Saiba Keita 1969-2016


Last  year, we lost an incredible person – Saiba Keita, Chief of Kharakhena, friend of chimpanzees, and my right hand in Senegal.

Over the 6 years that I knew and worked with Saiba, he never ceased to amaze me. His desire to learn and grow was constant. His dedication to our project, his community and the chimpanzees was unfaltering. Even when his quiet village of 150 people grew almost overnight to include over 20,000 gold miners; when bandits roamed the bush; when he became the Chief of this massive and dangerous mining town – Saiba continued his work in the bush, checking camera traps, counting nests, and keeping an eye on the local chimpanzees.

Saiba, you were my guide, my teacher, my protector, and my brother. I would not be where I am today without you. Your presence will forever be missed, but your legacy will live on through your children and your community.


******* L’année dernier, nous avons perdu une personne incroyable – Saiba KEITA, chef du village de Kharakhena, un ami des chimpanzés, et ma main droite en Senegal.

Dans les 6 ans que je connaissais et travaillé avec Saiba, il n’a jamais cessé de me impressionner. Son désir d’apprendre et de progresser était constante. Son dévouement à notre projet, sa communauté et les chimpanzés était sans défaillance. Même quand son petit village de 150 personnes a augmenté rapidement à plus de 20 000 orpailleurs; lorsque des bandits circulaient la brousse; quand il est devenu le chef de cette ville massive et dangereuse – Saiba a continué son travail dans la brousse, en vérifiant cameratraps, en comptant les nids, et l’étude des chimpanzés.

Saiba, vous étiez mon guide, mon professeur, mon protecteur et mon frère. Je ne serais pas où je suis aujourd’hui sans vous. Votre présence sera toujours manqué, mais votre héritage vivra grâce à vos enfants et votre communauté.



Feature in the Daily Mining Gazette

Last week I gave a talk to the Social Sciences department at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan on my work in southeastern Senegal.  I’ve been teaching at Michigan Tech for the past year as I work to finish up my dissertation from Iowa State University.  It was great to finally have a chance to present to my colleagues the research that I am working on.  What was even better is that the talk was picked up by the local newspaper, the Daily Mining Gazette, and featured on their front page!

You can read the article here.

The reporter did a great job – capturing so much of the detail of the talk! A big thanks to Garrett Neese of the Mining Gazette and to everyone that came to the talk last week!




Falémé Chimp Education!

I put together a short film from the past few years of environmental education programs that we did in southeastern Senegal.

Many thanks to Susie McGuire of Conservation Fusion, and Peter Riger and Martha Parker of the Houston Zoo’s Conservation Department!  Huge thanks to Dondo “Johnny” Kante, Saiba Keita, Simiti Damfakha, and the teachers of the four villages for making all these activities happen!!

These education days in the villages of Bofeto, Babouya, Dalafing and Kharakhena were so much fun! …and the kids like them too!  🙂

For more pictures and info, head over to our Ka Wulo Mara page or our Facebook Page.


Kharakhena Chimpanzees Update

Despite the unbelievable changes happening in the village of Kharakhena over the past year , we are happy to report that the chimpanzees living nearby are still going about their usual business!  Saiba Keita, chief of the village and Falémé Chimp Project manager, continues to monitor the camera traps located at the nearby cave.  The photos taken there show that the chimpanzee group is still hanging around the cave – resting, eating, socializing, kids playing, moms napping!

Chimpanzees in Senegal use caves during the dry season when temperatures are at their highest.  The caves provide a cool escape from the heat and a nice place to relax, presumably making thermoregulation easier. Dr. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University saw this with the Fongoli chimpanzees in southeastern Senegal in the mid 2000s, and the Falémé Chimpanzee Conservation project found that the Kharakhena chimpanzees were using their cave in 2010.

The group’s home range are located a few kilometers away from the village itself and the impacts of the artisanal mining craze hasn’t completely displaced the chimps.  The cave is one of the closest points of the home range to the village but the chimpanzees continue to visit it during the dry season.  Whether their visits to the cave are as frequent as previous years, is still to be determined.

Here is a clip of some chimp mom’s and their kids hanging out at the cave.  The kids are still interested in inspecting the cameras even after 3 years!  I think noticed more poking fingers this year though!

Add a new species to the list!

In the 4 years of camera trapping that we have done here in Senegal in the Falémé region, we captured images of 25 different species of mammals – make that 26 species now!

Our first images of red river hogs (Potamochoerus porcus) were taken this year by the Kharakhena cave.  Two individuals passed the cameras, looking rather alarmed when they some the apparatus!

Although red river hogs are not an endangered species or even considered threatened, they are rare here in Senegal.  Saiba Keita of Kharakhena says he hasn’t seen one in years, and if it weren’t for the cameras we would never see them.  Southern Senegal is the northern most range for the red river hogs, and a rather different climate than much of the rest of their range which extents into Central Africa.

Always exciting to see new faces visiting our camera traps! Here is a short clip of one of the red river hogs checking out the cameras.

