Primates in Human-Modified and Fragmented Landscapes: The Conservation Relevance of Modelling Habitat and Disturbance Factors in Density Estimation.

Research paper by Nathalie N Cavada, Claudia C Barelli, Marco M Ciolli, Francesco F Rovero

Indexed on: 06 Feb '16Published on: 06 Feb '16Published in: PloS one


Accurate density estimations of threatened animal populations is essential for management and conservation. This is particularly critical for species living in patchy and altered landscapes, as is the case for most tropical forest primates. In this study, we used a hierarchical modelling approach that incorporates the effect of environmental covariates on both the detection (i.e. observation) and the state (i.e. abundance) processes of distance sampling. We applied this method to already published data on three arboreal primates of the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania, including the endangered and endemic Udzungwa red colobus (Procolobus gordonorum). The area is a primate hotspot at continental level. Compared to previous, 'canonical' density estimates, we found that the inclusion of covariates in the modelling makes the inference process more informative, as it takes in full account the contrasting habitat and protection levels among forest blocks. The correction of density estimates for imperfect detection was especially critical where animal detectability was low. Relative to our approach, density was underestimated by the canonical distance sampling, particularly in the less protected forest. Group size had an effect on detectability, determining how the observation process varies depending on the socio-ecology of the target species. Lastly, as the inference on density is spatially-explicit to the scale of the covariates used in the modelling, we could confirm that primate densities are highest in low-to-mid elevations, where human disturbance tend to be greater, indicating a considerable resilience by target monkeys in disturbed habitats. However, the marked trend of lower densities in unprotected forests urgently calls for effective forest protection.