The pink and purple-bottomed alpha males roam around the grounds carefree searching for the best place to scavenge the food scattered on the rain forest floor. The dominant drill monkeys have faces like black ceramic masks formed so perfectly you have to wonder if they were hand sculpted by the gods.
Around the elders, dozens of young drills race around cautiously never staying in one place for too long. The hierarchy system of a group of drill monkeys is a continuous game of power dominance. Large monkeys chase away medium-sized monkeys, medium-sized monkeys chase away small monkeys, and the alphas chase them away all of them.
Its dominance is impressive. As he walks the scattered monkeys littered around the Afi Drill Monkey Sanctuary, in southern Nigeria, never get too close to the lion-like presence of the alpha male. When he passes it’s like an opening of a Red Sea of monkeys.
While watching the organized community of drill monkeys at Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, it’s easy to forget that not all is well in the world of these beautiful animals. It is estimated that there are only about 3,000-5,000 drills left on the planet. They are victims of deforestation, the growth of massive palm forests and, of course, hunting.
Across Nigeria I have seen bushmeat on the menus of about half of the restaurants I’ve eaten in. When asking the restaurant staff what animal the bushmeat is, they often shrug either unknowingly or unwilling to tell. The reason many simply refer to it as “bushmeat” is because there is a good chance it was hunted illegally. Bushmeat, in theory, is anything that was hunted in the forest. It could be antelope, rodent, hog, or even the endangered drill monkey.
The sale of monkeys, and antelope like duiker and bush buck, is illegal in Nigeria, though it’s largely unenforced. According to Pandrillus, the organization that runs Afi Drill Ranch, most bushmeat hunted is sold in the cities and is not used for local consumption. Myself, at one point in Nigeria, saw a man with a wheel barrow full of dead monkeys being pushed through the street of a city near the market. Though illegal, traders seem to act without fear of punishment.
Here in Afi, at the drill ranch, they are making a difference. At the moment, they have some 300-400 drill monkeys in their program, a staggering 10% of the entire population. They work to rehabilitate recovered monkeys, they have a successful breeding program, and soon hope to start re-introducing the drill monkeys to their wild environment. Without this project, it seems highly likely that this species of incredible animals would simply cease to exist.
The Afi region itself is an Eden. Tall rocky mountains stretch through the forest like castles reclaimed by the jungle, dancing rivers stroll through the lush landscape, and primates still find refuge under the bright green foliage. Along with the drill monkeys that live wild in these parts, there are also chimpanzees, and a family of mountain gorillas of an estimated 6 individuals.
This forest is legally protected, but still under constant threat from poachers and illegal loggers. Environmental conservation in the developing world is a constant struggle. How does one explain to those just trying to eke out a living that logging and hunting will hurt them in the long run? People in rural parts of Africa are so often only thinking about the current moment in time.
In many ways, it is a micro-causm of African development in general. Delayed gratification isn’t a luxury many Africans are awarded. While we worry about our retirement age and leaving a better planet for our children and our children’s children, many in the developing world are struggling just to get through the year, the month, the day. The impact on the future is not simply something that ranks too highly on the list of needs of the average rural Nigerian.
That being said, projects like the Afi Drill Monkey Sanctuary give a little bit of hope to the situation. It proves that with some effort, local involvement, and a whole lot of love, changing the destructive course of mankind is something that’s achievable.
As I sit under the shade of the forest, caked in humid air, I watch these endangered monkeys one last time. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to see them, I feel empowered by the strength of their presence, and most of all I feel a part of their family.
A dominant male who has escaped the confines of the fenced enclosure, sits on the forest floor 3 feet away from me chewing on some leaves from a tree. He stops eating for a moment and looks up at me. We meet eyes – his are a brilliant yellow with a serious-looking black dot in the middle, mine a greyish blue. There is a connection for a moment as we hold eye contact. Then suddenly he grunts, hops to all fours and races off back into the cover of the dense forest canopy.
If you’re interested in getting involved in some capacity with drill monkey conservation be sure to check out the Pandrillus website.