On the trail of the red colobus monkey

Graduate student’s research takes her to far reaches of West Africa


SUMMARY: For four months, Ruth Bowers-Sword ('20M) gathered data on the primate, whose existence is threatened by bush meat hunting and habitat loss.

By Ruth Bowers-Sword ('20M) 

Red colobus monkeys are among the most endangered groups of primates in Africa, with all 17 species threatened with extinction. These monkeys are endemic to the forests of southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon and are threatened by bushmeat hunting and habitat loss.

cameroon field trip monkey

For four months, I investigated the status of this endangered population in the Ndokbou forest of Cameroon. I collected data on their distribution and abundance. I also deployed six acoustic monitoring sensors, which continuously recorded low-frequency sounds, including gunshots and primate vocalizations. Then, I analyzed the sound data to quantify spatial and temporal patterns of gun hunting. My research directly supports recommendations in the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan and the Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of the Nigeria Cameroon chimpanzee.

The funding I received from the W. Dean Cocking Scholarship was integral to carrying out my research project. Funds were used for purchasing camping and climbing equipment, airfare from the U.S. to Cameroon and visa fees. Ultimately, the scholarship endowment contributed not only to the conservation of a critically endangered primate species in the heart of West Africa, but also to my growth as an ecological researcher in primate conservation.



Sept. 18, 2019
Well, I made it! All of my flights went as planned and all four of my checked bags (exactly 49.5 lbs. each) made it in one piece to Douala! It’s incredible. The smoothest start I could have asked for.

Sept. 23
Plans have been finalized, I’m leaving Douala and heading to the forest on Wednesday! I’ve only been here eight days, but I already feel so incredibly grateful for this experience and having the courage to put myself outside the box and do something that no one else is doing. Coming to this country that I’ve never been to, by MYSELF. And implement an entire research project. Tomorrow we’re going supply shopping and figuring packing things out, and Wednesday I’m off! I’m super excited but also nervous. I just want it to go well.

cameroon field trip arrival

Sept. 30
We made it to the cliffs of Mt. Sinai! The trek out here took two days and was treacherous in every way—ascending steep rocky slopes, descending steep rocky slopes, crossing a raging river via dead log. But we’ve successfully installed my six acoustic sensors without a hitch! I’ve also seen loads of chimp nests and heard primate vocals today! We’re making our start back toward the village tomorrow. Not gonna lie, I’m so tired and so worn out, but also so happy to be here all at the same time. It’s only 8:07 p.m. and I’m going to sleep. In my tent. Night.

Oct. 4
Today is my birthday and I actually decided not to tell anyone here. I’m trying to do little things for myself like cutting my nails (lol) and walking up the giant hill to get phone service to text the fam (even though they didn’t answer because it was only 5 a.m. their time). I think it was a gift enough finding the simple things that actually make me happy without all the attention and pomp and circumstance. Today I love myself, I’m proud of myself, and I’m happy to be, just, me, in Cameroon.

Oct. 8
I’ve organized and scheduled my supply drop-off for Thursday, which means I’m planning on leaving for the forest on Friday for my first round of surveys! It’s going to be 21 days in the forest. You have no idea how badly I want to find my red colobus monkeys. I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m so stoked to get out there and actually start collecting data for my THESIS. I’ve mastered the art of wearing sandals with full-length socks over my pants, long sleeves, and putting bug spray on my hands and face until the sun comes out mid-day during which the bugs go away until like 4:30ish, when I return to my bug-thwarting outfit. MASTERED.

Oct. 10
Surveys! This is what I live for right now. Walking through the jungle, in complete silence, looking and listening for primates. There’s honestly nothing like it. And for 20 days! I won’t be back in the village until November! And then I only have two months left …

cameroon field trip hike

Oct. 13
Took us seven-and-a-half hours to hike two miles. My porters repeatedly asked me if we were hiking to America. We had to stop 1 km short of the spot I was hoping we’d get to, but the camping spot is beautiful. It’s right along the slope of a river with water runs and waterfalls. Amazing.

