I had the pleasure of working with Juliet just before she went to work in Borneo. She's an amazing woman.
With her delicate features and corkscrew blonde curls, Juliet Wright looks more like a fashion model than someone who would take on African huntsmen and their centuries-old traditions.
But the 25-year-old Cottingham woman is doing exactly that. After developing an interest in primates, she slanted her university studies towards researching them and then made them the subject of her Master’s degree.
For the past couple of years she has been working on retraining African huntsmen to gather honey rather than chimps and gorillas.
Back in Cottingham to take part in an open day organised by Beverley Beekeepers Association, Juliet explained that she has been working with primates since she was 18.
“In 2002 I went out to Borneo for Red Ape Challenge to raise £3,000 for the Orangutan Foundation,” she says, as we sit in the front room of her parents’ George Street home. “I went back to Indonesia a couple of years later to study the macaque pet trade. All across South East Asia there is a big demand for infant primates for the pet trade and for the medical trade. People take them as pets in the UK, in America, in Taiwan and China and there is a big illegal trade in pet monkeys.”
Juliet’s love of primates has been driven by seeing their suffering. “They are so similar to us and it’s really upsetting to think about the things that have been done to them”
Although there is a trade in pet monkeys of a sort in Africa, it is a by-product of the meat industry. An adult female will be shot for her meat but her infant will be clinging to her and won’t let go; probably it will be forcibly removed from her dead body at a city market, where the infant will be sold for the pet trade.
“Although it is still legal to keep monkeys as pets in the UK, you have to kill the mother to get the infant. Then the transport conditions are so gruelling that many don’t survive, so for every infant that lives, there are probably five that have died.”
Juliet’s childhood love of animals developed into a teenage fascination with primates. “They are so similar to us and it’s really upsetting to think about the things that have been done to them,” she says.
“I’ve been driven by seeing their suffering. The bushmeat trade is one of the most terrible and it’s having such a huge impact on primates in Africa and particularly on species in Central and West Africa, in the Congo Basin.”
Bushmeat includes everything from cave rats to elephants and even great apes. Ironically, conservation organisations have been reluctant to get involved, says Juliet, because images of severed gorilla heads are so very disturbing.
She explains why the trade happens. “People in the local communities will be the hunters and they will shoot the animals and eat the small ones,” she says. “They will then sell the chimp and gorilla meat in the cities. Previously people would hunt solely for their own consumption, but now they hunt for income. People who have left Africa come to Europe and still want bushmeat and chimps have been found in restaurants in Brussels.”
Constructing bee hives in a forest clearing
A former pupil of Cottingham High School, Juliet studied geography with zoology options at university in Manchester and has since completed a Master’s degree in primate conservation at Oxford Brookes University.
In 2006 she worked at a wildlife sanctuary for orphaned primates in Cameroon, where she hand-reared two infant chimpanzees.
“Unfortunately one of them died. It is traumatic for them seeing their mothers slaughtered and they are incredibly vulnerable when they are taken away from their mothers,” says Juliet, who found herself sleeping with the surviving baby for some weeks to comfort it. “You have to be careful because you don’t want them to become dependant on humans, but they are so like humans,” she adds. “The aim is to get them into family groups like they would be in the wild.”
Two years ago Juliet decided to go and live and work with the hunters to see if she could come up with an alternative to hunting bushmeat that would provide them with a similar level of income.
“I discovered they were hunting for income, because their main source of protein is fish and there are a lot of rivers, so it was not for food for themselves,” says Juliet, who, during her stay in Africa, lived in mud huts in a village in which she was the only person.
“I had a couple of Cameroonian assistants and although they speak Pidgin English, it’s like a foreign language until you get the hang of it,” she continues, as poodle Rusty joins us. “Living like an African is a good way to learn, to get to understand their way of life.”
"Bee keeping encourages people to keep the forest rather than chop it down" says Julia
Having assessed the options and taking into account the Africans’ skills and farming methods, Juliet decided bee-keeping was the solution. “It encourages people to keep the forest rather than chop it down or burn it. You don’t need land like you would if you were rearing animals and there are no welfare considerations with bees,” says Juliet.
“The hunters can make a lot of money from bushmeat but they could also make a lot of money from bee-keeping – from the honey, beeswax, soap and oils. There are many ways of bumping up their income.”
Juliet then set up the Lebialem Hunters’ Bee-keeping Initiative in Cameroon to train prominent bushmeat hunters in bee-keeping practices and supply them with the equipment and technical support they needed.
She also established a bee-keepers’ co-operative, to form an organised network of producers, processors and distributors that can collectively market honey and beeswax products to obtain a fair price, thus eventually creating a self-financing initiative.
“I chose Lebialem because it’s between two rivers and is a biodiversity hotspot. The species there are not like anywhere else. There are only 250 Cross River Gorillas left, and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is the most endangered chimp,” explains Juliet, who is also involved with an organisation that shows wildlife films to Africans so they can see the less aggressive, more human side to primates.
“I picked the two biggest hunters and got grants to train them over a period of six months. I went back in March and those two hunters were using their skills as bee-keepers; they are harvesting honey for other people and they are training other hunters so it seems to work.
“We want them to be aware of what species won’t be here in a few years and when I’ve asked them about their hunting, they say they are still hunting but they haven’t killed chimps or gorillas since I met them in 2007.”
Currently, 130 hunters are learning bee-keeping, honey processing and how to sell it in seven communities where supportive co-operatives have been set up.
The bee-keeping suits are made by a group of local disabled women, creating valuable work for them. The trainers have to be able to read and write, so they are keeping records and writing reports.
Hives are made from whatever material is available, be it hollowed-out logs or palm trees, clay pots or even empty oil drums. “Bees will colonise any kind of cavity although we teach the hunters how to make Kenyan bar-top hives,” says Juliet, who is hoping to be able to turn the project into a charity.
“The bees just come, with no interference and no queen breeding.”
It costs just £300 to train 20 hunters for each village, including providing suits; follow-up training is £80 – a small sum to give them a new livelihood and save the lives of countless endangered primates. Beverley Bee Keepers Association has been providing financial help and proceeds from the sale of this year’s open day went to Juliet’s project.
Currently Juliet is working in Monmouth for a charity called Bees for Development, writing a series of bee-keeping training manuals for use in Africa.
Next month she is returning to Africa, this time to Ghana with the And Albert Foundation, which was set up by East Yorkshire businessman David Murden. “I will be seeing if it is possible for the hunters to be trained in making crafts rather than hunting,” explains Juliet who visits Africa once or twice every year.
In between (when not writing reports), she’s a keen sportswoman. Last year she took up open water swimming and has done the Great London Swim – a one mile swim in the Royal Victoria Dock, so cold participants must wear wetsuits – twice.
And she’s a fan of rock climbing, which she does with the East Yorkshire Climbing and Mountaineering Club.
Not bad for someone who, having broken her hip caleidh dancing, is due to have a hip replacement operation. It’s something she keeps putting off and is another reason for her to return to Africa. “In Africa, my hip is much better,” she says. “The warm weather really helps.”