COMMENTARY: Trained By Tourists

Gambia’s Green Monkeys Suffer From Overexposure

Tourists feeding green monkeys in Gambia have made the animals unnaturally aggressive.

It’s not only among humans that obesity is a major health problem. In Bijilo Forest Park in The Gambia, it is the green monkeys who are piling into the fast food and risking early-onset diabetes. Years ago, these monkeys foraged for their food. They worked hard, expended energy and ate wild foods appropriate for a wild primate. They were healthy. Today, they feast on ready-prepared food and what amounts to poison for animals is being handed to them by the very people who pay to see them living in their natural environment—tourists.

One of the most densely populated and poorest countries in Africa, The Gambia opened Bijilo to the public in 1991. Tree-felling was occurring on a massive scale as the demand increased for rhun palm—an extremely valuable timber, easily split yet very durable—to build telegraph poles, posts, beams, windows and door frames. The wildlife was losing its habitat at an alarming rate. In addition, the monkeys were being harassed out of existence by young boys wielding sticks and packs of dogs. If nothing were done, one of the last stands of rhun palms and its associated wildlife would disappear.

The only way to properly protect the area, the authorities agreed, was to upgrade the fencing, hire local people to work within the forest and open the area to the public. By making the park a public area, both educational and financial gains could be made.Situated beside the Atlantic Ocean, seven miles or so from the capital Banjul, the 127-acre park was within easy walking distance of many of the country’s hotels and immediately accessible to the tourists who flock to The Gambia every winter. A wide path, almost three miles long, with benches at strategic points, winds its way through mixed woodland forest, sand dunes and tree and shrub savannah. The roar of the Atlantic is always present.

Amid this mosaic habitat live more than 133 species of bird and four species of primate: the vulnerable red colobus, fleet-footed patas monkeys, nocturnal galagos—and the green monkeys. In the park’s first five months, more than a thousand tourists visited. Today, 23,000 visitors enter every year. Once one of The Gambia’s secrets, Bijilo is a victim of own success—and excesses. Despite notices forbidding the feeding of the monkeys, tourists are able to buy bags of groundnuts specifically for this purpose. Being incredibly smart, the animals soon learnt that, rather than forage for their own food, they could sit on a path and wait for it to fall from human hands. This disruption to their natural behavior has caused them to become incredibly aggressive—among themselves and towards tourists.

They have altered their home range and now congregate on the path near the entrance and next to the benches. I have counted groups of more than 70 overfed green monkeys sitting on a path for hours, fighting, playing and grooming—and waiting for another little plastic bag of nuts to be offered. Empty bags litter the path and the monkeys spend their time sucking on them—risking death by suffocation. I have pleaded with officials to stop the sale of groundnuts, but the park guides know that if the tourists can get close to, and perhaps chased or accosted by a monkey, their fee at the end of the tour will be significantly higher.

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.