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Gorilla radio: Sending a conservation message in Nigeria

  • The Cross River gorilla, the rarest great ape subspecies with only 300 individuals believed to survive in the wild, is found only in highland forests along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
  • A 2014 survey of people living near Cross River gorilla habitat found that while the majority understood that gorillas are endangered and killing them is illegal, few supported measures to protect the gorilla or its habitat.
  • The Wildlife Conservation Society is working to build support for conservation via an educational and entertaining radio program called “My Gorilla My Community.”

BUTATONG, Nigeria — Until mid-2017, smallholder farmer Anthony Okwo was suspicious of the conservationists who visited his village of Butatong in southeastern Nigeria’s Cross River state.

The village, where most people work as farmers and hunters, is surrounded by a division of Cross River National Park: hills, mountains and thick forests rich with wildlife, including the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli).

These visitors, mostly field workers with NGOs and the forestry commission, denounced hunting, logging and farming in protected areas, telling villagers the Cross River gorilla is on the brink of extinction.

Their message, Okwo says, used to confuse, even vex, him. His forefathers didn’t conserve anything, “and it didn’t finish,” Okwo, a father of four, reasoned. Our generation, too, he argued back then, could use the forest, and neither the animals nor the forest would diminish.

But today, he believes conservation efforts to save the gorillas matter. A radio program changed his mind.

Smallholder farmer Anthony Okwo is a member of a community listening group set up by the WCS. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

“The program helps us understand our forest and the animals there, and teaches us why we need to keep them,” says 49-year-old Okwo, who farms cacao, plantain and cassava. He’s a member of a radio listening group, akin to a book club, set up by the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Half a dozen such groups were given battery-powered radio sets by the NGO in exchange for regular feedback about a weekly radio program called “My Gorilla My Community.”

The program runs on the two stations operated by the government-run Cross River Broadcasting Corporation, one in the state capital Calabar, the other in Ikom, a bustling commercial town near the Cross River gorilla range. It was launched in April 2015 by the WCS in collaboration with PCI Media Impact, a nonprofit that specializes in producing entertaining educational programs.

Funding for “My Gorilla My Community” comes from donors including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.K.-based Whitley Fund for Nature, the multilateral Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the German Embassy in Nigeria, and the Sweden-based Kolmården Fundraising Foundation.

A Cross River gorilla, one of only about 300 believed to survive in the wild. Image courtesy of the WCS.

The rarest ape subspecies

The Cross River gorilla, a subspecies of the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), is the world’s rarest great ape subspecies, with just 300 individuals believed to remain in the wild. They’re found only in the remote highland forests along the Nigeria-Cameroon border, scattered across 11 known habitats.

In Nigeria, both federal and state governments have laws protecting great apes, but implementation is weak. As the human population expands, so has pressure on gorillas. Farmers and pastoralists convert forests to fields, commercial logging has spiked to meet rising demand for timber, and the government has built roads to connect remote areas, all of which have driven habitat loss and fragmentation. A profitable trade in bushmeat means that wildlife isn’t always safe even in the deep, remote forests that remain.

To protect the remaining gorillas, and in hopes of creating a secure atmosphere to allow them grow, migrate and procreate, conservationists are working to address knowledge gaps and challenge attitudes that fuel hunting and habitat destruction.

A series of meetings and workshops in Calabar and Cameroon in the early 2000s led to the creation of a 2007 Regional Action Plan for the conservation of the Cross River gorilla. One of the top recommendations was promoting education and awareness alongside community participation in conservation.

A 2014 survey conducted by the WCS found that people were aware of the danger gorillas were in, but that this didn’t translate into support for conservation measures. Among those surveyed, 89 percent said that if gorillas continued to be hunted, they would disappear from the forests. These villagers knew it was illegal to hunt in protected areas or to kill endangered species; 75 percent even said it wasn’t OK to eat gorilla meat. Yet despite this awareness, 76 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed that gorillas needed to be protected from hunting and the loss of their habitat.

This study became the tool for designing the “My Gorilla My Community” program.

Abel Asuquo is the leader of a community listening group in Butatong village. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

At around 5 p.m. on a quiet Sunday in Butatong, Okwo and a small group of friends sit in the shade of a tree.

Okwo fiddles with the knob of a black portable multiband radio. When the tuner locks into 89.9 FM, the CRBC Ikom station, Okwo settles into a plastic chair and listens in.

“Hunting is a major threat to the survival of the endangered Cross River gorillas, and when a community becomes conservation conscious enough to stop hunting, it becomes commendable,” the presenter announces. “This is ‘My Gorilla My Community’ and my name is Hillary Chukwuemeka. I am your guide on this program as always.”

Okwo and his friends listen with rapt attention. In most rural communities across Nigeria, radio remains a major tool for educating, informing and entertaining the people. With shaky internet, a patchy electricity grid and high illiteracy rates, people often rely on battery-powered radios to connect with the outside world. By drawing on communities’ oral traditions, history, music and everyday life, “My Gorilla My Community” strikes a chord with listeners. In addition, the program offers useful tips on farming methods, on how to protect the forest and the wildlife there, and the benefits that can accrue to communities if they support conservation and gorilla protection.

After Chukwuemeka’s introduction, a musical interlude begins, with songs in Pidgin, a  language widely spoken in Nigeria and across West Africa. “Dey Cross River gorillas dem na endangered species wey be say our law dey protect dem from hunting,” proclaims one jingle, going on to warn that killing the animals for meat or trophies could land hunters in jail.

