Cameroon has often been called “Africa in miniature” for how much it mirrors the continent’s diversity. That’s especially true from an ecological standpoint. Like its mother continent, Cameroon boasts a coastline, mountains, savanna, desert and tropical rainforests. Though just larger than Sweden in terms of geographic size, this Central African nation hosts roughly 90% of all the ecosystem types found in Africa.
The country is also home to both savanna species such as lions and giraffes and primates such as chimpanzees and western lowland gorilla. More than 8,000 species of plants can be found in Cameroon.
So it is no coincidence that not just one, but two, AWF teams visited Cameroon this past February. CEO Patrick Bergin explored the southern part of the country. With him were Jef Dupain, our technical director for Central and West Africa, and a trustee who has been a strong supporter of our African Apes Initiative.
Vice presidents Daudi Sumba and Charly Facheux, meanwhile, headed north, accompanied by AWF’s Cameroon country director and a security consultant. Their destination: Faro National Park.
The perils of unplanned development
According to Facheux—who is himself Cameroonian, hailing from the mountainous western part of the country—Cameroon offers a promising landscape for AWF involvement. There is the appealing biodiversity, of course. But the Cameroonian government also genuinely needs conservation support. Like all African wildlife authorities, resources and capacity are big challenges.
Threats are also considerable. In the north, armed pastoralists enter protected areas at will and kill wildlife for meat. In the south, there’s logging and infrastructure development and, again, bushmeat hunting.
Finally, AWF already has a foothold in the country. We have been providing technical and financial support to wildlife authorities in Dja Faunal Reserve and Campo Ma’an National Park, with an AWF advisor based in Dja and an AWF focal point assigned by the park authority in Campo Ma’an. Faro National Park serves as a natural next step for AWF engagement in the country.
“Faro is essentially a transfrontier area that spans over to Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria,” explains Facheux. “It also has savanna wildlife, unlike Dja and Campo Ma’an, which are both forest habitats.”
Unfortunately, Boko Haram is a real, if occasional, danger in northern Cameroon—to the point that the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning to American citizens in December, urging them to avoid the northern part of the country.
AWF’s February visit therefore served as a scoping mission for AWF personnel to realistically determine the area’s security levels and get a better sense of how we could support conservation efforts there.
What the team found was not quite what they had imagined.
On the one hand, security conditions were not as bad as feared. Two members of the Special Forces escorted the AWF team while they were in the national park, but Facheux says no visible security threats existed. Team members found the area safe enough to operate without a military escort.
On the other hand, work in the park was practically nonexistent. “We were able to see that the Faro warden was not even based on site and was just coming in from time to time. The rangers had very little discipline and did minimal patrolling in the park due to lack of equipment,” relays Sumba. The road conditions also contributed to the situation: Of the 500-km route into the park, only the first 30 km from the main entrance are useable.
“Less than 10% of the park is really monitored,” Facheux says.
Partnering with wildlife authorities
Monitoring is more routine at Dja and Campo Ma’an, thanks in large part to AWF efforts over the past two years. Under the African Apes Initiative, we have provided wildlife authorities in both locations ecological monitoring equipment and training.
Handheld devices equipped with CyberTracker software allow rangers to enter data during their patrols. The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is an application that then collates the CyberTracker data into easily digestible reports.
CEO Bergin, Dupain and the AWF trustee had visited these two protected areas to gauge how the CyberTracker/SMART work was proceeding. In the process, the trio got a firsthand immersion into a modern Africa that will face difficult decisions about how to balance biodiversity conservation with development.
“Africa is on the doorstep of being completely modernized and overwhelmed by development. And Cameroon is on the frontlines of this trend,” explains Dupain. “Railways, road construction, palm oil plantations, human population sprawl—we witnessed everything.”
Take Campo Ma’an, where a deep-sea harbor is being developed just 80 km away. Dupain says the development will quadruple the number of people living in the area. With it could come increased poaching in the park.
But consider that Campo Ma’an is a vast 2,640 sq. km. (Dja is twice that geographic area, at 5,260 sq. km.) “The park sizes are far too great for the authorities to be able to manage the poaching right now,” Dupain says.
AWF will therefore work with the wildlife authority in each park to secure a smaller designated area. Once wildlife numbers rise in those areas, AWF can help Cameroon encourage tourism to these locations. Dupain observes that tourism will not necessarily create a sustainable revenue stream for park maintenance—but it can draw much-needed attention to the importance of protected areas.
In Faro, AWF is hoping to start work sometime in the coming year. AWF will initially focus on developing general management and business plans for the park, upgrading the first 150 km of the main road and developing ranger capacity. Later would come conservation engagement with and alternative livelihood development for surrounding communities.
It won’t be easy, says Facheux, but ultimately efforts in Cameroon will strengthen AWF’s ability to engage leaders at the regional policy level. “Between Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—where AWF has been working for more than a decade—you have 85% of the Congo Basin,” he points out.
“We need to say to governments that conservation is not a luxury—it is a part of people’s livelihoods and a country’s overall well-being,” he explains. And with our growing experience in “Africa in miniature,” AWF will be in a good position to get them to listen.