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Monkeys and Apes as Animals and Humans: Ethno-Primatology in Nigeria’s Taraba Region

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Primates of Gashaka

Part of the book series: Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects ((DIPR,volume 35))


Nigeria’s remote Taraba region harbours a wealth of wildlife. This diversity has been greatly reduced in many locales. We explored local attitudes towards monkeys and chimpanzees through a questionnaire survey, with the goal of identifying factors that may aid conservation measures. This so-called ethno-primatological approach ultimately aims to mitigate the cultural and perceptive isolation of non-local conservationists and primatologists.

Interviewees made clear distinctions between monkeys and chimpanzees. Monkeys reportedly raided crops more often, were more frequently hunted and eaten, and it was more commonly believed that chimpanzees were either protected or should be protected. Widespread folklore credits chimpanzees with human-like qualities. Eating of ape meat is therefore restricted by certain taboos, including an Islamic ban on eating primate meat. On the other hand, chimpanzees are killed precisely because of their human-like character, as their body parts are considered to be powerful ingredients for medicine. Because of their more human-like app­earance, chimpanzee babies also make more desirable pets than monkeys. In any case, traditional taboos are increasingly breaking down because of an influx of immigrants from non-Muslim areas, and because of a commercialisation of the bush-meat trade. The sale of a single chimpanzee carcass provides hunters with roughly the equivalent of a month’s salary for a government employee such as a national park ranger.

The results revealed at times striking differences between the Cameroon Border Area (more intense agriculture and plantations; largely influenced by Christian culture; cross-border trade activities; relatively remote from the national park) and the Park Support Zone (more pronounced pastoralist activities in the more extensive savannah-woodlands; largely influenced by Muslim culture; greater awareness concerning the existence and function of protected areas, in particular the neighbouring national park). Hunting, display of meat in markets and restaurants, display of primate pets and consumption of chimpanzees and monkeys is more frequently reported near the border, where protective laws are both less well known and less appreciated. Some of these differences may be due to a greater reluctance of interviewees living near the national park to admit to the existence of illegal primate killings and bush-meat consumption. However, most of the difference is probably due to cultural practices, more frequent law enforcement and better information about nature conservation in the vicinity of the park. As a result, the decrease in sightings of primates is more dramatic near the border than in the park vicinity. Also, near the border, informants could name an average of only 0.9 locations where primates occur, whereas those residing near the park named 1.3 locations.

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Appendix. Folklore About Chimpanzees and Monkeys in the Taraba Region, Nigeria

Based on interviews with local people, 2004 – 2005, by GN (Tab. 4.1 ). Narrated by GN to AF, transcribed by AF, and edited by VS (Apr 05). It was intended to preserve some of the traditional mode of storytelling.

Interpreting Naturalistic Behaviour of Chimpanzees

  1. [1]

    A chimpanzee invents drumming to find his wife. Told in Baissa. A chimpanzee was living with his family, and there was a shortage of food. So, he told his family that he would go and look for food. He said he would leave marks on the road, which they could follow in case he didn’t come back. On his travels, he discovered a place with plenty of food and thought it would be good to transfer his family to that area. When he did not return, his wife decided to follow him as he had said. So, she followed but could not find him. And he was also looking around for her, because she had left the home. So, he decided to invent drumming. When she heard this, she knew it was him, and she went to find him. The drumming became a sign of contact and is also a sign of a good place to sleep. It is usually the male chimpanzee that drums and the females do the crying.

  2. [2]

    Drumming is a secret. The drumming of the chimpanzees is a secret of the chimpanzees. That is why it is very difficult to discover.

  3. [3]

    Drumming tells everybody to go to sleep. Told in Mayo Selbe. Drumming is a sign to show that playing is over, so everybody should go to sleep, and we will meet again tomorrow.

  4. [4]

    Drumming foretells death in the village. Told in Abong. In the olden days, it was believed that when chimpanzees come very close to the village and cry and beat buttresses, this is a big sign that an adult from the village will die, and this will have to happen whether the person was sick or not. But nowadays, because of hunting pressure, the chimpanzees have all moved from close to their home and people no longer hear their cries.

