"Away from the smell and sounds of the moment, it is not the dead monkey that draws my attention. It's the sheet of tin."
Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist
The Upper Guinean Rainforest in coastal West Africa is known for its diversity of primates, thick glorious jungles and civil wars. My hero, the BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough, started his career here 50 years ago
Now I am following in his footsteps, determined to climb the highest peak in the region and to learn about one of the least-known and least-protected places on Earth.
I am hiking up a remote forest path when approaching rain clouds force me to seek shelter. Here, in a little village whose inhabitants are among the poorest in the world — though they are surrounded by a wealth of biodiversity — I sit and watch a boy carefully burn the fur off a dead monkey.
About Two Teaspoons of Protein
The boy is no more than 10 years old, clad only in dingy shorts, his bare legs scarred by tropical parasites.
The monkey is a Cercopithecus of some sort, perhaps a white-nosed Guenon. Holding it in both hands, the boy slowly turns it as the roan-colored pelt singes and curls into gray ash.
It is a delicate task, with the weak flame struggling to catch, the wood soaked by months of rain. Occasionally he pauses and, with a piece of tin sheet metal, furiously fans the smoky mess. The odor of burning fur hangs in the heavy air, turning my stomach.
This monkey will soon be food. It will be dismembered, every bit from nose to tail thrown into a pot with some meager vegetables and a few drops of red palm oil — a stew ultimately yielding about two teaspoons of protein for all who eat it. A small monkey in a big pot.
Engrossed by the boy’s handiwork, I pull out my camera and snap a photo — and immediately feel a little shabby about it. The boy just giggles.
Why Poverty Matters to Conservation
Later, camping on the edge of the village, I look through the day’s pictures on my camera. I flick to the picture of the boy (which is at the top of this column).
Now, away from the smell and sounds of the moment, it is not the dead monkey that draws my attention. It's the sheet of tin.
The tin is a piece of a signboard — one of millions that line roads all over Africa. Some tin signs are pictorial — a tooth depicting a dentist, say.
Some (such as this one) are descriptive, put up by governments, churches and charities. The locals — who are mostly illiterate — typically ignore the latter.
On this sign, framed against a white background, I see three blue letters — WFP — suspended above the image of a bundle of grains. The World Food Programme.
Moments are sometimes better relived. So it is for me, lying in the darkness of my tent. Before me, visible in the glow of my camera’s preview screen, is proof positive of why poverty matters to my work — and vice versa.
We conservationists can’t hope to succeed by ignoring people who, like this kid, depend on the provisions of wild nature to survive.
Living on the very edge of existence, rural communities will naturally do whatever it takes to keep living, even if it means overexploiting their resources in the long run.
By conserving nature’s services — such as animals for food or trees used for fuel wood — and by managing these resources sustainably, we can help local people while also providing habitat for wildlife. For the poor, nature often provides when governments and institutions don’t suffice.
I think about returning to the village the next day to barter for the metal sign; hanging in my office, it would remind me of this insight.
But I carry nothing truly useful to trade. Nothing sustainable. For now, the boy needs it more than I do.
Originally posted in February 2008. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.