Ten years ago the forests of Ivory Coast were full of the hoots and howls of more than a dozen primate species. No more.

Today the west African nation is much quieter. The forests are mostly gone and the monkeys that they once held aren’t far behind. Several species have become critically endangered. One may now be extinct.

The cause? Chocolate.

More specifically, the problem is cocoa (Theobroma cacao), the key ingredient in chocolate and related products. Ivory Coast provides more than one third of the world’s cocoa supply—1.7 million metric tons last year—which is enough to create an awful lot of chocolate Easter bunnies.

Unfortunately all of that cocoa comes with a cost. According to a paper published last week in Tropical Conservation Science, a significant portion of the Ivory Coast’s protected forests have been chopped down over the past few years to make room for illegal cocoa farms.

“We weren’t expecting pristine forest in any of these places, but we were not expecting the scale of these cocoa farms,” says W. Scott McGraw, a professor of anthropology at Ohio State University (O.S.U.) and one of the paper’s co-authors. McGraw and his fellow researchers surveyed 23 protected areas and found that seven of them had been completely converted into farms. About 80 percent of that land was dedicated to growing cocoa.

 

cocoa beans drying in the sun

Cocoa beans drying in the sun.

 

An additional 13 protected areas also contained illegal cocoa farms. All told, more than 74 percent of the supposedly protected forests the researchers surveyed had been taken over by cocoa farms.

All of this deforestation, combined with the hunting that accompanies it, has had a devastating impact on Ivory Coast’s primates. Five of the surveyed protected areas were found to have lost half of their primate species. Another 13, the researchers found, were completely devoid of primates.

Three species from Ivory Coast’s easternmost forests appear to have suffered the most. The roloway monkey (Cercopithecus roloway) and the white-naped mangabey (Cercocebus atys lunulatus) were only spotted in two reserves. Each is currently considered endangered; the researchers recommend they now be listed as critically endangered. The survey was not able to locate a third species, the Miss Waldron's red colobus (Piliocolobus badius waldronae) and consider it likely to be extinct.

The roloway monkey typifies why some of Ivory Coast’s monkey populations have crashed. “It’s a beautiful animal, very intelligent and very active, but just does not seem to do well outside of undisturbed forest,” McGraw says. The species also has adapted to a very specialized diet. “It’s a ripe-fruit specialist that requires fruit from high-canopy trees, which unfortunately are in increasingly short supply.”

 

Poached monkeys

 

Degraded forests aren’t the only threat roloway monkeys face. “It’s also a pretty easy monkey to find because it’s loud,” McGraw says. “Hunters can locate it quickly.” He considers it a likely candidate for the next extinction in Ivory Coast.

There is good news, however. McGraw points to a community-based bio-monitoring program set up by O.S.U. and funded by a variety of conservation organizations as an example of something that can help. The program converts former poachers and farmers into wildlife guardians. “They go in and get rid of snares,” he says. “When they find new cocoa saplings, they cut them down. They chase poachers out. It’s had a very, very positive impact.” In just four years the number of primates in the forests where this program operates has increased 37 percent.

McGraw concedes that the program is hard to fund. “We’re always scrambling to find money but it appears to be working.”

Outside of those areas, however, McGraw expects the cocoa problem to continue to take over more habitats and threaten more primates. “There are very few primates that can thrive in a cocoa plantation, legal or otherwise,” he says.

What can consumers do? For one thing, McGraw recommends that they look for cocoa that is shade-grown, as opposed to most of the cocoa farms they observed which used a “full-sun” method, where all of the natural trees had been cut down and the wildlife wiped out. In addition, certification programs such as Fair Trade help ensure that cocoa comes from sustainable sources.

Despite the terrible news, McGraw appears somewhat hopeful. “There are primates that are hanging in there,” he reports. “If we can bring some of this forest back, they can rebound.” If not, there may be more bitter-tasting news in the future.

Photos courtesy of Ohio State University

Previously in Extinction Countdown: