In the Forest of the Colobus

At a Gambian nature reserve, troops of endangered monkeys—and numerous other creatures—enact a grand drama that plumbs the mysteries of life, death, and regeneration

Illustrations by Christopher Buzelli
Illustrations by Christopher Buzelli

For many years, I spent my days, from well before sunrise until long after sunset, following a troop of endangered western red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus badius temminckii) around a small forest in The Gambia. Established in 1968, the Abuko Nature Reserve encompasses several types of habitat within its 260 acres: riverine forest, woodland, Guinea savanna, clearings, and swampland dense with Raphia palms—all surrounded by agricultural fields, rice paddies, vegetable gardens, village compounds, and roads. No matter how deep I was in the forest, the sounds of everyday life constantly seeped through, reminding me that this reserve was a green oasis amid one of the most densely populated places on the African mainland.

Some 130 red colobus lived in Abuko, spread across five separate troops. Mostly arboreal, they shared their home with two other monkey species: the gray-green, tweedy-haired green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus) and the terrestrial patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas), agile, long-legged, fleet-footed creatures expert at raiding crops. Occasionally, a lone adult male Campbell’s monkey (Cercopithecus campbelli) would wander into the reserve, spend some time resting, grooming, and feeding on fruits with the colobus, and wander out again. I have no idea where these lone males came from (the nearest known troop of Campbell’s monkeys was roughly five miles away) or where they eventually went. Various small and medium-size mammals, mysterious reptiles of different sizes, several amphibians, and hundreds of bird species ran, crawled, climbed, swam, and flew through the reserve.

I entered Abuko for the first time in 1978. I wish I could remember everything I felt, everything I saw, during that first day, but there are some things I will never forget. I was immediately enthralled with the dark, witchlike shadows cast by the twisted tree trunks and the long, woody liana vines. I watched a back-fanged African beauty snake, a relatively harmless species, slither across my path as I almost bumped into a bushbuck (an antelope with distinctive white markings). I marveled at a pair of hamerkops—wading birds that could have been dreamt up by Dr. Seuss—and their massive nests, some of which can weigh more than 100 pounds. I saw a hulking Nile crocodile slide into a pool and heard the green monkeys bark their alarm. I tasted the honey-flavored mampato fruits that had been dropped by some red-billed hornbills. And I heard the magnificent, glossy-plumed, violet turacos call out their cooroo-cooroo.

I had been told that Abuko was not safe, since there were too many venomous snakes—puff adders, mambas, and cobras among them. But I had always been fascinated by the reptilian world, so the possibility of encountering such animals only made things more exciting. That first day in the reserve, I walked underneath a troop of red colobus resting and grooming in the mendico trees. They did not run off, and I was captivated. I decided right then and there that this was where I wanted to spend the next year and a bit studying the social behavior of the red colobus, concentrating on the differences between females and males for my PhD thesis in anthropology. (Although anthropologists often focus on human behavior and culture, we also study nonhuman primates because of the evolutionary connection.) I had no idea at the time that this park and its creatures, this country and its people, would so absorb me that “a bit” would turn into a solid block of six years, and that I would return to observe the tittle-tattle and soap operas of the colobus for three decades after that.

For the most part, I lived in a small village with members of an extended Jola family. (The Jola people inhabit not only The Gambia but also Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.) My hosts welcomed me into their compound, shared their meals and celebrations with me, entertained me with stories, and must have found me quite mad for spending so much time in the “not safe bush.”

In those days, I ran like a well-oiled machine, a robot. Every morning, I got up before sunrise, before the local head rooster and then his subordinates began crowing. I made some vacuum-packed instant coffee—my witches’ brew that got me through the day—ate my Scottish oats, and listened to the BBC World Service. Then I packed my lunch, which consisted of a banana, cashew nuts, a boiled egg, and a small, delicious, white tapalapa loaf (a typical Gambian baguette) smeared with two wedges of Laughing Cow cheese. I put on a pair of knee-high rubber boots, to stop the safari ants and ticks from crawling up my trousers, and a heavy, long-sleeve khaki shirt, to keep the mosquitoes and tsetse flies from reaching my arms. Finally, I strapped on my knapsack, which I’d filled with binoculars, a camera, my lunch, a thermos, notebooks, pens, a Swiss Army knife, plastic bags, and a compass. This robot was now ready for the forest.

Although I liked to pretend that I was in charge of my days, the colobus decided where I went and what I did. Once I entered the forest, I ceded control to them, my puppet masters.

