PERCEIVED as agricultural pests and hence farmers' enemy number one until recently, the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey is now possibly one of the most famous and revered resident of the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park in Unguja.
Thanks to government and Non-Governmental Organisations' efforts, farmers around the Park's Jozani Forest like Mohamed Salum Haji have had their negative perception changed and are now happy to put up with the monkey, albeit its well publicised penchant for raiding young crops and fruits like mangoes.
Mr Haji says communities around the forest have had to learn to tolerate the monkey because of its contribution to the economy of the area. About 25,000 tourists visit the forest, most of them eager to see the rare monkey found in Zanzibar only.
"The monkey used to be farmers' number one enemy because it was destroying our crops. The situation only changed once we started reaping benefits of its existence from tourism proceeds," he says, adding that farmers would kill the animals by poisoning or netting them.
The monkey's fortunes only turned around in the mid-1990s when it was adopted as the flagship species for conservation in the Isles. Authorities had to take action as the forest and its famous inhabitants were under threat due to encroachment by villagers who wantonly cut down trees for timber, charcoal, firewood and other uses.
The farmers would also hunt down the animal to prevent it from destroying their crops. The monkey now plays an important role in tourism, which is arguably one of Zanzibar's most important economic sectors. Indeed, in recent years thousands of tourists have been visiting the Park to see these primates, generating over 100,000 US dollars in park fees annually.
As Mr Haji, who doubles as vice-chairman of 115-member Jozani Farm Owners Union- Uwemajo can attest, the income not only supports Jozani National Park, but also benefits the government and the local community.
Tourists also spend much more throughout the island on transport, food, and lodging, thereby providing increased employment opportunities. Mr Haji, however, points out that Uwemajo was about to launch negotiation with the government with a view to have a bigger share of the income to properly sustain their livelihoods.
"Community members in this area are in poor economic conditions as they can not exploit their farms effectively for agriculture due to destruction to crops caused by the monkeys," says Mr Haji.
He adds that red colobus monkeys are among the endangered species but their cultural life has a potential to create hostility within the entire community, unless villagers' needs are properly taken care of.
"Villagers strongly complain about the monkeys raiding their crops and seriously damaging them, hence the need to be compensated properly."
Meanwhile, to supplement members' income Uwemajo undertakes various projects through help from the government and donors, such as extension of sea turtle sanctuary, a zoo park, having received tortoise from Changuu Island.
The organisation has also managed to survey all farms around Jozani, which has helped identify owners and size of land owned. Despite efforts to change perception, still other villagers are said to hold negative views of the monkey, saying it has an evil influence on trees on which they feed, ultimately killing them.
"No wonder there still exists animosity between villagers and the monkey", observes a Chalawe villager, Mr Abdullah Faki. He says the feeling among some villagers is that authorities value the animal more than human beings, hence the need for more efforts to improve the relations by ensuring villagers benefit more with proceeds from tourism in the area.
While Mr Haji and other farmers blame Zanzibar red colobus monkey for destruction of their crop, a recent study points to different species of monkey that could be the culprit-Sykes monkeys. "In the past, farmers living near Jozani National Park have complained about crop raiding by Zanzibar red colobuses, but the evidence for this behaviour is controversial.
In the late 1990s, farmers claimed that they were consuming coconuts in agricultural areas and requested compensation and removal of the Zanzibar red colobuses. "However, it is possible that most (if not all) damage is caused by Sykes monkeys and blamed incorrectly on Zanzibar red colobuses, as the more secretive and inconspicuous Sykes monkeys often associate with groups of Zanzibar red colobuses," reads part of the study published on Animal Diversity Web.
The scientific investigation of the problem found that Zanzibar red colobus consumption of coconuts was positively correlated with harvest, maybe due to a pruning effect, hence the importance of scientifically quantifying perceived human-wildlife conflicts so that appropriate measures could be taken.
Commenting on achievements recorded in protection of the Park and the rare monkey, the Director of Forestry and Non Renewable Resources Department in the Zanzibar Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Mr Sheha Hamdan says participation of the communities has been key in ensuring sustainable conservation of the forest.
He says even cases of farmers killing monkeys are very few and far between as members of the community have turned to be the most reliable guardians of the animal and the forest. He says a number of NGOs have been working with communities in all the nine villages surrounding Jozani to find alternative means of livelihoods to avoid heavy dependence on forest resources.
Apart from Uwemajo-the association of land owners around Jozani, other key players in the villages include Jozani Environmental Conservation Association (JECA), South Environmental and Development Conservation Association (SEDCA) and Ngezi- Vumawimbi Natural Resources Conservation Organisation (NGERANECO); Zanzibar Bee Keepers Association (ZABA) and Jozani Joint Development and savings and Credit Organisation (JOZANI- JODCO).
They have been engaging in an array of income generating activities such as bee keeping, fishing, manufacturing of stoves, hand crafts and eco-tourisms. The JECA deputy secretary general Awesu Ramadhani says the response of the communities to environmental conservation efforts has been positive and encouraging.
He mentions the agro forestry project sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme as among undertakings that are changing lives of villagers around Jozani. However, Mr Hamdan admits still a lot needs to be done as incidences of encroachment on the forest still happen, although not as often as it used to be.
"Lately there have been fires in the forest apparently caused by honey collectors who use non sustainable methods," observes the forestry and non renewable resources boss. He nevertheless points out that the win-win situation ensures that there is always harmony between man and nature as far as conservation of the forest and its flora and fauna are concerned.
With the population finally appreciating it, a visit to Zanzibar is indeed not complete without seeing one of the rarest monkeys in Africa, with less than 2000 said to be remaining in the world.