AFI MOUNTAIN, Nigeria (AFP) — In 1988, Peter Jenkins and Liza Gadsby, a building contractor and a zoologist from Portland, Oregon, were driving through Nigeria on a 10-day tourist visa, when they chanced upon an orphaned drill monkey in a shoe box in a bar.
They christened the baby, now aged 19 and a great grandmother, Calabar after the name of the town where they had found her.
Only after the acquisition of Calabar did Gadsby understand the fascination of primates.
"Before that I'd had an active non-interest in them," Gadsby mused.
That has changed. She and Jenkins have been here ever since and have put drill monkeys, of which they now have more than 250, all known to them by name, firmly on the conservation map.
Drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus) are among Africa's most endangered mammals. Listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as the highest conservation priority of all African primates, they are found only in Nigeria's Cross River State and in one part of southwestern Cameroon. A sub-species is found in Equatorial Guinea.
Drills are under pressure from hunters looking for bushmeat and from loggers going further into the forests of the region.
Pandrillus, the NGO set up by Gadsby and Jenkins, rescues drills that are orphaned or that are being held in captivity. The idea is to raise the animals in natural-sized social groups for controlled captive breeding, acclimatise them to the rainforest and ultimately, Gadsby hopes soon, to release them.
One group of drills and four chimpanzees are kept at the drill ranch in Calabar, known to locals simply as The Monkey Place, to educate visiting school groups on the importance of conservation.
The vast majority of the drills, together with two dozen chimpanzees, are kept at the drill ranch on Afi mountain, a good six hours' drive north of Calabar and recently listed as a nature reserve, where Jenkins and Gadsby have opened a simple but beautifully laid-out eco-resort.
A suspended walkway allows visitors to walk through the rainforest canopy, 20 metres above ground. Accommodation is in huts on stilts open on all sides with only a roof to keep the rain off and heavy duty mosquito netting to keep the bugs out.
Drills have highly expressive smooth black faces. Males, who have luminous pink rear ends, typically weigh three times as much as females and can easily reach 45 kilos.
A male that is displeased will let you know with a head-bobbing display. Baring its teeth on the other hand, is a friendly gesture for a drill, even if its does entail showing canines that can reach almost 7 centimetres (2.5 inches).
Family groups have highly sophisticated social structures. Theoretically only the dominant male mates with the females in the group. Younger male upstarts attempt a coup from time to time.
The alpha male can only retain his position of dominance if the females are happy with him.
"We've had Nigerian big men come here and say Ah this is just like society used to be,'" Jenkins says dryly, before starting to rant on the incompetence of the Nigerian government.
"If the government did its job there'd be no reason for me to be here," he said, drawing on a cigarette and admitting that after so many years here he and Liza would like to spend a bit more time in the United States.
Nigeria has wildlife protection laws, he says, but fails to implement them.
Gadsby in turn gets worked up about the impunity enjoyed by the notorious dealers in endangered wildlife who operate out of Nigeria.
Afi mountain ranch employs mostly locals and nearby communities have seen some economic benefits such as a well-maintained road. Accordingly, they have become more aware of the importance of wildlife conservation.
"Twenty years ago, everything except maybe human, was consumable," said the vet in charge at Afi, Adeniyi Egbetade. "Over the past few years they've come to see drills, chimps and gorillas as animals that are better off living."
"We're not saying 'don't hunt'," we're saying it's got to be sustainable, so don't kill say a porcupine that has babies," he continued. "Last Christmas for example we heard just two gunshots whereas before at every full moon it was uncountable."
There is now a taboo attached to killing drills on and around Afi Mountain. "If you kill a drill here you don't tell your wife about it when you go home."
Local people on the mountain, asked whether they eat other kinds of monkey, looked shocked but conceded that some people, but not they themselves, did previously eat monkey but they have now understood this is wrong.
The taboo however remains very local. An hour or so down the road in Ikom, at the bushmeat stall in the main market cured monkey is on sale along with red deer. The deer is sold at 1,800 naira (13 dollars, nine euros) per piece and the monkey at 2,000 naira per piece, the vendor says.
"Those people who can afford it obviously prefer bushmeat," says Jallal, a boy selling beef across the road.
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