Is conservation the new rock and roll?

Published: 27 March 2015

Is conservation the new rock and roll?

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts, Torquay’s coastal zoo, and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall. Money from visitors goes in part to support conservation projects overseas. One of these, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is using a surprising range of techniques to help save monkeys.

Pop groups, computer games, community singing and cheering crowds – it’s the new face of wildlife conservation. Harry Hilser grew up in the rural south of England, but these days you might find him in the company of Indonesia’s top rock band or addressing a roomful of politicians somewhere in South East Asia.

Harry is Programme Manager for the Trust’s conservation project in Indonesia. He and his team have brought extraordinary levels of energy and enthusiasm to the task of protecting the Sulawesi crested black macaque, a Critically Endangered primate with a characteristic red, heart-shaped bottom.

Selamatkan Yaki – literally, “Save the Sulawesi crested black macaque” – has gone from strength-to-strength in the last couple of years, thanks in no small part to Harry’s dynamic and inventive approach.

In three years he has tackled head-on all the major problems facing yaki – hunting for food, habitat destruction, tourism, tradition. He has even waded into religion. Northern Sulawesi is a predominantly Christian area – the rest of the island is Muslim. Christians eat yaki on high days and holy days, while Muslims don’t.

The problem highlights how wildlife conservation is a social and cultural issue as much as an environmental issue. It also illustrates one of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust’s main themes – conservation advocacy, changing the way people think and behave in order to save habitats and species.

The project works out of a well-situated, comfortable, even spacious office (provided gratis by the regional government) in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. It’s in Minahasa, that part of the north identified as the central native range for the Sulawesi crested black macaque. Sulawesi is the largest island in the Wallacea biodiversity hotspot and is one of the most important wildlife areas in Indonesia.

Harry has been leading the project for three years. In that time he has secured additional funding, increased the staff to eight – they are predominantly Indonesian - and overseen the launch of core projects, such as the Tangkoko Rejuvenation Programme, which aims to improve protection in the Tangkoko Nature Reserve - considered the last remaining stronghold for the macaques - by reducing the current threats of hunting and habitat loss.

They have been training forest rangers in modern data collection techniques and local guides in professional guiding practices. They’ve overhauled both their patrolling and guiding systems with the aim of improving protection in the nature reserve and providing a better experience for visitors.

Education and Advocacy Coordinator Thirza Loffeld has led the design and production of a fun and educational computer game, helped with teacher training and environmental education and set up EARS – the Education and Awareness-Raising Strategy.

And then there’s the Yaki Pride Campaign. A large number of eminent local people have been persuaded to become ambassadors to raise yaki awareness - which is where the rock and roll comes in. Among them are Slank, Indonesia's veteran rock superstars. As official yaki ambassadors they can reach thousands of followers with strong and inspiring conservation messages.

Actually, it’s not all rock and roll; Harry’s life is as much about meetings, meetings and more meetings. He’s had to adopt the language of the diplomat and the civil servant as he tackles political hierarchies and religious traditions.

“We’ve set up community conservation forums in five villages. We recently held a quarterly meeting which brought together representatives from the forestry department, tourism department and community forum representatives to discuss environmental issues.

“This proved extremely fruitful, with important discussions and suggestions for ways forward to protect important forests and the wildlife living there. We also designed village welcome archways, to be installed with slogans and icons of the forests to encourage pride in the natural area.”

Harry is building links with everyone from government planning officials and the police to lurahs – village heads - and camats - district heads – all with the aim of increasing the coordination of forest and wildlife protection.

He says: “A large part of our work involves collaborating with local communities or institutions for all kinds of different events and activities, from beach cleaning to talks at schools or government conferences. It’s all about alliances, partnerships, forums, lobbying. Politics and diplomacy are an inherent part of the conservation recipe, so I have had plenty of opportunities to mature my communications and indeed patience with some of the more bureaucratic and challenging political situations…

“Religion can be a tricky subject, but we decided to treat churches as any other local community group. It's a way of reaching a large number of people in our target areas. We’ve launched Green Gospel events focused on the ten biggest churches in North Sulawesi, which is a pre-dominantly Christian area. The aim is to connect Christianity and conservation.”

Harry could already speak Bahasa Indonesian when he joined the project, and his interest in dance - he was head of a dance society while at Plymouth University - has stood him in good stead, as on more than one occasion he’s been called upon to take to the dance-floor with youth groups. It all helps to win hearts and minds. Never mind rock and roll, he has the energy of a top athlete.

Dance and diplomacy aside, Harry is a scientist at heart; he has a BSc in Biological Sciences from the University of Plymouth and a Masters in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University. Selamatkan Yaki is based firmly on planning, data collection and evaluation. “We developed a long-term strategy for the conservation of the species – it’s a complete Conservation Action Plan for Macaca nigra – we use it to inform and monitor all our conservation activities.”

Village surveys assess whether local people are hunting yaki, seeing yaki or keeping yaki as pets. “We recently interviewed over a thousand people in three campaign areas - Airmadidi, Bitung, and villages around the Tangkoko Nature Reserve. It is imperative that our conservation strategies are evidence-based, so we collect as much demographic, attitudinal and behavioural information as we can.”

The voice of the yaki has even been heard at a major conference in Vietnam as the project works to increase networking and share best practice in primate education. Multi-stakeholder gatherings, programme mission, networking, best practice – now that’s more like management speak…

To return to the rock star parallel, Harry spends a lot of time on the road - and that road is rutted and crowded: “We have a reliable programme car that can deal with all the potholes and the manic traffic – both of which are plentiful!”

Travelling around Sulawesi may take its toll, but there are compensations. “I rent a gorgeous house with a sea view, coconut and mango trees and all the modern conveniences of any home in the UK, but with the need for cooling rather than heating…!”

For Harry and for Selamatkan Yaki there’s much more to come. They aim to design and build a visitor and education centre in Tangkoko Nature Reserve. They want to launch their Alternative Livelihood Strategy to introduce new ways of earning a crust that don’t involve burning down the forest, like aquaponics agricultural systems. They want to influence local laws and gain widespread recognition for Macaca nigra as a symbol of Minahasa.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Harry has started work on a part-time PhD. studying human psychology to support the project’s theme of advocacy as he works to influence tradition with conservation. His doctorate, with the University of Exeter, is still at the planning stage, but the proposed research will focus on the causes of species declines and potential mitigation strategies based on behavioural change mechanisms.

Harry may be something of a figurehead, but he’s at pains to stress the team effort. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust is the charity that started it all and in many ways is still the main driver, but one look at the project’s web site - – shows just how many partner bodies, funding charities and official allies it has.

“The most important thing is the network that we have created here. We have a dedicated field team, largely Indonesian in origin, supported by external staff, partners and local representatives, plus a wider web of supporters and volunteers. I'm not out here saving monkeys on my own!”

Conservation in the 21st century is about attacking on all fronts: the scientific, the cultural, the artistic and the educational. It may not be as glamourous as rock and roll, but it’s in tune with the times. And for Harry and his team, it’s all in aid of the monkey with the heart-shaped behind.

Enjoyed reading this story? Why not share it with your friends?