Ghana’s Sacred Monkeys
On a baking, dry-season afternoon in January 2020, Robert Damoah, a 22-year-old tour guide in the village of Boabeng, in central Ghana, sat in a plastic chair in the shade outside of the local tourist office, scrolling on his phone and waiting for someone to guide. He didn’t have to wait long. Soon, Harold and Margaret Grosse, with their teenage son Michael, drove up in their family car. They had arrived from Accra, Ghana’s capital, on holiday, dressed in colorful clothing and hoping to see some monkeys. Damoah jumped from his seat in front of the fading pink concrete building. He directed the family to pay their entrance fees, then led them down a short, dusty trail into the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, a community-led conservation project that has preserved a small patch of the region’s forest to help protect two species of local monkeys.
Even before the family entered the preserve, one of those species—brown mona monkeys (Cercopithecus mona)—flocked toward the Grosses, cackling and begging for a handout. “They won’t bite you,” Damoah assured them, holding a banana for an approaching mona, a cat-sized primate, with a brown coat accented black on its shoulders and flanks, a white underbelly, dark orange eyes, and a long, curling tail. The family bought bananas and peanuts from a local woman, despite signs posted at the entrance asking visitors not to touch or feed the animals. They held them out to the monkeys. When a mona tried to take a banana from the son’s hand, he held it tight, laughing—and instead, the monkey ate from his hand.
After the bananas were gone, Damoah led the family through the sanctuary. Walking along the leaf-littered trails, he pointed out African whitewood, mahogany, ceiba, and rosewood trees in the open-canopy deciduous forest, taking them past the preserve’s monkey cemetery, where graves were marked with black signs listing the species and date of death. When a monkey is found dead, Damoah explained, a local priest holds ceremonies for each one in a special ceremony to honor its passing.
It took Damoah some time to locate the second species of monkey that lives in the preserve, but at last he found a troop of white-thighed colobus (Colobus vellerosus) lounging low in the canopy along one of the winding sanctuary trails. The colobus are larger than the mona and mostly black, with a long, white tail and a white ruff around their faces. Once found across West Africa, they are now critically endangered. In 2020, the IUCN could confirm the existence of only 975 mature individuals worldwide. This small tract of forest is one of the last places on Earth where you are likely to see one.
During the cooler morning hours, the colobus troops—which comprise anywhere from nine to 38 adult monkeys—feed on leaves high up in the trees, leaping between branches, grooming each other, and caring for their young, descending to lower branches as temperatures rise. While Damoah spoke of their behavior and biology, the monkeys were deep into their afternoon naps. Their highly specialized diet of native plant leaves means they require long periods of rest to allow their food to digest—the monkeys spend a full two-thirds of their lives sleeping. Unlike the mona, frantically tugging on pant legs and reaching out for food, the colobus are secretive and fiercely territorial, and will attack any creature—humans included—that comes too close. Each morning, their deep, chest-rumbling barks echo across the forest and the villages. “If you hear a colobus call out in the night,” Damoah told the Grosse family, “it means an elderly person in the village will die.”
The fates of Damoah’s village and its monkeys have long been interlinked. Boabeng and its nearby sister village, Fiema, are the only places in all of Ghana where monkeys are held in reverence out of respect for local spirits. The Boabeng Fiema sanctuary that the communities created to protect the monkeys 50 years ago—one of the very first community-led conservation projects in this part of Africa—has been held as a model of what conservation in the developing world can look like when designed by and for the people who share habitat with the creatures they seek to protect. “Our great grandparents told us that the monkeys are sacred, and if we take care of the monkeys, the monkeys will bring development to the community,” says Robert Koranteng, a Boabeng native whose ancestors helped settle the village and who now works as a field assistant at the Canadian-American colobus research station located in the sanctuary.
