A USC Dornsife alumna races to save Africa’s most endangered primate
At sundown along the Tana River, Kenya’s longest, a soft chatter drifts from the treetops. These are the bedtime noises of the Tana River red colobus monkey, a slender primate crowned with red fur that glows halo-like in the evening light.
The shy animals rarely if ever come down from their home up in the forest canopy. Unless you travel to this eight-square-mile section of Kenya, you’ll never see them in person. They don’t survive in captivity. And, unlike their relatives the western gorilla and chimpanzee, there’s little global awareness of their existence — or their plight. They are Africa’s most endangered primate. Only about 1,000 Tana River red colobus remain.
Laura Loyola, lecturer of spatial sciences and director of undergraduate studies at the Spatial Sciences Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science, is working to change that. Using geographic information science and remote sensing technology, her research tracks the habitat changes leading to the colobus’ decline.
Loyola’s work has contributed to the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy for preserving the habitat and continuation of these threatened animals. The plan also has the potential to save more than just the red colobus, says Loyola.
“They’re not the only primate, or wildlife, that occurs in these forests. It’s abloom with migratory birds. Forest elephants and hippos live here. It’s not just the colobus habitat that would be lost; it’s everybody’s.”
From doggy daycare to a Ph.D.
Loyola’s path to primatologist was a somewhat winding one. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Amherst College, she then moved to New York City.
“I worked at a doggy daycare facility, then at a plastic surgeon’s office on Fifth Avenue and then I sold high-end baby furniture,” she recounts.
She always felt she wanted to return to school, though, and started taking classes at Columbia University to explore her options. As an undergraduate, she’d read A Primate’s Memoir by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, which solidified her desire to work with wildlife, but she knew it was a tough field to break into.
“One of my professors at Columbia had done work with capuchins, and she was very inspirational. She was someone of a similar background, she was from Latin America, and so I was like, ‘Okay, all right, I can do this’,” Loyola says.
A chance conversation led her to USC Dornsife: Loyola’s sister had a teaching mentor whose own sister, a forensic anthropologist, guided her to Roberto Delgado, former professor of anthropology and biological sciences at USC Dornsife. Delgado is now with the National Science Foundation.
Like Loyola, Delgado is Hispanic, which helped her feel empowered in a field that is predominantly white.
“I don’t think I realized it at the time how important it was to know and have the support of somebody who had a shared cultural experience. Having his support, his encouragement, his knowledge, and shared experiences and protection was instrumental in getting me here to USC and my success along the way,” Loyola says. With this knowledge and in her current position, Loyola also strives to be a similar support for others, especially young women in STEM.
Field work makes the dream work
Loyola conducting field research onsite at the Tana River in 2018.
While a graduate student at USC Dornsife, Loyola spent a year conducting research in Kenya. Living out of tents near the broad, brown Tana River, she listened for the warning grumble of startled elephants and extricated herself from hunting snares peppering the forest floor, all while watching for the elusive colobus.
This required patience, says Loyola. “They are not very active monkeys, so there was a lot of just staring up at them, all day long, not going very far, waiting.”
Despite these periods that others might consider boring, it was the experience of a lifetime for her. The colobus became the focus of her research after graduation, in 2015, with a Ph.D. in biological sciences and a certificate in geographic information science and technology from USC Dornsife.
Her work now uses remote imagery to measure changes in land cover and the loss of forest. She’s working on securing an unmanned aerial vehicle flyover of the area this summer.
“If you look at satellite imagery, you’ll still see nice green forest cover, but it’s not what the primates need,” she says. “There’s a lot of invasive species in the forest that are not the food source for the colobus. We want to look at vegetation species actually in the area.”
With more precise imagery, she can calculate how much of the remaining forest can actually feed the colobus.
Problem-solving for primate safety
Saving the Tana River colobus requires complex solutions. Part of their decline is due to dams upriver which, while providing much-needed clean energy to Kenya, have also altered the landscape.
“The river doesn’t flow naturally, so the forests have died out, and people who live on the natural floodplain can’t farm there anymore. They’ve been forced to go into the forest to farm in certain areas because that’s the only fertile land left,” says Loyola. “We try to mitigate our negative impact on the environment, and hydroelectricity is great, except when it causes these, literally and figuratively, downstream effects.”
Human conflict has also taken tole. This area of Kenya borders Somalia, which is plagued with terrorist attacks by the Muslim fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab. Refugees from the eastern river bank in Somalia are crowding villages on the western river bank in Kenya.
Climate change takes a toll, too. “Rainfall that would naturally have flooded the area twice a year doesn’t occur anymore,” she adds.
For Loyola, this means her future work would ideally take a broad scope.
“I would like to do a large geo-design intervention and come up with a plan that includes sustainable agriculture, irrigation schemes and forest management, and also consider what the different villages need and want.”
She has faith that this sort of layered, community-orientated approach to saving the colobus will work. On a recent visit to the Tana River, a village elder guided her to his grove of mango trees where a family of colobus monkeys lived.
“He was proud that they were there and he wasn’t trying to get rid of them because mango trees flourish,” says Loyola. “He said, ‘There’s plenty for me and for them.’”