  1. [5]

    Chimpanzees avoid snake-bites. Told in Bissaula. In those days, the chimpanzees normally spent many nights in each nest. They were suffering to make a new nest every night. So, one day, the chimpanzees went back to stay in a previous nest because they didn’t go away too far. That afternoon a snake had invaded one of the nests. So, when the leader of the group went up to sleep, he was bitten. From that day, they all learned their lesson: that it is not good to use a nest more than once, because a snake might be there. And they passed the message around, and that has continued until this generation.

The Human Nature of Chimpanzees

  1. [6]

    Chimpanzees are afraid of guns. Told near Akwame. If you point a gun at a chimpanzee, it will cry and shout, so chimpanzees behave like men.

  2. [7]

    Chimpanzees copy human behaviour. Told near Akwame. Normally, in the old days, when a man was going to cut palm nuts, he left them near the trees for a few days for the water to reduce. When he went to collect them, he went with his wife. The woman would carry the bunch on her head. Usually the man would be holding at least two spears on his shoulders. In many instances in this village, female chimpanzees were seen carrying a bunch of nuts on their heads, and the male would break two sticks and carry them on his shoulders. This shows that the chimpanzees copy what human beings do exactly.

  3. [8]

    Chimpanzees do not raid crops. Told in Bodel. According to the Jibawa people, chimpanzees are not known for crop-raiding or any damage on the farm. In the event of such on anybody’s farm, it means the farmer has a problem, which he has to settle, and if he fails to do so, calamity will follow.

  4. [9]

    Chimpanzees forage like humans. Told in Yelwa. The chimpanzees behave like human beings, using hands to fetch water and leaves sometimes. They use their hands to make the nest.

  5. [10]

    Chimpanzees use tools and share food. Told in Bissaula. The chimpanzees also do group work like human beings. So, when they get food, they call out and wait for others to come around. It is normally honey or termites – which they hunt, using sticks. They will first give to the younger ones, then they will share it.

  6. [11]

    Chimpanzees fish and share the exploits. Told in Gashaka. Chimpanzees fish from rivers. They toss all the fish to a leader chimpanzee who collects them and shares them out afterwards.

  7. [12]

    Chimpanzees grow maggots for food on hunted carcasses. Told in Baissa. When chimpanzees kill an animal, antelope or something, they don’t eat it. They cover it somewhere with leaves. A few days later, they will go on their normal hunting. At exactly the time that the maggots start forming in the dead animal they will come back to the same place and feast on the maggots. So, the chimpanzees do not eat the flesh. If human hunters find a pile of grass under which chimpanzees have hidden a killed antelope, they will take the prey but remove the intestines and leave them there to form the maggots for the chimpanzees. Also, when humans hunt, they will also leave intestines of their prey animal on a stone for the maggots to form for the chimpanzees.

  8. [13]

    Chimpanzee mothers hide insubordinate sons from the father. Told in Baissa. It is in the culture of chimpanzees that when the female gives birth to a male chimpanzee, she will have to separate from the father to raise the male child because the young male chimpanzees are always insubordinate to their fathers. So the mother would always carry the male chimpanzee on her stomach and if it is a female, on her back. The reason for carrying the male on the stomach is so that the adult male will not see the private parts of the young chimpanzee. The male is kept by the mother until he grows, then he separates from her.

  9. [14]

    Chimpanzees as friends of humans. Told in Bodel. In the past the Jibawa people used to make friends with the chimpanzees. They would go to the forest to play with the chimpanzees. The chimpanzees used to know them.

