Multimedia Village Initiative Helps Conserve Chimpanzees

In Focus, December 2004

It’s African tradition that village meetings carry great importance—which is one reason why a conservation project incorporating theater, film and a cartoon newsletter within village gatherings in Côte d'Ivoire is yielding early results.

The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF) project aims to contribute to the lasting protection of viable West African chimpanzee populations in their original forested habitat in the upper region of the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot.

The three-year project is now underway with Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund support in Côte d'Ivoire’s Taï, Marahoué and Banco national park regions. It will also expand to include the Fouta Djallon region in Guinea, the Lofa-Mano-Gola forest area in Sierra Leone and potentially Sapo National Park in Liberia.

It focuses on bringing “the life of chimpanzees” direct to the local communities living near chimpanzee populations to increase public awareness and support for conserving this primate and its habitat. The approach is particularly important in West Africa, where civil strife and law enforcement breakdowns have led to increased poaching.

Throughout their range, chimpanzees are threatened by deforestation, poaching, and capture for the pet trade and research purposes. While meat from wild animals provides important protein for rural communities, the scale of consumption in many parts of West Africa is now causing irreversible declines in chimpanzee and other important animal populations.

Education through Theater

At the core of the project is "Nos cousins de la Forêt" (“Our Cousins from the Forest”), a play about chimpanzees and their coexistence with humans.

Created by local theater company Ymako Teatri in collaboration with WCF, the play has been performed in more than 50 villages located in close proximity to chimpanzee populations to date.

It’s also changing public attitudes about eating chimpanzee meat, according to a recent study by sociologists from the University of Abidjan and the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques.

While 112 villagers–70 percent–surveyed cited chimpanzee meat as their preferred meat prior to seeing the play, the study found that only 1 percent said they preferred chimp meat after seeing the play, and 30 percent said they planned to abandon eating it altogether.

Equally important, Herbinger said, is the action of a village chief in Guiroutou who responded by proclaiming the chimpanzee as a totem and therefore taboo for any of the more than 3,000 members of his village to kill.

“These positive results will have an immediate and positive knock-on result for local people,” said WCF African Director Ilka Herbinger, who is based at the WCF office in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan. “When funding agencies see results like this, they see people are willing to protect wildlife, so they’re more willing to invest in micro-projects like pig farming and chicken farming.”

The project is also building local capacity for conservation. At least half of the local authorities or other village representatives have participated in performances of the play.

In the Taï region, two school theater groups, one in the west and one in the east of Tai National Park, have also been trained to perform an adapted version of the play. In the east, WCF took the action after being approached by a local association of teachers that focuses on environmental education in 176 schools.

As part of the project, WCF has also launched and distributed a cartoon newsletter in English and French in more than 50 villages. The newsletter, called Parôles de Forêts (Forest Wisdom), has been developed and designed in cooperation with Madame Daw N’Daw Koumba and her team of local cartoonists in Abidjan.

Center for Education

In Banco National Park, WCF created an educational nature center. Situated next to the game warden headquarters and the botanical garden, the center now welcomes hundreds of local schoolchildren and tourists to the park.

The park, often considered the “lung of Abidjan,” is a 3,200-hectare forested area in Abidjan—an opportune site for educating the public. It’s also newly equipped with local people trained as animators and guides as part of the project by WCF, which is underway in the park in close cooperation with the park’s director.

WCF also carried out its first studies on the park’s chimpanzees, including gathering data on population size, ranging behavior and preliminary group composition.

One project-related finding: Fewer hunting snares are being set up in the park than before. During the initial months of the project, up to 10 snares a day were collected in the park. More recently, however, only about five snares were collected over a two-week period.

“The reason this project works is because we’re changing attitudes,” said Christophe Boesch, WCF founder and president. “But we need to ensure [the change] lasts, so we need to continue repeating education activities, and we’ll be going back in a year’s time to check in with a second evaluation.”

Boesch said a second main point of action for his organization is to develop reliable biomonitoring tools, particularly for great apes. “For years a lot of money has been invested in conservation here, but there aren’t any numbers to show success rates,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the coming months WCF will be taking its road show to Guinea, Sierra Leone and other regions. The goal: for village youngsters and adults to learn how to perform “Nos cousins de la Forêt” themselves so the campaign will multiple and expand on its own.