News and analysis
November 03, 2010

A Philanthropist Who Usually Shuns Attention Lends His Name to a Rare Monkey

Martin Aveling/Fauna & Flora International

Sandy Weill has Weill Cornell Medical College. Eli Broad, the Eli Broad College of Business, the Broad Institute, and the Broad Foundation. And Jon Stryker has the Rhinopithecus strykeri.

The newly discovered species of monkey was named after Mr. Stryker, the philanthropist and founder of the Arcus Foundation, by the charity that identified the creatures in Myanmar this summer.

Mr. Stryker has eschewed most opportunities to name scholarships, programs, and other acts of philanthropy after himself, but he says he was touched by this particular gesture.

“It made me feel good about the work we’re doing,” says Mr. Stryker, who has been interested in primates since he was a child and, as a college student, spent several weeks in the jungle on a monkey-research project. “I care a lot and had known quite a bit about monkeys, but I never dreamed I would have one named after me.”

The scientists who discover new species have the right to christen the animals, and once in a while they choose to name the beasts after a benefactor of their research. Last month, for example, scientists at the University of Texas announced that they had named a kind of dinosaur they had just discovered the Sarahsaurus, after a donor.

But the Rhinopithecus stry­keri is a living, breathing, critter, albeit an endangered one. Fauna and Flora International estimates that just 330 of the monkeys are alive now and that increased hunting stemming from road building by Chinese companies in the creatures’ isolated home in northern Myanmar threatens their existence.

'I Thought It Was a Joke’

Mr. Stryker found out about the honor in a rather unceremonious way: through a text message. At the time, he was in Borneo checking out another project supported by his Kalamazoo, Mich., foundation, which is the largest private donor to great-apes conservation. Since 2003 it has contributed more than $30-million to the cause. (To read more about his foundation’s giving, see this profile of Mr. Stryker, an heir to a medical-supply company fortune, from The Chronicle’s archive.) The message delivered the news that a new monkey species had been identified, and the charity wanted Mr. Stryker’s permission to name it after him. More information would soon follow, the message said.

“It was a pretty peculiar message,” he says. “I thought it was a joke at first.”

But the team at the Cambridge, England, charity was quite serious. Mr. Stryker’s Arcus fund, which has been a supporter of the group since 2003, paid for the survey of gibbons that the charity’s employees were conducting when they identified the monkey species. Without that money, says Rosalind Aveling, the group’s deputy chief executive and director of conservation partnerships, “we might have got there eventually but only found a few skulls and skins.”

“It was an easy decision for us and thrilling to be able to honor [Mr. Stryker’s] contribution to primate conservation in this way,” Ms. Aveling wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “In the field of primate conservation, there is nothing comparable in focus to the Arcus Great Apes Fund arising from private philanthropy.”

Keeping Quiet

Both Fauna and Flora International and Mr. Stryker had to keep quiet about the monkey for some months, though, so the discovery could be documented properly and news of it published in a scientific journal. No photographs exist of the monkey, so the charity commissioned an artist’s rendering.

Ms. Aveling notes that the group wondered what Mr. Stryker would think of the odd-looking animal. The Rhinopithecus strykeri monkey isn’t exactly a looker. It is referred to in local dialect as “mey nwoah,” or “monkey with an upturned face,” and it has a tail far longer than its body and a snub nose that collects water when it rains and causes the monkey to sneeze.

But it turns out the group didn’t have to worry about Mr. Stryker’s reaction to the visage of the monkeys.

“They are the most beautiful monkeys I have ever seen,” says Mr. Stryker. “They do have unusual noses, but I thought they were very, very cool.”