Wahala In Nigeria
Spending three weeks in the midst of the largest population of endangered drill monkeys in the world, where time is only measured by sunsets and the growing number of red spots on your hands.
(Wahala is the common local parlance for troubles).
Photo: Aditi Rajagopal.
Calabar used to be called the point of no return, the port from where pepper, tobacco and slaves were shipped off to Britain until the 18th century. But flying into it last month was a remarkably different journey for me. I was entering the nearest airport to Pandrillus Drill Ranch, home to some of the most endangered mammals in Africa – 600 drill monkeys. For the next three weeks my crew and I lived in the African bush to film a landmark event in primate conservation: the reintroduction of almost 200 drill monkeys into their natural habitat after five generations bred in semi-captivity.
Driving five hours north in Cross River state, we first passed a series of tiny villages, including one famous for being inhabited by cannibals, to finally reach the tiny town of Ikom – the closest town to the Ranch. We hired a 10-seater bus – to fit the three of us and our equipment – and began our rickety four-hour journey northeast towards the Cameroon border. As dusk turned into night, and we bounced along the broken road deeper into denser forest, everything seemed to turn larger and more sinister. Our engine’s sounds were engulfed by the trill of a million forest insects and swallowed by the darkness of the night. And as our two tiny beams tried to fight it, the forest responded with the dance of hundreds of fireflies, flashing their yellow flashes beside our windows, as the bright stars shimmered in the dark sky above.
At 10 pm. that night – past midnight in forest terms – we reached base camp. We were escorted down a forest path with no lights except the moon’s, warned to keep our eyes on the ground to sidestep snakes, and reached a little clearing with a shack in the middle (shack might be an exaggeration for the ceiling and floor on stilts held together by bamboo sticks). We tied our mosquito nets in the light of our phones – after taping tears and gaps together – covered our mattresses and fell asleep to the deafening silence of the forest.
Photo: Aditi Rajagopal.
The psychedelic drills
The first day began with a walking tour of the Ranch, which has housed these bizarre-looking monkeys – rescued from poachers, farms, human habitations and markets - for almost three decades. The five sq. km. property is divided into six large enclosures for the drills – ranging from the wildest to the tamest – and one massive enclosure for rescued chimpanzees. Group 1 – the oldest and wildest – were the celebrities for the moment as they were being prepared for a life in the wild. They were probably perplexed by so many visitors, but were sufficiently distracted when their wheelbarrow of bananas, mangoes, avocados and a local nutrient-high preparation called moiymoiy was trundled in. Group 1 comprised a super group of 198 drills (including a baby named Release that was born in the week before the move), made up of five or six regular groups. In the wild, drills are thought to live in groups of 20 or 30 that come together to form super groups once every year or so, to share genes and stay healthy. Males and females are starkly different, with the adult male growing to weigh about 50 kg., while females remain at around 20 kg. While their bodies are grey-brown, the alphas develop the brightest pink chin and the most vibrant blue, pink and purple hues on their rumps, making them seem like animals out of a childhood fantasy or a hallucination. The drills in the sanctuary are one of two subspecies – mainland drills (the others are called Bioko drills) – and comprise almost a fifth of all the drills left in the world. They spend their days foraging for fruits and insects on the ground and climb up on trees at sunset to spend their nights. Their fights can be vicious and even end in violent death.
Crisis in Cross River
Pandrillus was established by an American couple almost thirty years ago. Peter Jenkins and Liza Gadsby were travelling across West Africa in their youth. When they heard about the dying drills, they never left. Both say that even in all their years at Cross River, they have never seen a drill in the wild – a strong indicator of just how rare these monkeys are. Their aim when they started the organisation was to repopulate the Afi Mountain Sanctuary with these amazing primates, ensuring that they remain alive and free from threats.
