Peter Kabi is a 28-year-old farmer with an engaging smile; he has also killed a Cross River Gorilla. He is one of the hunters being targeted by a WCS project that retrains people who once depended on hunting for a significant part of their income. Peter chose snail farming as his new way of life, and during my State of the Gorilla Safari visit to Nigeria, he showed me the almost complete building – a low wall with a wooden framework covered in mesh and fly-screen. The latter is important to keep out army ants that can devastate a crop of snails in a few hours.
I asked him when he killed his last gorilla. “Two years ago,” he replied. My mind raced – that was much more recent than I’d expected.
“Was it a male or a female?”
“Did you know there are fewer than 100 gorillas in Nigeria?” I asked. “It doesn’t take long to count down from 100 – maybe you brought the population to 99 or 98. Did you know that it takes 15 years for a baby to grow into a silverback?” He didn’t, but he did agree to do a YoG interview which you’ll soon be able to see on this site.
I was keen to hear the story of how and why he killed the gorilla, and after doing YoG interviews with the chief of the village, we adjourned to the bar and I bought a round of drinks. Bit by bit, I teased the story out of Peter.
He first began hunting at 24, using his father’s gun. His father was the village chief. He first shot a monkey, then bushpig, porcupine, bushbaby and so on. Two years ago he was going to the family banana field at about 8.30am and heard what he thought was someone stealing bananas. He hid behind a tree and watched. When he saw it was a gorilla, he fired and hit it in the chest. The gorilla screamed and ran away. He was using a shotgun with small pellets – not ideal for killing large animals. For half an hour he waited, shivering with fear and adrenaline, then he cautiously followed the gorilla’s trail. He hadn’t gone far and when he saw it ahead he re-loaded the shotgun and carefully prodded it with the barrel – many hunters have been killed by wounded animals that appeared to be dead but weren’t. In this case, the gorilla was dead. The body was too big for him to move so he cut off a hand to take back and get help.
Theory of mind is the ability to see events from another person’s perspective – it is something we share with the other great apes, elephants and dolphins (and perhaps some other species). I was struggling to put myself in his shoes, and not think of the gorillas I have known as friends and watched grow up from infancy. I asked whether his family were pleased or were they anxious because he had killed a protected species? They were very happy, he said, because not only was this gorilla no longer eating their crops, they now had meat to eat and to sell. From Peter’s point of view, he was providing for his family. I asked him who bought the meat. He said he had sold it to passing motorists on the side of the road – many of them.
“Did they know it was gorilla meat?”
“Did any of them express concern that it was illegal?”
Clearly we still have a lot to do in sensitising the local population! I looked him in the eye and sought reassurance that he would never kill a protected species again. He and everyone else I talked to in Begiagbah (self-styled ‘Land of Heroes’) were emphatic that those days are over. I wished him luck with his snail farming and we mounted our motorcycle taxis for the muddy ride down to where the WCS 4WD vehicle had been unable to pass.
We spent the night at a guest-house build in the 1990s by WWF. It must have been splendid when new, and the welcome we were given was warm but the house and plumbing are badly in need of refurbishing. With a little private sector investment in infrastructure and training, this could be a delightful place for tourists and visiting naturalists.
After supper, we were hosted by Peter Ofre, Chief of Butatong Village for a drop of palm wine and a discussion on gorilla conservation. He and his village were most interested to hear how gorilla tourism had developed in Rwanda and Uganda, and whilst accepting the need for caution in risking introducing human diseases to such a tiny, fragile Cross River Gorilla population, he hoped tourists would come and enjoy the Cross River NP whether or not the gorillas were habituated. The idea that the gorilla population must be allowed to recover under total protection before risking habituation for tourism seemed to be accepted, so maybe there is a future for the Cross River Gorilla in Nigeria?
There is now a coalition of NGOs, including the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pandrillus, Fauna and Flora International, all working with the Cross River Government and the National Park authorities to turn this critical situation around. Their efforts include better protection for the gorillas and their habitat and helping hunters find alternative livelihoods (as well as the afore-mentioned snail farming, training in bee-keeping and sustainable use of non-timber forest products are on offer) – all of which will benefit the communities living around the Cross River Gorilla habitat.
From a wider perspective, the next step is to ensure that Africa’s forests are recognised for the crucial role they play in climate stability and global weather patterns, and that the essential ecological role that gorillas, elephants and other seed-dispersing animals play in those forests is included in the decisions taken under the UN Climate Convention. These animals are not just ornaments – they are the Gardeners of the Forest, and if we value the forest, we must not shoot the gardeners! At least in Butatong, this message seems to be getting through.