Tuesday 4th August 2020
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Inside the fight to save the Niger Delta red colobus

It’s sunset in the small Niger Delta village of Apoi. The town crier’s bell rings out over tilted electricity poles and small bungalows. “The epiene people are here again to meet with you and talk about our plans for the animal!” he calls.

Niger Delta red colobus

The next morning, villagers exchange pleasantries as they settle into a hall prepared for the occasion. Two giant banners bearing the image of an epiene – the Niger Delta red colobus, Piliocolobus epieni – flank a projector screen at the front as women seat themselves on the right, youth gather in the rear, and men take up places front and centre.

“My people, I greet you all,” conservation biologist Rachel Ikemeh says, switching between Pidgin English and her best approximation of the local language, Ijaw. “I have been with you for many years because of the epiene. It’s an important monkey that is found only in your community.”

The Niger Delta red colobus was only recorded by science in 1993. This monkey, with its coat of brown and orange, white whiskers and a black scalp, is listed as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates by the IUCN. While its historic range covered 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles), viable populations of the species are today confined to just 78 km² (30 mi²) of marshy forest in Bayelsa state, in southern Nigeria. Its range overlaps that of several other rare primates: the red-capped mangabey (Cercocebus torquatus), the Nigerian white-throated guenon (Cercopithecus erythrogaster pococki), the putty-nosed monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans), and the mona monkey (Cercopithecus mona). A range-wide study carried out by anthropologist Jan Lodewijk Werre in 2000 found the epiene present near 16 forest communities.

When Ikemeh conducted a follow-up study in 2013, the monkeys’ presence could be confirmed in only four of these areas. Its estimated population has fallen from around 10,000 in the 1990s to as few as 500 today.

“Do you agree that we have to protect this monkey?” Ikemeh asks during the Apoi community meeting. People cheer, clap and murmur their assent. “If all the monkeys in your community are killed, we can’t find its kind elsewhere,” she says. “So we have come to teach you how you can protect the monkeys by yourself. The conservation is for the people, by the people.”

The organization Ikemeh leads, the South-West/Niger Delta Forest Project, has been working to protect the Niger Delta red colobus since 2013. SWNDF works with local authorities, as well as hunters, loggers, bushmeat traders, and farmers to protect the monkeys.

This patch of the Niger Delta is home to the former abundance of Hallea ledermannii, a tree known locally as abura, which is an important source of food for the epiene. But these trees, and the forest as a whole, are under severe pressure from expanding farms, the bushmeat trade, logging, and pollution from the oil industry.

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Difficult terrain

Six a.m. sees Martins James deep in the forest near Apoi. The chirping of birds and insects greets the dawn, but it’s still dark where James heads a procession of people carrying torches. With a gun gripped in his fist, James says he hunts bush pigs, antelopes, cane rats, porcupines and turtles, both to sell and to eat.

He is also part of the SWNDF field team of two based in Apoi, tracking epiene, taking note of what they’re eating and mapping locations frequently used by the monkeys. The team, in coordination with the project’s three core staff, works across two proposed conservation locations: the 22-km² (8.5-mi²) Apoi-Gbanraun-Kokologbene site and the 140-km² (54-mi²) Kolotoro-Ongoloba site.

Ten days earlier, James spotted the monkeys near here, part of a large group that included red-capped mangabeys. Now he pauses, signaling to the team behind to quiet their boots, as the howling of a group of monkeys is heard.

He points. “The sound is coming from this direction. It is not epiene that’s talking. It is the red-capped mangabey. But they always move in a group (together).” Ikemeh taps the button of her GPS device, recording the location and direction of the sounds.

Along this stretch of the trail, an abandoned blue pipe runs underfoot – a sign of the wholesale theft of crude oil. Bunkering, as it’s known in Nigeria, is an important part of the threat to the Niger Delta environment. Oil from the Niger Delta and offshore represents 90% of Nigeria’s external earnings and 70% of government revenue. Traveling through this part of the country, however, there is little sign of this wealth. Instead, forests, farmland, and fisheries have been damaged by frequent oil spills from illegal refining and the poorly regulated formal industry. An estimated 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the delta every year.

During a five-hour trek through the forest around Apoi, only a few fully grown abura trees are seen: smooth trunks rising 15 to 25 metres (49 to 82 feet) to a broad green crown sprinkled with dark yellow blossoms. Few mature trees of any kind remain in a landscape now dominated by saplings and shrubs amid a tangle of dead trees poisoned by contamination from the oil industry.

People in the Niger Delta have traditionally relied on fishing and farming for their livelihoods, but as land and waterways have been polluted, they have increasingly turned to hunting and logging for livelihoods.