During my first two weeks, I familiarized myself with the reserve, with its plants and animals, and I settled on the red colobus troop that would be the focus of my study. I needed to concentrate on one troop, to get to know the individuals. And so I picked a troop that had access to all of the various habitats in Abuko, that shared borders with two other troops, and that appeared to spend minimal time in the agricultural fields beyond the reserve. As soon as I began to recognize individual monkeys, I gave them names: Metoo and her son, Mimp; Inca and her daughters, Ilf and Id, and her son, Imp; Yundum and her son, Yunk; Droopy and her daughter, Dunk; Pug Ughly and her daughters, Pelf and Punk; Kana, Mr. Mean, Captain Crook, and so many more. These characters had their own individual life histories and personas. They ranged from timid to bold, calm and cool to out of control, supportive to treacherous, compassionate to downright spiteful. It quickly became clear that we are not the only creatures with an array of personalities.

On some days, I made one entire circuit of the reserve, checking out the various trees where the colobus slept and then staying with my focal troop for the day. I hoped that the data I collected would help me answer some of the big questions. Where did these monkeys go during the day? How did they spend their time and energy, and with whom? What did they eat? How did the females differ from the males? How did the western red colobus differ from other red colobus populations, which were scattered discontinuously from the Senegambia region in the west to Tanzania and Zanzibar in the east? Was their behavior elastic enough to withstand the destruction of their habitat? In short, who were these creatures? So many questions indeed.

Although I liked to pretend that I was in charge of my days, the colobus decided where I went and what I did. Once I entered the forest, I ceded control to them, my puppet masters. My routine rarely varied, but the work didn’t bore me. Sometimes I sat for hours watching the colobus do absolutely nothing—they are experts at loafing. But I was also privy to many episodes of monkey melodrama, which is not all that different from the human kind—courtships and competitions; laughter, whimsy, deception, and murder. Abuko is where evolutionary forces played out as the endangered western red colobus monkeys struggled to survive and spread their genes to the next generation.

Every 15 minutes, for a five-minute period, I wrote down what every visible monkey was doing. I noted its name, whom it was with, and where it was located (tree or ground, sun or shade, riverine habitat, savanna, swamp, woodland, clearing). Sometimes no monkey was visible. Sometimes I saw only one, sometimes more than 15. If the colobus were in the trees, I wrote down exactly where and on what size branches. I recorded any unusual or rare activities that did not occur on a daily basis—such as troop transfers, the eating of new food sources, drinking, courtship displays, mating, interactions with other species, intertroop encounters, acts of appeasement and aggression, object use (such as when the young monkeys played with pieces of termite mounds or used sticks in aggressive tug-of-war displays), births, disappearances, and deaths. I wrote down every event, whenever it happened, even if it took place outside the 15-minute sample period.

I collected rain data from the nearby Yundum International Airport. I recorded the temperature and humidity in the reserve’s riverine and savanna zones. I plotted the troop’s movements on a hand-drawn map and took photos of everything and anything. I noted all sightings of patas and green monkeys, other mammals, snakes. When time permitted, I also observed and censused other troops, both inside Abuko and beyond. I imagine that many people would find my routine—day after day, year after year—boring. A waste of time and energy. Me? I loved it.

If I was sick, I went to Abuko. If a thunderstorm was raging, upending palm fronds and ripping branches from their trunks, I was there. I was as determined as a safari ant, afraid that if I missed one minute of the monkeys’ awake time, I would miss out on the crucial piece necessary to complete the puzzle. I sometimes pretended that in my absence the colobus revealed their pent-up interior selves—that they were solving mathematical equations, practicing the samba, baking mango-and-palm-nut soufflés, strumming banjos, and having a good old hootenanny. Archimedes is said to have cried, “Eureka!” upon entering his bath and seeing the water level rise. I was looking for my own such eureka moment.

I did learn quite a lot. I learned that the colobus, usually classified as leaf eaters—their four-chambered, ruminant-like stomachs help break down and digest leaves—actually preferred a combination of fruits, seeds, and flower parts. That almost all young females voluntarily and easily transferred to other troops just before reaching sexual maturity, whereas young males were usually kicked out by the dominant male and forced to spend months in exile wandering around the reserve. That most young males returned to their natal troop after their exile period. That both adult females and males killed intruder adult males who tried to join their troop. That intruder males committed infanticide. That mothers carried their dead infants around until the babies were mangled lumps riddled with maggots and flies. I feel privileged to have observed these behaviors, each discovery a flash of wonder.