But 50 years after the preserve was established, that effort is foundering. Heated arguments have erupted about the sanctuary’s funding and allocation of revenues, while the sanctuary’s neighbors have begun to complain that efforts to protect the monkeys are interfering with their own ability to make a living. Many local people, from subsistence farmers on the sanctuary’s borders to sanctuary employees like Koranteng, are frustrated that revenues from the sanctuary have not translated into a better standard of living. They worry that the sanctuary is helping neither the monkeys nor the community that has sworn to protect them. “What is happening is leading to the collapse of the sanctuary,” Koranteng says—raising critical questions, as well, about the promise of community-led conservation.
It started with a jar: Some 200 years ago, the story goes, a hunter stumbled upon an earthen crock that was guarded by two white-thighed colobus and two brown mona monkeys. The jar contained a fetish—a local spirit that offers guidance, protection, and good fortune. The fetish was named Daworo, and he informed the hunter that the monkeys were his sacred children. If the hunter promised never to harm them, he could establish a settlement there under Daworo’s protection.
The hunter returned with more people, clearing portions of the forest to build homes and sow crops under Daworo’s guidance. They carved roads out of the soil and appointed a priest to communicate with the fetish. They named the settlement Boabeng. Another village, Fiema, sprang up a half mile away built around the patronage of Daworo’s wife, Abudwo—who also insisted that the monkeys be protected.
Two centuries later, the villages have grown and spread, requiring more homes and more fields for agriculture. Many locals now practice Christianity alongside or instead of the animist religions of fetish spirits. The rolling carpets of open-canopy deciduous trees have largely been felled, and the landscape is mostly savannah now, dotted with sparse islands of fragmented forest.
But now, as then, the villagers are still primarily subsistence farmers, keeping what they need of their yields of yam, ground nut, cassava, and maize and selling the surplus at markets in larger towns. The roads are unpaved and deeply cratered from use. And it is still taboo to harm the monkeys, which remain sacred symbols of the villages’ unique culture and shared heritage. Because of that heritage, the forest between Boabeng and Fiema is home to the world’s largest remaining intact white colobus population, even as their populations declined everywhere else. No one is sure exactly how many colobus live in the sanctuary today, but their population has remained stable for decades, and Canadian and American researchers estimate the current population to be about 400.
For that remarkable fact, the villages—and the world—have a man named Daniel K. Akowuah to thank. D.K., as he was known, was a Boabeng police officer and schoolteacher. In the 1960s, as Boabeng’s population grew and timber cutting and hunting increased, he noticed there were fewer and fewer monkeys around the village. He began leaving food out for them. “It made my husband so sad,” says Akowuah’s widow, Elizabeth, who still lives in the green house they shared on a corner across from the sanctuary, where mona monkeys lounge and groom each other along the wall of her home compound.
Akowuah began writing to government officials and visiting with village chiefs, raising the alarm about the fate of the monkeys and pushing them to set aside a portion of the forest and allow it to regrow so that monkey populations could rebound. The project would require the relocation of local farms and restrict further cutting of trees, firewood gathering and harvesting of medicinal plants to protect and help regenerate habitat for the monkeys the community held sacred. But, Akuwuah emphasized, the project could also help the community: The sanctuary would employ young people from the villages, many of whom were leaving for urban centers with better educational and economic opportunities. Entrance fees from tourist visits could also fund health clinics, water and sewer systems, and better roads and schools.
Akowuah’s idea—that money generated from wildlife tourism could be invested back into the community—was not the first of its kind, but it was well ahead of its time. It wasn’t until a decade or two later, starting in the 1970s, that mainstream conservationists began to catch up and recognize the value of community-based projects to preserve biodiversity. Most earlier efforts at landscape protection—such as Mole National Park in Ghana or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania—were top-down projects that displaced indigenous people or limited their traditional cultural practices in order to protect large swaths of wildlife habitat. In contrast, community-led conservation projects were designed to prioritize local cultural values and economic needs in concert with conservation goals.
