In the dead center of Sierra Leone, a river cuts through a patch of forest. At one point, this fragment was part of a much larger forest. However, industry, mining, and war have stripped much of the land, leaving only a small parcel of forestland. Deep inside this fragment of land, there exists a slowly dwindling glimpse of the jungle that had previously existed. Tall trees form a giant canopy. Beneath the canopy, streams flow past large flowering plants. Birds glide across the forest and their calls echo through the trees. Monkeys jump from branch to branch. Below them, wild cats, such as servals and genets, patrol the forest and small hoofed animals drink from the streams. In the midst of it all, there are chimpanzees.
Photo courtesy of the Arcus Foundation.
On a spring morning, two dead chimpanzees were carried away from this fragment. Their wrists and ankles were bound around a large wooden pole. As their bodies were set down on a dirt road, several people, all from the villages that bordered the forest, gathered around. They saw two large male chimpanzees; who, only a short time ago, had been part of a disappearing ecosystem.
Two months later, I walked through the forest patch, having no idea what had occurred. The man I was with had previously hunted the chimpanzees, but now switched his efforts to trying to protect them. (Names of all villagers mentioned in this article have been withheld to protect their identities.) I remarked to him that the chimps were completely silent. At this, he told me what had happened. The news took me by surprise. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was surprised. Up until three years before, killing chimpanzees had been a somewhat regular occurrence in the forest fragment, even though killing the primates is illegal in Sierra Leone. However, we were three years into a community-based conservation initiative (a partnership between the local villages and us, the outside researchers) that was aimed at conserving this small population of less than 20 chimpanzees. The initiative had been successful for the first two years. Now it seemed like things were beginning to crumble.
I asked for a meeting with members of each of the six villages that bordered the forest. It was with these villages that the initial agreement had been made — a moratorium on chimpanzee hunting. On a humid West African afternoon, we held a large gathering at our campsite.
As members of the different villages arrived and greeted each other, I thought back on our project. Three years ago, while exploring the area around the Pampana River, we found chimpanzees living in this forest fragment. They lived in very close proximity to the humans in the villages and had frequent encounters with them. We learned that the chimpanzees represented a significant economic adversity to the human community. The village cultivated oil palm plants in order to harvest the kernels (which they could use to make and sell soap) and oil (a dietary staple across West Africa). However, the chimpanzees were eating the petiole of the palm trees, nesting in the branches, and destroying the trees. The villagers, who relied on loans in order to purchase oil palm seeds, were left with considerable debt. In retaliation, the chimpanzees were being regularly hunted and killed.
The situation had not always been like this. Prior to the Sierra Leone civil war, the villages had relied on bee-keeping and livestock rearing as their primary sources of income. During the war, rebels occupied the villages. Before they left, they killed the livestock and destroyed the bee-keeping boxes. When the war ended, the villagers were literally left with nothing. At this point, since it was relatively inexpensive and easy to cultivate, the villagers turned to growing the oil palms.
It was with this knowledge that we proposed an agreement. We would return to the United States and seek funds to rebuild the pre-war economic activity. This would lessen the reliance on the oil palm crops. In return, the villagers would stop killing the chimpanzee in the area. The villagers agreed and our initiative began.
After the first year, we were able to raise the funds to purchase livestock and build livestock pens. We were also able to provide 10 bee-keeping boxes to the area. Ideally, the boxes could produce roughly 130 kg of honey per harvest. It appeared as if we had reduced some of the reliance on the oil palms, and made some progress in restoring some of the pre-war agriculture. The chimpanzees also seemed to be benefiting. All indications pointed to the villagers being true to their word and not killing chimpanzees. We had set up camera traps in the forest. They revealed a healthy population – including a new infant. The chimpanzees also seemed less elusive. They vocalized throughout the day (something we had not heard on our initial visit). After the first year, the project seemed deceptively smooth. Now, three years later, clearly, things weren’t going as well.
Once everyone arrived at the meeting spot, prayers were said, followed by a brief moment of silence. Then, I restated the objective of the project: The goal was finding a way that living chimpanzees could be something that had value to the community. All over the continent of Africa, wild chimpanzees were facing similar circumstances. Where there had once been large forests, there were now forest fragments interspersed within human communities. Because of this, humans and chimpanzees were interacting more and more frequently. These interactions were routinely negative for both species, and, oftentimes, led to chimpanzees being killed. If we couldn’t find a way that humans and chimpanzees could coexist in the same vicinity, chimpanzees would disappear from Earth forever.
