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Selling Their Future

Tim Hyland
Drexel Magazine

November 27, 2012 —

Bioko Monkey

The secretive, little-understood drill monkey has thrived for centuries on the African island of Bioko. But with hunting pressures now pushing the species to the brink, Drexel researchers are fighting back—and working to convince islanders that the monkeys, and the biodiversity they represent, are worth a great deal more than the $300 they fetch at market.

Three-hundred dollars.

That’s the going rate for a dead drill monkey on the island of Bioko these days.

Three-hundred dollars.

It’s a nice chunk of change on Bioko, a stunningly beautiful but deeply isolated and impoverished island located 20 miles off the coast of Cameroon, on the West Coast of Africa, in the nation of Equatorial Guinea. Indeed, $300 is more than most islanders will make in a month, and a hefty portion of what many will make in a year.

Three-hundred dollars.

For that, a discerning buyer—mostly, the folks who work for the government, the ones who’ve escaped the forests and work in air-conditioned offices and are perceived to have “made it”—can cook up the local delicacy that is drill monkey, a primate species that has lived on the island for centuries, but suddenly finds itself pushed to the brink, and for just one reason: Hunting.

Three-hundred dollars.

This, it seems, is the price point at which the islanders of Bioko—or, at least, some of them—are willing to sell the future of not only the drill monkey, or the other six monkey species on the island, but the very environmental stability of the island itself—a place that, despite its isolation and despite the political instability that so dominates Equatorial Guinea, holds vast potential, not only as an important venue for scientific research, but also as a future destination in the fast-growing eco-tourism market.

Three-hundred dollars.

It’s a symbolic sum, and a powerful sum, and on Bioko, a pretty large sum. It’s also what a small group of Drexel researchers are currently waging war against. But the clock is ticking, and right now, the money is winning.

Deceased Bioko Monkey


An Accidental Documentarian

So far as drill-monkey documentarians go, Shaya Honarvar is certainly not the norm. While it is true that Honarvar has found herself engaged in some pretty serious drill monkey research on Bioko over the past few years, and while it is also true that her work will culminate this fall with the debut of a documentary, set to be aired on African television about the perilous state of the Bioko drills, the simple truth of the matter is that Honarvar, a Drexel research associate in biology, is not an expert in drill monkeys at all. Or even monkeys in general. Rather, Honarvar is a sea-turtle specialist.

It was her work studying the similarly imperiled olive ridley sea turtles of the Pacific—like the monkeys, the turtles are being threatened by human pressures, rather than environmental ones—that sent her to the island in the first place. She made her first trip to Bioko in 2007, when she was still a student at Drexel, and has returned every year since.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that she even thought about the monkeys that now occupy so much of her time. And the only reason she got interested in them, it seems, was boredom.

“The turtle work is mostly done during the night, and during the day we didn’t have a lot to do,” explains Honarvar, who earned her Ph.D. from Drexel and previously studied the olive ridley sea turtles of Central America. “You’re there out in the forest, there is nothing else to do, so you’re always looking for other things to distract you. That’s basically how it started.”

Though they had spent the entirety of their early years on the island focused on the leatherbacks, Honarvar and her team—including volunteer Justin Jay, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources who was the first to propose the drill project—had always been aware of the monkeys. It would have been nearly impossible not to be aware of them.

The monkeys are indeed extremely private (as the filmmakers would later find out) but because they are so densely populated on Bioko—populations here are three times what can be found elsewhere in the world—the researchers saw them often. But while the monkeys were seen, they most certainly weren’t understood. By anybody.

What did the drills actually do out there in the forest? How did they live? What did they eat? Just how badly had the hunting pressure damaged the populations as a whole?

These were questions to which nobody seemed to know the answers.

“When we started out, it was really just us basically walking around the forest trying to find these animals,” Honarvar says. “I had seen them, but only when they were running away from us. It was almost a case of us just being curious about them. How close could we get to these animals? It started out as a game and then just became more serious.”

And as the work became more serious, so, too, did Honarvar and Jay’s investment in it. They started to see the little side-project as much more than that; rather than something to pass the time, they saw the opportunity to make a real contribution—scientifically, and culturally—not only to the drills, but to the island as well. They also learned fairly quickly that the drills weren’t going to make the work easy.

Indeed, even as the team found that shockingly little research had actually been done on the drills, they were also learning precisely why the dearth of research existed. The monkeys, skittish around humans because of the unrelenting hunting pressures, were not easy to get near. In fact, Honarvar and her team found it nearly impossible.