And yet, no matter how many thousands of hours I spent sitting under their trees, scrambling over fallen logs, crawling under low-hanging branches, and trailing behind them, these long-tailed, potbellied, thumbless, sometimes clumsy, sometimes acrobatic monkeys inhabited an enigmatic world full of secrets that I would never fully understand. Why did these colobus monkeys love to eat arboreal termite runways, cramming fistfuls of this grainy substance into their mouths as fast as they could, shoving one another out of the way to get more and more and more? Did it provide much-needed antacids, nutrients, fungicides, antibiotics? Why was it that one old female always lay in the same position on the same branch of a certain mampato tree, whereas none of the others seemed to have a favorite branch? Why did the males take part in elaborate tug-of-war stick displays and the females didn’t? Why don’t the red colobus have opposable thumbs when almost all other Old World monkeys do? Why did they sometimes come and sit next to me, touching my hands or licking the bottom of my boots, when at other times I couldn’t get within 150 feet of them? My days, and sometimes my nights, were filled with many such unanswerable questions. I just couldn’t cross the species divide.

I suppose I felt most useless, most intellectually and emotionally bankrupt, when I came across the bodies of dead monkeys. I would search the area around the bodies, trying to imagine what had happened. I would turn over the remains, examine bones and rotting flesh. Oh sure, I could pretend that I was like some television medical examiner, but without a laboratory, a team of assistants, or the extensive knowledge of an expert in the field, I was often left frustrated. I wanted to know exactly how and why the colobus had died. Did they scream? Did they panic? Did other monkeys see them die? If so, how did they react? Did they touch the lifeless bodies? Did they themselves scream or panic? Did they simply ignore the corpses and move on? Did they mourn? And if so, what do  colobus monkeys feel when they mourn?

I partially understood the most obvious deaths: the infant colobus with gashes on its thighs and abdomen, the victim of infanticide; the old female swallowed by a python, the snake now also dead; the new mother hemorrhaging after being bitten on the jugular by a snake, her infant gone missing; the intruder male mauled by other colobus monkeys; the young male dragged across a pond by a large Nile crocodile.

Many other deaths, however, left me perplexed. The young adult male with no wounds, sitting under a cover of fallen leaves, half propped up against the fence that separated the forest from the fields. The young adult female, also with no visible wounds, stretched out on the savanna, seemingly ready to pounce. The juvenile male beneath a tangle of lantana shrubs, half eaten by maggots. Had he been bitten by a mamba? A cobra? A puff adder? Was he killed while attempting to join a new troop? Did he fall out of a tree? I didn’t know where any of these dead monkeys had come from. They were not part of any troop that I studied. All I knew was what I could observe—for example, that a young adult female sprawled out on the savanna weighed five kilos and that a western bluebill had collected her hair and used it to build a nest.

And it wasn’t just the colobus. The forest was filled with many mysterious deaths.

I saw a swollen monitor lizard in the middle of the savanna with no marks on him at all. What had caused his demise?

At the edge of the swamp, where it met the woodland, an old adult male sitatunga (a swamp-dwelling antelope) lay dead, two deep puncture wounds on the side of his swollen body, the vegetation around him flattened down, the earth deeply scarred with hoofprints. Had he lost a fight with another male sitatunga?

An adult male green monkey floated in a pond covered with lily pads, as a large crocodile bit off pieces of his arm and a Senegal coucal swooped down and flew off with bits of flesh. Did the monkey fall off a tree and into the pond? Or did the crocodile drag him into the water? Had any other animals witnessed the struggle, or heard the monkey screaming for his life?

A subadult male green monkey hung upside down, caught amid a tangled liana vine. His bones jutted out in unnatural ways, his innards spilling out of a hole in his stomach. What had caused the wound? And how had he managed to get stuck in that upside-down position?

A headless genet hung from a rattan, among twisted palm fronds. What ate its head? Why was the rest of the body untouched?

A four-meter-long, bleached-white python’s skeleton—just skull and vertebrae—lay in a straight line in the middle of the woodland savanna. Gone were its organs and its beautifully patterned skin.

A newborn bushbuck, still covered in blood, lay at the foot of a kenno tree. Was I looking at a stillbirth? And where was the mother?

I have written about these things before, and I know that I will do so again. The memories continue to haunt me; I cannot leave them behind.