Photo by Neil Davenhill
I stated that, in order to find a value to living chimpanzees, we had to explore the different variables that made chimpanzees so costly to the community. Once we knew the variables, we could address them. Perhaps if we could find a way that humans and chimpanzees could live together in this small part of West Africa, we could better understand how to conserve chimpanzees in similar situations elsewhere.
The meeting went on with representatives from the different villages talking about what they felt was good about the project and what they would like from of the project in the future. Then the conversation turned to a recent fire in one of the villages and how it had inadvertently affected the chimpanzees.
The previous spring, a fire had swept through the village of Marocki, the smallest of the six villages . It spread from the agricultural fields and quickly consumed the thatched roofing on the huts. In the end, all but three of the huts in the village were destroyed. Upon hearing the news of the devastation, we were able to raise funds to rebuild what was lost. In an effort to prevent a fire like that from happening again, the thatched roofs were replaced with metal roofs. However, what we didn’t realize was that metal roofs carried with them a fairly significant social status.
Because of this, people from one of the other villages felt that the project was unfairly favoring that village. They felt that the project had nothing to offer them. It was possibly this feeling that led them to host a visiting hunter in their village. Within two days of the hunter’s arrival, the two male chimpanzees were killed, in violation of our agreement with the villages. Now the incident was threatening the viability of the entire project.
The episode had a significant impact on the chimpanzees in the forest, too. No longer were they vocalizing. Their appearance on the camera traps had become rare. Whenever they were spotted, they would quickly flee. Demographically, depleting the population of two males could greatly alter everything in the group’s social structure and even affect birth rates.
As we discussed this, the tone of the meeting shifted. The question was asked, could the project continue with this new variable? I pointed out that, yes, the project could continue. Now that we knew the variable, we could address it. This dialogue was the first step in fixing it. The villagers agreed; and, in fact, members of the village that had hosted the hunter expressed regret over their actions. We began to talk about moving forward when one of the elders of the largest village stood up.
He wanted to speak about an event that occurred on the dirt road beside the forest many years ago —before this project, before the war, and before the tremendous economic pressure of chimpanzees raiding their crops. A woman with a newborn had stayed behind in the village while most everyone else was working in the fields. At mid-morning, she wanted to pay her family and friends a visit. So she wrapped the baby in a bunting, strapped him to her back, and set out for the fields. On the road she encountered two large male chimpanzees. She attempted to turn back, but one of the chimpanzees lunged forward and grabbed her. The other pulled the baby off her back. In front of the screaming mother, the chimpanzee tore out the baby’s eyes and killed him. When it was done, the chimpanzees darted back into the forest.
At the end of the story, the village elder looked at me. Why, he asked, would he ever want these animals to remain in the forest?
I pondered the question and its implications. The death of this infant at the hands of chimpanzees was etched into the shared consciousness of the community. It created an indelible perception about the primates that was hard to transcend with our attempts to create a value for living chimpanzees. The incident itself could probably be seen as the tragic outcome of massive regional deforestation that had pushed chimpanzees into tiny unsustainable fragments where the frequency of their encounters with humans had increased exponentially.
The question exposed the true hidden variable of our conservation initiative: The situation at our site was not solely created by an economic woe, or a war, or a type of agriculture. Instead, it was a collective of a seemingly infinite set of factors; from a seemingly infinite chain of events that have affected the way humans interact with their environment. The dead human infant and the dead chimpanzees were products and symptoms of this hidden variable.
We often think conservation issues can be solved by things like simple economics or targeted ecological initiatives, but these problems can be much more complex. Like our project, the world is never as it should be. The world just is – teeming with hidden variables that build like waves, multiplying the severity of their consequences as they travel through time, and creating the dynamics of our present state of affairs.
In conservation, we must accept randomness as the ultimate variable. In the Anthropocene, where every conservation issue has a human component, we must look towards holistic solutions that deal with integrating all aspects of human-environment interactions. It is never just economics, or just politics, or just ecological factors. It is all of these, plus cultural perceptions, cosmologies, histories, and more.
It is from this understanding that our project has proceeded from ever since.
Postscript: We are now entering into the fourth year of what we have come to call “The Tonkolili Chimpanzee Project.” One of the primary objectives of the project is to study the multifaceted variables that can be present within an anthropogenic primate habitat. In this objective, we have incorporated ethnographic, ecological, economic, and biological research to achieve a holistic understanding of the situation. Despite the situation in Sierra Leone — which is currently suffering from the ebola outbreak, food shortages, and a worsening economy —the project continues and remains strong.