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My placement at the Cross River Gorilla Project, by Shannon Bowes

In 2018 during my Zoology degree, I took part in a module designed to enhance my employability. As part of this module I spent time with the Cross River Gorilla Project. I got involved with the CRGP because of my love for animals and my desire to become a conservationist. This placement gave me the opportunity to adopt some of the skills required to be successful in this field, and gain experience in a department of conservation I had not previously considered.

As a team of six Newcastle Uni students, known as the Cross River information team, (CRIT 2 for short), we put our heads together in a series of regular meetings to come up with ways in which to draw more attention to the CRGP. These group sessions gave us all the opportunity to be secretary and chair, learning how to direct meetings and record minutes,- something that I was completely new to. We started the placement with a heap of fundraising ideas to raise awareness. These included outdoor cinemas, sponsored cycles, bingo, and car washes. The list went on, but eventually we narrowed it down to what we thought was most realistic in a city full of students. Sponsored runs, cake sales with information boards, and donation buckets, bag packing and, of course, a club event!

We then turned our attention to building a positive relationship with the community of Besali, a local village in the Lebialem region of Cameroon. Just like most conservation projects, it was important to engage the community before we could focus on conservation of the Cross River gorilla. John Daniels, who runs the CRGP, presented us with the idea of setting up a community centre, providing a place for the community to learn, be given career opportunities, and have a place to feel safe. After some research, we developed a list of opportunities that this centre could provide, including children’s education, various skills development, and information on healthcare, sanitation and domestic abuse.

Once we’d gathered our information, the team started to produce an interactive booklet to promote the community centre in Besali, using brief questions within it to determine what opportunities members of the community would like the centre to provide. I had a little bit of experience with graphic design from my A-levels, which John was very keen for me to work into the booklet.

So I tried my best, and using a selection of photographs taken in Besali by photographer Paul Spillett, I drew silhouette-style images to reflect each of the themes we’d decided on. These themes were, sports, skills, women and children, jobs, and a drawing of the type of building we’d imagined. I combined my drawings with a collection of photographs, bold prints, and colours that reflected the CRGP logo and the Cameroon flag.

With this, and all the information we’d gathered, the booklet was pretty much finished!

John then arranged a video conference with Louis Nkembi, founder of ERuDeF , who works closely with the CRGP. Myself and the other members of CRIT2 sat down with John to ask Louis, and his wife Lucia, what they thought of our booklet and the ideas we presented to them. Using the feedback they provided us with we made a few tweaks to the booklet, until we had a finished product we were all proud of. I’m hopeful that our work in designing this centre, and the services it could provide, continues and will benefit Besali significantly. As a result, supporting the conservation of the Cross River gorilla.

Since my time with the CRGP, and finishing my studies at Newcastle, I’m continuing to look for a career within conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. I’ve also been making the most of opportunities to gain more experience working with animals. In March 2020 I spent some time volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. This sanctuary takes in injured animals and rehabilitates them so they can be released back into the wild. They also provide homes to those animals that are not fit enough to survive by themselves. Sadly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to fly home much earlier than planned. However, during my short time in Costa Rica I cared for multiple primate species, including the cutest amputee Howler monkey named Roo. Some of the other animals I cared for included two-toed sloths, baby deer, a variety of bird species, and some very mischievous juvenile anteaters. I even got to release some animals back into the wild myself. The whole experience was unforgettable, and I will definitely be going back!

Volunteering for charities such as the CRGP, and working abroad, are particularly advantageous for anyone thinking about a career with animals. It can be a competitive path but incredibly rewarding at the same time. At the Cross River Gorilla Project specifically, not only are you contributing to a wonderful cause, you’ll pick up valuable new skills from the nicest of people. Whether you simply have a love for animals, or you have a deep routed desire to make a change and reduce extinction, I encourage everyone to get involved in any way you can!

All illustrations are credited to Shannon Bowes.

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