It took Akuowah a number of years to convince village elders that a sanctuary could help both monkeys and the humans who shared their habitat. But in 1971, the villages joined together to formally establish the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, relocating a number of local farms to patches of land farther from the village under the direction of the village chief, who owned the land. In 1975, the Ghanaian government officially recognized the preserve and assigned a wildlife officer to assist with its management.
Akowuah, who died in 2005, lived long enough to see populations of both mona and colobus monkeys stabilize. Still, despite a steady growth in visitors to the sanctuary—from fewer than 150 tourists annually in 1990, when Canadian scientist Patrick J. Fargey came to Boabeng to study locally-led conservation, to 13,239 in 2019—many of the community improvements the project promised have yet to materialize. Most homes lack indoor plumbing. There are still only two public toilets for the thousand or so people who live in Boabeng. The local dump is overflowing. “There are no gutters; the streets are rough. We need a new school for children and that has not been done,” says Akowuah’s wife Elizabeth. “Since D.K .died, no one has given one child five cents.”
When Joachim Boedi signed on as the sanctuary’s manager in 2018, he was determined to change that calculation. In his early 30s, with a boyish face and serious expression, Boedi took the job seriously, rising before sunrise and riding his motorcycle the half-mile to his office at the sanctuary guesthouse. When I visited with him in early 2020, he balanced his feet on the rungs of his chair while periodically glancing out a window to identify the owners of passing vehicles. He knew most everyone passing by, having grown up just down the road. Mona monkeys scampered around the concrete buildings, competing with chickens for scraps of food, while a troop of colobus, perched high in the branches of a nearby tree, gorging themselves on leaves. Like many young people from the village, he left to attend university, studying accounting. Unlike others, however, he came back. “My passion is for rural community and education development,” Boedi told me. “That is what keeps me from accepting offers at banks.”
There had been no recordkeeping at the sanctuary before Boedi arrived on the job. Soon, he began documenting numbers of visitors, revenue and expenses, determined to increase transparency at the sanctuary. He left his record books open on a table for other staff members to see, so everyone knew that all income was being tracked and accounted for. The sanctuary was supposed to keep half of the revenue—a combination of tourist entry fees and payments from the Canadian-American colobus research station, amounting to around $28,000 in 2019—for upkeep and management. The other half went to a long list of stakeholders: the chiefs and sub-chiefs of Boabeng and Fiema, the district assembly, the traditional council, the game and wildlife officer, and the fetish priest. Five percent of the sanctuary’s revenues were earmarked for development projects like schools and road improvements.
But the allocation of funds quickly became a source of conflict between Boedi and the chiefs of Boabeng and Fiema, none of whom believed they were getting their proper share. Boedi suspected that the lack of record keeping in previous years made it easy for those in power to take more than their designated share of the revenue. Boabeng’s chief, Nana Owusu Damoah Ameyaw III, insisted that he deserved a larger portion than Fiema’s share, because the sanctuary was situated on Boabeng’s land—his land, according to tradition. He wanted more of the sanctuary’s pot as well. “The land belongs to somebody,” said Ameyaw, a round-faced man in his early 40s with the cool, stern expression of someone with clout.
He wanted to use more of the sanctuary’s revenue to build a supermarket. He had noticed, while traveling in Israel and Ethiopia, that large grocery stores were often built near tourist attractions and decided to fund construction of a similar modern supermarket in Boabeng.
When I visited in 2020, the foundation and support beams had been poured, exposed rebar poking out of the ground, waiting for more funds to complete the job. His goal, he told me, was to make the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary “one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world,” visited by “millions” of people every year.
But with only thousands visiting at the moment and limited funding available to them, Boedi insisted that the sanctuary’s share of the revenue should support the sanctuary and the health of the forest and the monkeys that lived there. The constant jockeying and justifying left him exhausted. “I’ve already typed my resignation letter,” he told me. “I like that I’m able to contribute to my community but I’m frustrated and I always want to leave.”
