Ape Action Africa is a charity devoted to the conservation of gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates in Cameroon. Established in 1996 as Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, the organisation has rescued and rehabilitated hundreds of apes and monkeys through its sanctuary in Mefou, Cameroon, and has initiated some fantastic conservation and education projects in the area. With one director, Rachel Hogan, 38 local staff, and 6 trustees, there is a huge amount of work for each person involved, but the Handshake was lucky enough to meet one of those people recently. Caroline McLaney, who has been a volunteer and trustee for eight years, and the charity’s CEO since 2011, spoke to us about the work that has changed her life, and her hopes for the future of Cameroon’s apes.
Caroline’s involvement with Ape Action Africa began, quite unexpectedly, with a visit to Bristol Zoo – her first visit there after several years of living in Bristol, as at the time, she didn’t have a high opinion of zoos. Having looked around Bristol Zoo and found it much better than she expected it to be, the conservation message of the organisation really hit home for her when listening to a talk at the gorilla island. The keeper talked not only about the zoo’s gorilla family, but about what happens to gorillas in their habitat countries and why they’re so endangered. Unaware up until this point that gorillas and chimpanzees were being hunted, Caroline had to walk away from the talk as she couldn’t bear to hear any more, but she did so knowing that she wanted to help by donating to the charity supporting these apes in the wild.
The following week, she received a membership newsletter from the zoo in which there was an article about the projects it supports in Cameroon. The article mentioned that the charity was always looking for volunteers, so she contacted them, expecting to be given some fundraising or administration work to do. One interview and two months later, Caroline found herself in Cameroon, unable to quite believe it, and feeling daunted by the prospect of volunteering in something of which she had no experience. As an accountant, though, her skills were invaluable, and she stayed there for a month in 2002.
There have been huge changes at Ape Action Africa since Caroline’s first visit, the biggest of these being the tragic death of the then-Director, Avi Sivan, in a helicopter crash at the end of 2010. “Avi was an amazing director and we learnt a lot from him, but he was also a good friend, and his loss has left a massive hole in the project and many people’s lives”, Caroline says. One of the many contributions Avi and his wife Talila made to the charity was in funding the enclosures that house the 330 animals now in residence there – a number which has grown hugely since Caroline’s first visit. In 2002, for example, there were 6 gorillas and 22 chimpanzees at the sanctuary; this has now risen to 20 and 107, respectively. This puts a big strain on resources; the last enclosure built is the size of Bristol zoo and houses 20 chimpanzees – giving the animals a lot of space in a forest environment – and the cost of feeding so many primates is high. New arrivals still come in at a rapid rate, but it is hard to tell whether this represents a worsening of the bushmeat trade, or an increased awareness of the sanctuary that means people simply know, now, where to bring orphaned apes and monkeys.
Though there are undoubtedly many challenges to overcome, the overwhelming feeling, when talking to Caroline, is of positivity and progress. The charity has a good, strong relationship with the Cameroonian government and Ministry of Forests and Fauna, which is hugely important in being able to mange the project effectively. When hundreds of elephants were slaughtered early this year in Bouba N’Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon, IFAW called on Ape Action Africa to ask for veterinary assistance. 12 people have now been arrested, but, surprisingly, in the south of the country, where gorillas and chimps live, rather than in the north-eastern elephant habitat. Caroline sees this as an indication that the government’s awareness of hunting and poaching, and willingness to crack down on it, is increasing. The international outcry over the elephant slaughter also increases pressure on the government to enforce protection of endangered species, so she hopes this will impact on the fortunes of primates as well.
The issues facing primates in Cameroon are complex, with social, economic and political factors that make one course of action hard to pinpoint. Taking the example of bushmeat: “Yes, people are poor, and bushmeat used to be taken as part of subsistence hunting, but, certainly for chimps and gorillas, it’s not like that any more – it’s an international trade. There are other sources of protein and it’s important for us to work with the local communities and explain why it’s wrong to eat gorillas and chimps (apart from it being illegal!) and work with them to find alternatives both for food and income generation.”