And the threats are all too real. Not even a day went by without the sound of a gunshot in the distance – making everyone at the camp cringe with the fear that the primate number had fallen further from the already negligible count – and the rumble of logging trucks always made our hearts sink a little. Cocoa farms have mushroomed all over prime forestland. Nigeria is suffering from a wide spectrum of issues from poverty to poor health care, from communal and religious extremism to very limited law enforcement. And with tackling violence, AIDS and corruption much higher on the agenda, conserving natural resources is not receiving its due attention.
Realising that without the involvement and support of nearby communities, the release could be just a death trap for the monkeys, Peter and Liza spent many months talking to the chiefs of the villages surrounding the forest. They sent out the village crier to call for a meeting before the release so they could address farmers, hunters and the general public and explain the situation and their predicament. They promised compensation to anyone who reported the sighting of a drill in their farm or habitation, and vowed to send a team immediately to rehabilitate that drill.
In the Palm of Afi Mountain
I spent many evenings in the village of Buanchor, the closest to the camp, from where many villagers are employed as keepers, watchmen, labourers and cooks. With no phone signal or Internet for miles, Buanchor sits in the palm of the Afi mountain range and is as beautiful and surreal as one can imagine. Little children run about with their red feet on the red earth, which sees an incredible amount of rainfall. Every spell magically concludes with a rainbow against the light grey clouds, as a thick mist rises from the base of the surrounding mountains. Families sit together outside their tenements under Kola nut trees, playing a game of cards or eating roasted African pear, and in the evenings, everybody gets together to enjoy a cup (or five) of palm wine. Talking to the locals, it was evident that they were aware of the importance of the sanctuary and the monkeys – especially because the local school children have an entire course dedicated to environmental science and tourism – they do seem to have their own grouses about safety: both their own and of their produce, but things are beginning to change with open and free discussions with Pandrillus. Limuzinų ir automobilių nuoma Panevėžyje http://www.toplimo.lt/lt/automobiliu-nuoma-panevezyje
Back at camp, they had problems of their own. Five males were identified to be collared with satellite tags before the release, based on their potential to become alpha, as their group divides. One of the males, Sinquala, either anticipated this or just felt he had had enough of family life, and escaped from the enclosure (a testament to the monkeys’ intelligence is their understanding of the fences and means to get out. They have figured out that at a certain age and size they can fit perfectly through certain parts of the high voltage fence, as long as their feet don’t touch the earth at the same time!) All of the camp went into a tizzy looking for Sinquala the week before the release, but he was way too clever. Every time there was a sighting, he would never return to the same place again. Finally after two weeks of trying, we gave up, concluding that if he had in fact given up family life, he would probably not make alpha anyway.
Photo: Aditi Rajagopal.
A walk into the wild
In the week leading up to the release, five male drills were flawlessly darted, collared, rested and returned to their families. The release plan was finalised, the trail cleared and the whole team held a conclusive meeting so everyone was on the same page. The head keeper Ema (for Emmanuel) began the voyage. He walked through the massive enclosure with measured steps, pushing his wheelbarrow and leading the monkeys like Pied Piper, towards the undone section of the fence that opened out onto the trail. Males, females, juveniles, and suckling babies hanging onto their mothers followed him out into a world that most of them had never seen before. The cameras we had set up caught them looking around, some confused, some frightened, some only looking at the bananas as Ema walked unwaveringly into the woods.
The story doesn’t end there of course. Many of the monkeys returned that night, and most of the team spent the next few days hiding out in the forest and in the farms to ensure the monkeys stayed in the right patch of forest, until they find their own little niches in the woods. The radios didn’t stop beeping as everybody had to stay in constant touch and continue to do so. If the trial does indeed prove successful, the team will move on to Group 2, slowly repopulating the mountain the drill monkeys once claimed as their own.
Photo: Aditi Rajagopal.
Aditi Rajagopal lives in Bristol and is currently working on a short film on light pollution and glowworms in the UK. She has worked with several conservation organisations in India over the past few years and loves nothing more than the sounds of the rainforest or a wave crashing over her head.
Author: Aditi Rajagopal, Sanctuary Asia, Web Special.