Engaging Local Communities in Conservation Research

Camped on the hillside, out of the way of elephants
Camped on the hillside, out of the way of elephants

The sun is getting low on the horizon, and after five long hours of hiking up and down the hilly landscape of the Lefini Reserve in the heat of the day, Maximain, our guide, decides it is time to set-up camp for the night. However, we’ve been following a path made by a group of elephants and it isn’t safe to camp anywhere nearby. Elephants, Maximain explains, are creatures of habit – they stick to their paths and will tear up our tents if we try to camp too close. So we plunge into the long grass, taller than my head, and hack our way through to the other side of the slope where we can be sure nothing will disturb us as we sleep.

Maximain is the head of a group of community organised ecoguards from the village of Mpoh, which lies along the road parallel to the Lefini River on the Bateke Plateau (so-called after the Teke people who live there). Having started out as volunteers following the end of the civil war in the late 1990s, they have recently been formally recognised by the Ministry for Water and Forests (Eaux et Forets) and the international NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is trying to find ways to build their confidence and capacity to promote conservation in the reserve. According to historical records, the Lefini landscape was rich in animal life in thee early 20th century, with an abundance of lions (now believed completely absent from Congo) and elephants (of which there are thought to be only a few groups remaining in the region). Now Lefini fuels Brazzaville’s thriving bushmeat market, and conservationists are concerned that the drive to over-hunting will wipe-out the wildlife that remains.

Maximain teaches Louis, another ecoguard, to take a good photo of an elephant print
Maximain teaches Louis, another ecoguard, to take a good photo of an elephant print

For the ecoguards of Mpoh, conservation is a tricky matter, as many of those practicing hunting in the reserve are their friends and relatives. Moreover, as yet little rigorous research into hunting and its impact on wildlife populations has been done in the region so it is tough to assess what is and isn’t sustainable. WCS wants to address this lack of information, but rather than relying exclusively on outsiders to conduct studies they are experimenting with innovative approaches that are inclusive of local communities and their knowledge of the landscape. It’s in this context that I’ve been working with Sophia, an MSc student from Imperial College London, to develop a Sapelli project that Maximain and the other community ecoguards can use to collect geo-located data regarding animal populations and signs of hunting. While not “extreme” citizen science in its purest sense – the project is definitely NGO- rather than community-driven – it stands as a good example of how Sapelli can offer a space for different agendas to meet and for small steps to be taken towards community empowerment in a difficult context. WCS is hopeful that using the app will enable the ecoguards to contribute more positively towards understanding and conserving wildlife along the Lefini River, while Maximain hopes that using the app will help the ecoguards of Mpoh demonstrate to the Ministry the value of the work they do.

Photographic evidence of an elephant
Photographic evidence of an elephant

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Bateke Plateau in the rainforest where Congo borders Gabon, another MSc student, Patrice, is also concerned with elephant populations. In the village of Simombondo where he is working, elephants cause almost daily devastation to peoples’ fields leaving them angry, hungry and frustrated at protected species laws that forbid them from protecting their livelihoods. He too is engaging local people in using Sapelli, this time to track the paths that elephants take through peoples’ plantations and the crops that they destroy in the hope of identifying trends in elephant behaviour that will enable WCS and the people of Simombondo to work together to address the issue in ways that are acceptable to both sides.

Updating the decision tree in the field
Updating the decision tree in the field

All in all, it’s been an exhausting, challenging, but ultimately very rewarding couple of weeks for me working with WCS in the Bateke Plateau. There’s a lot of potential for Sapelli to be employed in interesting ways to introduce elements of community co-management into conservation processes in this region and for community and conservationist agendas to be “worked together” through the medium of new technologies. I look forward to returning at intervals over the next six months to watch how these projects progress, but for now I have a few days break in Brazzaville before I head north to continue our work with CIB.

Botikala malamu!


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