In the Hindu religion, primates are sacred. So in predominantly Hindu areas, namely India and Nepal, killing or otherwise harming a primate is blasphemous, not to mention punishable by law. In other countries, such as China and Japan, primates are whimsical creatures, possessing mystical properties that imbue them with shrewd intelligence and cunning. In most places, however, they’re just crop pests.
In the summer of 2011, I was living in Kibale National Park, Uganda. This lush rainforest is home to a dozen primate species, including a stable population of chimpanzees that are the focus of both research and tourism in the area. One day, while out for a jog, I came across a group of school children, still in their uniforms and just released from their studies. Usually upon seeing me, children greeted me with enthusiastic calls of “hello, how are you, how are you!” But that day, the children did not even notice me. Clutched in their fists were large rocks, and they were hurling them into a nearby tree as fast as they could gather them. It did not take me long to realize that the intended target of the assault was a group of red colobus monkeys, taking refuge within the dense foliage of the largest branch. The children appeared deeply agitated by the presence of the monkeys. I approached, and asked them why they were throwing stones at the monkeys. They told me they were pests – they ate their crops and they should not be here. These primates were unwelcome guests in human territory, and I was shocked to realize that they were perceived in much the same light as North Americans perceive rats.
Red colobus monkeysare leaf-eating primates. The majority of their nutrition comes from juicy young leaves that are abundant within the forest, but not outside. While many of the primates in Kibale do indeed raid crops to supplement their diet, red colobus monkeys have no reason to take the risk of exiting the protected forest, nor has any instance of it been documented. These monkeys were being persecuted for a crime they surely did not commit.
The anger the children felt is understandable. Kibale is a protected forest. Despite living next to the area, the local people are not permitted to enter, let alone harvest resources. Yet the primates are under no such regulation, and may exit the forest freely. Their purpose is often to feed upon the nearest crops, which are the livelihoods of the subsistence farmers in the region. The primates are protected in much the same way as the forest itself, and the farmers cannot mete out retribution for damages done by park-protected animals.
Eastern chimpanzees are notorious crop raiders. Much of the food that they rely on is seasonal, such as ripe figs, which form an integral part of their diet but are only available in the best conditions. When food is scarce, they may opt to eat higher quality foods outside the forest, such as crops of maize, rather than poor quality foods inside the forest. The strategy is risky, but with their habitat declining and crops popping up ever closer, it is a sometimes necessary alternative.
To compensate villagers for their losses, many national parks use revenue sharing programs. Through these, a portion of the revenue generated by research and tourism in the national park is redistributed to the villages that bear the consequences of conservation. While this helps appease some of the discontent, a disconnect still exists between locals and national parks. During my time in Kibale, I learned that many local peoples assumed that the rare primates they lived next to were abundant everywhere. They did not realize that their situation was as unique as the forest. Their questions about why the protected area was necessary remained unanswered, and they were left to form their own opinions. The national park was an impenetrable fortress that was visited only by mysterious researchers. The primates were pests.
The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is helping to alleviate some of the tension between locals and wildlife in two ways. First, JGI Canada’s Sustainable Livelihoods Project in Uganda uses a community-centered conservation approach to improve the health, well-being and livelihoods of local people, while simultaneously conserving and restoring habitat for populations of wild chimpanzees. This program supports alternative farming techniques and sustainable livelihoods for farmers, to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife. Second, JGI Uganda has partnered with the Ministry of Education to create Teacher Workshops intended to work with primary-school teachers to develop curriculum-linked environmental educational resources. Through this program, the youngest generation learns about the environment, the importance of natural resources and conservation, and the value of local wildlife. The project is sustainable in the long term because JGI Uganda does not teach students directly – it trains primary school teachers, who will in turn pass on their knowledge to other teachers. These Teacher Workshops include trips with the primary school teachers into the forest. Being able to witness the habitat first-hand contributes significantly to disbanding local perceptions of national parks as mysterious and secret places. And, by teaching the youngest generation through active strategies geared towards facilitating enthusiasm towards the environment, JGI Uganda is ensuring that the lessons learned by youngsters today will be propagated in the future.
To date, Canadian teachers have been involved with 10 workshops throughout Uganda, and have reached 268 schools. Perhaps when I visit Uganda next, school-aged children will know more about red colobus – that they are critically endangered. Armed with this knowledge, there is tremendous hope that stones shall never leave their hands.
For more information on Community-Centred Conservation and the Sustainable Livelihoods Project in Uganda, please visit the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada here.
For more information on the Teacher Workshops in Uganda, please visit the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada’s Teacher Workshop page.