Rapidly Changing Environment

Today I sat down and met with a friend and colleague who is an expert in the field of rural sociology and regional planning.  Amadou has spent over 40 years studying and practicing in this field and is absolutely a wealth of knowledge. He works closely with the FAO, ecologists, agriculturalists and villagers to help organize community forest projects, unions for pastoralists, and community development plans for rural villages.  As he says, he only facilitates, it is up to the villages and participants at the meetings to make the projects what they are and make them happen.

As we discussed today, sitting at the breakfast table in Dakar, I talked about the village of Kharakhena.  About the gold mining that is changing the landscape, the people, the environment. I explained how the village that I knew was 150 people living collectively, and how in a matter of months 15,000 people descended onto the village when they heard of the gold in the hills. That was last year.  Today estimates are near 25,000 people.

Amadou asked for a piece of paper and a pen.  He has an amazing way of taking complex problems and organizing them into components. Breaking down the complex into understandable points.

He said, “This is a problem of a contexte en pleine evolution.”  A rapidly changing environment.  He took notes as we discussed how the influx of gold mining in southeastern Senegal is rapidly changing the environment.

  1. Economic Change:
    • As more people move into an area looking for gold, there are other needs to be met and many spell out economic growth for the community. What will these people eat? Where will they sleep? What will they do on their days off? Restaurants and bars pop up in villages like Kharakhena. Boutiques line the side of the roads, selling goods and products previously only available in town many kilometers a way. Markets previously open weekly, are now daily. Villages that never had a market in the first place, now do! Some people who come to in search of gold find they can cultivate as well with permission of the village chief, so agricultural practices may increase. With increasing profits from gold and subsequent economic activities, families may now have the funds to purchase livestock – not only raise and sell, but to keep as a longer term investment.
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      New Boutiques in Kharakhena. Each umbrella is a different vender.

  2. Behavioral Change:
    • The first behavioral change Amadou mentioned was the relationship people have with money. Although it is rare, some people who previously had very little money now find themselves with an abundance. How people save, invest, do business, or spend that money changes their behavior.  More people begin thinking about banking or developing their community.  Others spend their hard-earned money on things like televisions and large satellite dishes, which can be seen set up outside grass and bamboo huts.
    • Children’s behavior changes as well. Teenagers who might have thought about leaving the village to continue their studies now stay at the village to work at the mine. Even younger children, pre-teens and younger still, chose gold mining over attending school.  At the mines, children get a different education. As Saiba Keita, chief of the Kharakhena village, said, “The children are seeing things they should not see.”
  3. Cultural Change:
    • Cultural changes and behavioral changes are closely tied, but I’ve decided to split them there for emphasis. In mining villages where people come from far and wide, cultures mix and mingle resulting in a new mining culture. Artisanal gold miners tendto be transient or migrant people, whether within their own country or across international borders, with a common purpose of seeking economic benefit from finding gold.  The fact that they come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities results in a transformation of economic, political and social values.  In Kharakhena, miners come from Senegal, Mali,BurkinaFaso, Nigeria, the Gambia, Guinea, and perhaps other countries as well.  Languages (French, English,Malinké,Pulaar, etc.), religions (Christian, Muslim, Animist, etc.) and value systems differ between each country and each ethnicity, but find themselves commingling here in the mining village. Kharakhena was a quiet Muslim village  before the mining boom, today there are bars serving alcohol. For some this is a benefit, while for others this an unwelcome change to the community.


      Two men from Burkina Faso wash gold in a pan over a barrel of water. Most of that in the pan is sand, but perhaps there will be a small glimmer of old.

  4. Environmental Changes
    •  Changes to the environment occur at many levels from deforestation and mining pits on the landscape to mercury in the water sources to increased dust and air pollution.  The increase inbushmeat hunting associated with the large immigrant populations also takes a toll on the surrounding environment.  It’s hard to say exactly what the long-term effects will be without sustainability practices and restoration or reclamation to the land, but things aren’t looking good.


      A curious warthog.

  5. Problem of Security
    • As more money comes into circulation in these mining villages, we begin to see an increase in crime. More thefts, fights, and even murders.  Sometimes the violence comes from outside the village when bandits form groups that live in the bush just outside the mining village. They hijack cars on roads and attack miners heading to and from the mine.  Other attacks happen within the village, particularly on those people who are known to have large sums of money on them.  Most of these attacks are well planned, targeting particular individuals. Villages put together neighbor watch programs and community police patrols to try to combat the increasing crime.

It was here we stopped with the list.  We realized it could go on… we hadn’t even mentioned the changes in health…but we had spoken for quite some time and Amadou had another engagement to attend.  We also realized that this conversation should be had with the people of the villages.  While some changes are obvious to the outsider, there may be more changes happening within that aren’t as easily detected but are just as important, if not more.

