A Monkey Movie with a Message

A frame from the trailer to “The Drill Project” documentary produced by Dr. Shaya Honarvar of Drexel University and filmed and directed by Justin Jay.

Bioko Island may be the last remaining place on Earth you could call a monkey paradise; its environment is one of the most densely populated with monkeys in all of Africa. Its landscape of lush rainforests, soaring cliffs and black sand beaches includes nearly a dozen species of primates. But the monkeys in Bioko’s seeming paradise aren’t quite thriving there. Nearly all of the monkeys on Bioko are endangered — many critically — and a major threat is the profit-driven bushmeat trade that persists despite laws prohibiting it in the nation of Equatorial Guinea, Bioko’s home.

Who can turn the tide to save the monkeys? It might just be a turtle biologist with a video camera.

My colleague Tim Hyland tells the tale in the latest issue of Drexel Magazine. His cover story, “Selling Their Future?”, profiles the efforts of Dr. Shaya Honarvar, a research associate at Drexel who works with Dr. Gail Hearn in running the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (a joint program between Drexel and the University of Equatorial Guinea). Two field seasons ago, while studying sea turtles that come to shore at night to lay eggs, Honarvar and a BBPP research volunteer, Justin Jay, ventured out during the day in search of opportunities to view, and perhaps study, the elusive drill monkey in the forest. As Tim wrote:

“The goal was to have pictures and videos of them, because we know that nobody had done that with drills in the wild,” she says. “So we started taking our camera with us. But we realized we were never going to be able to take pictures. They hear the [click] of the camera and they’re gone.”

In a sense, the monkeys’ fear of humans proved to be a blessing, as the problems with the click cameras ultimately drove Honarvar to video—and by extension, to the documentary. The video cameras were comparatively much quieter than the still cameras, and so long as the researchers sufficiently hid themselves—which they eventually did, thanks to a series of elaborately designed blinds that they set up all throughout the forest—they found they could, in fact, get close enough to the monkeys to get the footage they needed.

With it, they would be able to start collecting data that scientists had been seeking for years.

Unwittingly, they also took their first steps toward producing a film that could change the way the islanders look at the monkeys—and the island as a whole.

That film, The Drill Project, airs on television in Equatorial Guinea today. It was produced by Honarvar and directed by Jay, and narrated in the local Spanish by Drexel graduate student and Equatorial Guinean, Demetrio Bocuma Meñe. The film shares a positive message about the importance of biodiversity to a population that may not know the environment in their own region is so special and so imperiled.

Later this year, Honarvar and Hearn will host a screening of the film on Drexel’s campus. Then, equipped with a projector, screen, and generator, Honarvar will return to Bioko to take the show on the road — traveling to remote villages, including those without electricity, to share the film’s message and participate in discussions with the people who see it.

We’ll have more info about The Drill Project in the coming weeks, leading up to the screening at Drexel.

Updated 1/9/12: The screening at Drexel originally anticipated for late January has been postponed until March. I’ll share more info closer to the time.