Africa’s Most Recently Discovered Monkey: Kipunji

It’s not often a new genus of monkey is found; 83 years since the Allen’s Swamp Monkey was discovered in the Congo basin, so the discovery of Rungwecebus Kipunji is a unique and celebrated event, being Africa’s most recently discovered monkey: Kipunji

Fourteen hours, from Julius Nyerere international airport, Tanzania lies Livingstone forest, the largest in the Kipengere Range and a wedge of montane evergreen forest which was stamped as National park in 2004. A sliver of farms and tree plantations separate the forest from the forests of the volcanic Mount Rungwe. It’s here, in the frigid temperatures of high altitude, the Kipunji was discovered. Rungwecebus Kipunji refers to that very geography.

First identified by photos of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists, in 2004, a year later they got the break they were looking for when a Kipunji (as its known locally) was trapped by a farmer. This allowed the team to examine its DNA where it was found the monkey was so unique it required its own genus.

Physical Characteristics of Kipunji

Adult male kipunjis are reported to weigh between 10 and 16 kg and have an average length of 85 to 90 cm (standing about three feet high). The fur of the kipunji is light to medium brown to silvery, with white on the end of the tail and ventrum (belly). Their faces are hairless and black with heavy brows and black eyes. The hair around the hands and feet is usually a medium to dark brown color. All of the hands, feet, and face are blackish.

Spiky hair grows on the head and remains fluffy all over the torso. There does not seems to be any sexual dimorphism in terms of hair color in the elusive primate. These spiky crowns of hair on the cap of their heads, in combination with their coloring, helps to distinguish kipunjis from their Cercocebus and Lophocebus relatives of the mangabey families. Kipunji’s thick fur keeps them warm at high altitudes of 8,000 feet above sea level.

Wildlife Conservation Society scientists identified the species during surveys conducted by Tim Davenport on and around Mt. Rungwe and the Livingstone Forest of the new Kitulo National Park in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands in 2003. Hunters from the adjacent Wanyakyusa villages had mentioned a shy monkey known as “kipunji,” and the crew saw the monkey for the first time in May. The monkey’s peculiar “honk-bark” was also recorded by the researchers, which was crucial in proving the species’ status.

Fantastic Facts About Kipunjis

  • Wardens at WTS, Tanzania have named a kipunji, ‘Beckham’ due to his blonde spiky hair.
  • The kipunji is one of the world’s twenty five most threatened primates.

Kipunji Habitat

Some kipunjis dwelling on Mount Rungwe live at a greater height (2,450 m above sea level) than other Lophocebus spp. populations. At 2,450 meters above sea level, the low temperature on lofty Rungwe-Livingstone slopes can reach 3°C, while annual rainfall can exceed 2,900 mm, the highest in Tanzania. Both Ndundulu and Rungwe-Livingstone have distinct wet and dry seasons, with June through October being the driest months.

Kipunji Dense Forest Habitat on Mount Riwange

Behavior of Kipunji

Kipunji is mostly an arboreal species that only ventures to the ground on rare occasions. It lives in the mid- and upper-canopy, withdrawing to the high canopy when disturbed from the ground and remaining motionless and quiet. The diet of the sometimes called: Kipunji, may be largely frugivorous, though it is officially an omnivore consuming both fruit and small invertebrates.

L. kipunji appears to eat shoots, leaves, flowers, bark, moss, lichen, and insects, according to preliminary observations in both Ndundulu and Rungwe-Livingstone. Kipunjis will raid fields such as maize, beans, and sweet potatoes in Rungwe-Livingstone, where agriculture has encroached significantly.

Carolyn Ehardt, a UGA primatologist and co-discoverer, says, “To discover an entirely new species of monkey in this part of Africa is fantastic.”

“The message is clear: not only is much of the world’s biodiversity in jeopardy, but we also have no idea what unique and essential species may be gone before they can be identified. A discovery like this can only motivate us to further up our study and conservation efforts” Ehardt agrees.

Carolyn Ehardt, a UGA primatologist and co-discoverer

Conservation Status of Kipunji

The IUCN has listed the kipunji as a critical species. The monkey’s range is restricted to just 6.82 mi2 (17.7 km2) of forest in two isolated places, the Ndundulu forest and the Rungwe-Livingstone Forest, according to a Wildlife Conservation Society team in 2008.

Africa's Most Recently Discovered Monkey: Kipunji
Africa’s Most Recently Discovered Monkey: Kipunji

Today, natural habitats across the Southern Highlands are severely threatened by “unsustainable land-use practices and inappropriate resource exploitation,” claim the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania.

The Ndundulu forest is the smaller of the two, supporting a population of seventy five individuals, with fifteen to twenty five monkeys in each group. Rungwe-Kitulo is thought to contain a population of about five hundred kipunjis

Tanzania faces clashes with human population growth and endangered wildlife. With the 18th highest population growth rate in the world, predicted to reach almost 100 million people by 2050 and possibly a billion by 2100, it is ever more challenging to protect wildlife numbers. The carnivore project ( in southern Tanzania, works with local townsfolk to reduce the costs of wildlife interactions and educate of the importance of wildlife and conservation.

Q & A

How are kipunjis protected today?

Wardens have been tracking groups of kipunjis every day with GPS devices for the last eight years, gaining their trust from a distance from 6am to 6pm.

Sophy Machaga, biologist, WCS Tanzania

Is the kipunji a mangabey?

The kipunji is its own species, more closely related to baboons

How many kipunji exist in the wild today?

The 2008 census by WCS recorded a total population of only 1,117 individuals

Will the kipunji survive in the future?

That will depend a lot on human kind’s future habitat consumption. The gazettement of Kitulo National Park, the creation of Mt .Rungwe Nature Reserve and the leased Nkuka forest, provide a more optimistic outlook.

Tanzania's National Wildlife Parks
Tanzania’s National Wildlife Parks

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