In June 2021, he finally did. He left to work for a local foundation—named after D.K. Akowuah, the sanctuary’s founder—that promotes environmental stewardship in local schools. He still values the sanctuary, he says, but now “I am relieved because I am doing what I love.”
Boedi’s replacement comes from the small city of Techiman, an hour’s drive from Boabeng. Boedi hopes that her status as an outsider may insulate her from the pressures and discord of local politics and allow her to focus on the forest and the monkeys—the main attraction that has brought the visitors and outside money to the village in the first place.
On any given day in the sanctuary—before Covid caused the suspension of all non-Ghanaian research—those visitors were likely to encounter an American or Canadian scientist staring into the trees, heads tilted back, binoculars raised, conducting research out of the sanctuary’s research station, which was founded in 2000 by University of Calgary primatologist Pascale Sicotte and now operates in partnership with the University of Oregon.
One fixture under those trees when I visited was University of Oregon biological anthropology PhD candidate Diana Christie. Each morning, she rose before 6:00 a.m. to make her way into the forest, her blond hair pulled into a ponytail, socks yanked up over her pant legs to protect her ankles from biting ants, greeting passing locals, who often take trails through the sanctuary from the village to their farms, in their native Twi. Before the pandemic, Christie spent six months of each year of her PhD program living at the sanctuary guesthouse, working with a local field site assistant to study the connection between social behavior and digestion and white-thighed colobus monkeys. Boabeng local Robert Koranteng was with her when I joined them. Koranteng, a fit man in his 40s who is quick with a joke or sarcastic comment, knew each monkey by name. Standing side-by-side and looking through their binoculars, Koranteng helped Christie identify each monkey by the unique pattern of its white eyebrows. “Is that Gemma?” Christie asked.
“No, that is Guan,” Koranteng confirmed.
“Okay, Guan in three,” Christie said, referring to the monkey’s location—third from the left in the group they were observing.
As the afternoon wore on, Koranteng also helped Christie collect fecal samples. “Diana gets very excited about the poop,” Koranteng laughed, using tweezers to pluck the samples from the leaf litter and deposit them in clear vials.
Back at the research station, Christie would freeze the samples to ship back to the University of Oregon, where, when back on campus, she analyzes the DNA extracted from them to cross-reference with behavioral data, studying how social interaction and contact may affect the gut microbiome in colobus—and by extrapolation, in humans. Colobus, like humans, have complex digestive systems and are highly social, grooming each other and sharing infant-rearing responsibilities. “In the colobus, we know that individuals who groom together have more similar gut microbiomes, so we infer that there is microbe transmission happening there,” Christie said, noting that humans who live together also have similar microbiomes, regardless of whether they are related to each other or eat similar food.
There didn’t appear to be a whole lot of social interaction going on between the colobus at the moment—the animals napped through the hot, dry afternoon, lying on their bellies on the shady lower branches, their limbs dangling beneath them. While the tall hardwood trunks with sprawling canopies and the torrid solitude of the afternoon gave the impression that at any moment, some large, prehistoric beast could step out of the leafy underbrush, sporadic clearings in the canopy served as reminders that this space was mostly farmland only 60 years earlier, before D.K. Akowuah persuaded the villages to relocate the farms to create the sanctuary. Almost everything there was relatively young regrowth.
At only 1.9 square kilometers, the core protected forest that makes up the sanctuary is small, too small to be a complete ecosystem, with humans encroaching on the forest edges, felling trees and plowing fields. No matter where you stand in the sanctuary, you can hear vehicles on the road and the sounds of village life. And while the omnivorous monas have adapted to living closely with humans in edge habitats around Boabeng and Fiema, the colobus monkeys are more secretive and depend entirely on native forest plants for their sustenance. The health of the forest is thus critical to the survival of the species.
