With 11 species of primates and large stretches of as-yet-unspoiled forest habitat, Bioko Island (which lies just 20 miles off the west coast of Africa) has the highest primate density of any African country. That’s according to Justin Jay, Program Co-Director of The Drill Project. Justin returned for a repeat visit to the IPPL sanctuary on December 30 and gave us an update about his IPPL-funded conservation work on the island with the enigmatic drill monkey.
Right now, says Justin, Equatorial Guinea (of which Bioko Island is a part) is the 6thleast-visited country on earth. Those expats who make it there are mostly diplomats and oil workers who have come to work in the wake of the 1990s’ oil boom in the Gulf of Guinea.
That could change, however. A road to the small, once-isolated village of Ureca on Bioko’s south coast has just been paved, Justin reported, which bisects the mostly-pristine southern third of the island, opening it up to development. A journey to Ureca that once took 10 hours can now be completed in 30 minutes.
That may sound like progress to some, but to Justin that sounds like trouble. Already trucks are driving in loaded with modern consumer goods that the villagers will likely be tempted to purchase by selling bushmeat: a shift in values that could be disastrous for the people, their traditional ways, and their forest-dwelling neighbors—especially the drill monkeys.
Drills are large-bodied, terrestrial primates. Because they are so hard to keep in captivity and so elusive in the wild, very little is known about how they interact with their natural environment. Most of what we know (or think we know) about drills comes from a few captive studies and from comparing them with their close cousins, the colorful mandrills.
But the Drill Project team members have, remarkably, collected lots of data on wild drills. Not only that, the animals they have studied so far have been unhabituated to humans. Unlike most other primate field workers, Justin has never attempted to encourage the drills to calmly accept the presence of human observers. Instead, he believes that a healthy fear of our species is something he would like to preserve.
The best way to observe these unhabituated animals, he has found, is to sit in a blind (essentially a camouflaged pop-up tent) set up opposite a likely-looking fig tree for eight hours at a stretch and wait quietly for the drills to arrive and feed; since 90 percent of the drills’ diet consists of figs, on a good day this tactic will net him 45 to 50 minutes of video.
That may not sound like much for all that work, but in fact it is an extraordinary achievement. Primatologists have described the drills’ elusive nature as “legendary,” with the bulk of their research conducted by methods such as fecal sample collection. Direct observational data of drills in the wild has been largely absent from our understanding of these animals.
With the Drill Project, on the other hand, Justin has captured hours upon hours of footage, and his in-person observations are being augmented by data from camera traps he has bought with IPPL grant money. Some of the footage will be studied for ecological research; some has already been put to good use making educational films to encourage the people of Bioko to protect their native wildlife. While the sale and consumption of primates was technically banned by presidential decree in 2007, in practice the government has so far failed to take meaningful action to prosecute such activities. It is going to take an educational campaign to win over hearts and minds to the cause of conservation.
At the moment, Justin is primarily concerned that unregulated development around Ureca could be an ecological disaster. So his message to the villagers is this: if they do it right, they are sitting on a gold mine. The region is a natural paradise, and Justin believes that eco-tourists would flock to the area’s sparkling waterfalls, volcanic beaches, and intact forests for a chance to view nesting sea turtles and frolicking monkeys. While the drills themselves are hard to spot, in one hour’s walk you are still guaranteed to see three or four groups of other monkey species in addition to a variety of other wildlife. With a little care, Bioko could indeed be the next Costa Rica.
Justin has visions of well-trained Urecan tour guides who could lead small groups of visitors around an established system of trails that would not impinge on the existing study sites. He hopes that a kind of eco-tourism co-op business model could be established that would benefit the entire village, employing small-scale restaurateurs, porters, campground attendants, and so on. The Drill Project has used IPPL funds to employ two students from the National University of Equatorial Guinea in Malabo (who are from Ureca) to help promote the eco-tourism venture to their people and make the case that a live drill is much more valuable than a dead one.
Justin is now preparing for his fifth field season and is looking forward to getting reacquainted with his main study group of some 32 drills (but perhaps not so much to the steady diet of fried rice and Spam). We wish him all the best.