In 1986, Dr. Gail Hearn accompanied two primatologists on an expedition to Cameroon to look for drills, which 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 spark her desire to return. Four years later in 1990, she returned with 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 team's research revealed that Bioko's Gran Caldera was a haven for drills, and it registered the second-highest density of primates on the African continent. Bolstered by the promising results and a newfound love of African field work, Dr. Hearn -- BBPP's founder and co-director -- planned to return.
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 'bushmeat' hunters. Hearn recruited volunteer field assistants to help record the data and hired local men to cut trails through the bush. Once inside the Caldera, Hearn made an effort to locate the same trails she had used in 1990. Her results from those years showed a decline in most primate species.
In 1997, Hearn hired a Malabo-based research assistant to begin a daily survey of the Malabo (Equatorial Guinea capital) bushmeat market, the largest market on the island and the final destination for 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 have been able to track the hunting patterns around the island.
During the 1998 census, it became clear that hunters were hunting out Pico Basile (the northern edge of Bioko Island) 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, feared 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, and soon switched their focus from studying Bioko's primates to 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 what is still known today as the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP).
In 1999, BBPP became a jointly administered program with the Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial (UNGE), Equatorial Guinea's premier higher-education 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, collectively run field studies, and have opened the Moka Wildlife Center.
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. Our study abroad program, started in 2002, now offers a spring semester in addition to the original fall term, through 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, rising to the challenges that face Bioko Island's wildlife. Since our start in 1998, the BBPP has expanded to include the Moka Wildlife Center, Ureca Nature Center, Bioko Artisans' Collective, and the Bioko Island Book Series. We also offer weekend excursions to visit Bioko Island as part of our ecotourism program.