When culture stands in the way of conservation: Battle to save Colobus monkeys in Mt Elgon

Bugisu candidates wearing skins of colobus monkey dance in preparation for circumcision

Bugisu candidates wearing skins of colobus monkey dance in preparation for circumcision (PHOTO/Courtesy)

Nickolas Manana looks at the giant trees, keenly in Mt Elgon National Park.

Then looks down pretending to be less interested in the Wildlife jumping from one tree to another in excitement; the White and Black colobus monkeys before later hunting them down.

Manana sells these to Bugisu families that have boys intending to get circumcised that year and earns just Shs 70,000 for each Colobus monkey hunted, killed, and taken to these families.

For close to three decades, Mr. Nickolas Manana has been a traditional hunter and a poacher at Mt Elgon National Park.

It is clear that sighting wildlife is one of the more memorable moments of any visitor in Mt Elgon Park, especially the white and black colobus monkeys.

But life has always been and is getting tricky for these White and Black colobus monkeys in Mt Elgon.

The white and black colobus monkeys that live in the Mt Elgon trees in Mt Elgon conservation area live in territorial groups high above the ground.

They feast on leaves and rarely descend to the ground, they use the trees as trampolines to travel, but the Uganda Wild Life Authority [UWA] says they will come down if the trees aren’t dense enough to support and so they’re forced to forage below.

And despite notable successes in protecting particular sites or species in Mt Elgon, conservation faces serious challenges, especially from culturists/traditionalists.

It is true that humans and animals co-exist within an interdependent ecosystem and true humans and animals share an evolutionary heritage.

But several of these species are being lost to the culture at about a thousand times the natural rate of extinction and this is faster than at any other period in human history.

When you look around the Mt Elgon conservation area, several ecosystems – the vital systems on which all life depends – are being degraded across the mountain too as Manana and other frontline communities at the slopes of Mt Elgon poach, hunt and put up settlements inside the Park

Although this crisis of biodiversity loss is yet to get some attention, human beings ought to know that it is connected to indigenous cultures – which are rarely mentioned.

From animals to insects and plants, biodiversity loss cannot be effectively addressed without tackling the role of our indigenous cultures in perpetuating the loss of biodiversity and wildlife because the two are inextricably linked.

Colobus monkeys that are facing extinction in Mt Elgon National Park

Local belief systems, such as indigenous religions, and informal institutions, such as social norms and taboos, have been credited with helping to protect animal species across cultures but they have also been put at the extreme end of the destruction of some animals.

In Bugisu for example one of the tribes staying at the slopes of Mt Elgon, their Imbalu [circumcision of young males] is described by many as a culture that destroys animal species especially when the animal is used for promoting culture.

Among the Bagisu who live around the slopes of Mt Elgon, taboos may protect certain species because of the role of those species in a society’s folklore or myths but the colobus monkey which is used during the male circumcision events is facing extinction as it is hunted and killed.

In this culture, the Colobus monkey is harmed through hunting, trapping, and killing because it is historically a necessity for Imbalu festival [male circumcision] that takes place every even year.

This means that the black and white ”Colobus” monkeys are in danger during Imbalu circumcision period in the Bugisu side of Mt Elgon where the circumcision of boys takes place.

The skin of the colobus monkey is bestowed on the head of a boy going to be circumcised for dancing and as a sign of prestige while its tail is also put on a stick and used for dancing.

A country census carried out in 2012 found the black and white, red and blue colobus monkey numbers had dwindled to 1,110 from 4,010 in 2002, just because they are hunted and killed for their skin and meat among the Bugisu communities.

Mr Fred Kizza, the Chief Warden Mt Elgon National Park says that it is known that cultural diversity in remote mountain regions is closely linked to biodiversity, as there is a symbiotic relationship between habitats and cultures, and between ecosystems and cultural identity;

He adds that religious rules and rituals often strengthen this relationship and are characterized by a conservation ethic.