Ape Action Africa staff are working on a bushmeat campaign that will be successful in-country; for it to ring a bell with people there, a good starting point is for a Cameroonian to generate ideas. The current societal norm in Cameroon is for apes to be seen as more valuable dead than they are alive, so working to change this perception is of paramount importance. Even though it is illegal to kill gorillas and chimps, it is not socially unacceptable to eat their meat in much of Cameroonian society, and though there are clearly exceptions to this, not least amongst the Ape Action Africa staff, to effect a sea change of opinion across the whole country is an enormous challenge. Again, any efforts to shift public opinion need to come from inside Cameroon, and Ape Action Africa’s education programme is making significant headway with this. Thousands of children and adults around Mefou and Yaoundé are reached every year by the charity’s education staff, and there are glimmers of hope; a group of people in their late teens and early twenties have begun their own campaign, going on to trains to check whether people are carrying bushmeat, thus aiding the police in confiscations. Often, simply visiting the sanctuary can make a big difference to people’s perceptions – many Cameroonians have never before seen a live chimpanzee or gorilla, but, having done so, no longer see ape meat as something they would eat. Ecotourism on the scale of Rwanda and Uganda’s gorilla tourism could not happen quickly or easily, and, due to the risks to wild populations, is not a simple cure-all, but if Cameroon’s apes can begin to approach iconic status through sanctuary visits, this would be a huge step.
The sanctuary’s visitor numbers have increased significantly in the last 18 months, aided by the fact that it is only 45 minutes away from Yaoundé, and many tourists who arrive there for an onward flight to the North have limited options for activities to carry out while they wait. It is not just tourists that visit, though – Cameroonian visitors are also increasing, and all visitors receive guided tours and educational talks about the issues facing gorillas and chimps in the wild. Ape Action Africa’s staff wanted the villages surrounding the park to benefit from the increase in visitor numbers, so people there have started operating a canoe ride through the mangroves, and women perform traditional dances for visitors. The charity has also just implemented a women’s group, involving 14 members who were trained by a visiting woman from Bamenda to ‘crochet’ recycled plastic bags into purses, wallets, mobile phone cases, and handbags, which they can sell to visitors, making money that, as in all of Ape Action Africa’s community projects, goes directly to them – the first time they have been able to earn their own living.
Though the big dream for Caroline and her colleagues is for all of their animals to be back in the wild, sadly, for the majority of the animals they currently look after, this is not possible. Only one of their gorillas was raised without human contact after being born into the sanctuary group, and the others are far too dependent on people. Most of the chimpanzees were kept as pets then brought to the sanctuary as adults, or raised by sanctuary staff after being orphaned in the wild; some may be potentials for release in the future, but how many, it is uncertain. A plan to release the sanctuary’s monkeys is in progress, but in the very early stages of what will be a long and complex project. A site in Southeast Cameroon has been highlighted, but there are many steps to complete before even one monkey can be released. Site surveys must be undertaken to ensure that the ecosystem is appropriate, and that existing populations of primates and other wildlife will not affect, or be affected by, the release monkeys. Also of huge importance is making sure that hunting will not be a risk to the monkeys once released, and even if the site is deemed suitable and the monkeys can be moved there, expensive long-term post-release monitoring also needs to be accounted for. However time-consuming and costly this is, though, it is better in the long run, as keeping primates in the sanctuary is also very expensive, and more are arriving there all the time.
So what can you do to help Ape Action Africa and the primates of Cameroon? As a very small charity with hundreds of mouths to feed, fundraising is crucial. You can make a donation on their website, or ‘adopt’ one of their gorillas or chimps to give longer-term support. Caroline points out that many people don’t give because they can’t spare much money and feel that a small donation won’t make a difference, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – just £3 can feed a young chimp or a gorilla for a day. Caroline recently worked out that if every one of Ape Action Africa’s followers on Facebook and Twitter donated £3 a month, the amount raised would cover the sanctuary’s monthly running costs, thus making an enormous difference. Every penny really does count and Ape Action Africa greatly appreciate every donation they receive.
As important as raising funds is raising awareness by spreading the word about Ape Action Africa’s work, and, crucially, why this work is so important. Many people are unaware of the scale of forest destruction, hunting and the bushmeat trade, and unwittingly facilitate it by buying products made from unsustainable wood, the logging of which allows faster, easier access to primate habitats by clearing the way for roads to be built where forests once flourished. It is important to look for the FSC logo on wood products, and to avoid buying tropical hardwoods – responsible shopping does make a difference. If you donate, follow the charity’s work, and tell your friends about the threats facing primates in Cameroon, but still want to do more, then volunteering could be for you. Find out more at http://www.apeactionafrica.org/get-involved/volunteer – you could soon find yourself spending two or three months in the Cameroonian forest, seeing Ape Action Africa’s amazing work at first hand.
The Handshake staff has been inspired by talking to Caroline and getting a personal insight into the urgent issues facing primates in Cameroon. Deforestation, logging, and large-scale hunting will not disappear overnight, and even though Cameroon feels far away, we can all make a difference. The issues are large and complex, but at the most basic level, they are affecting individual apes, and individual people, and that is something with which we can all empathise. Please do whatever you can – no matter how small it seems to you, the difference it makes cannot be overstated.