Saving Gambia from civilized destruction. `DON'T BUY IVORY'
EVERY Tuesday evening, Eddie Brewer shows nature films to the elite Africans and foreign guests dining on the terrace at one of Banjul's popular beach hotels. Some nights he presents a grisly film about ivory poachers; and as the film flashes its gore onto the stucco wall bordering the swimming pool, one by one the viewers drop their forks. When it ends, they appear visibly relieved.
Seizing the intensity of the moment, Mr. Brewer then plucks up a microphone and asks dramatically, ``Ladies and gentlemen, does it make sense to leave a baby elephant vainly sucking on its dead mother whose tusks have been cut off just so someone can have an ivory bangle? Two million elephants have died in the last 12 years, primarily from poaching. Don't denigrate our own species by encouraging this. Please don't buy ivory.''
Eddie Brewer practices what he preaches - not only avoiding ivory, but spending a good bit of his life more actively protecting animals from the ravages of civilized appetites. Since his arrival here as a colonial forester 30 years ago, Brewer has gained fame for tracking down poachers, spearheading the mapping of protected lands, helping to launch a rehabilitation program for abused chimpanzees, and drafting legislation to protect the country's flora and fauna.
One of Brewer's most renowned accomplishments is 10 miles south of the capital city of Banjul. The Abuko Nature Reserve, conceived by Brewer in 1968, is the most visited site in Gambia - even outdrawing the village of Juffure, made famous by Alex Haley's ``Roots.''
Brewer extends his hand to welcome a visitor to Abuko. ``Pardon me, I've a bit of banana on my paw,'' he quips. He's just finished feeding Julia, a six-year-old lowland gorilla, which, along with scores of other wild animals, has taken up residence at this animal orphanage.
The 253-acre reserve serves as the nation's wildlife education center. At the southern end of the reserve, overlooking a pond inhabited by crocodiles, stands a rustic two-story wooden building that houses the center, designed by Brewer.
In the exhibit rooms there are posters, paintings, and displays that raise issues of overpopulation, pollution, overdevelopment, and poaching. One large painted panel depicts an African woman carrying a bundle of babies on her back. Alongside this image is a text by Brewer that begins: ``How much longer may we logically subject our ailing mother earth to mankind's multiplying demands?''
Another sign by Brewer heralds the perils of rash development: ``The birth of a human being in an industrialized country is 25 times as bad for his environment as the birth of one in an underdeveloped country. It is civilized man who uses too many raw materials, too much energy, eats more than he needs, pollutes the air, poisons the water, and produces mountains of waste.''
At the northern end of the reserve is the ``animal orphanage.'' Not to be confused with the zoo, the orphanage is for animals that for various reasons cannot be released. Some were brought here because they were found injured, others because as infants they lost their parents to poachers in the wild. Some were raised as exotic pets, then abandoned for one reason or another. Whatever their histories, all have lost their fear of humans as well as their capacity to fend for themselves in the wild. If released, they would be easy prey for poachers or a danger to villagers and domestic animals.
Brewer is an ecologist to the core, and calls for a balanced fitting and protection of life's multifarious elements. He asks questions such as ``What is just among living creatures?'' rather than ``What's good for humankind?'' Not everyone sees eye to eye with him. Gambia is an underdeveloped sliver of a nation (20 miles wide by 200 miles long), with economic resources as thin as its geographic dimensions. Its 500,000 people, who depend on the production of cash crops such as peanuts, are hungry for development, and do not easily let go of land for the sake of environmental concerns.
Nonetheless, Brewer has managed to press conservation measures forward by carefully cultivating a wide-based ecological awareness in Gambia. He has been aided by the fact that his concerns echo those of Sir Dawda Jawara, a former veterinarian who has served as Gambia's president since it won independence from British colonial rule in 1965. Brewer was one of a few Englishmen who continued working for the Gambian government at that juncture.
It was Brewer who fathered the landmark Banjul Declaration, which Sir Dawda signed into law in 1977 - committing the country to setting aside natural habitats and prohibiting all trade of wild animals and skins in Gambia. Since that declaration, he has initiated the creation of three national parks - River Gambia, Kiangs West, and Saloum Delta. The combined acreage of these protected lands is about 2 percent of Gambia's total landmass.
The public education fostered by Brewer at the Abuko Nature Reserve is less confrontational. The reserve is a rectangular tract of land with a slender stream running north-south through its center. A lush riverine forest flanks the waterway with cool tangled shadows that gradually give way to tree-studded savannas on the eastern and western edges of the reserve. Visitors, primarily Gambians from all corners of the country, relish strolling along the winding pathways here, weaving around the trunks of some 50 tree and bush species while 150 types of birds wheel and flutter above. Not long ago, an 80-year-old Gambian man walked 17 miles to visit Abuko.
Most of the animals - antelopes, spotted hyenas, lions, chimps, Julia the Gorilla, etc. - live in large, luxuriously natural enclosures, built to Eddie's specifications. Others, such as Victor the vervet monkey, roam about freely. Brewer, whose modest home and office are a stone's throw from the reserve, visits these creatures regularly.
Every morning and afternoon, an Abuko ranger opens the chimpanzees' enclosure and takes them out for three hours of romping and foraging in secluded sections of the reserve. The aim of these outings is to de-domesticate the chimps and prepare them for release in the wild. The forays are part of the Gambia Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, started by Brewer and his daughter, Stella Brewer Marsden, 17 years ago. The project is a kind of Outward Bound School for chimps who became dependent on humans while held in captivity. With painstaking care, the overcivilized animals are taught the secrets of wilderness survival. More than 30 chimps have ``graduated'' from Abuko and been set free on one of the uninhabited islands of the River Gambia National Park.
Children love coming to Abuko, and field trips here are a regular feature in Gambia's secondary school curriculum. The local children come again and again, and dozens of them can be found hanging about the entry gate. This delights Brewer, who has always sought ways to keep up their interest in the reserve and all it stands for. Over the years, he has often invited them to help feed the animals.
Sometimes, the Wildlife director taps the children to add fresh gusto to his conservation pleas. Two years ago, when Britain's Prince Philip visited Abuko (as do almost all dignitaries who come to Gambia), Brewer called on the local kids to entertain him. They sang a song (by Brewer, naturally). The little ditty goes like this: Gambia, Gambia Help save all the animals in Gambia We've antelopes, hippos and rare manatees Vervets, colubus and chimpanzees. Man comes along and shoots his gun, Kills far too many and thinks it's great fun.
Whatever Brewer may lack as a lyricist, he makes up for as a creative conservationist.