Written by Sarah Bell
When I was a child and first learned the word “zoologist,” I clung to that word, that title, that dream, like the burrs that now cling to my hiking boots.
Animals, any animals, all the animals. It was all my little mind could think about. From a young age, I was very fascinated by tigers and dreamed of rescuing them from a canned hunting organisation. In high school, I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in my hometown in Florida, where I mostly cared for birds of prey. Eventually, I moved to Texas for university and started volunteering about 30 hours per week, caring for rescued big cats. I had finally, at the very young age of 17, reached this goal I had been building towards for so long. Tigers!
I loved my time with the big cats, but I did realise it probably wasn’t what I wanted long-term. While they were fascinating to get to know, on a personal level, I knew that wouldn’t be what it was like if they were wild. Perhaps big cats weren’t for me after all?
For my first year of university, I was a bright-eyed pre-med student, before I gave up on my parent’s dreams and started pursuing my own. I called them up to tell them I would be changing my major, oh, and that I’d gotten an unpaid internship at the AZA-accredited zoo in my hometown.
From one zoo to another, and I went into my second year of university working (paid this time) at the large AZA zoo not far from my campus. But zoo work wasn’t for me either.
I had never had a problem working with captive wildlife, as I always believed the facilities put their animals’ well-being above all else, but this large zoo felt like a business. Guest experience was king, and I just couldn’t swallow it anymore.
By this time, I was studying anthropology and journalism. Anthropology had introduced me to the study of primatology and I was hooked. I was ready to see the world and get my hands dirty in primate-related field work. So, I powered through, took way too many summer classes, and graduated a year early.
Two things happened then: the first was that I participated in a field study in Sierra Leone to complete my undergraduate degree, and the second was that I started my master’s in primate conservation, an endeavour that moved me to England.
Thinking back on how little I knew about Sierra Leone when I first stepped foot there is a bit dizzying. That was five years ago, and I’ve since spent the last two and a half years of my life pretty wholly dedicated to a country I thought was just a stepping stone to working with orangutans (a dream that died pretty thoroughly during my master’s).
The day I arrived in Sierra Leone was the day that the Ebola outbreak reached the country. I was there with a small chimpanzee research project working in the centre of the country with two groups of unhabituated, highly hunted chimpanzees living in a farmland mosaic.
We left the country before we knew how deadly the Ebola outbreak would be.
Fatmata, our cook, died from the virus. She was young, less than 20 years old.
But still, I moved to England with my heart set on orangutans and Borneo, though now my mind was half preoccupied with thoughts of Sierra Leone and what was happening there.
I had always known I was a “great ape person.” I had this strange disdain for monkeys; they seemed like beings who were just a bit too clever for their own good. I had never had much interaction with wild primates, though I’d seen them quite a few times during my travels. And I had never worked with primates in captivity. It always seemed a bit… icky to me.
I liked orangutans because they didn’t seem to have the same violent streak as chimpanzees, who are more social and their alphas can rule with an iron fist. But after my attempt to go work on the island of Borneo for my master’s research, I realised a few things:
There are a lot of people working on orangutan conservation across their range.
How do you conserve a species that the government is so keen to exploit (via selling their habitat or capturing them for tourists to play with/raise as ‘orphans’)?
It seemed like a big battle and one that had a lot of players already. But Sierra Leone… there is not much in the way of wildlife conservation in Sierra Leone.
The country has a long established chimpanzee sanctuary doing their best in trying circumstances, and there is a national park in the southern part of the country which is run by a third party international conservation organisation.
That’s about it.
Returning to the country to conduct my PhD research on the link between people’s perceptions of wildlife with the widespread disbelief in Ebola (yes, you read that correctly, many Sierra Leoneans do not think Ebola was real) did not seem like enough. So, in my own rogue-ish style, I founded my own conservation project, the Pan Verus Project. I wasn’t just going to wait around for someone else to start something and then apply for a job; I was going to create the job.
Creating PVP has been one of the most difficult and rewarding things of my life, and we’re only two years in. I spent every weekly departmental pub night of the first year convincing master’s students to come and conduct their research with me in the Outamba Kilimi National Park. And it paid off; the three best MSc students you could imagine joined me, and two of them are back in the country doing amazing work now.
During our 2018 field season, when the MSc students were also conducting their research, the national park confiscated two young monkeys. With no protocols in place, we became temporary caregivers to the young and traumatised infants.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t just a “great ape person” any more. I looked into those tiny, tiny eyes and realised that even though these little monkeys were protected by law (not updated since 1972), that law meant nothing. These were the first monkeys the park staff had ever confiscated, and most people had no idea it was illegal.
When people ask me about the illegal activity that goes on with regards to wildlife in Sierra Leone, I like to ask a question right back: How illegal is something that isn’t enforced?
I met those two monkeys and became an “everything else person.” There were people in the country fighting for chimpanzees. The laws regarding chimpanzees are taken seriously. The fight needed to be somewhere else.
Most people in Sierra Leone don’t even know that their country has elephants. Everywhere I go, I share pictures from my camera traps, showing people the amazing animals that roam the forests (though only 4% of Sierra Leone’s forests remain intact). People are amazed. They had no idea that so many different animals live in their country.
I had to break my work down into small victories. Trying to win battles with the government is frustrating and you have to settle for small steps. Our small step this year was working with one of the returned MSc students on creating an education centre for the Outamba Kilimi National Park; the government agreed to support us by refurbishing their own building, though the solar power in it has now stopped working, and may not again.
My personal victories are small things, like engaging with Sierra Leoneans on my public transportation rides, sharing stories about wildlife and seeing them become interested. The more questions I am asked, the happier I am.
And on my own time, especially when I’m not in the field, I share messages about Sierra Leone’s environment and wildlife across social media, hoping that the world notices this tiny little country and lets its leaders know that we care about the wild spaces left in Sierra Leone. It’s an important country, as it represents a habitat transition zone between the upper Guinean rainforest ecosystem and the savanna zones of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s rich in biodiversity and has been targeted for decades. Almost all wild-born chimpanzees used in medical testing across the US and Europe, chimpanzees used by NASA, chimpanzees in zoos across the world, are from here or descended from Sierra Leonean chimpanzees (and many were captured and sold by a one-handed ex-Nazi). In the mid-1700s, there are reports of 7,000 elephant tusks being seized. There are now fewer than 200 elephants in the country.
Sierra Leone’s wildlife is at a tipping point, though I fear the country has already lost some of its more iconic wildlife, like the bongo. I don’t have the luxury of being a “great ape person” anymore. It’s time to be an “everything else person.”
For more of Sarah, visit @sarahsgonewild on Instagram and to check out the Pan Verus Project, visit @panverus