In the forest, there are myriad ways to die. The bodies of familiar animals become distended into unfamiliar forms. In the forest, there is no escaping death, which is not gentle or subtle in any way. It thunders in and leaves behind powerful odors in its wake, odors at once sickly sweet and rancid, along with carcasses swarming with insects, naked bones, misshapen skeletons, bodies barely recognizable. In the forest, death is both an everyday occurrence and something savage, something violent. It is also of great necessity. All of the decomposing, nutrient-rich bodies that I found would eventually change the chemistry of the soil, creating organically rich islands that would feed the plants beneath and around them. Those festering bodies became hosts for an assortment of parasitic microbes, allowing them a suitable environment for sustenance and reproduction. Indeed, incalculable species of plants and animals rely on the deaths of others to keep themselves nourished, reproducing, and thriving. Imagine what a banquet death is for all the corpse-eating and liquid-sucking bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, ants, and various other arthropods, as well as for various insectivorous and scavenging reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. All of them feasting on death.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, this is how nature recycles, converting energy from one form to another—the dead supporting the very survival of the living. Just as death marks the end of life, the decay and decomposition that follow within minutes provide material for new life. That is how it has always been, and that is that.

The high-tension line above me remained taut, but it seemed to swagger and prance in the hot afternoon sun, having killed my favorite and destroyed my sanity. There was no sugarcoating my grief.

And yet, as I quickly learned, that is most certainly not that. I could assume a level of detachment with the colobus I did not intimately know. I could be dispassionate in trying to understand the riddles posed by the lifeless bodies I encountered. When I came upon dead monkeys whom I had known, however, monkeys I had closely observed for years, what I saw drained me utterly. That those familiar colobus monkeys were gone forever was almost too painful to accept. They took some part of me with them and left a deep wound. Whenever I was in the forest and encountered a dead colobus, the same words would course through my mind: Please let it be one I don’t know. Please let it be a stranger.

But then, on a dry afternoon in May 1982, I came across a death that changed me forever. The sun was hot on my back as I left the shade of the riverine vegetation and followed the colobus troop onto the savanna, watching as they climbed into a kajo tree and began feeding on its fruits. Walking beneath the tree, I looked up and started to record my observations, when I tripped over a monkey’s body. It was a young adult male. I closed my eyes and whispered my usual plea, but I knew that this time, my appeal would not be answered. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I did. And then, I turned him over and saw the characteristics so familiar to me: his face, handsome even in death, the wart on his wrist, the bent tail, the crooked index finger. This was Imp, one of my favorites. No, not one of my favorites. My absolute favorite. He had made contact with the high-tension wire above the kajo tree and been electrocuted. His singed hair had, for the most part, fallen off. His skin was badly burned. Fried. He was fried.

I did not console myself with some banal adage about life and death. At no point did I think that he had, for example, gone to a better place. The high-tension line above me remained taut, but it seemed to swagger and prance in the afternoon sun, having killed my favorite and destroyed my sanity. There was no sugarcoating my grief. A broken record in my head played over and over again. Anyone but Imp, anyone.

The colobus went about their usual business. They crammed fruits into their mouths. They burped and farted. The infants suckled. The juveniles played. The adult females groomed each other. The green monkeys entered the scene and departed, picking fruits off the ground. Life continued above me and around me, but it meant nothing at all. I just wanted Imp to rise up off the forest floor and join the rest of the troop.

Why Imp?

I know that animals do not exist in order to teach us things, but that is exactly what Imp did. He taught me that a scientist could have feelings for her subjects in the field, all the while maintaining scholarly objectivity. And it was while watching him interact with his mother that I had experienced an epiphany: I knew just then that I also wanted to become a mother. Seeing him play with his peers, I realized that he was the colobus equivalent of both popular Archie and quirky Jughead from the comic books of old. An odd combination.

Why Imp?

As I sat near his body under the kajo tree, I kept thinking, saying, writing the words with my fingers in the sandy soil, He’s dead, he’s dead. I remembered the day he was born, the way he had looked up at his mother, Inca, with cross-eyed bewilderment. I remembered him playing king of the castle with his peers, taking his rightful place on the throne in the fafo-jambo trees. I remembered Inca threatening him whenever he attempted to mount her, “teaching” him that mothers are not to be mounted.

When he was 10 months old, Inca lost track of him. For more than a day, she ran whimpering from one side of their home range to the other, over and over again, looking for Imp. Unbeknownst to her, he spent a lot of his time playing with his peers, resting and sleeping with the dominant male, and feeding, apparently unaware that he was “lost.” As soon as Inca found him, she stopped her frantic wandering and whimpering and didn’t let him out of her sight. Running back and forth between the two of them, I had been left with the distinct impression that although Inca was distraught, Imp was absolutely fine—maybe even better than fine.