“The goal was to have pictures and videos of them, because we know that nobody had done that with drills in the wild,” she says. “So we started taking our camera with us. But we realized we were never going to be able to take pictures. They hear the [click] of the camera and they’re gone.” In a sense, the monkeys’ fear of humans proved to be a blessing, as the problems with the click cameras ultimately drove Honarvar to video—and by extension, to the documentary. The video cameras were comparatively much quieter than the still cameras, and so long as the researchers sufficiently hid themselves—which they eventually did, thanks to a series of elaborately designed blinds that they set up all throughout the forest—they found they could, in fact, get close enough to the monkeys to get the footage they needed.

With it, they would be able to start collecting data that scientists had been seeking for years. Unwittingly, they also took their first steps toward producing a film that could change the way the islanders look at the monkeys—and the island as a whole.


A Focus on Biodiversity

Gail Hearn says she wasn’t all that interested in drill monkeys at the start.

Long before Hearn ever set foot on Bioko, long before she established the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP) and long before she moved the entire BBPP project over to Drexel in 2007, she was a professor of biology at nearby Arcadia University.

As part of her work at Arcadia, Hearn and her students became aware of an ambitious project to establish a drill colony at the Philadelphia Zoo. It was an effort that proved to be unsuccessful—and Hearn’s students wanted to find out why. Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to help find out.

“Gradually it was decided that we would go over to look for drills in Africa—to try get a feel for how they lived and why the program at the zoo wasn’t working,” Hearn recalls. “We went to Cameroon in West Africa, and we saw leaves that had been moved by the drills, but never saw the drills themselves. That wasn’t very satisfying. But then we heard in 1990 that there was an excellent [research site] on an island that had been isolated from the rest of the world. We ended up going to Bioko in 1990, and we found plenty of drills, but the thing I fell in love with, really, was the island. I just thought it was a spectacular place.”

And by all accounts, that’s exactly what it is: An island covered in a rain forest of stunning beauty—lush and green thanks to the 35 feet of rain that falls each year—accented by soaring cliffs, cascading waterfalls and, of course, incredibly diverse wildlife. It is home to one of the greatest concentrations of primates (the drills included) in all of Africa, a dizzying array of butterflies and nearly 200 species of birds. To the north, there is the Pico Basile National Park, and north of that, the island’s one commercial center—the capital city of Malabo, home to 100,000 residents, many of whom who work in the oil business. It is not a completely pristine place, but it’s certainly a unique place—and to Hearn’s mind, one worth saving.

“It wasn’t so much about the drill monkeys,” she says. “It was about the biodiversity. Could we save the spectacular ecosystems of this island? I never had any illusions about being Jane Goodall. I was married. I had kids. I never really wanted to live out in the rainforest in a tent for weeks and weeks at a time. But I did feel this was a place where I could make a difference.”

Bioko Monkey Camp

Bioko’s drill monkeys were once found throughout the entire island. Today, because of hunting, they are restricted to just two protected areas.

Through the BBPP, that’s precisely what she’s set out to do. First launched in 1997, the program has grown into an academic partnership between Drexel and the Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial, with the stated aim of helping conserve the island’s remarkable biodiversity. The drills, it seems, stand at the center of the effort. According to BBPP officials, the “dramatic loss” of population among the island’s seven monkey species represents the most immediate threat to the island’s long-term environmental health. Though it’s been difficult to get an exact estimate of just how many drills, for instance, live on the island, both Honarvar and Hearn say their team has been able to compile enough data to conclude that hunting pressures have done serious and perhaps lasting damage. More than that, they say that if the hunting is allowed to continue, the drills could very well be pushed to the brink.

The most depressing thing about that, they say, is this: The carnage could be stopped tomorrow.

That is, if the government actually wanted it to stop. “It’s so easy,” Honarvar says. “You just take the guns away.”

“The single biggest pressure on the drills is hunting. When they take the guns away, the hunting goes down. We have data showing this. [But] when they stop enforcing the laws, [deaths] go back up.”


Changing a Culture

The hunting of monkeys is illegal on Bioko. And in years past, when the government has decided, for whatever reason, to actually enforce the anti-hunting laws, the impact has been both plainly apparent and immediate.

Putting it bluntly, Honarvar says, when the hunting is banned, dead monkeys stop showing up at the markets.

