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Conserving the Ebo Gorillas through Community Collaboration

Category: Gorilla Journal, Ausgabe 55, Western Lowland Gorillas, Cameroon, Protective measures, People & Gorillas

Gorilla during the Ebo Gorilla Cup (© Daniel Mfossa)

Cameroon is home to many primate species of high conservation value, including drills, Preuss's red colobus, and gorillas (Morgan et al. 2011). Both recognized subspecies of western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) live in Cameroon: the western lowland gorilla (G. g. gorilla) living to the south of the Sanaga river, and the Cross River gorilla (G. g. diehli) ranging within the Cameroon-Nigeria border region to the north of the Sanaga river. Additionally, there is a small gorilla population in the Ebo forest, located around 60 km to the north of the Sanaga and 200 km south of the nearest Cross River gorilla population.

With an intermediate location between the extant gorilla subspecies in Cameroon, the small and isolated Ebo gorilla population is geographically and taxonomically interesting (Morgan et al. 2003, Groves 2005). In addition to primates, the Ebo forest is home to many emblematic plant and animal species; a significant portion of the forest has been proposed as a national park, which unfortunately still awaits legalization by the government of Cameroon (Morgan et al. 2011, Dunn et al. 2014).

With local, national and international support, the Ebo Forest Research Project (EFRP) has been working with local communities and the government of Cameroon for the conservation of the rich biodiversity of Ebo forest through biological research and conservation outreach (Abwe & Morgan 2012). Through nest counts and video camera evidence we believe there are a maximum of 25 individual Ebo gorillas surviving in the forest, ranging in an area of around 25 km² (Morgan 2010). It is recognized that the Ebo gorilla habitat is close to a handful of remote villages where hunting and the commercial bushmeat trade represent an important source of income and animal protein for community members (Morgan 2004).

Two local community-based associations (Club des Amis des Gorilles [CAG] and Association des Chefs Traditionels Riverains de la Forêt d'Ebo - ACTRIFE) are working around the Ebo gorilla habitat to protect this small population as well as other species of conservation importance. The EFRP works in conjunction with the CAG to monitor the gorilla habitat on a monthly basis for threats to gorillas as well as gorilla and other large mammal signs. The CAG groups also conduct community sensitization and outreach activities within the communities. ACTRIFE are engaged in community sensitization, but are focusing on encouraging the creation of the Ebo National Park (ENP) with regular contact with relevant government services as well as elites from the area. Since the creation of the ENP is long overdue, the EFRP together with the traditional chiefs of the area and with input from the CAG are working towards the creation of a "no-go zone" which would cover the majority of the current gorilla habitat. This community-enforced and sanctioned initiative aims to stop all disturbance to the gorilla habitat until effective law enforcement can be provided by the state. This "exclusion" approach is complemented by a strong suite of "inclusion" measures, including promoting knowledge of benefits of conservation activities through sensitization activities and improving local livelihoods through income-boosting and wellbeing initiatives. We summarise some of these initiatives in this article.

Radio Broadcasting

Access to relevant information and knowledge of laws pertaining to natural resources management is limited in both rural and urban settings in Cameroon, due to limited access to print media, television and internet services. Since April 2016, the EFRP in collaboration with CAG, ACTRIFE and some elites (powerful individuals originating from the villages but who now reside in cities) from the Ebo area have sought to educate the wider public through weekly radio programs.

The conservation program "BIOLittoral" (Biodiversité de la Région du Littoral) is broadcast on the national-wide channel of the state broadcaster - Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV). BIOLittoral aims to promote sustainable resource management while simultaneously educating a broad range of stakeholders (local administration, elites, villagers, etc.) and stimulating their pride for local wildlife including gorillas. The programs themselves seek to educate the communities about the connections between humans and their environment, animal ecology, hunting and bushmeat trade crisis in the area, biodiversity degradation, wildlife law awareness, climate change, water availability, agriculture and of course biodiversity conservation.

BIOLittoral is hosted by Albert Logmo - a journalist and an elite originally from the Ebo forest region - and Louanga Esther, the president of an environmental students' association at the University of Douala. Content is provided by a wide range of experts, including EFRP biologists, and is usually presented in a traditional format of a question-answer session between presenter and expert. The program airs every Saturday from 19.30 h to 20.00 h on FM 91.3 Mhz, and so hits a target audience in the rural communities, where radio is an important form of evening entertainment.

