Just gaze at this remarkable face. Although the Lesula is known to the people of Africa’s remote Lomami forest, she’s new to Western scientists. And her future is uncertain.
The husband-wife team of John and Terese Hart set out in 2007 to explore this unknown forest. They found bonobos, forest elephants, Congo peacocks and then some monkeys who turned out to be known locally as the Lesula, and whom they had never seen. Neither, apparently, had other scientists. The Harts are now working to protect these monkeys from extinction due to over-hunting.
“We never expected to find a new species there,” said John Hart, the lead scientist of the project and scientific director for the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, based in Kinshasa. “But the Lomami basin is a very large block that has had very little exploration by biologists. Our Congolese field teams were on a routine stop in Opala. It is the closest settlement of any kind to the area of forest we were working in.”
The expedition’s field team came across an unusual looking monkey tied to a post, who, they were told, was the pet of Georgette, the daughter of the local school director. Georgette, they learned, had adopted the young monkey when her mother was killed by a hunter.
The field team took pictures and showed them to Hart. He said that as soon as he saw the photos, he knew that this was a species unknown to Western science.
“Right away I saw that this was something different,” he said. The Lesula had large, almost human like, eyes, a pink face and a golden mane. “It looked a bit like a monkey from much further east, but the coloring was so different and the range was so different.”
This was just the beginning of a full study to see whether Lesula is indeed a distinct species.
“I got in touch with geneticists and anthropologists to get their advice. I knew it was important to have a collaborative team of experts,” John Hart.
The team collected DNA specimens from monkeys who had been killed by hunters or other animals and conducted a full range of other tests. Other scientists were able to trace an ancient common ancestor. The results, say the Harts, are conclusive. Their findings are reported in the journal PLOS One.
The photo on the right is of a Lesula who was taken from a hunter who caught her in a trap. The team gave her water and then released her back to the forest. But the bigger question is how long she and her kind will escape more traps and more hunting.
So the challenge now is to protect the Lesula from all the threats posed by the growing numbers of humans locally, who hunt them either for food or for sale to the ever-growing bush meat trade. To do this, the Harts are working to make the Lesula an iconic species, like the panda in China, so that their beautiful faces can carry a message for conservation.
There are lots more photos of the Lesula on Terese Hart’s website, where she is also raising funds for the conservation project.