Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The kipunji, sometimes called the highland mangabey (even though it is not a mangabey), is an Old World monkey endemic to Tanzania. The species became known to science in 2003, although local communities had been long familiar with these large charismatic monkeys. Dr. Tim Davenport, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Director of Species Conservation for Africa, and his team, who are responsible for describing the genus to the world, monitor the kipunji population. Only a little over 1,966 individuals exist. Kipunjis are sometimes referred to as “Africa’s rarest monkey.”
Kipunjis live in montane forests and are found between 4,265 and 8,038 feet (1,300–2,450 m) above sea level. Two main kipunji populations are found exclusively in protected areas: one resides in Livingstone (Kitulo National Park), Mt. Rungwe (Nature Reserve), and Madehani (Village Forest); the second much smaller population is found in Ndundulu in Kilombero Nature Reserve. Kipunjis prefer the shelter of the forests and avoid open spaces, even as the forests where they make their homes have grown thin due to logging. Their populations become more fragmented as their habitat degrades. However, as a result of holistic conservation work, illegal activities in the forests have fallen by 81% since 2007, with a total reduction in illegal timber activity of 90%.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Kipunjis are large monkeys that can reach up to 35 in (90 cm) in length and typically weigh between 22 and 35 lb (10–16 kg). Because they were so recently described, there is no definitive information about their lifespan; however, scientists have estimated (by looking at similar species) that they could potentially live as long as 45 years.
The most striking physical characteristics of kipunjis are the triangular crest above their heads and the triangular tufts of hair on the sides of their cheeks. Their faces are hairless and black with a narrow nose line, slanted nostrils, a protruding muzzle, and light hazelnut eyes. Long spiky hair fans out at the shoulders. Their pelage, on the whole, is light brown—though it grows darker at the hands and feet with a white patch at the chest and tip of their tails. Kipunjis’ tails are longer than their bodies. There is no differentiation in appearance between the sexes.
Upon first encountering kipunjis, the WCS team believed them to be a species of mangabey, hence the misnomer “the highland mangabey,” mentioned earlier. However, DNA testing proved them to be more closely related to baboons. They are, in fact, a unique genus: Rungwecebus, the genus name derived from Mount Rungwe, where so many of these monkeys live. This is the first new genus identified in Africa since 1923.
The first study of the kipunji’s diet was published in 2010, revealing that they are plant-eaters. The primary species consumed was Macaranga capensis var. capensis—also known as iphubane, unompumelelo, and umfongafonga, or David’s heart because it has large heart-shaped leaves. This deciduous, medium-sized tree has a round crown. Its sap is watery and its fleshy fruit is yellow, small, and round with purple seeds. It is also used for medicinal purposes by indigenous people. During the wet season, they prefer fruit; during the dry season (late June to October), kipunjis depend more on leaves than fruit. They also occasionally add bark, moss, seeds, fungi, and even soil to their diet.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Kipunjis live in large groups of 10 to 35 individuals. Within these groups, there are typically only two infants, which rely on their troops for protection and care. Kipunjis are shy monkeys. Some scientists believe this trait contributed to their going undiscovered for so long—that, and the fact that humans rarely venture into the remote areas where kipunjis live.
They are diurnal (active during daylight) tree-dwellers and are rarely found on the ground. In the trees, they do their best to remain out of sight. These monkeys have a very limited range—researchers used GPS to track 34 groups of kipunji and found that they remain within a range of 6.8 sq mi (17.7 sq km).
The kipunji wasn’t discovered until 2003. It is among the newest named African monkey species, and the first new monkey genus to be named since 1923.
Because kipunjis are so shy and elusive, little is known about their day-to-day lives. What can be gleaned from the research is that they are largely sedentary—they do not move around all that much—and they live in large groups. If anything, this dearth of knowledge emphasizes the need to protect this species, so more can be learned.
DNA reveals that some kipunji populations have cross-bred with baboons.
The kipunji’s vocalizations are extremely unique, and have been described as a “honk-bark.” Tim Davenport, who has been at the forefront of kipunji research, explained it as a “goose followed by a dog.” These monkeys also “chirp.” The meanings of these vocalizations are unclear, and they have only been observed in the kipunji population found in the southern highlands
It is likely that, like other primates, they communicate through a variety of vocalizations and body postures.
Little is known about the kipunji’s reproduction habits. We do know that females display genital swelling when in estrus, that they are group-dwelling monkeys, and that infants, like many primate infants, are helpless, or altricial, meaning they depend upon adults for basic necessities and protection. In 2013, a rare photograph of a baby kipunji was taken, along with its mother, who, despite having lost her hand in a snare, still cared for her baby.
