How To Save a Rainforest, With Rolex Award Winner Inza Koné

Inza Koné’s fascination with primates began early in life. “I was a nature lover, and I loved animals,” says Koné, recalling how, when he was just eight years old, his father gave him a new pet: a baby baboon. “The baboon was growing, and he became quite aggressive, and it became difficult to handle him by myself,” says the primatologist. “Finally, people made the decision to kill him, which was a shock to me at the time. My father said he should have prepared me for it to end this way. But, since then, I have looked at animals differently.”

Inza Koné Rainforest Preservation with Rolex

After learning this valuable lesson about consequences, and what can happen when humans come into conflict with the natural world, Koné’s curiosity about the primates of his native West African homeland turned into a calling. Some years later, when he had the opportunity to attend a lecture by French primatologist Ronald Noë, that calling became even clearer. “I was fascinated by what I learned that day,” says Koné. “I decided I wanted to learn more about animals and animal behaviour, so that I could be better equipped to protect them.”

Koné has spent much of the last three decades doing just that, becoming Côte d’Ivoire’s first primatologist, co-founder of the African Primatological Society, and the co-vice chair of the African Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Being Ivorian gives Koné an innate understanding of the nation and its people, he says, and also makes his fellow countryfolk more receptive to his message of conservation.

“People are an integral part of nature, so if you want to protect nature, you have to do that with people, for the benefit of people.”

Inza Koné

“Sciences like primatology are considered the business of people who are far from African realities,” Koné explains, “so becoming the very first Ivorian primatologist increased my sense of responsibility to change these paradigms and these perceptions. I believed that, as a local person, my voice would be heard more easily, compared to those of Europeans or Americans.”

In 2023, Koné received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in recognition for his work conserving the Tanoé-Ehy Forest in southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, where only two per cent of the country’s primary forests remain intact. The region is home to endangered primate species such as the Roloway monkey, the white-thighed colobus, and Miss Waldron’s red colobus (which was previously believed to be extinct), but is also where dozens of endemic and endangered species of plants, fish, amphibians, and birds live. In 2021, after more than a decade of environmental efforts by Koné and a group of people from the forest’s 11 villages, the primatologist succeeded in getting the Tanoé-Ehy Forest designated as an official community reserve.

Inza Koné Rainforest Preservation with Rolex

The challenges he has faced in protecting this vital tract of rainforest are many, and include illegal logging, poaching, pollution, and a plan to turn three-quarters of the 11,000-hectare area into an oil palm plantation. “They promised to create thousands of jobs, to build schools, and to build roads, so it was challenging to convince people to continue with the conservation efforts,” says Koné. “Fortunately, we had time to help them understand the concept of sustainability, and today we are proud to have a critical mass of people who understand what sustainably means, and what it entails.”

“More and more people in different regions of the world are understanding that conservation is not a luxury, but an economic necessity.”

Inza Koné

Community engagement, Koné believes, is crucial when it comes to the preservation of areas such as the Tanoé-Ehy Forest, and thus has been a key principle of his conservation strategy. “We have to understand that you cannot and should not protect nature against people,” he says. “People are an integral part of nature, so if you want to protect nature, you have to do that with people, for the benefit of people.”

As part of this strategy, Koné has convinced former poachers to become conservation stewards, and trained them in the use of drones for surveying, eDNA sampling, camera trap mounting, and other invaluable data-gathering techniques. He has also assisted local villagers in finding sustainable alternatives to bushmeat by establishing a small cassava processing plant. “People have to understand that you don’t value monkeys over humans, and you don’t value the forest over the villages,” he explains. “You have to take into account their ways of living, their cultures, and you have to be there for the long term.”

Inza Koné Rainforest Preservation with Rolex

Every two years, five laureates are chosen as recipients of the Rolex Award for Enterprise, and they each receive funding to implement their proposed projects. Koné plans to use his newly won resources to create a comprehensive management plan for the forest, to train additional locals in the ways of conservation and research, and to promote the importance of conservation among young people in Côte d’Ivoire. And, despite the obstacles that he continues to face in his work, the primatologist remains optimistic.

“I think we have many reasons for hope,” he reasons. “More and more people in different regions of the world are understanding that conservation is not a luxury, but an economic necessity. Politicians and decision-makers are now talking about conservation, especially in Africa, and this was not the case a couple of years ago. I think we should take advantage of this to make a difference, and anyone can contribute to making this difference.”