Tech4Wildlife Leaders: Understanding Endangered Primate Populations

Read our interview with Tasmin Alexander, early career conservationist and member of the CLP Future Conservationist Award-winning Preuss's Monkey Project research team. Working in the Obudu Plateau in Nigeria, this team is launching a camera trap-based project to understand the declining populations of endangered Preuss's Monkey, protect this species' remaining habitat, and raise local awareness against human-wildlife conflict. 

Date published: 2021/06/02

As a supporter of tomorrow's conservation experts and innovators, the Conservation Leadership Programme provides funding to the critical, groundbreaking, and exciting projects of early career conservationists from around the world. And as technology becomes more and more integral to conservationists' work, many of these project teams are incorporating conservation tech into their efforts to protect and research species from the endangered to the elusive.

One such project, the Preuss's Monkey Project, is an effort to assess the current population status of this endangered primate species through reconnaissance surveys and camera trapping. These 2021 CLP Future Conservationist Award recipients are working to understand the rate of population decline and its causes, including threats against the species like increased habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, and human-wildlife conflict between monkeys and farmers. Without a clear perspective on how and why Preuss's Monkey populations are declining, conservationists cannot protect remaining habitat, establish strategies to raise awareness with local communities, or develop a broader conservation management plan for the Obudu Plateau at large.

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We talked with Preuss's Team member Tasmin Alexander about the challenges faced by the endangered Preuss's Monkey, how the technology used in this project can meet those challenges, and what the team hopes the lasting impacts of their work will be upon this species' habitat. Read on to learn more about this significant effort to understand and conserve these unique primates.

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Could you talk us through a brief summary of your work and the technology you're using? 

Our project focuses on the Endangered Preuss’s monkey (Allochrocebus preussi), also referred to as the Preuss’s Guenon. The Preuss’s monkey is restricted to western Cameroon, the island of Bioko, and a limited area of southeastern Nigeria, predominantly at high elevations. In Nigeria, the species is found only within the montane forests of northern Cross River National Park, the Sankwala Mountains, and forest patches on the Obudu Plateau.

The species has a restricted and fragmented range and is suspected to have undergone a population decline exceeding 50% over the past 30 years. This decline has been attributed to habitat destruction throughout their range, extensive bushmeat hunting, and lethal action by farmers to prevent crop-raiding. Despite their Endangered status, this species has been the focus of only a few research and conservation projects.

Our research project aims to enhance scientific knowledge of Preuss’s monkey on the Obudu Plateau by examining current population abundance, distribution, and the extent of remaining suitable habitat. The Preuss’s monkey is elusive and found at low densities. On the Plateau, the Preuss’s monkey are not habituated and flee or remain quiet in the presence of humans. This has previously made it difficult to accurately assess population status. Therefore, we will primarily use camera trapping surveys to determine population abundance and distribution. We will also use ground-truthing with GPS, along with remote sensing analysis using LandSat, to determine the quantity of remaining suitable habitat, i.e. forest patches. 

A better understanding of the species abundance, distribution and remaining habitat will make an essential contribution to designing practical conservation management plans, highlighting key areas on which to focus. We aim to use this knowledge to facilitate the development of a conservation action plan for the Preuss’s monkey on the Obudu Plateau, created in conjunction with local stakeholders, such as the local community and conservation organisations, The Obudu Conservation Centre and WCS Nigeria. Alongside our research project, we aim to raise local, national, and international awareness of this little-known and endangered species. 

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WILDLABS has a growing community of early career conservationists interested in conservation technology career paths. Could you share some of the highlights of your own conservation career paths so far? 

We began formulating ideas for the project in autumn of 2020. Since then, we have assembled a great team of on the ground conservationist and project advisors, and we have successfully been awarded 3 grants - The Conservation Leadership Award, IdeaWild Equipment grant, and Primate Action Fund. We also have been able to promote our work through a published article in the British Ecological Society Magazine, The Niche. Thus far, knowing our work is supported by the scientific community, and knowing that organisations feel confident enough about our efforts to provide us with grants and publish our work, is very rewarding! Knowing we now have the means to get started with our project and make a difference is an amazing feeling. 