One humid day during the rainy season in June, Kana, a young sexually receptive female, led a 30-month-old Imp away from the main body of the troop, which had been feeding in the riverine forest, to spend time alone on the woodland savanna. Kana and Imp spent the day resting, grooming, feeding, sleeping, and, of course, mating, apart from the other troop members, out of sight and out of earshot. They didn’t make a peep. They didn’t respond to any calls. Clearly, they didn’t want anyone to know where they were or what they were doing. They displayed no aggression toward each other. Their movements were coordinated. They were simply friends out having a tryst.

Upon being banished from the troop by the nasty alpha Yunk, Imp spent eight months in exile, sometimes alone, at other times with fellow exiled males from his troop or with the troops of green monkeys. On occasion, he would watch his old mates from the cover of nearby bushes. Or he would shadow other troops, possibly looking for a “vacancy” (if a troop was missing a dominant male, exiled males could rejoin). Imp was well attuned to the existence of a vacancy. One day, Yunk disappeared, and 23 days later, Imp returned, handsome as ever, a popular figure with all members of the troop, whether old or young, female or male.

Why Imp?

In my eyes, he could do no wrong. He seemed to have an innate sense of justice and fairness—the Themis of the colobus world. He never became the alpha male, but then, he never tried. I think he was simply not interested in climbing that slippery dominance pole. Not every monkey was. But if he had lived longer, would he have tried?

To this day, what I recall most viscerally are his eyes. Each time I gazed into Imp’s eyes, I recognized something profound. I sensed implicitly who I was and from where I had come. Here before me was direct, incontrovertible evidence of evolution in progress. Or, as Darwin pronounced more than 150 years ago, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” I knew absolutely that Imp and all his fellow species were extraordinarily intelligent, fully conscious beings. His eyes. Through his eyes I could see way back, to the time 20 million to 25 million years ago when the primate tree of life split into separate evolutionary lines—one for monkeys and one for apes and humans. This was not just scientific recognition. This was an emotional epiphany. We shared a very distant connection.

Under the kajo tree, I held my own personal wake for him, continuing to remember his various trials and tribulations, and I wondered: Just before and after his heart stopped beating and his brain stopped functioning, did Imp experience split-second memory recall? Did his colobus brain showcase a last remembrance of what he had seen, done, and felt in his short life? If so, were these last images painful to behold? Frightening? Soothing? Joyful? I will never know. All I do know is that on that savanna, in that West African wilderness, I grieved for a very, very distant relative, a relative who had taught me an immense amount, who had provided me endless moments of enchantment and joy.

Of course, Imp’s death was, objectively speaking, like all the other deaths I encountered. It played a vital role in the functioning of Abuko’s ecosystems and in helping maintain its biodiversity. And yes, as soon as he died, his rotting, decaying, and decomposing corpse—for it did begin to decompose at once—started to become a vibrant mini-ecosystem for the many plants and animals of the forest. His body would soon replenish the sandy soil and nourish the roots of the kajo tree and the kaba vine climbing up and down its trunk and over its canopy. Soon, young grasses would peek through and around the edges of his decaying form. Like every living thing, Imp was a form of energy waiting to be released into the universe. And in absorbing his dying molecules, the forest and its many creatures became a living, breathing memorial to his life. This is how Imp endured, by becoming part of the grand, daily act of recycling and renewal. And yet, knowing the science did not make things any easier.

Abuko is a pool of nostalgia for me, a reservoir of reminiscence—my mind lingers there often—and yet, I have unfinished business from my decades in the forest. In my London home, I have an old trunk and a pine cupboard that are filled with material I gathered there: piles of unanalyzed notes, charts, maps, reels of 16mm cine film, and a jumble of photographs—material I have never used in my published work. So much raw information, so many observations. Sometimes I feel as if the cupboard and trunk are daring me to open them. Start analyzing all of this data! they seem to be imploring. Occasionally, I do open them and look at the accumulated mass, thinking, I really should do something about all of this. I always shut the trunk lid, however, close the cupboard doors, and leave the room. And then I find myself staring off into space, my mind drifting back across the years. I see myself walking under the kajo tree, in that far-off Gambian forest, Imp lying dead on the ground.

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Dawn Starin is an anthropologist who has spent decades researching human and nonhuman primates in Africa and Asia. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, The Humanist, and the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, among other publications.


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