Low genetic variability is a concern for the conservation of the species. Within large groups of kipunjis, small numbers of young are observed. As mentioned before, there is evidence of cross-breeding between kipunji and baboons, though this only exists in the DNA of monkeys who live in the southern highlands. Kipunjis found in the Udzungwa Mountains, however, have no traces of baboon DNA. While this does not reveal much about the reproduction habits of these primates—breeding between different species isn’t exactly uncommon—it is valuable knowledge within the context of conservation efforts to protect these monkeys. Some scientists speculate that the kipunji has a hybrid origin.
Like many monkeys who eat a mainly herbivorous and frugivorous diet—they eat plants and fruit—the kipunji’s feeding habits likely contribute to seed dispersal.
The kipunji is currently listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2018)—downgraded from its original status as Critically Endangered following a survey that showed a significant increase in the population. A more recent survey, published in the International Journal of Primatology, February 9, 2022, reveals that the total population has jumped by a full 65% in the last 15 years, proving that this uplifting upward trend is holding.
While this increase is huge percentage-wise, the number of kipunji in the wild remains much too small, and this species still faces far too many threats for conservationists to feel at ease. Destruction and fragmentation of kipunji are ongoing. Logging and the clearing of land for agriculture have severely degraded many of the forests this species calls home. Nudundulu Forest, one reserve where these monkeys are found, remains in good condition, but Mount Rungwe, the mountain from which this monkey’s genus name is derived, has not.
As these forests become more fragmented, so do kipunji populations. This trend drastically reduces their chance of survival. Kipunjis are also illegally hunted by humans, often in retaliation for raiding farmers’ crops.
If a serious effort is not made these newly discovered primates will be gone before we can learn anything more about them.
When it was first discovered in 2003, the kipunji’s future looked bleak. The earliest surveys taken in 2007 found a mere 1,117 individuals living in severely degraded and fragmented habitats. The IUCN declared the species Critically Endangered, and it was placed on Primate in Peril’s list of the 25 Most Endangered Primate Species in the World in 2006 and 2008. Researchers estimated that their species could be wiped out in as little as 20 to 50 years if drastic action wasn’t taken immediately.
Since those initial findings, a number of events have already begun to significantly improve the kipunji’s situation. Mount Rungwe—gazetted in 1949 as a Catchment Forest expressly for the conservation of its water resources—was upgraded to a Nature Forest Reserve as of 2009, thanks in large part to this rare monkey.
The Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCS) has engaged local and international entities in efforts to conserve the region’s rich biodiversity. In 2014, WCS partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Services Division of International Conservation to support community-based initiatives that have focused on the long-term survival of the kipunji in Mount Rungwe and Livingstone forests. Such initiatives have included educating local farmers about kipunji to reduce retaliatory hunting.
Since 2016, the McArthur Foundation and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) have been working with the Tanzania Forest Services to better preserve Mount Rungwe National Reserve ecosystem. These projects are funded in part by ecotourism, which includes primate sighting tours. Although these sorts of attractions require the utmost care to avoid cross-species disease transmission—especially during the current coronavirus pandemic—they do bring invaluable funds that sustain conservation in the region and boost local economies.
In April 2020, the non-profit Ecosia, in collaboration with WCS, announced four new reforestation projects to take place around Mount Rungwe and the Njombe forests. By planting a mixture of native trees, fruit-bearing trees, and woodlots they hope not only to ensure local people’s livelihoods but to protect local habitats and biodiversity as well—in particular the endangered kipunji.
These projects are having a phenomenal effect so far. The most recent survey from 2021 recorded a 65% increase in the kipunji population—bringing their total numbers up to 1,966 individuals. While this is still a frighteningly low number, it does indicate a significant shift. The data also show that human activities that damage kipunji habitat—particularly logging—have decreased by a whopping 81% in the last 15 years. Altogether, the holistic approach conservationists have been using in this region is working wonders to bring the kipunji back from the brink. Hopefully, as these projects grow and flourish, their positive effects will only become more and more apparent. Perhaps their phenomenal success will even begin to inspire similar movements for other primates around the world.
- International Journal of Primatology: https://rdcu.be/cGIn2
Written by James Freitas, July 2018; Updated by Sylvie Abrams, August 2020; Conservation Status, Threats, and Efforts updated by Zachary Lussier, February 2022