Taking hunters to the zoo
Bethan Morgan is on a mission to educate African bushmeat hunters about the endangered wildlife they kill. Emma Marris talks to her about the work.
This month, Bethan Morgan of the San Diego Zoo's centre for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) took 14 Cameroonian hunters on a visit to the Limbe Wildlife Centre, on the southwestern coast of Cameroon, to teach them about conservation and attempt to convince them to turn to farming.
Programmes to stamp down on bushmeat hunting are proliferating all over Africa: small local groups and big conservation societies are trying a number of approaches, from producing locally made documentaries that highlight the problems of the practice, to developing cane-rat farming schemes. All must combat the basic things that drive hunting: hunger, poverty and tradition. Morgan's approach brings hunters face to face with their prey.
Q: How did you end up in this line of work?
A: I've been working in Cameroon for five years now, with CRES, and for the past two years we've had a permanent research station in the Ebo forest, which is a pretty remote area and a place where there has been very little work done before. My work is supposed to be on drill monkeys [(Mandrillus leucophaeus)]. But doing my work I realized I had to get involved with the bushmeat issue because there were bushmeat hunters coming into our area quite often.
Q: So hunting was affecting your research?
A: Yes. My work was to locate a group of drills, to be able to study them and to eventually put radio collars on them. That isn't quite what's happened. Ethically I don't believe it is correct to radio-GPS-collar drills at the moment. There's still hunting in the area. Until there is law enforcement, I am not sure we can justify habituating animals to humans.
Q: What are the local hunting communities like?
A: The local people are wonderful. This part of Cameroon is particularly poor; it has a very bad road system. They really suffer quite badly. At the moment they are literally living hand to mouth. It is terrifying. I totally understand why they are hunting. My firm opinion is that if we want to change things on a local level, we have to do it by knowing the local people, spending time to speak to them and being very sensitive.
Q: Tell me about your day out at the wildlife centre.
A: Instead of just sitting down with people in their villages, which is what we've done until now, I thought it would be good to try giving them a small holiday and bringing them down to Limbe, which is a little town right on the sea, a lovely place. I gave them funding for their public transport, so they came down on a series of public buses. The money came from the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Ape Conservation Fund.
There were talks and debates and guided tours around the wildlife centre. And it worked much better than I had ever hoped. They seemed interested and excited and absolutely shocked just watching the chimpanzees and the gorillas in particular, realizing that people actually care about these animals. And of course they never get a chance to just watch these animals, their behaviour. They were particularly amazed that the chimpanzees could turn on the tap in their enclosure. There were a few comments like, "ah that's just like your wife!" They really were fascinated.
Q: Do you think it will change behaviour?
A: I went back to the village two weeks later, and they were all in the fields farming, which is unusual. When they came back to the village they said they decided not to kill monkeys anymore. Of course they might just be telling me that. And it was only two weeks, so that might not mean anything. We'd have to go back in six months, I think.
Q: Is this the best way to do things?
A: It is very difficult. These hunter education programmes are always on a six-month or yearly basis, and when the funding runs out, that's it. There are lots of these small organizations, some of them local, springing up, but they tend to be very short-lived. There is nothing sustained on a long-term basis. There is now a worry that local people are seeing people coming in big cars and giving them education programmes and then disappearing after a year, whereas the people have got to live there forever. I think there does need to be a more joined-up effort. It would be wonderful if we had some sort of big countrywide or at least region-wide effort.
Q: But can the hunting stop? People need to eat.
A: If they can plan for the longer term and keep small plantations of coffee or cocoa and a herd of goats and flock of chickens, like most of the country does, they'll always have something to rely upon throughout the year. In this region, because of civil problems in the 1960s, many families have never put down roots.
It would be nice to think that a good organization could come in and deal with the human side of things. But it seems to me that there aren't any organizations doing that in Cameroon. We have plenty of organizations dealing with wildlife and nature, but very few that seem to be actually going to the villages and helping with the human needs.
Q: How do you feel about these hunters personally?
A: When I first got there it was tough. I am an animal person. I am vegetarian and I am quite squeamish about blood. Trekking in the forest you see traps everywhere. But seeing the men in the villages over such a long period of time you get used to it. I feel like they are my brothers now. It is very dangerous probably: you stop seeing things objectively. I am stuck in this very difficult situation — I really, really care about the animals but I actually really care about these men as well.
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