The conservation world shuddered when scientists declared Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey extinct in 2000. Believed to be the first close relative of humans to disappear in more than two centuries, the little monkey's loss dramatized the need to save West Africa's remote forests and stoked fears of an extinction wave across the continent.
Now, just like the ivory-billed woodpecker that made a Lazarus-like appearance in Arkansas two weeks ago, Miss Waldron's monkey may be alive after all. An article in the June International Journal of Primatology will document tantalizing evidence of the animal's existence in the remote reaches of southeastern Ivory Coast.
Extinction, it turns out, may not always mean forever. As researchers rush to document the world's fast disappearing species, the "gone-for-good" label has become peppered with reversals, ambiguity, controversy and intense public interest. Proving the absence of a species is exceedingly difficult. Scientists argue over how long a final search for a species should last. Others disagree over which groups of organisms can even be declared extinct. The answers are important, researchers say, because conservation efforts are often molded around species at risk for extinction, particularly charismatic ones.
"Species close to extinction are generally recognized as priorities for conservation.... You want to get it right," said Larry Master, chief zoologist for NatureServe, a nonprofit group that assesses the status of species and ecosystems. The group says that every year a few U.S. species of plants, animals and insects are rediscovered.
"It's not good for scientific credibility to have these (species) coming on and off the lists all the time," Master said.