Il Primo Piatto

As the bushmeat trade drives the Bioko drill monkey toward extinction, some West Africans are realizing these animals are worth more in the woods than on the plate.

Photo: Justin Jay/The Drill ProjectA male drill

On February 8, the Year of the Monkey will swing in, and in honor of the Chinese New Year, this weekly series will check in on the monkey business going down across the planet until the fireworks begin blasting over Beijing.

“In many places, primates are quite literally being eaten to extinction.”
Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International

Seeing a drill on Bioko Island, which lies 20 miles off the Cameroon coast, is extremely rare. And it’s not because these 110-pound, bitey-looking monkeys are easy to miss. They look like a cross between a mandrill and a baboon, with short tails and terrifyingly long teeth. Their fang-to-body-size ratio is actually among the largest of all mammals. Sightings are uncommon because these primates are extremely wary of humans and prefer to stick to the island’s dense jungle.

And they have good reason to—because the one surefire way to see a drill up close is to go to the local market. The bushmeat business thrives on the island, which is part of Equatorial Guinea, despite its being outlawed.  

Of course, those drills don’t look like much in the market, with their fur singed off and their limbs splayed and stiff. The magnificent animals just appear as another piece of meat. Beef, chicken, fish, and pork are also available on the island—and are cheaper than wild game. But the urban rich prize bushmeat as a status symbol, while the rural poor eat it to subsist.

None of this is good news for the drill, one of the most endangered primates in Africa and the biggest animal left on Bioko—ever since the forest buffalo was hunted to extinction a century ago. Over 13 years, scientists with the Bioko Biodiversity Program at Drexel University found more than 4,500 drill carcasses for sale in the island’s main city, Malabo.

Hunters use dogs to corral the drills into a single tree, says ecologist Shaya Honarvar, a research assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University. Then the poachers single out the largest animals and shoot them down with shotguns. A 65-pound drill can fetch up to $300—or about three weeks’ salary for the average Equatorial Guinean.

Drills became stranded on Bioko at the end of the last ice age, roughly 10,000 years ago, when the seas rose and swallowed a land bridge that connected the island to the rest of Africa. Because of this, many consider Bioko’s drills to be their own subspecies, Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis. But no matter a drill’s address, island or mainland, it’s endangered.

As a species, the drill inhabits a total range smaller than the state of West Virginia, some 19,000 square miles, most of it in Cameroon. In Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, there are so few of the animals left that they went unnoticed by scientists until 1987. In addition to hunting, habitat destruction and political instability in their host nations contribute to uncertainty for the drill’s future. The lower third of Bioko’s 779 square miles is protected forest, but in name only.

Photo: Justin Jay/The Drill ProjectThe drill's forest habitat

Honarvar first traveled to the island in 2008 to study leatherback sea turtles. But it wasn’t long before she became interested in the drill for its potential as an umbrella species, one whose protections would benefit others within the ecosystem as well.

But the island’s laws aren’t doing much to save the drill. So Honarvar teamed up with conservation biologist and filmmaker Justin Jay in 2010 to create The Drill Project. The idea was to try to change peoples’ perceptions of the animals, from what’s for dinner now to what might help put food on the table later.

You see, Equatorial Guinea, also known as “Africa’s Kuwait,” has been making most of its money in recent decades from oil drilling, but those wells are starting to run dry. The country will soon need a new revenue plan, and Honarvar says the government has hinted that the plan may include eco-tourism. And what do tourists love? Megafauna.

“Drills are so charismatic,” she says. “They’re one of the largest monkeys in the world.”

The plan was simple: Show Equatorial Guineans what they’d never seen before, a drill in its natural habitat doing what drills do, to convince them the living animals’ appeal. The problem was that no one on Bioko or mainland Africa had ever managed to capture a drill on film. Well, OK, there has been some footage of drills’ brilliantly colored backsides as the animals hotfooted it into the brush. But you can’t make a film entirely out of monkey tuchus.

After six months of tracking these huge primates through the jungle and more than 1,000 motionless hours spent huddling in homemade wildlife blinds, Honarvar and Jay had enough footage to put a short documentary together. You can watch the whole thing here—and I recommend you do. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, in both sight and sound. And for another, this is probably the only chance you’ll get to see what it’s like to tread through the forests of Bioko.

In the opening moments of the film, we meet a male drill who’s recently injured his hand in a hunter’s snare. He limps about impotently, unable to defend himself from rival males or compete for mates. It’s a scene you won’t soon forget.

After the film was completed in 2013, the team got the country’s only television station to air it every two weeks. “I would like to think that most people in Equatorial Guinea have seen it,” says Jay. But not everyone on Bioko has a television set, or even the electricity to power one. And it’s these people who live nearest to the drills. To reach them, Honarvar and company visited local villages to give short presentations before screening the film. The response, she says, was overwhelmingly positive, especially when it came to how the drills form family groups to mate and raise young.

“It was important to bring the animals to the local people in different ways,” says Honarvar, “to show the animals as more than just something on their plates.”

It’s too soon to know if the film is having a meaningful impact on what’s for sale at Malabo’s markets, but the filmmakers report that many audience members said they no longer had any desire to eat the primate. Others said they’d still eat bushmeat, just not drills. That’s not such good news for Bioko’s 10 other monkey species, 8 of which are classified as either endangered or vulnerable. But it’s a start.

By bringing the primates into peoples’ homes—alive on the tube, not dead on the dinner plate—the scientists hope to make drill sightings a lot more commonplace for generations to come. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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