In several communities spread across the Boki region, sculptures of gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and elephants dot the landscape. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Fear of punishment isn’t the only thing that changed Okwo’s mind about conservation. It’s the way the program tells him almost everything he needs to know about the Cross River gorilla, he says, including their conservation status, habitat, threats to their survival, and how and why people need to support conservation efforts.

“The radio [program] talks about things that have been disturbing our mind,” he says. “It is there that I know bush burning is not good, and that hunting in protected areas is bad, and that gorillas might not be here again if we are not careful.”

The leader of his listening group, Abel Asuquo, 46, has followed the program for two years now.

“I don’t miss it because it is extremely interesting,” Asuquo says with a hint of pride in his smile. “It is from this radio program that I knew gorillas are endangered species and that hunting would drive them out.”

Chukwuemeka, who doubles as the program’s campaign manager, says the WCS set up these listening groups to make sure people are actually tuning in. “Whenever I visit their communities they share their views and concerns with me, and I offer my thoughts on those,” he says. Plans are underway to establish groups in 15 other communities.

In the Boki region of Cross River state, at least 100,000 people out of an estimated population of around 250,000 listen to the program, now in its fifth season. It reaches communities living around the Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park, the Mbe Mountains and Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary — three sites where the gorillas occur. Its reach also extends into neighboring states like Akwa Ibom and Ebonyi.

My Gorilla My Community campaign manager Hillary Chukwuemeka interviews an ex-hunter inside the Mbe Mountains. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

The hour-long prerecorded program features a variety of segments that aim to entertain but also educate listeners about their environment and how to protect it, and to build support for conservation of wildlife, especially the gorilla.

The goal is to influence a change in attitude and behavior toward forests and wildlife, and to help local communities adopt livelihood activities that do less harm to the environment, Chukwuemeka says. “Part of what we do in the drama is to let them know the dangers of these things they are doing.”

The first and most important segment of the broadcast is a 15-minute drama serial called “Linda’s Joint.”

Much of the action revolves around the titular eatery owned by the main character, a single mother who lives in a rural village along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

The drama tries to blend local dialects with English and pidgin, and references local festivals, customs and practices to better resonate with listeners.

“Linda’s Joint” addresses common myths and misconceptions about gorillas and the forest, such as the belief that hunting won’t cause the animals to completely disappear, or the idea that newly cleared forest produces higher yields than existing farmlands. It also promotes new ideas about alternative livelihoods, as well as invites people to debate an issue until a consensus is reached.

In one episode, Linda is fed up with relying on farmers in far-off Central Nigeria to provide fufu, a type of fermented cassava dumpling, that she serves to her customers. Most people in the program area primarily farm cacao, banana or plantain, which require large amounts of land. Linda doesn’t berate them for eschewing cassava farming, but instead tries to show local communities that they can boost their income with this and other valuable crops.

Members of a WCS conservation club wear My Gorilla My Community t-shirts. Image courtesy of the WCS.

Inaoyom Imong, the WCS director for the Cross River landscape, says getting local communities to do things differently is a “big challenge.”

“For example, people believe that if you cut down new areas of primary forest to plant cocoa it does better, but that’s not necessarily true,” he says. “We have to show them that by planting improved varieties of cocoa they could get better yield on existing farmland without having to cut down new areas of forests each year to establish new farms. When you are able to demonstrate that, people connect more easily with what you are saying to them and they tend to agree with you.”

Besides “Linda’s Joint,” the radio show also features a “facts and figures” segment and a weekly quiz with prizes, and offers a platform for conservation and agriculture experts, local people and community leaders to talk about conservation and how it affects them — even why they feel they might not support conservation.

Throughout the program, listeners are encouraged to report anybody hunting gorillas to Cross River National Park, the state forestry commission, the police or a hotline. Listeners can share feedback via the campaign’s Facebook page, email, text or hotline.

Chukwuemeka and other conservation field staff also make direct advocacy visits to communities, particularly those living near the gorilla landscape. During the visits, they assemble the entire village either in a community hall or the village square.

“We talk about conservation, we share their concerns, we talk about the issues bothering them because issues keep coming up since it is not all of them that agree with conservation,” Chukwuemeka says. “Their problem is basically survival. That is why our other intervention is helping them have access to alternative livelihood options like beekeeping, and livestock rearing to improve their income.”

Educational activities, like this bush mango training session for women, aim to help local people make a living while also protecting the forest. Image courtesy of WCS.

“Teaching local communities about the forest and their environment helps them to know the dangers of their actions and improves sustainable use of natural resources,” says Raymond Enoch, executive director of the Nigeria-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Education and Development.

“As the population expands and the demand for food increases, environmental education would become even more necessary or there will [be] a disaster,” says Enoch, who is not affiliated with the WCS.

The WCS doesn’t have conclusive evidence that its radio program is changing minds. But there are indications that attitudes are shifting.

Most communities now have bylaws banning hunting in protected areas, with heavy fines for infringement. Most strikingly, in November 2017, a male gorilla was sighted on the outskirts of the villages of Okiro and Ofambe in northern Cross River state — and nothing happened to it. A decade ago, it’s likely the gorilla wouldn’t have survived such an encounter with humans.

“Things have changed,” says WCS Nigeria director Andrew Dunn. “Gorillas are huge animals and, though they are not aggressive, they can behave aggressively when they are frightened. But that gorilla wasn’t killed. It was protected and its presence was tolerated.”

Okwo, the farmer, warns that this growing acceptance of conservation and forest management is fragile, and can quickly be reversed if it doesn’t bring benefits to the people. “Poverty here is too much,” he says with a sigh. “Our people need more projects and support so we do not start relying [heavily] on the forest again after all the progress.”

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