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By Cailyn Cox
Funded mainly by private individuals, In Defense of Animals is a charity that aims to protect primates from being eaten and held in captivity in Africa, as well as to conserve their habitats, which are threatened by human expansion and logging.
Here, in this exclusive interview with IDA, we discovered to our horror that eating gorillas and chimpanzees isn’t something Africans do to prevent starvation, but to ‘honour’ guests and to show off wealth.
How did IDA begin?
Dr. Sheri Speede is the Founder/Director of In Defence of Animals, Africa, which is a division of the larger organisation, In Defence of Animals International. In 1995, Dr. Sheri Speede sold her interest in a thriving veterinary practice to work as Northwest Director of In Defence of Animals (now known as In Defence of Animals International), which was founded in 1983 by fellow veterinarian Elliot Katz. Dr. Speede began providing veterinary care to primates in sanctuaries, eventually including orphaned chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys at an existing zoo-turned-wildlife-center in Cameroon, Africa.
On trips to Cameroon in the late 1990’s, Dr. Speede also befriended adult captive chimpanzees living in horrible forms of captivity – in small cages and on chains – as tourist attractions at hotels. Deeply touched by the individual chimpanzees and their plights, she dedicated herself to rescuing them and to fighting the terrible trade in ape meat that had orphaned them when they were infants. With collaborator Edmund Stone, she set up In Defense of Animals-Africa as the base of support for her efforts in Cameroon.
In 1998, she moved to Cameroon to build a sanctuary, Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, deep in Cameroon’s Mbargue Forest. Dr. Speede’s compelling memoir, Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love and Connection, chronicles her early years in Cameroon and introduces readers to the amazing chimpanzees who inspired her.
What methods do you use to spread awareness of the issues you aim to tackle?
Inside Cameroon, we have given presentations in schools, including a school we built in the village of Meyene, and to adult communities such as employees of logging companies. For a three-year radio campaign, we produced six short radio spots and a four-episode radio drama, all of which were broadcast thousands of times on radio stations across the country. We have produced posters. A framed copy of one is displayed in all 32 of the country’s train stations. We have just received funding to write a children’s book on chimpanzee conservation, which we will systematically present to classrooms of children in Cameroon schools, thereby reaching many thousands of children over several years. (And finally), we continue to receive visitors at our Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, and we have just received the donation of a minibus that will allow us to bring in people who don’t have transportation.
Internationally, IDA-Africa sends out regular emails to our database of supporters, and we post regularly to our Facebook page. We reach a larger audience through articles in the magazine of In Defense of Animals International.
Why are Africans still eating gorillas chimpanzees, when we know they are our closest relative?
It is linked to culture and tradition, although the eating of great apes is a relatively recent tradition. For many generations, people in Cameroon have lived in isolated communities close to the forest. Two hundred seventy dialects within 24 language groups is evidence of the long-standing isolation. These rural people have eaten what they could gather or kill from the forest. Their hunting was with traps for mostly small animals until the colonialists started bringing guns in the 1700s. These guns made it easier for people to kill and eat large mammals like chimpanzees and gorillas.
Over the last 60 years, as Central Africa’s human population has grown rapidly, Cameroon has experienced an urbanization of its people. Many people still live in small settlements or villages in the forest, often along the roads built by logging companies, but many others have congregated in cities, taking their taste for forest animals with them. The demand of these new urbanites has created a thriving commercial trade in the meat of forest animals – now known colloquially as bushmeat.
Bushmeat is cheap for village people living in the forest. But by the time the animals have been killed in the forest, transported to distant cities and sold in the markets, the meat is no longer cheap. In general, bushmeat in urban areas is more expensive than the meat of cows, goats, chickens or other domestic animals. In particular, chimpanzees and gorillas are large and slow moving, which makes them vulnerable to hunters with shotguns. Their populations are vulnerable because (like us), they reproduce slowly – females have only one baby every four-and-a-half to five years. As they have gotten rare and more difficult to kill in the forest, their meat has gotten especially expensive. Serving chimpanzee and gorilla meat is a way for the wealthy urban elite to show that they have money and to honour important guests.