Where would you like to go within the next ten years, and do you think conservation technology will play a big role in your future plans?

Over the next ten years, we would like to grow and sustain the Preuss’s Monkey project and gain a clear understanding of the species abundance, distribution, and remaining suitable habitat. We would like to have a conservation action plan supported and implemented by local stakeholders; examples of the action plan include regular removal of ground snares, the implementation of traditional hunting bans, and continued population monitoring.

Technology will play a huge role in these long-term goals. Firstly, technology will enable us to understand the current Preuss’s Monkey population in the area, how it changes over time, and how these changes are effected by human impact. Technology, including our camera traps and the footage they provide, will also enable us to promote the Preuss’s monkey both locally and globally, helping us to raise awareness of the species beyond this region.

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What challenges have you faced in launching this project, either with technology or otherwise? 

We have faced some challenges in our project planning stage, primarily caused by poor internet connections preventing video communication. While we are yet to begin the project, I can predict we may face challenges or long delays in replacing broken equipment because our study site is remote, and some of our equipment and tools, including camera traps, are delivered from the USA; therefore, we have to balance our budget with the possibility of equipment damage or theft. 

Are there lessons from your project that other WILDLABS members could apply to their own conservation technology work?

We haven’t began the on the ground work yet, but a lesson we can impart is that the planning stage takes a long time. It is important to be prepared and realize that if your project is new and not a continuation of an already established project, it might take between several months to a year for your data collection to begin.

Additionally, grant applications can take several months to choose successful candidates. Throughout the planning stage, we have all maintained other employment and have needed to be flexible with our time as we plan the project, and flexible about when we are able to start the on the ground work.

Another lesson we learnt is the importance of reaching out to other conservationists who have completed similar projects or worked in the same area. These connections can provide invaluable advice and support!

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Could you briefly speak to the importance of all the different skill sets needed to bring conservation tech projects to life and achieve results? This is so important for our community, since they come from all types of professional backgrounds!

Our team consists of conservationists with a number of different skills and strengths. Our team leader, Nela Duke Ekpenyong, has a background in international relations and development. She has experience developing projects with the local communities around the Obudu Plateau, and will therefore be vital during community engagement when developing the conservation action plan.

Our project ranger, Eyos Kevin Acha, lives within the local community and has several years of experience conducting reconnaissance surveys on the Plateau. His experience will be vital when we begin field work, enabling easier navigation of the forest patches and greater insight into camera trap placement.

I'm one of our field researchers, and I have experience conducting studies focused on the abundance and distribution of primates, and experience conducting projects using camera traps. And our second field researcher, Usman Bawa, has experience working with large datasets and using programming software; additionally, he has published several research papers and presented his work at scientific conferences.

Our skills complement each other, and most importantly, we are all eager to learn from each other and expand our own skill sets!

What's next for this project?

Our next steps are to transport the equipment to our study site, continue developing our community engagement programme, and finalise preparations to enable field work to begin! 

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Projects like the one undertaken by this team are crucial filling in the gaps when it comes to effectively protecting little-known species from population decline and eventual extinction. The Preuss's Monkey Project is a great example of not only how overlapping issues like human-wildlife crime and habitat destruction can impact a species, but how technology can help us understand and address those impacts before it's too late. As this CLP-supported project kicks off their work in the field, we're excited to see how their camera trap surveys can translate into real conservation action! 

Learn more about this and other CLP-supported projects here.

Author note: Special thanks to our project funders The Conservation Leadership Programme, IdeaWild and the Primate Action Fund administered by Global Wildlife Conservation under a grant from the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. Special thanks to our project advisors Professor John Oates, Daniel Louk and WCS Nigeria.

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