The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the Western lowland gorillas as critically endangered, Central chimpanzees as Endangered and forest elephants as Vulnerable due to their declining population, a trend that is not expected to cease in the next few decades. The most serious threats these species face according to the IUCN are disease, poaching, habitat destruction, and global warming.
In Cameroon, the most serious threat to these great Apes and Forest elephants is illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade and habitat destruction caused by logging companies, development projects and agriculture. Although all Cameroon’s great ape species are protected by the 1994 Forestry and Wildlife Law, the resources and will to enforce the law are lacking. Hunting for bushmeat, once a subsistence activity, has become heavily commercialised in recent years. Hunting for bushmeat has been heavily linked to poverty and poor living conditions of the rural poor and marginalized populations of Cameroon.
Although Cameroon has put much of the forest habitat in South Eastern Cameroon under protected areas, they have been very little or no investment in the economic development of most local and indigenous communities. The local populations are left with no other option than to hunt for their livelihood. The bushmeat trade has significantly been driven by existing bushmeat markets than are not usually monitored to control the wildlife species being sold. Corruption has also intensified bushmeat harvesting and trade as government officials are also amongst the highest consumers of bushmeat.
Also, protected areas in South Eastern Cameroon are heavily surrounded by forest management units or logging concessions – forests attributed to logging companies for timber exploitation. Logging by these companies has not only harmed Apes and other mammals through habitat destruction but has also made them more accessible for poachers and traders. Until recently, great Apes have been protected from humans due to the remoteness and density of their environment. These days, logging companies have built roads that poachers now use to reach previously untouchable jungles in South Eastern Cameroon. Development projects such as the hydroelectricity project at Lom-Pangar have also intensified the situation as more roads accessible to motorbikes and cars have been opened up. This has made the smuggling of bushmeat much easier than in the past.
The influx of the human population into the area following the presence of logging companies and development projects has also increased the rate of poaching of many wildlife species as they are easily sold uncooked or as meat stew to strangers within the local communities.
Local and indigenous populations in this area are deprived of their natural heritage and yet the logging companies contribute almost nothing to their economic development but enslave the local populations by paying them very small wages for prospection and wood transportation. People who are unable to do these activities like women and girls turn to do farming and collection of NTFPs for their livelihoods. Most of the companies and individuals who exploit timber in this area only care about their gains to the detriment of the local population and the environment.
ERuDeF feared that the rate of forest exploitation and other anthropogenic activities in this area will lead to the extinction of the sub-population of great Apes in the Deng Deng National Park and Dja Biosphere Reserve. The Deng Deng National Park and Dja Biosphere Reserve are separated by a corridor of over 600,000 ha. The great Apes and other large mammals in these two protected areas can only migrate between the protected. This is due to the presence of the Sanaga River in the North of the Deng Deng National Park and the Dja River in the South of the Dja Biosphere Reserve.
The continuous fragmentation and destruction of the habitat corridor linking the two protected areas as a result of anthropogenic activities will be a major obstacle to the movement of the great Apes. ERuDeF fears that if this keeps on then the few remaining subpopulations of great apes and forest elephants will stay isolated within the protected areas. This isolation will result in to increase inbreeding due to difficulty in finding a mate. The most obvious effects of inbreeding are poorer reproductive efficiency including higher mortality rates, lower growth rates and a higher frequency of hereditary abnormalities. This has been shown by numerous studies with cattle, horses, sheep, swine and laboratory animals.
In other to safeguard the great apes, forest elephants and other large mammals, ERuDeF and its partners the African Conservation Foundation and Cross River Gorilla Project, UK have developed the Eastern Cameroon Biodiversity Initiative. This initiative seeks to ensure the connectivity of great Apes including the African Forest elephants and other large mammals between the Deng Deng National Park and Dja Biosphere Reserve by maintaining or enhancing suitable habitat conditions within the Deng Deng-Dja corridor.
To achieve this, ERuDeF and its Partners have put forth the following programs:
1. Biodiversity Conservation
This program seeks to acquire the remaining forest area of about 40,000 ha within the corridor that has not been officially designated for effective management through the community forestry approach of Cameroon. The programme also seeks to provide oversight support to the management of existing community forests in the area, protected areas, council forests and logging concessions.
2. Social Science
This program seeks to strengthen the resilience of local and indigenous communities for effective management and sustainable use of natural resources through the promotion of social anthropology, ecotourism, education for sustainable development, women and gender mainstreaming into forest management, livelihood and value-chain development through investment in cooperatives and Community Trust Fund.
3. Forest Governance
This program seeks to reduce deforestation and forest degradation by working with both the state, private companies and local communities to develop and implement strategies for effective management of timber, NTFPs and Animal resources.
4. Landscape Governance
This program seeks to promote effective governance and law enforcement through collaboration with all stakeholders to develop and implement a strategic management plan for the Deng Deng-Dja Corridor and also to create a Regional Landscape Steering Committee for enforcement.
5. Research, biomonitoring and Forest Surveillance
This program seeks to provide up-to-date information on target wildlife species populations, their migratory patterns and habitat requirements for effective conservation planning and management. It will also assess the bushmeat trade and its impact on the population of wildlife species.
6. Communication for Biodiversity Conservation
This program seeks to create global awareness and commitment to the conservation of the great Apes and other large mammals in South Eastern Cameroon through, documentaries, newspapers, newsletters, magazines and reports that are published online, ERuDeF and partners’ websites and social media platforms.
The first phase of this initiative to acquire two community forests of 7406 ha between the Deng Deng National Park and Belabo Council Forest and to develop their simple management plans is currently being supported by World Land Trust.
ERuDeF and its partners are therefore seeking more financial and technical support from global charity organizations to achieve this initiative in providing a safe environment for great Apes and many other large mammals in South Eastern Cameroon while strengthening the financial and economic resilience of the local and indigenous populations.
By Nja Beltin Tekuh