Ms Christine Nakayenze, a senior game warden at Mountain Elgon national park says the Bagisu traditional dancers who go for the circumcision (imbalu) say between April and July is when the White colobus Monkey is killed in preparation for the imbalu festival.

She adds that the colobus monkeys are born in various colors that are interesting to watch for tourists, but they also have interesting behavioral traits like carrying their young by the mouth, they have fingers, live in congresses under an organized social entity led by a male.

“In their groups, they are quite inquisitive through observation in trying to understand what happens to the rest of the congress. The colobus monkeys are shy, communicate to others and hide away from humans a thing that makes them more interesting to find,” said Ms Nakayenze.

She revealed that both colonial and post-colonial conservation policies ignored the potential role of traditional cultural practices in contributing to conservation goals, especially with highly growing populations across conserved areas in Uganda and across Africa

Ms Nakayenze says that human population growth has profound direct and indirect effects on consumption patterns of land and wild resources and is one of the major challenges facing wildlife-rich areas in Uganda and Africa as a whole.

Conserving wildlife

Mr Kizza suggests that the closest we have come to an ethical position on the treatment of animals is to not be cruel ‘which essentially enjoins us not to maliciously, willfully or sadistically hurt animals for no purpose.

“Animals can be recognized as morally equal to humans. That grants animals the rights that humans have. This perspective means animals should not be used, kept, or killed for human interests under any circumstances,” Mr Kizza says.

He however says that among the Bagisu contrary to western notions of animal welfare and animal protectionism, the culture embraces animal harm as integral to their cultural identity.

“A variety of practices like harvesting of wild animals and their derivatives (skin, tusks and internal organs) are deeply ingrained in some Bugisu cultural practices which can have cultural, religious and social significance, especially to indigenous people, ” says Mr Kizza.

“The people only see the animals as part of their culture and killing it to get derivatives is crucial in the promotion of their culture and this explains why the Colobus monkey is killed among the Bagisu,” added Mt Kizza.

There is also ample research-based literature associating this factor with wildlife poaching and habitat destruction, particularly where high human populations close to protected areas cause disruption of the ecological processes essential to maintain long-term biodiversity, due to increased hunting and pressure from local people to open protected lands for community use.

Though for many native peoples, animals and humans shared a kinship, people hunted and harvested animals purely as a means of survival and a colobus monkey is being hunted for cultural reasons.

Mr Kizza argues that cultural practices that harm animals are not morally defensible and that the Bugisu imbalu [culture] tradition cannot justify cruelty.

He said note must be made that animals have moral status, they may not be harmed without good reason and urged the Bagisu to find alternatives for use during imbalu ceremony like plastics in order to preserve the colobus monkey for tourism.

“I want to argue that the importance of cultural rituals to adherents does not count as a sufficiently good reason to harm or kill animals, since rituals are inherently symbolic, and cultures are able to adapt and change, making adherence to cruel traditions unnecessary, ” said Mr Kizza.

Regardless of whether we live in wealthy or poor countries, our fates as humans are inextricably tied to those of other species. Together, we inhabit ecosystems that supply us with basic services such as food, water, and air.

According to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), humans, as moral beings, have an obligation to act responsibly toward animals.

Imbalu Candidates displaying tails of a colobus monkey

Dr James Watuwa CEO of EWCO [Endangered Wildlife Conservation Organisation] a Ugandan Wildlife Veterinarian and conservationist says communities are the true owners of nature and play a fundamental role in the conservation of biological diversity and the protection of forests and other natural resources.

He urged frontline communities to wake up and stop damaging the environment and killing wildlife without reason but know the importance of conserving the Park for future generations.

He added that as cohabitants of our environment, it is our human responsibility to respect and protect the wildlife but we also need them to thrive in order for us to thrive.

“And this is because we depend on them as food supplies, pest control, pollinators, medicine, genetic resources, and centers of tourism, ” he said.

He added that human beings fates are so entwined with wildlife and their habitats that the UN report estimates that the current negative trends will “undermine progress towards 80 percent” of the Sustainable Development Goals relating to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land.

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