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Workers to help save rare monkeys

Email|Print| Text size + By Elizabeth Ratto
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2007

Two Franklin Park Zoo workers are to travel to Nigeria Tuesday to assist an organization that rescues rare monkeys and hopes to release them back into the wild.

Kathy Wood of Brighton and Erica Farrell of Jamaica Plain are going to work for the Pandrillus Drill Rehabilitation and Breeding Center. The center was founded in 1991 to rehabilitate drills, an endangered species of monkey commonly kept by the local population as pets or sold as bushmeat, wild animal meat for human consumption.

"Most of the people over there don't even realize that that species is only found in their area," Wood said. "When you convey the information to them, they have a sense of pride and sense that the drills are a limited resource."

Drills are found in western Cameroon, southeastern Nigeria, and on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea. They closely resemble their colorful cousin, the mandrill.

The center was started by an Oregon couple, Liza Gadsby and Peter Jenkins, who on a trip around Africa, were given a baby drill during a stop in Nigeria. After researching the primates and realizing the danger they face, the two started the program and began collecting drills from people who were keeping them as pets or holding them in bushmeat markets.

Wood and Farrell this week will join employees at the center in developing monitoring systems for about 250 drills who live in six large, forested enclosures at the site. The center hopes to eventually release a group of the rehabilitated drills into a nearby wildlife sanctuary.

Wood said that, throughout the project, Gadsby and Jenkins have emphasized local involvement. The center's staff of 40 is mostly composed of local people. And the center reaches out to the community, frequently visiting homes where drills are being kept as pets to educate the owners about the animals.

"Liza and Peter really believe that if conservation is going to happen in a country, it needs to be the local people there who are the driving force behind the efforts," Wood said.

Wood, who specializes in primates, has made two previous trips to the center in Nigeria: one in 2002 as part of a zookeeper exchange program, and again in 2004 to use the center's extensive databases to compile information for her doctoral dissertation. She recently finished that project and received a doctorate in biology from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Wood will work as the center's prerelease coordinator. She expects to work there for two years, developing the monitoring systems and eventually using them to identify a group of monkeys that would be good candidates for release.

Farrell is receiving a scholarship from Zoo New England, which runs both the Franklin Park Zoo and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, to spend six months at the center assisting Wood.

"It's a huge project," said Farrell. "It's going to be a great learning experience."

Farrell said she would also work as manager of a group of staff members who serve as keepers of a separate population of chimps.

In preparing to release the drills, the Boston zookeepers and other center staff will examine how the drill group works together. They'll also try to ensure the group is genetically diverse, hoping to improve the monkeys' chances of survival in the wild.

Wood said that many drills arrive at the center malnourished, dehydrated, or wounded, but that they've generally done very well. The drills' chances are also improving in the wild, with better enforcement of the laws that protect them, she said.

"The next step for the project is a holistic effort to work with local people in that area to make them more aware of wildlife and how local people can help to save these species," Wood said.

Globe correspondent John M. Guilfoil contributed to this report.

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