  1. [15]

    Chimpanzees are humans cursed for abomination. Told in Yelwa. Once upon a time, there was a newly married couple. The woman was left at home to cook while her in-laws went to the farm. So her mother-in-law gave her ingredients to make soup, including salt. But she misplaced the salt, so instead of waiting for the salt she replaced it with honey and sugar cane in the soup. She tasted it and it was sweet, so she knew that her mother-in-law would not like it. So she went to her mother-in-law’s calabash that was placed on the top shelf in the kitchen. Inside the calabash she found some salt and added this to the sauce. She then took the food to the farm. The calabash, from which she took the salt, was not supposed to be used by anyone except the mother-in-law. So the calabash followed her to the farm. The woman knew that if she went to the farm with the calabash she would be queried, so she stopped and broke it with a stone. And then she threw the pieces in the river. She continued to the farm. By the time she reached the farm, the calabash fragments had reunited and it went down the river to the farm, arriving at the same time as the woman. So the people in the farm, including the mother-in-law, saw her and the calabash and worked out what had happened. Now, it is an abomination for a daughter-in-law to use the calabash of her mother-in-law without permission. So, as a result of this, everybody on the farm was transformed to chimpanzees. And they never came back home.

  2. [16]

    Chimpanzees are humans cursed for fishing on Saturdays. Told in Takum. Monkeys, especially chimpanzees were formally human beings. So, when they were still people, there was a rule from God that no one goes to fish on Saturday. These chimpanzees, the first people to turn to chimpanzees, had a shortage of soup in the house to cook for the family. So, they went to fish on Saturday. Then, God found out and punished them to remain in the bush as chimpanzees. So they are shy because they cannot come back to be with the people.

  3. [17]

    Chimpanzees are humans cursed for quarreling amongst themselves. Told in Mayo Selbe. Chimpanzees were formerly people before they were separated from normal human beings. Before that, there was a big misunderstanding and they could not resolve this problem. So, some of the group got so annoyed with the other group and decided to stay in the forest away from other people. The ones who were annoyed went to the forest, carrying along their ugly faces with them. This is why the chimpanzees look as they do. After the separation, they also found a way to cut communication with the other people. So that is why the chimpanzees understand only themselves and cannot speak like normal humans. Using human language would be like bringing back the problem.

  4. [18]

    Chimpanzees are stubborn humans living in the bush. Told in Baissa. The Ndoro people respect chimpanzees because chimpanzees were formally their early fathers or ancestors. It is their stubbornness that caused them to be separated from the new people now. That is why they remain in the bush.

Taboos and Customs Surrounding Hunting of Chimpanzees

  1. [19]

    Humans realise that chimpanzees are like themselves. Told in Baissa. Chief says his forefather used to say that chimpanzees are like humans, they will do anything people do. In 1950 he went to the farm with his father and heard the chimpanzees crying and drumming, and his father told him that these were also human beings but they live in the forest. So they went to see what the chimpanzees were doing. When they got there, the people sat down, the chimpanzees sat down, the people stood up and so did the chimpanzees. So his father told him, chimpanzees are human beings and should not be hunted.

  2. [20]

    A chimpanzee shows mercy with his hunter. Told near Akwame. People used to hunt primates including chimpanzees in a group. They cut down trees in the forest to create a gap between the trees so the chimpanzees would not jump from one tree to the other. One day when they went hunting, one of the stubborn chimpanzees climbed up a big tall tree. All the styles to bring him down were abortive. So one of the young men climbed the tree so that he could disturb the chimpanzee and make him jump down. When the man went up, and got close to the chimpanzee, the chimpanzee quickly grabbed him and held him out trying to throw him down. The people on the ground started shouting and begging so the chimpanzee did not throw down the man. And the man was allowed to come down from the tree without being hurt. From this experience, they decided not to hunt chimpanzees again.

  3. [21]

    Chimpanzees can be allies in war. Told in Ussa. People here believe the chimpanzees are strong and will help them during war when their enemies attack them. So they shouldn’t kill or eat them.

  4. [22]

    Chimpanzees practice midwifery. Told near Akwame. Tradition and culture of the Ndola people do not permit the eating of chimpanzees because in the early days, women were having problems in child bearing. So one day, a hunter spotted a chimpanzee giving birth, and the chimpanzees cut a leaf, which the mother chimpanzee slept on. That knowledge was brought to their community, and so they do the same. If they do this, the woman will have a successful birth.

  5. [23]

    Chimpanzees cry like humans. Told in Abong. A man went hunting in the seventies along the Nigeria – Cameroon border. He saw a chimpanzee and pointed a gun to shoot it. The chimpanzee did not run away but started to cry and shout. This behaviour is just like a human being, so he was discouraged and told his boys who also saw the action. From that day, they do not kill chimpanzees.