Increasing Environmental Awareness in Local Schools

In the long term sustainability will depend on the current generation of children - investing in children today is clearly vital for positive conservation outcomes. EFRP has been working with school teachers in 23 schools around the future Ebo National Park since 2014. As a complementary approach, CAG members regularly visit schools in the communities around the gorilla habitat to educate school children and teachers about the uniqueness of Ebo gorillas. The children in these remote communities lack basic textbooks and other school materials. In May 2017, CAG and EFRP in collaboration with the education authority in Yingui Sub Division donated and distributed 200 textbooks to children in schools in the five villages closest to the gorilla habitat, covering topics such as environmental education, mathematics, science, literature and geography.

Organising the Annual "Gorilla Cup" Soccer Tournament

The EFRP have been supporting an annual soccer tournament between the communities in the Ebo forest close to the gorilla population since 2012. With this event, the football matches forge unity amongst villagers living close to the Ebo gorilla habitat and we take the opportunity to explain and reinforce the communities' understanding of the importance of conserving the Ebo gorilla population as well as the entire rich biodiversity within the Ebo forest.

We organize the event during the school summer holidays since many children and youths come back to their respective villages to assist their parents in their activities that include farming, hunting, fishing, and so on. The idea of a football event that brings youths together in one village near the gorilla habitat for some days is a strategy to animate the holiday for them and to keep youths and villagers out of the forest at this period. The event provides an opportunity to educate and sensitize these "hunter-footballers" about the importance of the natural heritage of their forest.

Today the "Gorilla Cup" is one of the most popular tournaments in the entire region. More than 150 persons participate directly in this event every year, as well as hundreds of very vocal supporters! Since the launch of the tournament in 2012 we have been gradually adding supporting activities to the annual event.

During the 2017 tournament we held evening film shows, using a car battery and projector to cast wildlife films onto a large bedsheet to large populations, often with an accompanying voice over in the local language (Banen or Bassa) by an EFRP staff member. The local community hosted a "fashion show", where local youths dressed in both traditional and modern dress, with points awarded for "originality". 2017 also saw the first "music competition" and the crowning of "Miss Gorilla Cup" and "Mister Gorilla Cup" as shining examples of local youths involved in gorilla conservation.

This year's tournament was organized with assistance from the local administration in Yingui and Association Sportif - HOPE (AS-Hope, based in Douala, its main mission being to promote sports and cultural activities from local communities to cities). This event not only helped us create ambiance, but participants also returned home full of conservation knowledge that they received through many different channels - and we believe that we have demonstrated how a single event such as a soccer tournament can improve the goodwill and openness to consider biodiversity conservation. We are now at a turning point with this football tournament, since other civil organizations are beginning to show interest in the event. The 2018 tournament is likely to be much larger through adding more activities, including story-telling sessions to encourage more active participation by village elders and athletics events, so that we can continue to increase awareness of the conservation message through community-based events.

Implementing Small-Scale Sustainable Livelihood Activities

The forest represents the main source of food and income for people in the Ebo communities (Morgan 2004). Communities traditionally use the forest not only for hunting (with snares and shotguns), but also to collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs). If Ebo natural resources are to be maintained under the increasing pressure, we need to consider supporting alternative sources of income in the local communities.

Clubs des Amis des Gorilles (CAG) committees in the three communities closest to the gorilla population are supported by the EFRP to encourage small-scale sustainable livelihood initiatives. The CAG general assemblies in each village opted to provide a cassava grinding mill to their respective communities. These machines are managed by a team of five persons appointed by the general assembly of each community.

The grinding mills facilitate the processing of raw food, leading to increased production of local food such as miondo (cassava paste wrapped in Marantaceae leaves), mitoumba (cassava paste with palm oil and spices wrapped in Marantaceae leaves), mikono (pumpkin or egusi paste, with meat or fish wrapped in banana leaves) and many more. In the past, villagers used mortars and stones to grind their food stuffs. This was very strenuous and time consuming, and led to a much lower production of commercialized miondo and mitoumba, consequently leading to lower incomes for these rural people. It should be noted that miondo and mitoumba - both manioc byproducts - are staple diets in these communities. Locally, mitoumba is sold at 100 F CFA while a bundle of miondo is sold at 350 F CFA.