Unfortunately, this fragment couldn’t feel more vulnerable, particularly given where it sits. Deforestation has accelerated across Ghana—since 2001, the country has experienced a 19 percent decrease in tree cover—and many patches near the sanctuary itself were lost.
Anthony Dassah, who served as wildlife officer in the sanctuary between 1999 and 2013, worries that the current path of the sanctuary is unsustainable. A local silviculture expert, he believes the local human communities still use the forest too much. He has suggested that the sanctuary plant more native trees and expand the forest, pushing farms even farther from the villages, and restrict sanctuary entry to paying guests, barring entry to locals, who travel by foot or bicycle through the sanctuary to their farms, and may also harvest trees and medicinal plants illegally and disturb the monkeys. Without such changes, he fears, “the carrying capacity for the monkeys will be reduced and the monkeys will die.”
The importance of such measures to the colobus’s survival may be greater than ever in light of climate change. “There is less rain, it’s too hot, and the farming cycles are changing,” says Koranteng, who is also a farmer when he is not working for the research station. “The rains used to start at the end of February, but now they do not start until March.” Less rain means less forest cover, more dust, more desert creeping in. More frequent drought means more people turn to the forest to meet their needs, and more erratic rainy seasons are thought to affect the monkeys as well. The local fetish priest told me he had buried 17 monkeys since September 2019, and he was burying three more the day I spoke with him at his home where he tends the shrine of Daworo. This is more than usual and he attributed some of the deaths to recent drought. Scientists worry that without more rigorous restrictions in this tiny patch of forest, the sanctuary will no longer be able to support even the several hundred monkeys that live here now, and the species will teeter even closer to the brink.
Species disappear all the time, Christie notes. “Losing the species probably wouldn’t affect much environmentally,” Christie says. The white colobus will be just another missing species, whose impact and loss we may not ever notice or understand. A pained look crosses her face. “But on a personal level, my heart…” She doesn’t know how to finish the sentence.
Across the street from the sanctuary in Boabeng, Margaret Dansowa and her husband Joseph Amponsah live with their children in a concrete house. Like everyone in the two villages, they are subsistence farmers, and also sell porridge each morning to their neighbors, who bring their own bowls to a pot Margaret stirs over an open fire in front of their home. As she does, a throng of mona monkeys scamper around the periphery of the courtyard, waiting for a chance to steal an unguarded morsel. “The monkeys took 14 eggs yesterday,” Dansowa says, shrugging. “I should have put them somewhere safe.”
It is not only the survival of the monkeys at stake in the struggles over the future of the Boabeng sanctuary; it is also a matter human survival. If the humans aren’t on board, the sanctuary will fail. Without protection, experts like Dassah and Koranteng assume the sanctuary forest will be felled for the short term gain that timber sales provide to meet immediate needs, and the communities would be left with less protection from encroaching desertification and the loss of a direct symbol of their history and culture as the monkeys die or are forced to seek shelter elsewhere.
Boabeng families moved their farms once to accommodate the sanctuary, but they continue to struggle, and many feel that the project has yet to balance the needs of wildlife with the needs of the local community. “Because there has been no development,” Koranteng says, “People don’t care as much about the sanctuary.”
Unfortunately, what is best for struggling species is not always useful to humans—and what humans want and need is rarely good for those species. And if it’s a choice between the monkeys and the villagers, sanctuary advocates fear it is the monkeys that will suffer. “Our ancestors did not have Jesus or the Bible, so people worshipped other deities,” says Koranteng. “Daworo was our protector from the beginning. I don’t think we should destroy the forest or lose the monkeys. Our ancestors left it for us so we should not spoil it.”
But how equitable is it to place the burden of conservation on communities with the lowest standards of living and the least financial power? If even sacred monkeys are struggling to prove their economic viability, what hope do the less charismatic species of the world have?
“We stopped farming in the forest so that the monkeys would come back,” Amponsah told me. “The monkeys should be preserved. But we are not benefitting from them, and we need help.”
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