- Richards speaks about past and upcoming attempts to re-introduce the primates of Drill Ranch to a habitat with an uncertain future.
- "Apart from the general level of deforestation in Nigeria [...], one huge problem that drills are facing at the moment is the building of a 260km superhighway through the piece of rainforest where many of the remaining 7000 in the wild live, along with many other endangered species like the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and the Cross River gorilla."
- "The drills need to be released to boost the wild populations, but it’s difficult to know the best method when a release of this size has never been attempted before."
Tom Richards, who produced The Drills of Afi Mountain, has seen firsthand the importance of individual conservation efforts. While stationed at Nigeria’s Drill Ranch, Richards had the chance to witness firsthand the intimate relationships conservationists developed with drill monkeys, and how those relationships inspired fierce passion about the development of their primary habitat into farms and possibly even a superhighway. Now, Richards speaks about past and upcoming attempts to re-introduce the primates of Drill Ranch to a habitat with an uncertain future, and what the loss of Nigeria’s last untouched rainforest would mean for drills and other key species.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Describe your background and other examples of your work.
I’m just starting out as a wildlife filmmaker really, and The Drills of Afi Mountain was produced as part of my Wildlife Filmmaking master’s degree. I grew up in London, so not being in the countryside, a lot of my early love of wildlife came from books, particularly those written by Gerald Durrell – I loved the descriptions of the personalities he saw in animals he encountered, and I was inspired by his setting up of Jersey Zoo with its main objective being conservation. I studied for a degree in Animal Behaviour with the intention of working in something conservation-related, and then lectures from various wildlife filmmakers led me towards studying for my master’s degree, which I finished last year. Since then I’ve worked on the BBC series Springwatch, and I’m now working for Offspring Films on a new animal behaviour series.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay:What are some common themes and ideas that tend to interest you as a filmmaker?
Tom Richards: My inspiration for filmmaking really comes from a passion for conservation, and so I’m interested in any stories about conservation and human-animal conflict. We live at a time when we’re losing species at a rate thousands of times higher than the natural extinction rate, and so I think it’s really important to highlight the individual stories that go with that statistic. Without humanizing conservation issues it can be hard to get people to care, and so I think telling conservation stories through the eyes of the people who are working to fix them is the best way to get people to relate to them.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Your film focuses on rare drill monkeys inhabiting Nigeria’s last pristine rainforest. What drew you to this species and what is the plight drill monkeys face?
Tom Richards: I first visited Drill Ranch in 2011 when I volunteered there building some fences for a new enclosure, and what drew me to the story was Peter Jenkins. As we drove up to Drill Ranch for the first time he was getting angrier and angrier describing how the road used to be lined with thick rainforest, and how over the last 20 years he’s watched the forest disappear, giving way to illegal farms. Listening to his frustration and what Peter and the team at Drill Ranch have gone through to try and protect Nigeria’s last rainforest was really moving, and so I wanted to tell some of their story. Apart from the general level of deforestation in Nigeria (Nigeria has last lost over 80% of its primary rainforest in about 20 years, some estimates say up to 95%), one huge problem that drills are facing at the moment is the building of a 260km superhighway through the piece of rainforest where many of the remaining 7000 in the wild live, along with many other endangered species like the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and the Cross River gorilla. The project proposes to clear a 20km corridor as a right of way either side of the road, and so that’s a huge chunk of rainforest habitat which will be lost if the project continues. The project is currently on hold until an Environmental Impact Assessment is carried out, but if it passes it will be catastrophic for any rainforest species in the area.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: You follow conservationists planning to release captive drills into the wild in what would be the largest captive primate release ever attempted. What were some of the strongest arguments you heard for and against doing so?
Tom Richards: Releasing endangered species back into the wild is the ultimate objective of many conservation projects, and it’s an important part of conservation, particularly when wild populations of drills are estimated to be as low as 3000. Drill Ranch was essentially established as a release site – at the time when Peter and his partner Liza set up there, the site was in the middle of a huge rainforest which would have been more than adequate to support a large group of drills. Unfortunately now that so much of the area is farmland (legal and illegal) there’s a huge risk of conflict, and so it’s a lot more complicated. If the drills were to cause crop damage, then it would become much harder to do effective conservation work there, and so going forward I think maintaining a good relationship with the local community is essential if more drills are to be released. I think ultimately the drills need to be released to boost the wild populations, but it’s difficult to know the best method when a release of this size has never been attempted before.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Though 200 drills were expected to be released, only 33 had been by the end of the film, around half of which had returned to Drill Ranch. Have you received any updates on the drills since making the film, either those that returned or those that remained in the forests?
Tom Richards: All of the drills have returned to Drill Ranch now, but I think another release attempt is in the pipeline once the team have evaluated what they need to do differently in order for the release to succeed. It’s difficult to plan for another release when there is so much uncertainty due to the superhighway project.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What was your favorite part of filming this bunch of human and drill subjects?
Tom Richards: Filming such amazing people who have sacrificed so much working to conserve our planet was hugely rewarding, and it was really exciting to be filming such an important part of their work. I also loved spending time in such a bio-diverse area like Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, and hearing and seeing such a variety of wildlife in one place is always pretty magical.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What aspect of your film do you hope audiences will feel most engaged with and inspired by?
Tom Richards: One difficulty with making films about conservation is that it can be quite a heavy subject, and so I was lucky in that Emmanuel’s love for his work as a keeper and for the drills in his care really came across well when I interviewed him. He’s so passionate about his work, I think his at times child-like enthusiasm is endearing, and I hope quite inspiring to anyone thinking of getting involved with conservation.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Are you currently working on any other projects?
Tom Richards: I’m currently working for Offspring Films on an animal behaviour series for the UK broadcaster Sky, but apart from that I’m looking to get funding to produce a longer version of The Drills of Afi Mountain. There are some other characters and side stories that I had to cut out due to the time restrictions stipulated by my master’s course, and so I’d love to put those back in and tell the story a bit better.
Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Why is the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (WCFF) important and why is it important for people to attend?
Tom Richards: In the past the natural history genre has been dominated by films that show the wonders of the natural world without addressing the issues the natural world is facing, and I think for many years conservation was a dirty word particularly for broadcasters. After the success of films like Blackfish and Virunga, I think that’s finally changing and people are realizing that there are so many amazing and important stories to be told in the world of conservation. Celebrating films that address conservation issues is hugely important in inspiring more filmmakers to tell these stories and help raise awareness of conservation issues around the world; the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival is at the heart of this and I hope it continues to be for many years to come.
To watch Richards’ film, come to the 2016 WCFF in New York, NY this October. To see a schedule of all films and speakers, and to purchase tickets visit: http://www.wcff.org/2016-film-festival/
Editor’s note: this article was updated on 10/17/16 to clarify a point about the superhighway project and remove a reference to concerns about drill overpopulation.