This was the easy part – listing the problems and changes.  The real work comes when we start looking for solutions. Amadou and I can only do so much when it comes to identifying problems and even less for solutions.  Solutions and change happens from within, from the ground, from the people.  As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 


A breakfast conversation




Kharakhena, Senegal

As I gear up for my next field season in Senegal, a feeling of nostalgia mixed with trepidation creeps up on me. I will be leaving in a few weeks on the three day voyage to the villages in southeastern Senegal where I work. Once there I will meet with community leaders in small remote villages to discuss the future of their forests and what we can do together to improve that future. One of these villages where I have worked since 2010 and where these conversations is perhaps most needed, is Kharakhena. 

Kharakhena has been my village away from home.  I have my own hut within my family’s compound.  The chief’s father says I am like one of his own children.  My dear friend Gundo named her sixth child after me.  When I pull into the village, either on my motorcycle or in my truck, the children run out from every corner chanting my name.


Father of the chief, Foudia Keita, Chief of the Village, Saiba Keita, and myself


with Gundo and baby Ansumane, named for Gundo’s father and known lovingly as Papa. Papa passed away in late 2012 from an unknown illness.


Or… at least that is how it used to be.

Kharakhena has changed.  From a sleepy village of 130 people located in rural and remote southeastern Senegal, it has grown into a gold mining community of 25,000 people or more.  The original family compounds are now flanked to the north by new roadside boutiques and on all other sides by a rapidly expanding shanty town of shelters.  These small, mostly temporary, homes are made from grass, bamboo, and sheets of plastic.  They house the masses of artisanal gold miners who have come to find their future (or at least a way to get by) in the gold mine of Kharakhena.

Kharakhena village 2010

Kharakhena village 2010

2013 Kharakhena1

Kharakhena village 2013

Artisanal small scale gold mining (ASGM) has been a long standing tradition in West Africa. Since colonial times, the country of Ghana has been  known as the Gold Coast.  Even further back during the first millennium BC, West African gold was traded in the Middle East for goods including copper, horses and salt. Gold mining throughout West African history has been a supplemental activity to agriculture during the agricultural off-season.  Mining activity was generally localized, small in scale and with little technological investment. Today, these small scale mining sites still exist but now range from traditional panning in rivers and streams (particularly by women) to mechanized mining communities with bosses, security guards, and many machines.


A mine worker who uses a machine to crush the ore before the gold can be separated.

These mining communities, like the one growing in Kharakhena, bring both benefits and costs to the original villages.  The discovery of gold and the corresponding population growth inevitably result in economic growth with new shops and boutiques built to serve the miners, more vehicles and motorcycles in the village to transport goods and gold, and the increasing village size may warrant the building of a government funded school or a medical clinic. Along with these benefits come costs.  Overall health decreases as mining kicks up dust, uses toxic mercury in the gold extraction process, and increase the risk of socially communicable diseases (sometimes associated with an increase in prostitution).  The rapid influx of people and money also causes security problems with groups of bandits prowling the area, harassing motorists, robbing families, and even killing gold miners for their stash. The natural environment also suffers as transient gold miners are interested primarily in getting the gold and moving on to the next site, rather than using sustainable extraction methods and restoring the land.


Kharakhena, Mt. Mba, 2010

2013 Kharakhena Mba mountain

Kharakhena, Mt. Mba, 2013
Click on this photo to zoom in and see the mining impacts on the mountain itself.

One of the greatest risks that concerns the Chief of Kharakhena village, Saiba Keita, is the environment for children. For a small village like Kharakhena it was custom and safe to let your children run off and play throughout the village and surrounding bush, knowing that your neighbors would always be keeping an eye out.  Today, as children run and play throughout the village, they are rapidly being exposed to crime, alcohol, and unsafe labor practices.  As Saiba has said, they are learning things they should not learn at such young ages.

DSC_0586 DSC_0079

And so, as I think about how and where we go from here…  Our sleepy village is no longer, but perhaps a vibrant economic hub is in it future. Saiba has been working day and night over the past year to bring safety and security back to his village with the help of the national military police force as well as a volunteer community security group.  Bandits have been caught and jailed.  The children’s future is looking brighter as a brand new three room school house opened for the first time this year with the support of Randgold mining corporation.  And this summer we can start moving towards a brighter environmental future as well – reforestation? community managed protected areas?  The choice is with the people of Kharakhena, however they envision their environmental plan.  All we can do is help get the conversation going!


New Kharakhena School

I know that the people, environment, and chimpanzees of Kharakhena are going through a transition, and change is never easy. I remain nostalgic for my quiet hut in a village where everyone knew my name.  And my worries for the future of Kharakhena, the chimpanzee’s habitat, and the children’s safety  are likely to remain for sometime.  But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Nothing endures, but change”, we can only work to make this period of transistion at Kharakhena be one towards a brighter and more sustainable future for everyone.

leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky

The road to Kharakhena from the mine.



Falémé Chimpanzee Conservation

Welcome to the Falémé Chimpanzee Conservation website.  Our organization is working toward conserving chimpanzees and their habitat is southeastern Senegal.  Please take a moment and check out our other pages illustrating our research and conservation education work!