What you need to know:
- Gitau, 61, says he has helped rescue slightly over 500 monkeys.
- There are monkeys that still need new homes in Kakamega and Mombasa.
As a young boy while fleeing frequent family strife, Solomon Gitau took up quarters in an abandoned, decrepit house in Wanjohi valley at the foot of Aberdare Hills in the then larger Nyandarua region.
He recounts that one day a monkey appeared and perched on the house’s glassless window.
Monkeys were a common sight in the area; the primates descended from the hills to rob farms of grain and other crops in Wanjohi and Kipipiri — a land settlement scheme previously owned by whites — before scurrying back into the forest with the loot.
Land owners looked for different ways to curb the menace — when chasing the monkeys away proved untenable, they set crude traps, hunted and killed them.
But the animal sitting at the window wore a silvery, grey, robe-like pelt, its face fringed by a shroud of white hair resembling an old man’s full beard. It was the Colobus monkey.
“The animal looked into my eyes, and I looked into his. Somehow this exchange, this wordless interaction, lifted my sadness,” says Gitau.
This initial encounter would come to define Gitau’s future work, one that would morph into near-obsession and ultimately saddle him with trouble with authorities. Since 1998, Gitau has dedicated his life to saving the colobus monkey —one of the more beautiful and elusive of non-human primates. It is also one of the most endangered species prized for its beautiful shag carpet-like hide.
Gitau, 61, says he has helped rescue slightly over 500 monkeys. Though his work is largely voluntary, Gitau works in concert with the Kenya Wildlife Service to help in translocation of the animals to safer locales.
The tall dark man with a high thatch of hair that is barely containable in his signature baseball caps is a gifted talker.
He’s knowledgeable about many topics, but it is his ‘beloved friends’, the colobus, that he would rather talk about above any other topic.
His father was a freedom fighter, who was killed by Britons in the early 1950s. He had some notoriety as an exceptional tracker, knowledgeable in the ways of the bush. But he wasn’t Gitau’s biological father, a fact that would lead to unending conflict between him and his half-brothers.
From an early age, Gitau was conscious of the gulch between him and the rest of the family. He knew he would never fit in. Like many children who grow with a gnawing feeling of loss, Gitau retreated into a cocoon. His solace was out in the jungle and its sounds; bird calls, the occasional yip of a wild dog or the distant laughter of the hyena were preferable to the cacophony at home.
And so it was that afternoon while alone in the run-down house that Gitau felt a connection that transcended human to human interaction.
“It troubled me greatly anytime I saw a trapped colobus,” says Gitau. “There was something about the monkey. I would make cages and leave food inside, and they would come in and eat. They must have felt safe, and then I would let them free back into the jungle.”
That Gitau didn’t find the colobus intrusive (the animals would at times eat out of Gitau’s palm), coupled with a growing interest in the ways of the wild led to more tension in the family, driving the wedge deeper. He was labelled insane, eccentric. People found his interests mystical and shunned him.
Gitau married soon after finishing high school and got a clerical job in Nandi Hills. His employer, an expatriate, found his interests in wildlife peculiar, but endearing.
He promoted him to a supervisor after Gitau led a tree-planting campaign and due to his opposition to charcoal burning that was decimating flora.
But soon, a disaster struck, making him quit the job. A mysterious fire had razed his hut, forcing his young wife and two children to flee. He relocated to the friendlier Kipipiri area.
All along he had never lost his fire for the colobus — the monkey seemed to have meshed with Gitau’s soul. In Kipipiri, Gitau discovered that human-wildlife conflict had escalated; the colobus was now not trapped merely to keep off the farms, but to supply a growing fetish — mostly by foreigners for the monkey’s hide.
It is not hard to see why most people who have encountered Gitau tend to consider him either mystical or at worse, out of his depths.
Gitau did not advance his formal education past secondary school. His primatology is self-taught; like his father, he studied animal trails, their tendencies, survival skills and also the craft of making and setting traps that would not endanger the quarry.
His autodidactic path is sprinkled with beliefs that sound far-fetched. For example, when describing the colobus, Gitau sounds almost reverential: “The animal is special,” he explains. “In many sub-Saharan African cultures, whenever the colobus passed through a village, it meant that something unusual was imminent. Symbolically, it is a messenger.”
Gitau is especially peeved by customs where the killing of the monkey is carried out for human pleasure. He cites rites of passage festivities in some parts of western Kenya, where initiates are bedecked with the monkey’s hide as a sign of their new status. As proof that the skin of the colobus carries with it mysterious powers, he brings up names of African leaders who wore the hide as a sign of power.
“Look at Mobutu Sese Seko (the former strongman of Zaire-now (DRC). “Those leaders were dictators; every single one of them.” He adds that the Gikuyu name for the colobus, Nguyo, translates to Muthamaki (ruler).
Despite his beliefs, or perhaps partly because of them, Gitau’s expertise has been sourced by, in addition to KWS, the Mountain Gorilla Project and other lobbies. He has addressed conservationists in Uganda, and a South African animal activism group regularly seeks his expertise.
Colobus monkeys have been victims of land encroachment, which exposes them to human activity and ultimately leads to their killings. “Once I trap the colobus, which is really my chief interest, I contact KWS for relocation to safe habitats,” he explains.
There are two species of colobus monkeys endemic to Kenya: Angolan black-and-white colobus (Colobus angolensis) and Eastern black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza). While the probable population of the colobus in Kenya is hard to quantify, there is real threat to the monkey. According to Colobus Conservation, a Diani-based non-profit conservation lobby, the Angolan is the more threatened of the two species.
In 2009, Chinese engineers and labourers were finishing up on a grand road project in North Kinangop, Ol Kalou and other places. It was an unsteady time as Kenya had just emerged from the infamous post-election violence of 2008.
But behind the façade, something ominous was taking place — the colobus population had begun dwindling. Gitau, who knew the area well, decided to raise the alarm over the unfolding events. It was suspected that there was a growing demand for colobus pelt. In Rumuruti, Laikipia County, Gitau climbed onto his soapbox and started talking to a crowd about the monkeys.
Later while walking home, he noticed a car trailing him. The vehicle pulled up next to him and a group of men jumped on him.
“They broke my arm and attempted to twist my neck,” he says. “They meant to kill me, and I only survived after dogs barked loudly.” While Gitau doesn’t directly blame foreigners for the attack, he believes his assailants meant to eliminate him because he posed a threat to poaching.
Gitau carries in his pocket hand-written notes — shreds of his biography, which he hopes gets published. He currently resides in Gilgil with his wife and three sons. His first wife died years ago.
“My youngest child is showing all the signs of becoming an animal conservationist,” Gitau says proudly. “He astonishes his teachers as he is unafraid of creatures that most children would avoid. He catches chameleons and rodents. He is also passionate about plants, trees.”
The work is far from over, Gitau says. There are monkeys that still need new homes in Kakamega and Mombasa.