BBC Wildlife, 6/1998, p. 32-39
Children of the Gods
In remote pockets of Ghana, where traditional ways survive,
people let monkeys steal food from their plates.
Photographer Ingo Bartussek finds out why.
I'd just returned to the village one evening when Maxwell, one of the game wardens at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, approached me excitedly. He told me he had found an injured black-and-white colobus monkey. "I think it's dying," he said, as we set off to look for it in the forest.
Eventually, we found the monkey, a male, sitting in the undergrowth. From time to time, while we watched anxiously, he tried to jump. When he stood still and jerked his head, he stumbled over onto his face. A swarm of flies was chasing him. Though there was obviously something wrong, he looked strong, weighing at least 10 kilograms, and so we didn't venture too close, afraid of what he might do if he felt threatened. When dusk fell, we retreated. The next morning we returned to find the monkey lying motionless, not far from where we'd left him the day before. The game wardens took a close look at him but found no signs of external injuries. Perhaps he had been bitten by a venomous snake or misjudged a leap high up in the trees and crashed to the ground. It's something that happens fairly often; you hear the creaking and splintering of a branch, followed by the heavy thump of a body on the ground and then the excited screams and shouts of the whole colobus troop. Usually, a group of mona monkeys will join in the concert as well.
One of the game wardens picked up the dead monkey by its tail and carried it to the village. He put it down under the fig trees by the benches of the village 'gathering place'. Tony, the game officer, sent for the fetish priest responsible for monkey funerals. Meanwhile, the villagers began to gather. Adults and children were both keen to get a close look at the body.
Beside me stood a young man, a stranger to the area. He asked me whether Europeans - such as me - ate monkeys. "Everyone else eats them, you know. It's only here that they don't - because of the taboo," he said. "Look at the people here, at how they live with the monkeys," he went on, regretfully, looking at the good feast that was about to be buried in the ground.
His words made me realise just how fortunate the monkeys are in this remote corner of Ghana. An alliance between traditional beliefs and modern legislation has led to the creation of a sanctuary for two species of monkey: the western black-and-white colobus Colobus polykomos and Lowe's mona monkey Cercopithecus campbelli lowei (a subspecies of Campbell's guenon).
Originally, this area was covered by dry semi-deciduous rainforest, but now it's mostly savannah, with scattered trees giving shade to agricultural crops. Maize predominates.
It's the main cash crop, apart from peanuts and some tobacco. Staple foods such as yam, cassava and plantains are grown by everybody who is able to work.
Additional protein is only to be had for cash and so is an infrequent luxury. It usually takes the form of smoked bushmeat (including birds, bats and antelopes) or dried fish. Fresh mutton or chicken is served only on special occasions.
To sell bushmeat, you must be a licensed monger. And though some species are protected throughout the country, meat on sale is very difficult to identify, and the traders are not obliged to answer any questions. Anyone who has a rifle carries it out in the field, in case he comes across anything edible.
But the situation in Boabeng and Fiema is rather unusual. Thanks to the commitment of local people, an area of forest surrounding these villages has been preserved as a monkey sanctuary. Farming once took place where the sanctuary now lies, and so the forest is not original. But, as no logging has occurred there for the past 25 years, a forest canopy has developed, and a quarter of the trees stand more than 40 metres tall.
We were still looking at the dead monkey when my host, Daniel Kwaku Akowuah, arrived. A teacher at the primary school and a former game warden, he played a crucial role in protecting the monkey population, in co-operation with the local authorities and the Department of Game and Wildlife. He was born in Boabeng and so was brought up with the idea that the monkeys living around the village should not be hunted.
Local people regard the monkeys as sacred, believing that they act as guardian spirits. In Boabeng, the monkeys are protected by the goddess Daworoh, and in Fiema, by the god Abodwo, and they have come to be regarded as children of these gods. A fifth of the villagers adhere to traditional beliefs, and the rest belong to one of eight Christian denominations. Nevertheless, traditional values and taboos are generally respected, and traditional leaders have the authority to punish misconduct.