Due to the increase in production, villagers have been able to expand cassava farming to satisfy local demands for these products as well as urban markets. These foods are particularly suitable for income generation in the urban environment since these processed food items have a long "shelf-life" - they are often still edible several weeks after production. Proceeds from the sale of these products are now used to cover daily family needs (such as soap, kerosene, clothes and food items), children's education (such as school fees and stationary) and medical attention (including hospital fees and medications). With the grinding mill facility at their disposal, some households gradually have achieved financial stability and even reduced the over-reliance on hunting or forest resources.

In addition to supporting increased local food production, the EFRP has also been supporting other enterprises in these communities. In May 2017, CAG members participated in a training workshop to learn how to make soap, either for personal use or for sale. Prior to the workshop, villagers bought soap from the closest town - the large city of Douala - during their journeys to visit family or friends. The cost of visiting Douala is prohibitive - both financially (at least 7,000 F CFA each way) and in terms of time (minimum 1 day, often 2 days and with no transport from some communities during the rainy season). As a result, the cost of soap in the local villages used to be high - 500 F CFA for a 400 g cube of soap, while the cost in Douala for the same soap was 300 F CFA. Now that villagers have been taught how to make this important resource locally, it will be easier for them to wash themselves, their clothes and utensils and finally to improve the standard of family health. We have calculated that with this training villagers can now make one bar of soap for 200 F CFA - a significant reduction - and this may allow for a small local trade in soaps at a more affordable price.

The EFRP strongly believe that wildlife conservation is no longer a domain best served by wildlife biologists alone. The sustainability of our work needs the support of local communities as well as the expertise from other disciplines such as sociology, education, anthropology, mass communication, and so on. We are gradually evolving our relationships with the local communities around the Ebo gorilla population to move in tandem towards an increasingly positive outlook for the gorilla habitat. While supporting the traditional authorities and elders to declare the gorilla habitat as a "no-go zone" for humans, as a solution to over hunting activities in the forest while awaiting the creation of the Ebo National Park and accompanying wildlife law enforcement, we believe that the survival of the Ebo gorillas also depends on the implementation of positive community-based initiatives to both increase knowledge, awareness and improve attitudes towards conservation.

Daniel Mfossa, Ekwoge Abwe and Bethan Morgan

We are grateful to the Government of Cameroon for ongoing cooperation and research permission. We thank the USFWS Great Apes Conservation Fund, The Arcus Foundation, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Fund, Fundacion Bioparc, la Palmyre Zoo and the Zoological Society of San Diego for funding and ongoing collaboration in our efforts. This work would not be possible without the goodwill and hope of the traditional leaders, communities, elites and local administration in the Ebo region. Let us continue to work together to conserve the Ebo forest gorillas, their habitat and to leave a better world for our descendants.

References

Abwe, E. E. & Morgan, B. J. (2012): The gorillas of the Ebo forest - developing community-led conservation initiatives. Gorilla Journal 44, 14-16

Abwe, E. E. et al. (2015): Community-led Conservation Action in the Ebo Forest, Cameroon. Gorilla Journal 50, 14-17

Dunn, A. et al. (2014): Revised Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of the Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli): 2014-2019. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group and Wildlife Conservation Society, New York

Groves, C. P. (2005): A Note on the Affinities of the Ebo Forest Gorilla. Gorilla Journal 31, 19-21

Morgan, B. J. (2004): The Gorillas of the Ebo Forest, Cameroon. Gorilla Journal 28, 12-14

Morgan, B. J. (2010): The Gorillas of the Ebo Forest, Cameroon. Gorilla Journal 40, 16-18

Morgan, B. J. et al. (2003): Newly discovered gorilla population in the Ebo forest, Littoral Province, Cameroon. International Journal of Primatology 24, 1129-1137

 

Morgan, B. J. et al. (2011). Plan d'action régional pour la conservation du chimpanzé du Nigeria-Cameroun (Pan troglodytes ellioti). Groupe de spécialistes des primates de la CSE/UICN et Zoological Society of San Diego

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