ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — On a humid October day in a tropical forest in the middle of Abidjan, members of Ymako Theatri theater group, dressed in black suits, jump to the beat of drums and sing: "Chimpan-zees are our cou-sins! Let’s not eat them any-more! Let’s not kill them any-more!"
The rhythm is catchy and the performers are energized, singing: "We must protect the forest for the future of our children!"
Today, like always, the audience is rapt.
The long-established international theater and dance troupe has been working with the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation since 2002 to hammer home a message of conservation in villages around national parks in Ivory Coast and beyond.
It’s a message this country can use.
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Years of armed conflict, population growth and a lack of park management has resulted in a free-for-all environment in Ivory Coast's parks and reserves, said Inza Koné, this nation’s only homegrown primatologist. He runs a local organization called Research and Action to Save Primates in Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast's chimpanzee population declined by 90 percent over a period of 17 years, according to a 2008 report by the German Max-Planck Institute. The ape is now critically endangered.
Many international conservation groups, including World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, withdrew their offices from Ivory Coast after the 2002 civil war began, deeming the security situation too dangerous to work there, and they have not returned.
“Wildlife Conservation Society had one resource person here and he died two or three years ago. They could not find a single person to replace him. Not a single person,” Koné said.
But in Tai National Park, a small group of conservationists, primatologists and local field officers have weathered moments of crisis to keep the park’s chimpanzees protected from poachers and deforestation.
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“[Tai] is the model for Ivory Coast,” said parks official Djé Francois N’goran.
Their efforts seem to have paid off. The chimp population in Tai remained stable from 2007 through 2010, said Dervla Dowd, deputy director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.
Data from the last tumultuous year is not in yet, though.
Last November, after Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office following a contested election, the country was plunged into six months of violence that killed thousands of people, many in the west. Park rangers left their posts for months. During their absence, poaching rose sharply in parks across the country, N’goran said.
Koné said when his team returned to Tai there were also signs that poaching had increased.
“We found gun shells and heard gunshots. We saw campsites around the park,” he said.
Field officers reported seeing a couple of chimps in the [bush meat] markets, “but since there are so few chimps left, they are hard for poachers to find, as well,” said Dowd.
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But she remains optimistic. At least “the field assistants were able to find all the habituated chimps [in the research area],” she said.
Just miles from the often volatile Liberian border, in Ivory Coast’s southwest, the Tai National Park is the home of some 500 chimpanzees and other threatened species, like forest elephants, the pygmy hippopotamus and the red colobus monkey. The park is the largest protected tropical forest in West Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation and the Tai Chimpanzee Project, both started by German primatologist Christophe Boesch, carry out bio-monitoring, behavioral research and community outreach around the park. Boesch began his research in the Tai forest in 1979 and lived there for 12 years.
There are four sub-species of chimpanzee in Africa and they have different behaviors, said Emmanuelle Normand, director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.
“Even within each sub-species there are different cultures. The way they make tools, eat termites, for example.”
The group’s community outreach activities, like theater performances and school programs, have been effective in raising local awareness about the value of chimpanzees, said Dowd.
“During the bad periods, the neighboring villagers organized themselves in committees to protect the park,” said Normand. “So at the most critical periods we had proof of the villagers understanding the importance of the protection of the park.”
Not everyone is so optimistic. “There have been all these development projects to give people incentives not to poach and they have all been failures,” said Inza Koné. He said if you look around the country, “the bush meat trade is flourishing.”
Koné said there is too much money to be made in the trade. For many villagers, bush meat is their main protein source.
“The bush meat markets around the park are hard to control,” Dowd admitted. And so is deforestation.
One need only look to nearby Marahoue National Park to see what could happen if the groups stopped their work.
Nine hundred chimpanzees were living in the Marahoue in 1993, but in 2008, fewer than 50 remained, mainly due to deforestation, according to a study by the German institute where Boesch is based. Marahoue lost 93 percent of its forest from 2002 to 2008, the researchers found.
Other forests have suffered the same fate. In 2007, Normand traveled to the Goin-Debé forest in Ivory Coast, near the border with Liberia. Her team found nearly 250 chimpanzees living in the thick jungle, a significant population.
Normand set out to get funding to begin a study of the primates, but when she returned to the forest in 2009, thirty-thousand hectares had been cleared for cocoa plantations. There were too few signs of chimps to even be able to estimate a number, she said.
In 2002, the researchers left the Tai park for a few months and five chimpanzees were killed by poachers, Normand said, including a female named Margot and her twins.
“From 2002 neither the research group [Tai Chimpanzee Project] nor us left [the park],” Dowd said, despite the risks.
During the second week of September, former militiamen hiding in the forests of Liberia crossed over the border and ransacked villages on the border of Tai park. In the latest attack, at least 23 people died. Human Rights Watch said a similar attack occurred in July.
So if the conservationists were to abandon their projects, no one would ask why. But the groups didn’t consider leaving after the latest attack.
“We were concerned, but we continued,” said Dowd.
The lingering question is what will become of Ivory Coast's seven other national parks and six nature reserves that do not receive donor money.
“They are all threatened,” primatologist Koné said matter-of-factly. “It’s a catastrophe.”
Parks official N’goran is more hopeful: “In South Africa they have 22 parks and Kruger [National Park] mostly finances the rest.”
If Ivory Coast can manage a couple of its parks well, “they could finance the rest, too,” he said from park headquarters, which was looted during the crisis.
Ivory Coast has a long way to go before it sheds its image as a war-torn country and begins attracting tourists. And at the rate it's going, it is unclear if there will be much wildlife to view when the tourists and donors deem it safe to return.