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“Many young people here don’t have any jobs. There is no industry, no school or places to work. We have to survive through logging,” says logger David Eretawei. He says he can earn up to N50,000 ($130) for a fully mature tree – a significant sum in a country where half the population lives in extreme poverty. “But the big trees and the medium-sized trees have finished in the forest. Epiene conservation is good, but people would at all times put their survival before that of a monkey.”

Logs and rough-cut timber have been dragged from deeper inside the forest and stacked along the banks of the creeks. They will be loaded onto small boats and taken to Port Harcourt and other cities for use in construction and furniture.

“These loggers are really emptying the forest, especially the monkey’s food tree. I have been begging them not to cut down these remaining trees,” James says. “But I won’t be surprised if I come tomorrow morning and find them down.”

The epiene’s rapid decline since the 1990s has been exacerbated by the troubled political situation. Protests against the environmental devastation of the delta (and for a greater share of jobs and control of the oil industry) have been answered by often violent repression by the government, peaking with the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues in 1995. Throw in the rise of armed resistance by militant groups, and this vast, biodiverse wetland has become a lawless environment.

Across Nigeria, state and federal laws that regulate logging, hunting and other uses of forest resources are under-enforced. In the delta, those armed groups – whose interests are now entangled with bunkering, the fortunes of local and national politicians, and ordinary criminal activity – pose a serious threat to researchers and government environmental officers in the field.

Entry to even protected forests goes unregulated, except where local communities themselves limit access by strangers to protect their own security or economic reasons.

“This is a risky location to work because of insecurity,” Festus Egba, director of forestry for the Bayelsa State Government, tells Mongabay. “There are some parts where we are warned to avoid because of kidnapping and other forms of criminality. It is a setback, because we are not able to spread our services to some key locations.”

SWNDF initially hoped to establish a national park in the area, but faced with these obstacles, it turned to the idea of community-based conservation.

“The government might wake up one day,” Ikemeh tells the Apoi meeting. “But before then, we have to start a community-based conservation area. This approach would employ people from the community. It has worked in conserving the Cross River gorilla in the Mbe mountains.”

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The Mbe mountains mark the border with Cameroon, more than 300 km (180 mi) to the east. There, nine local communities have joined forces to protect forests covering 86 km² (33 mi²). The Conservation Association of Mbe Mountains (CAMM), with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other NGOs, has designated portions of community-controlled forest there for conservation, sustainable logging, and farming. It deploys eco-guards and operation managers drawn from all nine communities to monitor activity in the forest, arrest illegal loggers and poachers, and enforce fines and penalties on offenders.

Ikemeh has invited the Apoi community to select representatives to visit the Mbe mountains alongside the SWND team in March to learn more about how it works.

After her presentation, the floor is opened for questions and contributions.

Speakers courteously praise Ikemeh’s commitment, before settling on their questions.

“We want to be careful in dealing with you because the government has deceived us a lot. They took our oil, lied to us and destroyed our lands. Now, have they sent you to collect our forest too?” says Gami Christmas, a fisherman and member of the village men’s association.

“It is still your forest and your monkey,” Ikemeh says. “We are only here to help you manage what is yours.”

Hopes alive

There are 18 red colobus species across Africa, coming in a range of colours and sizes, behavior, and vocalisations. One common trait is that they have only a stump of a thumb, relying on four fingers to move nimbly through forest canopy.

Seed dispersers whose foraging is vital to the health of forests they live in, red colobus monkeys are finely sensitive to deforestation. Unlike chimpanzees, for example, they have proved unable to adapt to degraded or mosaic forest habitat. All 18 species are severely threatened by hunting and massive loss of habitat, as forests are fragmented by roads and cleared for mining and logging, large plantations and smallholder farms.

After initial hostility, a commitment to protect the epiene and the forests it lives in has grown rapidly in Apoi in recent years. Community leaders say they believe that conservation will create jobs, support development of amenities like schools and clean water, and position their community to attract eco-tourists as well as improve protection of their natural environment. It is a common saying among them that the epiene, an ordinary animal that had no esteem, has brought them fame before the whole world.

“The people have come to recognize what value epiene can bring to their lives and community,” James says. “Ask any little child in the community, they would have some things to say about epiene.”

As for hunters and loggers, key actors whose activities have a direct impact on the Niger Delta red colobus, James says they are willing to comply with community and local laws protecting the animal and its habitat, but at a price: alternative employment.

“It is the loggers and hunters who face the animals every day because their immediate survival and income comes from the forest daily. They also know the forest so well. It would make sense to absorb them largely in any jobs that would come from the conservation so that hunger doesn’t push them out of commitment,” he says.

By Orji Sunday, Mongabay (Originally published here: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/03/inside-the-fight-to-save-the-niger-delta-red-colobus/)

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