Our goal is to decrease demand for ape meat by changing perceptions about it. We aim to make it socially unacceptable to eat chimpanzees and gorillas. We have run a widespread radio campaign, and more recently we’ve enlisted the help of popular musicians to make a powerful TV ad condemning the consumption of chimpanzee and gorilla meat. We’re still seeking funds to broadcast the TV spot. We hope to enlist popular soccer players to our cause as well. An increase of political will to prosecute those who consume illegal bushmeat, as well as those who supply it, would help our cause, but because the affluent, powerful class are the consumers this goal has been difficult to attain. With our new children’s book we are aiming to educate and sensitive the next generation of Cameroonian consumers.
How has the relationship between IDA-Africa and the local community helped the organisation’s mission?
Our relationship with the local community is intrinsically linked to the survival of great apes in our area. To foster goodwill, IDA-Africa employs local residents at the sanctuary and school. We continue to buy all fruits and vegetables for our chimpanzees from village farmers in seven villages. They grow food specifically to meet our needs, and we go to the village markets three times a week to buy truckloads of produce. This market economy we have created improves the lives of many people and gives continual opportunities for us to engage, inform and influence village residents. Because medical care is difficult to find and afford, IDA-Africa provides medical support to locals on a daily basis. Saving hundreds of lives and our economic impact in the community have helped foster acceptance and support of our mission to protect great apes. No hunters in our local community of ten villages would kill a chimpanzee or gorilla today, which is a big change over the last 14 years.
What would you consider to be your toughest challenges to date?
The toughest challenges are related to the location of the sanctuary in a remote location in Central Africa. It’s good for the chimpanzees to be in natural habitat forest, but accessing and transporting needed supplies and building materials can be difficult.
Having enough funding is also a huge challenge and a limiting factor. A very small percentage of the world’s philanthropic dollar goes to animal causes of any kind, and the part that’s allocated to care of captive wildlife in Africa is miniscule.
All chimpanzees should be living free in their natural habitats, but the fact is that many have been orphaned in this terrible, illegal meat trade. Once taken captive as infants the path back to a free life ranges from very difficult to impossible. For many orphaned chimpanzees, life at a sanctuary like our Sanaga-Yong Rescue Center, where enclosure complexes include tracts of natural habitat forest, is the best possible scenario. Caring for chimpanzees is expensive and difficult to fund, but well worth all the effort.
How would you define success within your organisation?
We would define real success to be chimpanzee populations protected, thriving and increasing in their natural habitats. An important aspect of that will be to end the killing of apes for the illegal meat trade, which results in orphans needing sanctuary. So on a more limited level, if we could make it socially unacceptable to kill, capture and eat chimpanzees and gorillas, so that young apes were no longer being orphaned, no longer needing sanctuary, it would feel like a big victory.
Due to increased law enforcement in Cameroon, chimpanzees are no longer on display in public establishments. Dealing of live infants is more covert, as is the transporting, selling and buying of ape meat. It’s too early to know whether there has been a decrease in hunting. The (real) problem is law enforcement. By providing a permanent home for confiscated chimpanzees, and the needed technical and logistical assistance in some cases, IDA-Africa and our Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center have enabled Cameroon authorities to enforce their laws much more than they could before.
Ten years from now, what does IDA-Africa hope to have achieved?
- No more chimpanzees or gorillas are being eaten in Cameroon
- No more chimpanzee or gorilla infants are being taken into captivity
- The Mbargue Forest around Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center is well protected.
- Other important habitat forests are being protected.
- The future of chimpanzees at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center has been secured with a growing endowment fund.
- Some of our chimpanzees will have been reintroduced successfully into protected habitat.
To help make these goals come true and to stop the bushmeat trade, please support IDA here.
To see more amazing info and pics about chimps, click here.
Photo credits: Main: Carol Yarrow. Images 2, 4, 5: Jacques Gillon.