Growing cocoa among the golden-headed lion tamarins

Chris Simoens
17 April 2018
How can we best protect the golden-headed lion tamarin? And how can their human neighbours aid in this while feeling the benefits themselves? This is the effort behind the BioBrasil project that the Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) is running in the collapsing Atlantic rainforest in Bahia (Brazil).

The Atlantic rainforest along the coast of Brazil is a mere shadow of its former self: only 7% of it is left. What remains is a mosaic of woodland areas, fields, meadows and cocoa plantations, most of them privately owned. The golden-headed lion tamarin deserves to survive in this stricken region. This so happens to be a species that the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (KMDA) - the umbrella organisation for Antwerp Zoo and Planckendael Zoo - is particularly interested in. The KMDA has even taken on the breeding programme for this unique and endangered species of monkey within the network of European zoos (EAZA).


Tall trees

It was important to the zoo to gain further knowledge of the species in the wild and use this to develop efficient conservation campaigns. As with the Projet Grands Singes (Great Ape Project) in Cameroon, the research is linked to an action plan for the protection of the golden-headed lion tamarin and its habitat. To this end, the zoo set up the BioBrasil project in Bahia (Brazil) in 2002. A team led by researcher Kristel de Vleeschouwer (Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation) intends to gain some insight into the factors that influence the survival of the species. Kristel and her team are seeking answers to a range of research questions there. How is a group of golden-headed lion tamarins formed? What food do they need and where do they find it? What do their nesting places look like? What impact does disintegration and deforestation have on their way of life? And what are the conflicts in agricultural areas that frustrate relations between humans and golden-headed lion tamarins, and how can these be resolved?

Among other things, the research shows that – besides the conservation of untouched forests – the cocoa plantations also hold great significance for these animals. 40% of the remaining woodland in the golden-headed lion tamarins' habitat consists of cocoa plantations. ‘Cocoa trees are cultivated in Bahia under the shade of native trees. When the rainforest is cut down for these plantations, only the undergrowth is removed – the taller trees remain,’ says Jiska Verbouw, science communicator at the KMDA. ‘These kinds of plantations are known locally as ‘cabruca’. They produce a distinctive and highly prized cocoa taste, for which the region is known. By felling only the undergrowth and not the taller trees, the forest's original structure is partially retained. And this is essential for the golden-headed lion tamarins.’

It had already been shown through research that the golden-headed lion tamarin can indeed survive in these ‘cabruca-style’ cocoa plantations. ‘There's enough food for them to find in the taller trees,’ says Zjef Pereboom, head of the KMDA's research centre. ‘There are bromelias growing on the trees, after all, where they can find fruit and seeds as well as insects. Hollows in these trees provide ideal nesting places.’

The win-win aspect is characteristic of all our projects. The local population benefits from it – through greater income or security – but we're helping to preserve nature as well.

Jiska Verbouw

Raising awareness

This, then, allows the inhabitants of Bahia to earn an income from cocoa plantations without threatening the golden-headed lion tamarin. Unfortunately, however, even the cocoa plantations cannot offer complete certainty. During the 1980s, a fungal infection broke out that significantly damaged the cocoa crop, which caused a dramatic drop in cocoa prices.  This led the cocoa farmers to switch to different methods of cultivation that required the taller trees to be cut down as well, with obvious consequences for their inhabitants.

For this reason, BioBrasil also places great emphasis on collaboration with the local communities and raising awareness. The team in Bahia maintains close contact with the local population; in 2016, they set up a school.  Children with learning or social difficulties can receive extra support there for core subjects such as maths and language skills, outside of normal school hours. They also receive a special lesson on environmental education once a week – which is a central theme that is also woven into their other lessons. There is a special school garden, where the children learn to work on their social and collaboration skills as well as having respect for nature. Through handling local plant species, they gain an appreciation for nature in their own environment. In 2018, BioBrasil also laid on an interactive learning path throughout the Brazilian forest and a tree nursery. This was achieved in collaboration with the WAZA Nature Connect Programme, which aims to help children and their families to rediscover the joy of nature.

Children also receive a special lesson on environmental education once a week – which is a central theme that is also woven into their other lessons.

Children in a class room
© KMDA - BioBrasil

BioBrasil also involves local farmers and the whole community with the project. For example, practical workshops are laid on to help them gain an insight into organic farming techniques and how to apply them on their land, thereby reconciling their economic agricultural practices with nature. ‘One way of doing this is to use natural fertilisers, but others include planting native trees in combination with cultivated crops such as bananas or fruit trees, which is known as ‘agroforestry’.  That way, you can imitate the stratification of the forest,’ says Verbouw. ‘One of the participating farmers runs a sustainably managed cocoa plantation next to another one managed with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The soil quality and fruit size in the sustainably managed area were noticeably better, which of course is especially convincing.  This encourages other farmers in the neighbourhood to switch to sustainable farming as well.’

BioBrasil is entirely run by a strong team of Brazilians, led by Kristel de Vleeschouwer, who directs her team from Antwerp. As with PGS, this project will also be left solely in the hands of the Brazilians in the long term. ‘The win-win aspect is characteristic of all our projects,’ concludes Verbouw. ‘The local population benefits from it – through greater income or security – but we're helping to preserve nature as well.’


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