By Jess Leaper & Ben Dahan
One of the aims of the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park is to inspire visitors to care for nature and for the environment, both through immersion with the animals at the park and through an extensive conservation education program. Every year the wildlife park receives school groups from around Gibraltar for informative tours of the wildlife park, focusing on conservation, environmental issues along with projects geared towards curriculum subjects such as classification, life cycles or even art classes from Westside School GCSE level students. The tours can be geared towards whatever topic is required. This year the park was also able to assist St Bernard’s First School with their project-based learning topic on the Barbary macaque. Manager and Primatologist, Jessica Leaper, was later invited to the school to watch an excellent presentation on their findings.
The AWCP also receives interns and volunteers from abroad; mostly these will be students of zoology or animal related courses, who hope to later work in a zoo or conservation environment.
Currently the AWCP has three interns: Cece Jensen from Denmark is passionate about reptiles and has previously spent a year at Colchester Zoo in the UK in the reptile section. Cece assists AWCP keepers with most of the animal sections, but has also taken over the task of selecting the correct local vegetation to feed the herbivorous reptile species at the park. Before she leaves in October to rejoin her course in Zoo Keeping, she hopes to compile a guide to local edible vegetation for reptiles at the AWCP.
The most recent recruit, Jess, has just completed her Diploma in Animal Management in UK and an internship at Porfell Wildlife Park in Cornwall. Jess wishes to gain more experience in zoo animal husbandry before pursuing her career in animal conservation.
Occasionally the student placements will be from other academic fields. This year, American student Ben Dahen arrived from France, where he is currently undertaking a degree in Social Sciences. Ben has a keen interest in wildlife conservation, particularly where conservation and human social systems meet. Alongside helping out at the park with the daily husbandry tasks and in reception, the interns, along with the other staff and volunteers at the park, have also helped out with various events attended by the AWCP such as World Environment Day, the World Music Festival held this year in Irish Town, even representing the charity and park at the Climate Change march this June.
9am – Ben came to Gibraltar to also get closer to his father’s roots in Morocco. Although he grew up in California and now lives in France to complete his degree, he felt compelled to learn a bit more about the other half of his nationality. When the opportunity arose to attend an Educational Film Festival in Chefchaouen with the Barbary Macaque Awareness Conservation (BMAC) project, he jumped at the chance to head over to try to lend a hand and to gain more of an insight into BMAC and their work in Morocco to save the Barbary macaque, but also to witness their educational and cultural role in the community. Ben was also keen to utilise his journalistic skills to tell us about his impromptu trip to Chefchaouen:
I knew where I was headed, I just didn’t know where it was, so I decided to leave the hostel in the tourist-cramped old town Medina for an early start. I traveled in strained French, broken Spanish, or the occasional use of English. Despite the fact that my father was born just a few hours south I only know enough Arabic for them to know I know none.
In each language, the answer I always got was, “There’s a film festival here?”. Indeed, Chefchaouen seems an unusual place for a meeting of the minds of the world’s environmentalists and documentarians. But Morocco’s Blue City is actually very green – one of its first designated eco-villages, due to its use of renewable energy and maintenance of the beautiful wild mountainsides. Even devoid of the festival, it seems to attract nature types. I was checked in to my hostel by a young man from New Zealand who had worked for the forestry service there. Walking around, I ran into a South African who had worked for their environmental agency, before dropping everything to move to Morocco and organise local vendors to sell their sustainably sourced products. One friend I made was nearly impossible to eat out with due to her staunch veganism, stemming from her environmental principles. After telling them why I was in the city, I extended an invitation to join me. But first I had to find the place. I was invited in by a local merchant for some tea, hawked some trinkets, and sent on the proper way.
2pm – I sat through a couple of foreign language student films, without subtitles, before my rendezvous with the zoo’s partner organisation, the Barbary Macaque Awareness Campaign (BMAC). Though I currently work just minutes away from Europe’s only semi-wild monkey population up on the Rock, the very same species has a very different existence across the straits. Whereas the attraction in Gibraltar is that the monkeys are still wild, in Morocco the macaques can be kept at the end of a chain for the entertainment of tourists. The AWCP is now working with the IUCN Primate Specialist Group section on Human-Primate interactions to create an online media campaign to raise awareness of the potential damage caused by close-contact selfies with wildlife. This study will be piloted this summer at the wildlife park and I am lucky enough to be able to take part, using my Social Science to study the impacts of this campaign.
I was met by Ahmed and two of his colleagues, who walked me through BMAC’s two-pronged mission: first, conservation and research of the macaque population in the wild, and second, education on the harms of irresponsible human-macaque interaction in tourism and trade.
Integral to their strategy is the incorporation of local villages and populations in their work. They work very closely with a British anthropologist-turned-primatologist, Dr Sian Waters, who has written about the interaction between the local villagers and the macaques, an emerging discipline and particularly exciting for me as a social scientist and animal lover, called ‘multi-species ethnology’. The role of ethnography (the scientific description of people and cultures, with their habits, customs and mutual differences) is becoming increasingly recognised as an important and integral aspect in the field of conservation. Recently, the AWCP has been liaising with Sian on this subject to assist primatologists in Brazil working on the Mountain Marmoset Conservation Project (MMCP), in order to incorporate the opinions and knowledge of local populations on the marmosets when surveying the animal populations and developing the conservation project. Without involving local people and understanding cultural attitudes and knowledge, conservation projects are more likely to fail.
In addition to learning from on-the-ground conservationists, I was fortunate enough to learn from the screen too. I snuck back into the theatre to catch a few films. I wasn’t sure what movies I was expecting from an environmental film festival in the mountains of Morocco, but here I was, sitting in a theatre 6,000 miles from my home of California, hearing for the first time about the grave dangers facing the whales of San Francisco Bay. There were movies from far, one about the shark infested waters of Tahiti, and near, another film followed nomads in the deserts of Morocco.
One film was particularly tough to get through, not because of the Spanish that was way too fast for my two years of Spanish class in high school, but because through the universal language of images and statistics, it challenged my ability to eat meat. This was a compelling and thought-provoking introduction to a message the AWCP has been working to promote in Gibraltar; the impact of what we eat (particularly meat products) on the environment and the habitats of the species of animals we care for at the wildlife park. In fact, when I returned from Morocco, I was able to assist at the Calentita food festival stall, Meatless Wonder, run by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Park and their Conscious Eating Campaign. This was an amazing night and we sold out of the Beyond Meat burgers (actually rather tasty!) and sausages, aimed at hardcore meat-eaters like myself, who feel they can’t face life without consuming flesh, in a bid to help them to cut down their meat consumption.
I also managed to sit in on a workshop by a renowned French documentary director. Big budget, small and independent, esoteric or mass appeal, he showed us what it takes to craft these multi-year labours of love.
8pm – I snuck out of the festival a bit early to take a guided hike up into the mountains. Every week villagers wearing their colourful sheshia wide-brimmed hats come down from the mountain to sell their produce: mint, figs, fruit. As we walked, we caught an inside glimpse of how life is here, outside of the touristic old town. Grinding grains, weaving crafts. We reached the top of the mountain just in time to see the sun set over the valley.
To find out more about the AWCP and its work, to volunteer, or to donate, get in touch at [email protected] or visit www.awcp.gi.