Oct. 15
First day of surveys! We’re all exhausted from the days of hiking to get here. One nictitan sighting and some chimp nests. It started downpouring around 1 p.m. before we got back to camp. I bathed in the river in the rain. Did I mention it’s cold here? I think it’s because we’re at such a high elevation, around 3,000 feet. So any opportunity I have to bathe while I’m still remotely warm from surveying is taken, even if it’s raining and the river water is brown from the mountain run-off …

Oct. 16
We’re apparently under an airplane pathway and it’s weird hearing planes fly over when I’m out in this place, so far from civilization. Here’s to waking up at 5:30 a.m. when it’s still dark out and probably putting on at least one damp, cold piece of clothing for the sake of red colobus and primates.

cameroon field trip sensors

Nov. 12
Today we are 2-for-2 on checking my acoustic sensors! Both sensors were still there and successfully recorded for the entire period they were up. So I changed out SD cards and backed up all of my sound files onto external hard drives. I was having nightmares of the sensors like, falling out of the trees and we find them on the ground or they never actually recorded anything OR we couldn’t find them again … so many worries. But so far, so good. You can’t predict anything in the forest. I’m repeatedly learning that.

Nov. 16
We’ve had a rough past couple of days. The honeymoon phase is officially over. The hiking has been hard, the schedule I’ve made has been intense. To put a long story short, I made us all take a break day today. No hiking, no surveying, rest only in camp. We all desperately needed it. Tomorrow we check two more sensors, then head back out for surveys.

Nov. 28
Well, it’s Thanksgiving and for my feast I had … drum roll … rice and beans. Not an ideal Thanksgiving, but it is what it is and in the spirit of the holiday, I am thankful for my health and well-being, the family and friends I have back home, and the continued support from my team here in Cameroon, even when I don’t always know what I’m doing.

cameroon field trip slope

Dec. 14
The forest put me in my place today. I’ve probably been getting a big head about how well my jungle hiking abilities have gotten. We were in the last 1.5 km of our survey, going up and across a nasty steep slope, when we came across an area where a huge log had fallen on this football-field-sized rock slab. So there were a ton of rotten branches littering this rock slab; you could barely see the surface. An impossible area to cross. But one larger branch extended from about where we were standing onto another fallen dead log, effectively making a bridge over all of the dead branches on top of this rock slab slope. So my guide goes first and crosses the branch successfully. And as per usual, I follow where he goes. But right as I get to the end of the branch—I’m literally about to put my foot on the large log—the branch I’m on snaps. Now it was maybe two feet above the rock slab, but because we were on this steep slope, I go plummeting down the slope littered with dead branches. I finally came to a halt; my bag was over my head tangled up in my arms, my glasses somehow were still on my face, my notebook I was holding is a foot up-slope from me. And I just kind of lay there a second and monitored. Okay … does anything majorly hurt, am I bleeding, what has just happened? And I notice nothing. I gingerly get up, and apart from being covered in dirt and a few minor scratches, I’m fine. Y’all, I could’ve broken any limb, hit my head on any of the exposed rock slab, gotten stabbed by a tree limb. ANYTHING. But I was fine. My guide looked so concerned and checked me over in disbelief. So I like to think of this incident as a gentle reminder that this forest is a wild place and can be rough when it wants to.

Dec. 21
I’m starting to look forward to small things when I get back in the States: cooking whatever food I want for myself, coffee and having lazy mornings in my bed, sweatpants.

Dec. 27
It’s my last night in my tent in the Ndokbou forest, under the cliffs of Mt. Sinai, with the sound of Gran-Nouya river running nearby outside my tent. I don’t have a whole lot to say … just, very suddenly, my time here is coming to a close.

cameroon field trip tent

Jan. 4, 2020
This is officially my last journal entry in Cameroon. I’ve been thinking a lot about some words my forest guide told me on Christmas Day. We were in the forest and it was another long day of hiking, and he’s in front of me and suddenly stops and turns to me and says, “Ruth, you are heavy on my heart. Heavy. You brought me to the forest for three months and we are the same now, you and I. We are family, we are one blood. Bless our time here. Bless you here.” I almost broke down in tears in the middle of the forest. It was such a gift hearing him say that. And now as I reflect, those words really encompass my time here. Heavy on my heart. It was hard. But all the while, this place was my home and the people here my family. And sometimes you get sick of your family and you need a break from your home. But at the end of the day, it makes you who you are and it’s all love. All love. I’ll never forget the lessons I learned here. Eventually some memories might fade, but the love and the lessons will always remain and carry me through wherever I go and all that I continue to achieve. So it’s goodbye to this time and this experience. But the next chapter is just beginning.

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Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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