Years ago, green monkeys in the Bijilo Forest Park in the Gambia foraged for their food. They worked hard, expended energy, and ate wild foods appropriate for a wild primate. They were healthy. Today, they feast on ready-prepared food that is being handed to them by the very people who pay to see them living in their natural environment — tourists.
One of the most densely populated and poorest countries in Africa, the Gambia opened Bijilo to the public in 1991. Tree-felling was occurring on a massive scale as the demand increased for rhun palm — an extremely valuable timber, easily split yet very durable — to build telegraph poles, posts, beams, windows, and door frames. The wildlife was losing its habitat at an alarming rate. In addition, the monkeys were being harassed out of existence by young boys wielding sticks and packs of dogs. If nothing were done, one of the last stands of rhun palms and its associated wildlife would disappear.
The only way to properly protect the area, the authorities agreed, was to upgrade the fencing, hire local people to work within the forest, and open the area to the public. By making the park a public area, both educational and financial gains could be made. Situated beside the Atlantic Ocean, seven miles or so from the capital Banjul, the 127-acre park was within easy walking distance of many of the country’s hotels and immediately accessible to the tourists who flock to the Gambia every winter. A wide path, almost three miles long, with benches at strategic points, winds its way through mixed woodland forest, sand dunes, and tree and shrub savannah. The roar of the Atlantic is always present.
Amid this mosaic habitat live more than 133 species of bird and four species of primate: the vulnerable red colobus, fleet-footed patas monkeys, nocturnal galagos — and the green monkeys. In the park’s first five months, more than a thousand tourists visited. Today, 23,000 visitors enter every year. Once one of the Gambia’s secrets, Bijilo is a victim of its own success — and excesses. Despite notices forbidding the feeding of the monkeys, tourists are able to buy bags of groundnuts specifically for this purpose. Being incredibly smart, the animals soon learned that, rather than forage for their own food, they could sit on a path and wait for it to fall from human hands. This disruption to their natural behavior has caused them to become incredibly aggressive — among themselves and towards tourists.
They have altered their home range and now congregate on the path near the entrance and next to the benches. Groups of more than 70 overfed green monkeys sit on a path for hours, fighting, playing, and grooming — and waiting for another little plastic bag of nuts to be offered. Empty bags litter the path, and the monkeys spend their time sucking on them — risking death by suffocation. Park guides know that if the tourists can get close to, and perhaps chased or accosted by a monkey, their fee at the end of the tour will be significantly higher.
Animals and plants do not live in isolation: they form an intricate web of dependency. Tourists who pass through Bijilo become part of this web, of which the park management is part. And now that web is disintegrating. The tourists — smelling of talcum powder and insect-repellent and laden with guidebooks, bags, cameras, and strollers — continue their feeding and the guide simply laughs when one of the men stepped on a green’s tail. As the monkey screeched off into the trees, the tourists howled with delight. Clearly they saw this as a wonderful experience.
One presumes that tourists insist on feeding the monkeys because they are looking for a special connection between themselves and the animals. In fact, the guides and the tourists are creating a generation of pests. Unlike the greens, the colobus are not pests; they are not interested in handouts. This does not mean, however, that they are not affected by human behavior. Today, Bijilo stands alone as a small oasis amid tourist complexes and beach restaurants. Where once there were beautiful forests, there are now just tree stumps and half-built structures — the beginnings of a five-star hotel, conference center, and 18-hole golf course. The local people lose more land; the animals lose more trees.
Back in 1991 it was hoped that tourism would save the forest from destruction and its wild inhabitants from decimation. Today, it looks as though the tourists are leading the demolition.