1986: Leaves in the Forest
In 1986, Gail Hearn accompanied two primatologists on an expedition to Cameroon to look for drills, which even then were rare and highly endangered. She didn't see any drills on that trip, but she did see "leaves moved by drills" and that was enough to plant a desire to return. Four years later, she again accompanied two researchers to Africa, this time to Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island, where drills were rumored to live in abundance. (One of those researchers was top primatologist Tom Butynski, now BBPP's senior conservation biologist.) The research team was delighted to find primates of all kinds flourishing on Bioko. The team's data revealed that not only was Bioko's Gran Caldera a haven for drills, it registered the second-highest density of primates on the African continent, as measured by encounter rates. Bolstered by the promising results and a newfound love of African field work, Hearn, BBPP's founder and co-director -- planned to return.
1990-1997: The Gran Caldera Census Begins
Using the 1990 encounter rates as a benchmark, Hearn returned to Bioko Island in 1992, 1996 and 1997 to conduct a census of primates living in the Gran Caldera. The results would show how drills and other endangered monkeys were faring in the face of increasing pressure from hunters. Hearn recruited volunteer field assistants to help record the data and hired local men to cut trails through the bush. At that time, the only path into the Caldera, a volcanic crater covered in thick vegetation, was an arduous two-day ascent up the narrow Rio Tudela river canyon. Once inside the Caldera, Hearn made an effort to locate the same trails she had used in 1990. Her results from those years show a decline in most primate species, although the Caldera animals were spared the worst of the hunting, which was then focused on Pico Basile on the island's northern end.
1997: Bushmeat Market Survey Begins
In 1997, Hearn hired a Malabo-based research assistant to begin a daily survey of the Malabo bushmeat market, the largest market on the island and the destination of most animals killed by hunters. Barring one month in which the data was lost in a fire, the market survey has continued without interruption, now providing information on over 80,000 dead animals, from monkeys and duikers to wild rats, squirrels and pythons. With this information, researchers are able to track the hunting patterns around the island.
1998-present: Year-Round Conservation Efforts
During the 1998 census, it became clear that hunters were hunting out Pico Basile and were shifting their focus to the Gran Caldera and Bioko's Southern Highlands. Hearn and a colleague, Dr. Wayne Morra, an economics professor at Arcadia University, became concerned that their census trails would offer hunters easy access to Gran Caldera's abundant wildlife. They decided to hire a team of local forest monitors to deter hunters from entering the Caldera. In a matter of weeks, Hearn and Morra switched their focus from studying Bioko's primates to simply preserving them. The Bioko Primate Protection Program (BPPP) was born.
Shortly thereafter, a Spanish conservation group, Asociacion Los Amigos de Donana, was forced out of Equatorial Guinea, leaving behind several teams of beach monitors who had been protecting nesting sea turtles from hunters. BPPP took over the sea turtle program and became the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program.
In 1999, BBPP became a jointly administered program with the Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial (UNGE), Equatorial Guinea's nascent university, allowing both schools to launch educational initiatives centering around Bioko Island's remarkable biodiversity. The schools conduct faculty and student exchanges, run an undergraduate study abroad program in conservation biology and are planning a research station in the Southern Highlands. One UNGE graduate is completed a master's degree in environmental education at Arcadia University. Undergraduate students from both institutions conduct field studies together to better understand Bioko's natural heritage.
Today BBPP has since expanded its educational and conservation efforts to contract over fifty people on the island. We continue to conduct the annual three-week census of primates in the Caldera, as we have done every year since 1996. Our study abroad program, started in 2002, now offers a spring semester in addition to the original fall term. It now falls under the direct management of Drexel University's Study Abroad Office. In 2006, BBPP hired top primatologist Thomas Butynski to serve as senior conservation biologist.
BBPP continues to expand and grow to rise to the challenges facing Bioko Island's wildlife. Although we enjoy the generosity of our supporters and success in protecting animals in Bioko's Southern Highlands protected area, with each passing year rising bushmeat prices put greater pressure on animal populations and we are faced with the perennial challenge of cobbling together a budget. We encourage you to read more about Bioko's wildlife and our conservation efforts, and if you are so inclined, to make an individual donation to preserve this small corner of the earth.