They are employed on the Communities for Red Colobus (C4RC) project, which I developed with support from international partners and the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management at Sambel Kunda in the Central River Region and Pirang Community Forest near the coast. I work as a vet and a primatologist based at the University of Cumbria in the UK and have been privileged to study Temminck’s red colobus monkeys in The Gambia for many years.
As primates, these fascinating and intelligent monkeys are some of our closest ancestors. We forget that humans are primates, too and the more you study red colobus, the more you recognise shared behaviours such as tenderness towards their infants, anger and real affection towards other group members.
Often referred to as red monkeys or pataparri by the local communities, Temminck’s is one of 17 species of red colobus that are now widely recognised as the most threatened group of primates in Africa. Latest estimates suggest that fewer than 2,500 remain across the forests of West Africa, but The Gambia is a stronghold for this species and the C4RC team is determined to reverse the fortunes for this spectacular monkey.
Thankfully red colobus is rarely hunted for bush meat in The Gambia, but they are losing their forest habitats as people in the provinces cut timber to produce and sell charcoal to support their families. C4RC is developing alternative, sustainable livelihood projects to generate sources of income for the local communities that do not depend on cutting trees and clearing forests.
The strength of C4RC lies in the team of local rangers led by the project manager Lamin Saho. Lamin came to us from the Gunjur Environmental Protection and Development Group (GEPADG) and is very skilled at engaging and mobilising communities to protect the environment. The role of the rangers is varied, and they divide their time between education work in the local schools, monitoring the red colobus in the forests and developing tree nurseries and ecotourism projects to help the local people. They are part of a generation of young Gambians who are more aware of the environmental challenges facing the country and totally committed to making a difference.
We are now in the third year of the project and, despite the problems of Covid-19, C4RC is going from strength to strength. The rangers have developed areas of expertise within the project and have earned the trust and respect of the local communities. Meta Barry leads the education programme with support from Buba Bah and Zainab Badjie. Together they provide class-based teaching about primate conservation to hundreds of school children and opportunities for field trips to see the monkeys in the forest through the C4RC wildlife club.
Samsideen Barry runs the ranger training programme and is responsible for the primate surveys and forest patrols. In the last year Sam has trained nine young men and women who now support him to collect data on the size and health status of the red colobus and to intercept illegal activity. Their achievements are remarkable; the cutting of fresh timber for charcoal production has stopped in four out of five villages and the poaching of primates is now extremely rare.
Earlier this year we expanded the size of the tree nursery to grow cash crops such as cashew trees for the communities and native species such as mahogany to restore damaged areas of forest. At the time of writing, 700 healthy well grown tree seedlings are ready to be distributed to the local communities where they will benefit from the rains and grow on strongly to yield fruits, nuts and livestock feed for the local people.
In 2021 the community of Misera gifted a parcel of land to the C4RC project to build a new visitor centre. A year later, after a huge fundraising effort and with the support of many local volunteers, craftsmen and builders, the centre is complete. It operates as a multipurpose hub for ecotourism, visiting researchers and the local community. The centre provides tourists who venture further inland with unique opportunities to witness large wild troops of red colobus for themselves. The primate safaris will be led by local guides and revenues will be distributed to the local communities based on a benefit sharing agreement.
The C4RC team is working hard to change the way local people perceive and value red colobus. Our aim is to demonstrate a model of responsible primate ecotourism that supports the local communities without compromising the welfare of the monkeys. I think the Covid 19 pandemic has reminded us all of the disease transmission risks when wild animals and humans are brought into close contact, so we will adopt all the measures necessary to keep these precious monkeys safe.
We are thankful to all our friends who support this project so that we can continue to protect endangered primates in The Gambia.If you are interested in following the work of C4RC go to @C4RCproject.