  6. [24]

    Chimpanzee meat causes abortion. Told in Mayo Selbe. It is believed back in Ibo land that when a pregnant woman eats chimpanzee meat, it will cause an abortion.

  7. [25]

    Killing chimpanzees brings bad luck. Told in Takum. If you kill a chimpanzee, you are likely to fall sick and if proper care is not taken, you may possibly die. Killing a chimpanzee will also get a hunter bad luck. So you won’t easily kill any other animals.

  1. [26]

    Killing chimpanzees, capitalising on their imitations of human behaviour. Told in Bissaula and Buru. The chimpanzees are like humans, but they are limited in mental ability and very difficult to hunt. There have been cases of chimpanzees in the bush using the same bow and arrow to shoot back at the hunters, because the chimpanzees normally dodge arrows and spears. So, to shoot one either by bow and arrow or by spear, you will first pretend to stab yourself in the stomach with the arrow, then shoot the arrow at the chimpanzee. He, being very strong, will dodge the arrow or catch it. When the chimpanzee gets the spear, he will do the same as the man did and stab himself in the stomach as he doesn’t have the same control as the man. A similar story is told in Buru. When hunting chimpanzees with spears, you must first try to break the spear using your two hands and the head. This is because the chimpanzees will shoot back at you if you miss the target. But now the chimpanzee will do the same thing they saw you doing, and the spear will break.

  2. [27]

    A killer of chimpanzees has to undergo quarantine. Told near Akwame. His forefathers always thought chimpanzees to be human, because they behave like humans, so if anybody happens to kill a chimpanzee the village will not be happy with that person. Some of the elders will go to the forest to collect leaves, called “Nsu”, and these will be placed for the man to sleep on in isolation for some days. The same treatment is given to any man who kills a fellow human being by accident. The person will also sleep on those leaves for several days. Any man in that condition is fed by unhygienic food, which is the punishment for committing murder. This cleans up that person to allow him to associate with other people again. This is always done by people in the village Atta.

  3. [28]

    Killing a chimpanzee makes hunters great. Told in Takum by an Ibo man. In the land of the Ibos, the greatest profession is hunting. These hunters are divided into two categories; the great and the less great. If you are a great hunter, you have killed animals like elephants, lions and chimpanzees, buffalo. The other hunters are those who kill small animals like antelopes and so on. So, when a man kills any of these big animals, there is a big celebration in the village and his Royal Highness will be invited. The hunter is given a title, “Dinta”, and the meat will be shared only among the hunters of that calibre. The skull of that particular animal will be given to the hunter. He will keep it in his house and show it to the generations to come. The remainder of the meat is then shared among other hunters. The hunter who killed that animal is not allowed to sleep in his house for 3 days. Although the celebration for the animal takes place in his compound, he is absent. This time he spends with the other great hunters and herbalists. Some traditional “stuffs” will be done and this will help to prevent any future attacks from the spirits of the forest. This also applies to the Yorubas, where the informant was in attendance at a “Dinta” celebration over the killing of a chimpanzee in 1999, in a village called Omok, Rivers State. Here, farmers do not go to their farms, everybody must stay and be a part of the celebration. If the hunter kills another chimpanzee the celebration takes place at the chief’s palace.

  4. [29]

    Honours after killing a chimpanzee. Told at Kob Vobye forest near Buru (recorded by J. D. Chapman in 1978). A hunter who killed a chimpanzee is “entitled to wear the red feather of Ngock, the violet plantain eater, and drink palm wine from a buffalo horn”.

  5. [30]

    Chimpanzee smuggling in Nigeria. Told in the Cameroon Border Area. Baby chimpanzees and other primates are usually transported from Baissa, Bissaula and other rural areas to Jos, Kano and other urban areas. The method of transportation involves the use of sedating drugs. The animals are injected or given a tablet, which makes them sleep all the way, without causing problems on the road or game guards or other people finding out. After the drugs are given, some people will carry it on their stomach. And wear a big coat over them and the primates will hold on to them while asleep. So this will not arouse any suspicions, because they will travel like any other passengers.

