Monkeys now wait alongside paths for hours for more nuts from tourists.© Flickr
Animals and plants do not live in isolation: they form an intricate web of dependency. Tourists who pass through Bijilo become part of this web, of which the park management is part. And now that web is disintegrating. One morning recently, as I approached a group of tourists and their guide feeding some green monkeys, I asked them, please, to stop. The tourists—smelling of talcum powder and insect-repellent and laden with guidebooks, bags, cameras and strollers—continued their feeding and the guide simply laughed when one of the men stepped on a green’s tail. As the monkey screeched off into the trees, the tourists howled with delight. Clearly they saw this as a wonderful experience. I could only view it as an ill omen for the future of the green monkey.
One presumes that tourists insist on feeding the monkeys because they are looking for a special connection between themselves and the animals. In fact, the guides and the tourists are creating a generation of pests. Unlike the greens, the colobus are not pests; they are not interested in handouts. This does not mean, however, that they are not affected by human behavior. Today, Bijilo stands alone as a small oasis amid tourist complexes and beach restaurants. Where once there were beautiful forests, there are now just tree stumps and half-built structures—the beginnings of a five-star hotel, conference center and 18-hole golf course. The local people lose more land; the animals lose more trees.
The colobus monkeys simply do not have enough room. The population is becoming compacted and dense. For years, Bijilo supported two separate troops; now there are three. Fights among individuals and between troops are an everyday occurrence.So many changes have occurred within this small spit of land. Ten years ago, there were so many monitor lizards that I almost tripped over them; now I rarely see them. In the past, I often saw the trails of the cape clawless otters. Now, nothing. And the cane rats? They are gone. The ground hornbills used to strut around like wild turkeys. No longer.
In spite of these problems, I find Bijilo magical. There is still a colorful display of wild orchids and lilies and salt-tolerant vines, statuesque silk cotton trees, rhun palms and baobabs, plus innumerable weird and wonderful spiders and bugs and birds.
The breaking of branches and the rustling of dead leaves on the forest floor all tell a story. The shrill cries and deep grunts, snorts and squeals of the unseen tell another. For me, understanding Bijilo is waiting quietly next to a grotesquely shaped baobab to see what will arrive to feed on the fruits—and listening, always listening.
Unfortunately, for most people, Bijilo is turning into a circus. Back in 1991 it was hoped that tourism would save the forest from destruction and its wild inhabitants from decimation. readsToday, it looks as though the tourists are leading the demolition.
DAWN STARIN is a research associate at University College, London, UK who has been studying and writing about the people, primates and forests of West Africa for the past 30 years. This piece was first published last year in The Daily Telegraph.