“The single biggest pressure on the drills is hunting,” Honarvar says. “When they take the guns away, the hunting goes down. We have data showing this. In 2007, the president came out with a decree banning the hunting of monkeys, and we went out to count dead monkeys in the markets. Very quickly, that number went down to zero—and then, when they stop enforcing the law, it goes back up. Later, the minister of the interior started talking to people in the markets, telling them that they were no longer allowed to sell monkeys. Again, the number of dead monkeys went down to zero. But within a couple of months, it shot back up again.”

“I think the population is on the cusp, yes,” Hearn adds. “We’re trying to do what we can, but the reality is, it’s very easy to save the monkeys. The government merely has to enforce its own laws. They could do it in a day if they wanted to.”

Of course, that’s much easier said than done. And cultural differences—differences between the way Hearn and Honarvar see the rainforest, and how Bioko islanders see the rain forest—are the biggest reason why.

To the Drexel researchers, Bioko is a treasure—a gift to the world of science, a refuge for untold number of species, and one of the last remaining bastions of unspoiled rain forest in the world. But to the islanders? Well, to most of them, it’s just home. And the rainforest, while romantic and rare to many outsiders, is to them mostly an annoyance—a place they mostly want to get away from, not return to, and certainly not a place they believe needs to be “saved.”

“Making it” in Bioko, Hearn says, means landing a cushy job in an air-conditioned office, working behind a computer and making enough money to live well in Malabo. “Making it” most certainly does not mean doing research in the rain forest. It’s this gulf of perspectives that has made selling residents on “saving” the island so difficult.

By extension, it’s made their efforts to convince government officials to enforce hunting laws nearly impossible.

“In many cases it’s the people in the government who are eating the monkeys, and who profit from the hunting of the monkeys,” Hearn says. “Now, there are forces of good in the government who realize that [preservation] is important for the long-term pride of the people in that country. They know that the opportunity is there for ecotourism, but while the monkeys are present in incredible density on the island, when you walk through the forest, you don’t see the money. If the people decide that it’s important to save them, though, then the government is forced to act; the forces of good would use that groundswell of support to say, ‘Yes, we can enforce these laws,’ and the forces of bad would say, ‘Yes, I guess we have to.’”

In a sense, this is where the film comes in. It is one of the biggest weapons the Drexel team has in its public relations war to win over the islanders.

Set to air in mid-November on Equatorial Guinea TV, the film simply deals with facts and reality. It presents the drills as Honravar and her team saw them in the wild—which, notably, is not how most islanders have seen them.

For so many islanders, Honarvar says, the monkeys are only seen as they are presented in the market—as a commodity.

In the wild, however, they can be seen for what they are: Highly social, deeply family-oriented animals who live much like we do. At market, they are presented as commodity; in the wild, they are mothers and fathers and babies.

“The local people have never seen the drills like this,” Honarvar says. “They only see them when they’re dead, in the market. I want to show them as a social group, to show people that they are just like us. They really are very close to humans. They interact with each other, they start out as little babies and they grow up.”

It is Honarvar’s hope that being able to see what she has seen will convince locals that the monkeys shouldn’t be eaten, and the hunters that the monkeys shouldn’t be shot. And make no mistake, she says, at the moment, the hunters show no mercy in pursuit of their $300: Babies are just as likely to be sold as adults.

“The hunters will kill whatever they can,” she says. “They’ll kill a mother with infants. They’ll eat the mother and sell the baby.”

In other words, yes, there is much work to be done—and a huge gap to be closed. Neither Hearn nor Honarvar believe that winning over the islanders, or saving the forest, will be easy. It may take years and, ultimately, it may never happen at all. But they say the effort—the film, the research, the students working at the site via study abroad, the engagement with locals, the BBPP project—is more than worth it.

“Something like this film is just part of the process,” Hearn says. “As you have people seeing more and more things—posters, brochures, town meetings—that tell them they shouldn’t be eating the wildlife, or that in the long run they need to keep the animals in the forest because it might be the [economic] answer when the oil runs out, it helps. And really, there’s no quicker way to get the message than to put a film on national television.”

If and when the islanders do tune in, Honarvar says, the message they get will be fairly simple.

There will be talk about the importance of biodiversity and talk about the promise of ecotourism, there will be talk about the monkey’s familial habits and talk of their importance to the overall health of the forest.

But at it’s core, the argument from the filmmakers, and from BBPP, is much more blunt.

That message is this: The clock is ticking. To save the monkeys. And, in a sense, to save the island, too.

Says Honarvar: “This is not our film. This is their film. It’s about their country, and it’s about their wildlife.”


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