When Akowuah returned to his community in the late 1960s (after training as a teacher and spending some years in the police force), he realised that something was wrong with the springs in the forest. At the time, these provided the only water supply for both villages. He blamed deforestation, caused by logging and agriculture. It took him some years to convince villagers and their leaders that the forest had to be protected - both to secure the precious water supply and because it was the habitat of the sacred monkeys.
In 1972, a bylaw was passed, declaring an area of 80 hectares a sanctuary under the control of the local communities, where no logging, farming or hunting was to be allowed. But enforcement of the law has met with some resistance. Timber concessionaires wanted to extract precious mahogany, afrormosia, wawa and other timber. The practice of shifting cultivation had to be given up, as well as a small cocoa farm.
But the biggest threat to the forest comes from bushfires used to clear fallow land (a common farming practice). The fires spread uncontrollably and regularly penetrate the sanctuary, despite the presence of firebreaks. The most critical time of the year is at the end of the dry season - in February and March - when fires not only creep through dry leaves on the ground but burn the trees themselves. In 1982, there were heavy losses, from which the forest has yet to recover.
The villagers respect the hunting taboo, but, as a result, the monkeys have become very bold. The monas, in particular, like to raid cooking pots. Everything that isn't securely fixed and stowed away tends to disappear while the villagers are out working in the fields. At harvest time, maize and peanuts must be securely guarded. Keeping fruit trees or gardens in the villages would be pointless.
But despite their bad behaviour, the villagers treat these little goblins with great tolerance and offer them yam and plantain peelings and supper leftovers. Of course, they keep the monkeys at bay if they get too aggressive, but otherwise, people have fun watching them. The extra food helps the monas survive the dry season, and so there are more monas in the area than might otherwise be expected.
In 1990 and 1991, Canadian researcher Patrick Fargey and his colleagues from the University of Kumasi, Ghana, surveyed the mona population in the area, counting more than 200 individuals, organised into 13 social groups. About a third of the monkeys were immature, which implied that the population was not having any trouble reproducing. Game wardens believe that numbers have risen in recent times, and the group I saw gathering in the evenings at the Akowuahs' house included more than 2O youngsters a year old or less.
The problem for the monas is that they are losing contact with neighbouring populations, which are threatened by hunting and loss of habitat. This restricts opportunities for genetic exchange and emigration to new areas. But help may be on the way from a scheme worked out with the United Nations Development Programme. Five more villages have been included in the scheme, and all have declared protected forest areas.
Colobus monkeys are also numerous in the area, with about 130 individuals in eight troops. They are much more dependent on their natural habitat than the monas, because they feed almost exclusively on the leaves of forest trees. In the forest, there is a spot near the springs where they eat earth to acquire mineral salts, and they regularly nibble mud off the walls of houses in the village. Whenever a kapok tree is sprouting in the village, they are not afraid to walk straight up to it and feast on it.
Photographing the two species was anything but simple. When i first arrived in Boabeng, the monas immediately took flight when they spotted me - and my white skin. Even in Akowuah's compound - which one group visits two or three times a day - I was not accepted. It took me almost three weeks - and a fair amount of maize, bananas and peanuts - to overcome their mistrust. To my great surprise, they seemed to recognise me when I returned to the village six months later, quickly learning that I was even less of a threat to them than the villagers.
Now I could stroll along with them through their territory. They would spend about half of their time making social contacts, grooming, playing or just hanging around together. The other half would be spent on collecting food, such as leaves, blossoms, or fruit. Bark or rolled-up leaves would be systematically searched for insects or larvae. Often monas would disperse high up in the treetops, before gathering together again and searching for food on the ground.
In the forest, I saw things that the villagers hadn't seen before. For instance, some monas would play with rags they'd picked up from rubbish heaps, holding them close under their arms, like small children do with comfort blankets. They would also groom the rags just as they do one another. Sometimes a monkey would chase after one of its companions, trying to get hold of a rag or put a rag over its face and walk blindfolded along a branch.
