Walking with primates

I’ve been meaning to finish this post for a while now – it’s been sitting in “draft” mode for the past couple of months. It took a talk by Nathan Wolfe at TED last week – live-blogged by good friends Erik Hersman and Ethan Zuckerman – which finally got me thinking again. Nathan’s talk on bush meat, primates and conservation in Africa drove Erik to make an impassioned call to action:

It really challenged me to think about local communities in Africa and their needs, and I’m thinking hard on what would it really take to replace this type of activity… Please, join me in thinking about this

Now, I’m no expert on primate conservation, bush meat hunting or conservation more broadly, but I did spend the best part of a year trying to understand it. Cercopan is a small NGO based in Calabar, southern Nigeria, which aims to “conserve Nigeria’s primates through sustainable rainforest conservation,  community partnerships,  education, primate rehabilitation and research”. I arrived there in late 2001 keen to understand what primate conservation really looked like – i.e. on the ground.

Chimp rescue, Lagos 2001

I wasn’t the only arrival that December day. A small baby chimpanzee had been confiscated (pictured) from a local market and was waiting to be collected from Lekki, a conservation and education centre in Lagos run by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Primate rescue was to be a theme of my time in Nigeria, as was a sense that a large part of the ‘conservation effort’ was really damage limitation and control. Rehabilitating orphaned primates was often the easier part – even though it was hugely challenging and distressing. Changing perceptions, overcoming local politics and trying to shift cultural mindsets turns out to be much harder. Not only that, it takes considerably longer, time that increasing numbers of species simply don’t have.

Primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation are all inextricably linked. Tackling one without trying to address the others simply doesn’t work. In its simplest form, the whole thing goes something like this.

Loggers enter the forest and either blanket cut or selectively cut trees. Paths and roads are opened up into areas which were previously difficult or impossible to access. Loggers need to eat, and many actively hunt for bush meat while working in the forest. Local hunters join in. As more trees are cut and more roads laid, hunters are able to penetrate deeper into the forest, reducing wildlife populations – primates included – yet further

If I were to summarise what I learnt about these complex issues from my time in southern Nigeria, I would break it down into the following categories.

The practical


Although large-scale logging is a significant problem – often carried out by larger (almost always foreign) companies – many poor local people are ‘recruited’ to help in the destruction. Equipped with chainsaws supplied by their employers, they enter community forests and national parks and selectively cut high-worth trees. Roads and paths are cut to remove the logs, which are sometimes cut into large planks before being shipped off. Forestry officials, many of whom haven’t been paid for months, stamp the trees as coming from a legitimate source. I will never forget the haunting sound of distant chainsaws as I walked through those forests.

The cultural

orphanSpeaking with the locals in Calabar, many find it inconceivable that people would ever eat primates. In many communities it’s simply taboo, but sadly the same can’t be said for killing them. As outsiders come in search of work, and as main roads open up alongside the fringes of rainforest, hunters from these communities will go in, track down wildlife – primates included – and sell them at the side of the the road. Bush meat is in great demand (see below), and it’s a brisk trade. If a mother is killed then the infant will be sold as a pet – a double bounty for the hunter. Some of these orphans are incredibly young, and barely alive if they are lucky enough to be rescued, as this picture distressingly shows.

The perception

The many Nigerians I met believed that bush meat was much better for you than ‘farmed’ meat, and given the choice they’d rather eat something from the forest than a farm. This is a major challenge for conservation groups trying to ween people off bush meat and more towards livestock of various descriptions (see below). As a case in point, some Nigerians living in London appear to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for illegally imported bush meat, despite the availability of almost any other kind of meat from legal, local sources such as London supermarkets (see this interesting story reported by the International Primate Protection League).

The response

Conservation groups on the ground spend huge amounts of time on education and alternative livelihoods and farming programmes. In the 1990’s there was considerable focus on the potential for “grasscutters” – a widely-distributed cane rat found in West and Central Africa – and how farming and breeding these could help reduce or replace reliance on bush meat for protein. I’m not sure how many of these projects were successful, although some research has been carried out and there has been some success by individuals in Ghana. From my own observations, keeping livestock of any kind (other than chickens or turkeys, which need little looking after) turned out to be a foreign concept to many people, and efforts to promote it largely failed.

The reality

Dead guenonSpeak with the hunters in almost any rural community and there is almost universal recognition that the wildlife is on the decline. Many fondly speak of overnight hunting expeditions with their fathers, and how they’d return the next morning with a healthy ‘catch’. Evidence of distant permanent overnight camps highlight today’s reality – longer trips, days in length, but ones which still don’t guarantee a single kill. Urban dwellers rarely see this reality. Ask them about conservation and wildlife, and their reaction is one of “the monkeys will never finish” (Nigerians often use the term “finish” to describe extinction). Nigerians clearly have much to learn from each other.

It would have been great to have ended my time in Nigeria with a solution to some of these problems, and even better to be able to outline a few of them in this post. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

What I can contribute is this, though…

Things you can do

Firstly, take a little time to try and understand the problems – plural. It frustrates me to read blanket condemnation in the western media of local people in African countries cutting down forests and daring to kill cute chimpanzees. Yes, it’s sad and its destructive. I’ve seen at first hand the pain and distress of an orphaned primate who’s had to have an arm broken to release the grip on its dead mother, or the look in the eyes of exhausted parents struggling to put a decent meal on the table for their children. The problems are complex, but they’re human and animal.

Secondly, join a local organisation working with local communities on the ground. If you’re interested in African primates in particular, a good place to start out is the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), an organisation committed to the conservation and care of African primates through the support of in-situ sanctuaries.

Thirdly, if you’re the volunteering kind, check out the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net, but bear in mind that volunteering is really only productive if the local organisation can’t find, or afford, a local version of you among the communities in which they work. If that’s the case, be sure you have a transferrable skill so you can train a local person to replace you when you leave. Sustainability isn’t always financial – it also has a human element to it, too.

Finally, find out about alternative conservation/human strategies such as direct conservation payments – different models do exist. Just as primate species are different, so must be the conservation strategies to help protect them. One size rarely fits all, and this is true whether you’re an elephant, a forest, a primate or a local villager.

16 thoughts on “Walking with primates

  1. Pingback: MadNihilist
  2. Pingback: madnihilist
  3. Pingback: Janet A. Ginsburg
  4. Pingback: trackernews
  5. Pingback: changefeed
  6. Pingback: Ken Banks
  7. Pingback: kiwanja
  8. hash says:

    Thanks for this post Ken. I had forgotten that you spent a great deal of time dealing with just this issue. It’s such a compelling problem to try to tackle, especially when you add in the points by Nathan Wolfe on how this is the prime point where animal borne diseases pass over to humans (AIDS, etc).

    With those large stakes, it’s a real question of why we pay so little attention to finding solutions.

  9. kiwanja says:

    Hey Erik

    Thanks for the comment.

    In short response, there ARE people paying significant amounts of attention to finding solutions, but they have little visibility and work in extremely difficult and challenging conditions. Having seen how much work goes into rescuing one primate, or educating one person, or convincing one local politician to do the right thing, there are many times it seems like a thankless task.

    I’ve met Willie before (working with orangutans – who also spoke at TED). He works TIRELESSLY but with 1,000 orphans and forests set ablaze every year, you can see what he’s up against.

  10. Pingback: Ken Banks
  11. Pingback: Ken Banks
  12. Pingback: Ken Banks

Comments are closed.