Hi everyone!  My name Is Melissa Williamson and I am a Vet Nurse at the Nest Te Kōhanga, Wellington Zoo. My day-to-day job involves treating both native wildlife and Zoo animals providing annual health checks, preventive health treatments, and treatment of injuries and illnesses. This is all achieved with an amazing team of veterinary professionals and our Animal Care team.

Mel in Senegal

Mel in Senegal

I have been fortunate enough to be sent by the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund to West Africa to assist our conservation partner, the Jane Goodall Institute. I am currently with the Jane Goodall Institute Spain (JGIS) research team with the West African Chimpanzee conservation program, based in Kedougou, Senegal.

I will be based in Dindefelo, at the Fouta Djallon Biological Station, which is the centre for research, conservation and education for the JGIS organisation. This station is dedicated to research of the ecosystem and biodiversity for West Africa, with the main focus being on chimpanzee studies in their forest home, as well as on the human impact that this habitat faces. This goes hand-in-hand with carrying out sustainable development programs to empower local people to achieve food security, gain access to water and manage natural resources sustainably, not only for themselves but also for future generations and the natural environment around them.

JGI research team meeting about the best places to begin reforestation projects

JGI research team meeting about the best places to begin reforestation projects

JGIS has achieved great things in this region, including opening the Fouta Djallon Biological station in Dindefelo, which is a hub for researchers and students from across the world. They also assisted the local community in a technical advisor role in the formation of the Reserve Naturelle Communautaire de Dindefelo or  natural reserve of the Commune of Dindefelo in 2010, which is the first reserve in Senegal where chimpanzee conservation is the main focus. 

Typical Chimpanzee habitat

Typical Chimpanzee habitat - they were found here just a few days ago!

The Fouta Djallon Biological station is so important as chimpanzees are an endangered species and Senegal is one of the few countries where the critically endangered subspecies Pan troglodytes verus, the West African chimpanzee, can be found in the wild. It is estimated that there is no more than 400-500 of these chimpanzees left in Senegal. This has largely been caused by habitat degradation and destruction, slash and burn methods of land clearing, the growing impact from increasing human population, the threat of zoonotic disease from humans (diseases that can pass between a human and an animal) and the unsustainable removal (deforestation) of trees and their fruits which are food to chimpanzees.

Babool - a plant that Chimps eat

Babool - a plant that Chimps eat

During my time here I will be working for the research team lead by Liliana Pacheco, the director of programs for JGI Spain in Senegal, focusing on ecological surveys, identification and habituation of some of the chimp groups (getting chimps used to certain humans so they can be observed for research or tourism without disturbing them). This might include recording signs such as nests, faeces, food scraps, footprints, broken branches and direct sightings of chimps, their calls and vocalisations, their behaviours including tool use, nesting and reactions to researchers etc.

Mel is currently staying with a local host family in Dindefelo

Mel is currently staying with a local host family in Dindefelo

Today I am heading towards Dindefelo, Senegal on a very busy public bus, for a 14-hour bus trip! When I arrive I will be boarding with a local family in Dindefelo - one of the many ways JGI supports local families. The accommodation is fairly basic, the house has a small thatched roof hut and no electricity or plumbing - but I am ready for the challenge and to really immerse myself in the African culture and land. I am travelling with Federico Bogdanowicz (Executive Director of JGI Spain) who has been working for the organisation for 12 years now! I expect to meet up with Amanda when we arrive who is the Research Department Coordinator with about 5 years experience working in the field.

JGI tree nursery

JGI tree nursery - these plants will be used for reforestation plans

Talking to Fede (the General Director of JGI Spain) and Lily prior to my arrival to Dindefelo, I cannot help but feel disheartened. The chimpanzee habitat is continuing to decrease and the groups of chimpanzees continue to move between habitats as there is not enough food or water there for them anymore.  The traditional slash and burn method of agriculture used by the locals, has all but decimated part of their habitat. These changes are not only affecting animal species, but the local people as well, with the decrease of wild fruit, loss of trees and humidity, soil erosion etc which all adds to the impact of climate change in the area. This is evident with the increasing temperatures, longer dry seasons and less rainfall every year.

Local children from the Roots and Shoots programme

Local children from the Roots and Shoots programme taking home their own tomato plants

The reason for these agricultural methods is largely due to tradition and that is why the food security projects and sensitisation workshops for the local people that JGI provides is so very crucial. Lili tells me of the many programs they run to help local families make the transition. These include environmental education, reforestation, sustainable agriculture, forestry management for food security, and sessions of the world-wide programme - Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, implemented with the local children. They also employ local people for many programmes, in the hope that they can lead the way in implementing these changes in the villages.

Chimps: Bakari, Sally and Cara

Wellington Zoo Chimpanzees exploring their upgraded habitat in December 2018

Wellington Zoo has a troop of 10 chimpanzees who are amazing ambassadors for their wild counterparts, and I am excited to hopefully observe wild chimpanzee behaviour over the next few weeks and bring back new enrichment ideas for these amazingly intelligent animals.

I am so excited and feel very privileged to be here working with the Jane Goodall Institute team. I have a huge amount of admiration for the work this organisation does both on the ground and through education helping to inspire millions to make a difference around the world.

Stay tuned for my next blog!