Medicinal Uses of Chimpanzee Body Parts

  1. [31]

    Chimpanzee bones heal fractures. Told in Yelwa. Chimpanzee bone is used to treat compound fractures. The bone is tied to the area affected and reduces healing time.

  2. [32]

    Medicine from chimpanzee bones. Told in Baissa. The informant’s family does not eat chimpanzees. Anybody who does will develop mental illness. When a new child is born in that family, they will soak the bones of chimpanzees in water and the child will start drinking this when he is young to develop the bones. When the child grows up, his bones will hardly break.

  3. [33]

    Drinking out of chimpanzee skull confers intelligence. Told in Mayo Selbe. The skull of the chimpanzee is used as a recipe for brilliance. Before a child is sent to school, a mixture is given to him every morning; the skull and the hands of the chimpanzee in water. The child will drink from the skull, and when he goes to school, he will be very intelligent.

  4. [34]

    Medicine from chimpanzees assists in labour and gives strength. Told in Mayo Selbe. The skin of a chimpanzee can be used to help a woman who is having difficulty in child bearing. The skin is spread for the woman to sit on top of, before the child-bearing process, and it will thereby be very simple for her. The bones are ground and mixed with some herbs, so when a person takes this mixture he will be very strong and can wrestle. All the heroes in the past were said to have been using these bones before they fight.

Stories About Monkeys

  1. [35]

    Hunting drunken patas monkeys. Told in Ussa. When the informant was young, in the early 1970s, his grandmother had a farm and invited people to come and do community work. To entertain the people who work, a local drink called BKT is prepared from maize. She made this especially strong, so that people would work harder. But, the grandmother had two farms, and her son took the helpers to a different farm. She was preparing the drink at home and then took it to the farm where she wanted the work done. Normally in that farm, they had serious problems of crop-raiding by patas monkey. When she got there and did not see anybody, it dawned on her that she had gone to the wrong farm. So, she left everything there, went to the other farm, a small distance away, and told the workers “No I don’t want you to work here, we must go to the other farm”. But when she had left the drink there, the patas monkeys were watching her. They entered the farm, drank all and immediately became intoxicated. When the people finally came to work, they saw the farm full of monkeys who were not running away, as they were drunk and falling up and down. So, the people instead of working on the farm, began to kill the monkeys. There was so much meat, some people carried the monkeys away alive. Work could not continue that day because they changed parade. So, they called the woman the “blessed woman” until she died, because only on her farm had this happened.

  2. [36]

    Eradicating crop-raiders. Told near Akwame. The first thing farmers do to farm cocoa is to locate any primates, especially tantalus and putty-nosed monkeys. They will go out at night and destroy the whole group before starting the plantation. Sometimes they get a lot of putty-nose and tantalus in one night.

  3. [37]

    Teaching the spiteful lion a lesson. Told in Ussa. Once upon a time, in the jungle, a lion fell into a pit and he was looking for a way to come out. No one could help him. Many monkeys bypassed him without helping. The monkey with the long tail came by after many animals had refused to help the lion. The lion had been in the pit for some days. So the monkey with the long tail helped him out. But then the lion wanted to eat the monkey. They were still struggling when the tortoise came by and enquired what the problem was all about. And the monkey complained, “I helped this guy when no one would help him. And now he threatens to take my life”. And the tortoise asked how he had helped him. The monkey replied, I got him out of the pit. Then the lion said it was true. The tortoise said he didn’t understand, can the lion get back in the pit so he could see how the monkey helped him. The lion got back into the pit. And the tortoise said to the monkey, “Next time you should know those to help”. To the lion he said “Never threaten any one who has helped you before”.

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Nyanganji, G., Fowler, A., McNamara, A., Sommer, V. (2011). Monkeys and Apes as Animals and Humans: Ethno-Primatology in Nigeria’s Taraba Region. In: Sommer, V., Ross, C. (eds) Primates of Gashaka. Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects, vol 35. Springer, New York, NY.

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