Field Notes

Field Notes


Monkey See,
Monkey Doomed

Shotgun shells, traps, and snares litter the West African forests where the monkey once lived. And the canopy is alarmingly silent. "It's like walking through a school with no children," says Scott McGraw, an anthropologist at Ohio State University. "It's eerie."

McGraw recently returned from West Africa, where he had made a final attempt to locate the Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey in the forests of Ghana and the eastern Ivory Coast. The monkey was last seen in 1978. For nearly seven years McGraw and four other researchers had combed the treetops for the telltale flash of red fur. But their futile quest suggests that local hunters have managed to wipe out the Miss Waldron's monkey, which would make it the first primate to become extinct this century.

But it's not too late to save more than a dozen other species and subspecies of red colobus monkeys. Or is it? As many as 18 varieties still exist in Africa, says team member Tom Struhsaker, a biologist at Duke University. "Only a few can be said to be reasonably safe over the next 20 to 25 years," he says. "The majority are in serious trouble." The most critically endangered are the Tana River red colobus of Kenya and the Bouvier's red colobus of the Republic of Congo. The varieties considered endangered are the Zanzibar red colobus of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania; the Bioko red colobus, which is found only on Bioko Island, which belongs to Equatorial Guinea; and the Preuss's red colobus of southwest Cameroon. The Oustalet's red colobus, which lives in lush forests in central and west Africa where human populations are not as concentrated, is one of the few varieties still found in some numbers.

Many African countries are unable to afford the cost of serious forest management, and poachers are stripping the forests for bush meat. Red colobus monkeys are easy game because they're large, noisy, brightly colored, insufficiently fearful of humans, and live in big groups. McGraw and Struhsaker are urging international conservation organizations to develop an action plan to combat poaching. The plan's centerpiece would be a trust fund that would be used to employ native people--even former hunters--as forest police and educators.

Meanwhile, in October, the White House and Congress established a Great Ape Conservation Fund that will provide $5 million a year for protecting primate habitat in Africa and Asia. "If this issue is not taken seriously," McGraw says, "then many of these monkeys will be destroyed in the very near future."

--Rene S. Ebersole


Space Junk

Trashing the Heavens

No matter where humans travel in search of adventure, they have always had trouble packing out their trash. Perhaps no site on earth better illustrates this tendency than Mount Everest's base camp, where climbers have left garbage behind for years. Now Russian rocket scientists have targeted an even more remote junkyard: outer space. According to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, a growing array of space pollution floating in orbit could pose problems for future travelers rocketing into the cosmos. Some flight corridors to outer space could be completely obstructed within 150 years--and may be severely affected in as little as 50 years if the junk continues to accumulate.

The Russians' warning echoes many of the concerns at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "This is a classic environmental problem, completely analogous to water or air pollution," says Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for NASA's Orbital Debris Program.

The U.S. Air Force Space Command uses radar to track roughly 8,000 objects in space. But the smaller debris eludes the radar, which spells danger for astronauts and their vessels. Mere flakes of chipped paint, whizzing along at 17,000 miles an hour, can act like speeding bullets. So just imagine the impact of the biggest hazards, whether they're old satellites or spent rocket-fuel tanks the size of railroad cars. "So far no American spacecraft has sustained serious damage from human space debris other than minor chips in the windows of the shuttle," says NASA spokesperson James Hartsfield. "However, it's something the worldwide space community takes seriously."

High-tech solutions, such as knocking the debris out of orbit and steering it away from earth toward outer space, may not be necessary. "Fortunately, most of this stuff falls back to earth and burns up when it reenters the atmosphere," Hartsfield says. "But clearly, we need to reduce the debris." As a precaution, designers of the multibillion-dollar international space station have engineered a double-layered protective shield to absorb the impact from both meteors and human debris.

--Todd Wilkinson


Timbermen Prefer Blondes

The wild-and-crazy Bureau of Land Management sometimes gives timber sales funny names, like "Rusty Saw." When the actress Goldie Hawn discovered last summer that a 100-acre sale near Oregon's Fawn Creek had been named in her honor, she fired off a letter to the agency. "I was shocked to hear the BLM has proposed to clear-cut pristine forests," she wrote. "I was even more shocked to hear that this destruction is being referred to as the Goldie Fawn Timber Sale." The BLM apologized and changed the name to the Fawn Creek Timber Sale.

--Chris Chang


Turtle E.R.

Every winter, cold weather strands a few dozen hypothermic Ridley and other sea turtles on the beaches of Cape Cod. Last December, for reasons unknown, 278 turtles washed ashore, many of them dying right on the beach. "There are only about 6,000 breeding Ridley adults in the world, so this would have been detrimental," says Dr. Beth Turnbull of the New England Aquarium. Volunteers loaded 127 survivors into vans and rushed them to the aquarium. In what looked like a frantic scene from the TV show ER, the turtles overflowed from the aquarium's intensive-care unit into its corridors, their makeshift beds taking up nearly every available square foot of floor space. Fluids and oxygen were administered, while body temperatures--some as low as 25 degrees below normal--were slowly raised. Fortunately, about 80 percent of the turtles survived, and most are being returned to the wild.

--Jerry Shine


Guilt-Free Seafood

A new set of consumer tools may make you think twice about sinking your teeth into Patagonian toothfish (otherwise known as Chilean sea bass) or scarfing down scallops dredged off the New England coast. The National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program has released the Seafood Lover's Almanac, which sells for $19.95 at bookstores. The 120-page, color-coded almanac grew out of "The Audubon Guide to Seafood" (May-June 1998). At the same time, NAS has launched the Just Ask campaign to educate seafood buyers and sellers. One of its key components is the Fish Scale, a wallet-size chart. Meanwhile, there's also a new eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council, which will be placed only on sustainably fished seafood, starting with western Australian rock lobster and Thames herring. For further information, see "Guilt-Free Seafood" at

--Joshua Malbin

© 2001  NASI

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