The colobus monkeys were more difficult to photograph. They could not be attracted with bait, and they seemed to learn more slowly than the monas. But they stayed on view in the treetops, provided that I didn't get too close. Elsewhere in Ghana, I would be lucky to see just the white tips of their tails.
On other occasions - when the leader of a group thinks he needs to protect his harem - the distance between monkeys and photographer can drop too rapidly for comfort. And so, when the dead colobus turned up, I was glad of the chance to see a colobus close-up, in safety, before the funeral got underway.
Because I wanted to take photographs at the monkey's grave, the fetish priest in charge suggested that I make an offering of a bottle of schnapps, which he needed for the ceremony. One litre of Ghanaian gin costs about 40 pence. If you think this is cheap, compare it to a game warden's daily wage of about 50 pence - hardly enough to support himself and his family.
The funeral brought together all the key people involved in the sanctuary, including the fetish priest (the traditional religious authority), the chief and some elders (the traditional rulers). Game wardens - who act both as tourist guides and as the eyes and arm of the law - members of the local Sanctuary Management Committee, other villagers and children all crowded round.
While the priest sprinkled the schnapps he said: "Almighty God. You have created heaven and earth. You have created everything. You have created Daworoh, and You have entrusted Her with these monkeys and we are Her servants. Unfortunately one of the monkeys has died today. Therefore we call You to take this offering of gin, so that such an incident shall not happen again. We beg You to protect all the other monkeys as well as the inhabitants of Boabeng. We beg You to grant us health, love and wealth. We beg You to give us enough rain and a good harvest. As we stand here, we call Kranka Brakune and Ampoma Gyambibi (two gods from other villages) to kill all people in our society who do evil or practise witchcraft, and all other evil spirits. Now everything is done."
The monkey was then laid in the grave and covered with a white cloth. According to old tales, before the village of Boabeng was founded, two colobus and two monas were seen guarding a white cloth. When the patron god Daworob was asked the meaning of this event, she prophesied that some day these monkeys would bring blessing to the founder of the village and his descendants. The inhabitants of Boabeng and Fiema believe that they are still waiting for this to come true.
The Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary is near Nkoranza, in the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana, about 12O km north of Kumasi.
Several airlines fly to Accra, the capital, from where you can reach Boabeng-Fiema by road. To hire a car is quite expensive, but you can take a bus from Accra to Kumasi, continuing by a small bus or 'trotro' to Techiman and then on to Nkoranza. Boabeng-Fiema is 2O km from Nkoranza by trotro or cab.
Accommodation is available in Techiman and Nkoranza, and in Boabeng there is a guest- house with basic facilities.
For further information contact:
The Department of Game and Wildlife,
PO Box MB239, Accra, Ghana;
By CYRIL ROSEN, INTERNATIONAL PRIMATE PROTECTION LEAGUE
Lowe's mona monkey
One of two subspecies of Campbell's guenon, Lowe's mona is found in western Africa, from Gambia to Ghana.
Adult males are about 50cm long and weigh 4.5kg. Females are slightly smaller but only half the weight. They eat mostly fruit but will also eat leaves and flowers, and some insects and other small animals. There is one dominant adult male per troop. Young males emigrate when they are about four years old.
Western black-and-white colobus
Also confined to western Africa, those found in Ghana are known as white-thighed
black-and-white colobus (and are sometimes considered to be a separate species).
Adults are about 60cm long, with distinctive white tails, stretching for nearly a metre.
Adult males weigh about 10kg, females weigh a little less.
Their diet is more restricted than that of Lowe's monas - they feed mainly on seeds and leaves.
Troops at Boabeng-Fiema number about 16 individuals, in mixed groups of males and females. The normal lifespan is 30 years. Females first give birth when they are about eight and a half years old.
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