This post is the first in my conservation series in which I look at zoos, sanctuaries and conservation around the world. Please keep checking the ‘conservation’ category for more posts over the coming weeks and don’t forget to subscribe to my RSS feed to get direct updates!
When we think of conservation some people simplistically think that we can save endangered species ‘just’ by stopping deforestation in that area or hiring more rangers to look out for poachers but conservation, no matter how small the creature or how big the problem is has an uphill battle when it comes to helping a species.
Recently I was invited to attend a fundraising event at Paignton Environmental Zoo. It was a talk from their field project manager Harri who was currently heading up a conservation project in Sulawesi, Indonesia to save a critically endangered species of macaque monkey and it really opened my eyes as to what challenges these projects, in Indonesia and around the world, have to face.
Now, I’ll be honest, I’m not a monkey’s biggest fan. Gorillas, Chimps and Orangutans? Sure! They look adorable. But anything smaller than that and I confess my previous interactions with them jade my ability to like them as a whole. Between having friends’ earrings pulled from right out of their ears, my breakfast stolen and another friend almost mugged by them, I am not their biggest champion. Or at least I wasn’t until I went to the talk discussing the Selamatkanyaki conservation project that introduced the black macaque to me. They’re the kind of cuties that feature in a David Attenborough documentary and I began to understand why people were so passionate about saving them; I also began to understand just why conservation is such a struggle to achieve there and globally.
The monkeys that Selamatkanyaki are trying to help are disappearing, not just because they’re being killed for raiding farmers crops (largely in part due to humans and wildlife needing to live closer to each other due to deforestation) but because they are being killed for food. And this is where, in some senses, Selamatkanyaki has it easy; the monkeys are not eaten for generations of myth and legend believing certain parts of their bodies will help fertility problems (such as a the rhino horn) but because of tradition. To the people of Sulawesi, eating a monkey is no different to us eating a turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We don’t see a turkey as having mystical powers that will pass to us if we eat it; it’s simply tradition. And traditions can, often, easily be broken with enough determination. And yet, even with a simple tradition Selamatkanyaki have to be everywhere and anywhere they can to get the message across that eating the monkeys is bad and that they are dying; they need to be saved, not cooked.
It sounds such a simple task doesn’t it? Explain that the monkeys are dying and tell them to stop; it’s a tradition that can be fairly easily broken. And yet, it’s not. The team are needing to go into schools to spread the message, get the biggest musicians in their continent to speak out on stage, create a committee of some of the top people in the country that reach from education all the way through to laws and precedents; ‘just to save a few monkeys from tradition’. They spend day after day thinking of new, creative ways to involve the local communities and to help them recognise these monkeys shouldn’t be kept as pets or eaten; they should be protected; they should be a source of pride for their country; what a battle they are facing!
After Harri had spoken, he introduced a photographer called Andrew Walmsley who had spent time with them and their project, photographing everything from their school visits to the monkeys in their natural habitat and it wasn’t until he said the following that I really sensed just how doomed we could potentially be in terms of global conservation. He said:
If you can look at primates, a creature similar to us in so many ways, and don’t feel compassion, we have no hope.
And it’s so true. If we can’t feel compassionate, or empathise with a creature so similar to humans, how are we ever going to learn to care about toads or insects so small we can barely see them?
If it becomes illegal to keep or eat an animal (whatever it may be); how are you supposed to enforce it if the policeman, themselves, are struggling to put food on their tables and they can earn a small fortune with it on the black market? How are you supposed to help generations turn their back on traditions and create new ones if you can’t speak to children in schools or village elders won’t let you talk to their tribe? How are you going to get them to stop eating something if you give them no alternatives?
Do you get a sense of just how many problems conservation projects come up against instead of solutions? It’s no wonder, at times, we feel that we are fighting a losing battle and yet people across the globe never fail to give up in their tiresome challenge. Right now, wherever you are in the world and whatever time of day or night it is, there is a small group of people somewhere on this inhabited planet dedicating their time and sometimes their entire lives to creatures that too many of us take for granted. When you say it out loud, it sounds like we, as tiny individuals, have no control on affecting conservation and saving animals but that’s where you’re wrong because…
For every generation that needs to be educated on conservation, there is a generation willing to teach.