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Q&A with Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh about protecting the Niger Delta Red Colobus

The monkey is on list of the list of 25 most endangered primates in the world, but a community conservancy is a beacon of hope for the species

on September 02, 2022   duration

Niger Delta Red Colobus in the Apoi Community Conservancy. (Photo by SW/Niger Delta Project)
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At the 19th Congress of the Brazilian Society of Primatology on Aug. 30, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Primate Specialist Group (PSG), the global authority on primate conservation, the International Primatological Society and Re:wild released the 11th edition of The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates. The Primates in Peril 2022-2023 report details the primates in most need of conservation action to save them from extinction, and were nominated by passionate primatologists from around the world.

The report included several species from Africa, including the Niger Delta Red Colobus. It’s the fifth time the monkey has made the list. In the report, the 18 different forms of red colobus are described as “probably more threatened than any other taxonomic group of primates in Africa.”

Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, director of the Southwest Niger Delta Forest Project, is helping the Apoi Community in Nigeria’s Baysela state write a new chapter for the Niger Delta Red Colobus. In 2020, the Apoi community established a conservancy to protect Niger Delta Red Colobus. The Apoi community bylaws were the first-ever protections for the Niger Delta red colobus, and are still the only protections for the species. The community conservancy is home to three groups of the monkeys, and they make up possibly one of the most important populations of Niger Delta Red Colobus left.

Rachel gave Re:wild an update on the Niger Delta Red Colobus and the Apoi Community Conservancy:

Q: What has happened since the Apoi Community Conservancy was created two years ago?

Rachel: Indeed, we formalized the agreement on the creation of the conservancy in September 2020, but this was only the first step in a series of processes required for the conservancy to be fully operational. There needed to be other legal structures in place such as drafting and enacting a constitution, registering the community-based association that will guide the processes and implementation of the agreement etc. 

A Niger Delta Red Colobus in the newly established Apoi Community Conservancy. (Photo by SW/Niger Delta Forest Project)

Also, there needed to be feasibility studies to determine the optimal boundaries of the conservancy–boundaries that are constructive for the species and not obstructive to the people; community-participatory mapping of the boundaries, several other consultations–including with government–and of course, most importantly, securing adequate, long term funding for the new protected area to run fully and efficiently which we thankfully got from Rainforest Trust with other supplementary funding from the Mohammed Bin Zayed Foundation and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. 

It wasn’t until some of these prerequisite processes were completed that we began putting together the management infrastructure [for the conservancy]. The protection efforts all started in the second quarter of 2021.

A Niger Delta Red Colobus in the newly established Apoi Community Conservancy. (Photo by SW/Niger Delta Forest Project)

Q: Has the size of the population of Niger Delta Red Colobus in the Apoi Community Conservancy changed since the conservancy was created in 2020? 

Rachel: Since the creation of the conservancy, there hasn’t been a systematic population survey, yet. I cannot give exact numbers on the population size before [the conservancy was created] and after, although we did have an estimate of about 200 to 250 individuals. But what I can tell you for sure is that in just a year of active protection, direct sightings of the species increased tremendously. In fact, on a day’s trip into the forest, one can get to see red colobus monkeys. Before the establishment of the protected area [conservancy], it was extremely difficult [to see them]. You could go several days in the forest without a single sighting. Even photographing them has become easier because also they are not as wary of people as they used to be.

For the first time in the history of the monkey’s existence, the forest has been quiet–no gunshots, no sound of chainsaws. Now, the humans the monkeys encounter just want to look at them. The changes are not lost on these animals. 

Q: How are you monitoring the Niger Delta Red Colobus in the conservancy?

Rachel: We created a monitoring team made up of community youths. They were trained by one of our resident wildlife scientists and head of the monitoring unit in our organization. This monitoring team has the sole responsibility of monitoring Red Colobus Monkeys and identifying the different groups that use the forest. The monitoring team collects vital data through their observations of groups of the monkeys, [noting the] number, gps location, forest use etc. and of other species in the conservation area as well. This monitoring team is a different group from the community rangers, whose responsibility is to ensure the area is effectively protected and the boundaries are respected.

Q: One of the goals after creating the Apoi Community Conservancy was drafting a management plan. Have SW/Niger Delta Forest Project and the Apoi community started drafting a 5-year management plan?

Rachel: The efforts to draft a 5-year-management plan were first stalled by the far-reaching effects of the Covid pandemic. We had wanted to work with Re:wild’s Director of Protected Areas, Mike Appleton, but international travel wasn’t possible for him at the time. After his international travel restrictions were lifted, we started organizing a management plan workshop for May 2022, but we still were not able to actualize this planowing to several factors, particularly the death of the conservancy’s manager. We hope to revisit the plan for this in a few weeks. One thing is sure, we are going to get this vital task done.

Q: What are the next steps for the community conservancy?

Rachel: The immediate next steps are to effectively protect the conservancy from the current land grabs. Neighboring communities have devastated and completely destroyed their own forests and may attempt to take land within the conservancy’s boundaries. In the long-term, and when the security situation in the region is greatly improved, we hope the conservancy will host tourists. There’s been much interest from people across the world to see or produce documentaries on Niger Delta Red Colobus and the communities living here, but these are mostly hindered because of security fears.

Niger Delta Red Colobus group in Apoi Community Conservancy. (Photo by SW/Niger Delta Forest Project)
Niger Delta Red Colobus group in Apoi Community Conservancy. (Photo by SW/Niger Delta Forest Project)

Q: What have been the biggest challenges and triumphs for the conservancy during the past two years?

Rachel: The biggest challenge so far has been the death of the conservancy’s manager while returning from a forest patrol on the 12th of May this year. It was devastating and could have killed all the effort we have made for the Niger Delta Red Colobus. He wasn’t just the manager, he was a strong voice within his community and he was the driving force behind the conservancy from the very beginning. In fact, I will say the establishment of the conservancy wouldn’t have been possible without his determination. Our greatest triumph is bouncing back from this loss. Everyone, myself, my team and even the community was unwilling to let this loss take away the purpose we shared to see that the Niger Delta Red Colobus Monkey does not go extinct and that this project forges ahead. No doubt we suffered a huge setback but we didn’t let it stop us–and that’s a big deal.

Q: How do you feel about the future and what are your hopes for the community conservancy and for the Niger Delta Red Colobus?

Rachel: Because the partnership we have with the community is really solid, I am very hopeful that this conservancy will not be the last stronghold for this species for long. It will instead be the source from where the species will repopulate nearby forests again. With the continued and committed support from all of our partners, I believe the Apoi Community Conservancy will become a reference point for species conservation and community-driven conservation all over the world–because this conservation story was born from a place of near-impossibility. The Niger Delta Red Colobus was almost as good as gone; the Apoi Creek Forests were almost completely deforested, and the area now covered by the conservancy was next-in-line that season in 2020 to host scores of artisanal loggers who would have cut down what was left of the Apoi Creek Forests. Plus, the government, people and industries in this region are mainly interested in oil exploitation, thus there was neither political will nor collective will for any conservation intervention, and then there is the elephant in the room–the stark dangers posed by insecurity in the region. But now this conservancy has come to stay. And even I am surprised by the strides we are making.

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