The kipunji was only discovered in 2003 during WCS surveys high on the slopes of Mt. Rungwe in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands. A year later it was also found in the Udzungwa Mountains. It was initially assumed to be a mangabey, however, subsequent DNA and morphological analyses showed it to be much more closely related to baboons. This led to the description by WCS and colleagues of a new genus Rungwecebus, the first new genus of African monkey described in 83 years.
A montane and forest-dependent species, kipunji are found between 1300 and 2450m above sea level in discrete portions of the forests of Mt. Rungwe and the adjacent Livingstone Mountains within Kitulo National Park and Ndundulu forest within Kilombero Nature Reserve. The 2008 census by WCS recorded a total population of just 1,117 individuals, and as a consequence, the kipunji was classified by the IUCN Red List as ‘critically endangered’. Kipunji are East Africa’s rarest monkey and one of the world’s 25 most threatened primates.
The forests of Tanzania’s Southern Highlands, where more than 90% of kipunji live, have been severely degraded by decades of unmanaged natural resource extraction. As a consequence, forest ecology has been greatly affected and habitat connection between the various groups is tenuous. Indeed the Mt. Rungwe-Kitulo portion of the population consists of a number of isolated sub-populations and this is compounded by the poor condition of the narrow Bujingijila Corridor that joins Mt. Rungwe and Livingstone Forest. The fragile status of the population in Ndundulu is particularly worrying and its causes remain unknown, not least as the forest is in good condition. WCS’s work to secure Kitulo as a national park and Mt. Rungwe as a nature reserve have gone a huge way to ensuring the future of this species, as long as these areas are well managed. Kipunji are also threatened by hunting for food and as retribution for crop raiding although WCS’s community work has now greatly reduced this.
Research is being carried out on aspects of the kipunji’s social and reproductive behaviour, feeding ecology, home range dynamics, predation and demography. Although obtaining reliable data has been time consuming given the kipunji’s cryptic nature and its canopy living in steep densely-forested mountainsides, WCS’s long-term and on-going studies are generating valuable information to shape conservation strategy. A section of forest contiguous with Mt. Rungwe is leased and managed by WCS, and kipunji here are being continuously studied and monitored by WCS staff and students in addition to research on Mt. Rungwe itself.
WCS conservation focus is currently the protection and restoration of the montane forest habitats of Mt. Rungwe, widespread environmental education, and support to both management authorities and local communities across the kipunji’s range. Habituation of a group for tourism is being planned while research on its potential impact is ongoing. Africa’s rarest monkey is certainly endangered, but with the gazettement of Kitulo National Park, the creation of Mt .Rungwe Nature Reserve and the leased Nkuka forest as well as a long-term monitoring program in place, there are good reasons to be optimistic.