initiate the mating process. The gestation period lasts 140 days, and mothers bear only one child at a time. Immediately after the infant is born, the mother licks it clean; she continues to care for the infant for the early months of her or his life. She also eats the placenta. The mother will not bear another child for two years. Once the young reach sexual maturity, they leave their mothers in search of a new troop. Because knowledge of the golden monkey’s mating behavior is so limited, it is even more crucial that we protect these monkeys and their habitat so we can learn more about them.
As with many primates, given the nature of their diet, it is probable that golden monkeys aid in seed dispersal throughout their habitat. Since knowledge of this species is limited, it only amplifies the need to protect these primates. We do not want to wait until it is too late to realize the importance of their place in the ecological system.
The exact population of the golden monkey is unknown; what is known is that it is fragmented and decreasing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species list the golden monkey as Endangered (IUCN, 2017), appearing in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Since the golden monkey relies so heavily on bamboo, any threat to bamboo is a threat to the species. Removal and destruction of bamboo deny these animals of both their main source of sustenance and their habitat. Humans also catch these monkeys in traps and snares, as they are desired for their skins.
The golden monkeys forests are threatened by harvesting of trees and bamboo, clearance for agriculture, charcoal production, and grazing of livestock. The human population growth rate is high in its range, decreasing and fragmenting its range as a result of human demands for forest products and land.
They are also threatened by poaching for food and animal parts.
Efforts to regulate illegal tree removal and bamboo destruction are being made where the golden monkey lives, which, if successful, will greatly benefit the species.
The golden monkey is listed on Appendix II of CITES and on Class B of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
- “The Primate Family Tree, the Amazing Diversity of Our Closest Relatives” by Ian Redmond, published by Firefly Books, 2011.
Written by James Freitas, August 2018. Conservation status update-Jul 2020