Forest People, Forest Elephants, and Forest Citizen Science in Cameroon

A Baka village near Lomié to the east of the Dja Biosphere Reserve

Since its initial development, Sapelli has been closely interlinked with conservation aims, ranging from resource monitoring in the Congo and CAR to surveillance groups in Brazil. Partnering with indigenous and local communities (ILCs) enables Sapelli to bring traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to the forefront of conservation efforts, empowering marginalised communities in the process.

I’m new to ExCiteS, coming from the completion of my M.Phil in biological anthropology at Cambridge. Despite only taking up my current position in August, I’ve just returned from Cameroon in an effort to test the waters with regard to a new and very exciting project.

Led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it will involve a host of strategies including training law enforcement, establishing surveillance networks, and developing monitoring and evaluation systems to assess interventions. However, perhaps the most important component, though I may be slightly biased, is the empowerment of forest ILCs to monitor and report poaching themselves, as well as produce participatory maps, using Sapelli. If communities show an interest in such work, Sapelli will be introduced to fight the illegal wildlife trade alongside the Baka hunter-gatherers and Bantu agriculturalists of Cameroon.

The urgency to conserve the biodiversity of the Congo Basin could not be overstated: forest elephant populations in Central Africa have declined by 62% since 2005, and pangolins hold the unenviable status of the world’s most trafficked mammal (Maisels et al. 2013; Challender et al. 2015). Africa’s wildlife crisis is heading towards complete extinction of elephants, lions, rhinos, and gorillas in the wild within 20-30 years. Of great concern within our own species, Cameroon’s Baka hunter-gatherers have severely suffered from their government’s National Zoning Plan, whereby ‘uninhabited land’ (defined as that which does not have houses, farms, or grazing) is freely handed over to forest concessions, mining, safaris, and conservation NGOs (Lewis & Nkuintchua 2012; Pritchard et al. 2013). Baka communities, and to a lesser extent local Bantu farming communities, are experiencing their ancestral land, and their hunting and foraging resources within it, being confiscated from them. What’s more, the Baka are continually marginalised, not only by political elites but by their now neighbouring Bantu groups.

The potential of ExCiteS here is to be able to restore some of the ability of ILCs to have a say in the use of their forest and it’s future, as well as restore some power to effect change. Another aspect of the project is to address ongoing abuse of the Baka by eco-guards by providing a means through Sapelli to report such abuse themselves. Having discussed this with a Chef d’Antenne who manages eco-guards, this aspect could also be very valuable to managerial staff to improve efficiency.

The focus is on three broad areas: around the town of Djoum to the south of the Dja Biosphere Reserve (UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the South Province; villages surrounding Lomié to the east of Dja; and those encircling Deng Deng National Park in the north of the East Province. These areas represent strategic locations to intercept the flow of trafficked goods from within Cameroon as well as Congo, Gabon, and CAR.

From late September to mid October I travelled around these three key areas with two fantastic ZSL colleagues, Samuel Leboh and Simeon Eyebe, who are much more able than I to arrange meetings with villages, as well as local NGOs, representatives from the Ministère des Forêts et de la Faune (MINFOF), and the timber exploitation industry.

Samuel already had a basic idea of where the villages are in these areas and which might be promising to visit, it was just a matter of arranging meetings with each community (Baka, Bantu, and mixed), asking what concerns they have, whether they witness poachers directly or the effects of poaching, what they think of these people, and whether they might be interested in collaborating to produce a way for them to monitor and report such activity. Bantu and Baka groups were met with separately, and meetings with focus groups were also carried out (such as with women’s associations). As this was the first meeting with these communities, any introduction to Sapelli was very rudimentary, ensuring to stress its participative and community-built nature.

To dampen this rather rosy picture however, it must be remembered that community members can be implicit in poaching. An often adopted mental image of wildlife poachers by Westerners is that of a greedy, corrupt official looking to get rich. Whilst I’m sure my colleagues would agree there are many of these, it’s often the case that local Baka and Bantu people find themselves roped in on poaching activities (such as the Baka guiding poachers into the forest) out of financial desperation. Poaching cannot, therefore, be solved purely with supplying evermore ammunition in a ‘defeat the bad guys’ attitude. The security of communities involved in this project must remain paramount throughout.

All in all 16 communities were approached, and the project received a warm response. Indeed, many villages posed such comments as “When will training begin?”, “When do we start?”, and “We will happily welcome the software!”. Of course, and very importantly, there were concerns over using Sapelli too, such as “Would the information stay within Cameroon?”, “Are there disadvantages with using the software?”, and “Will the app burn the village down?”. It’s essential to be honest and discuss possible downsides to communities embracing the project – personal security risks and un-met expectations leading to disillusionment are examples. Indeed, in one Baka village we decided against even mentioning the project due to suspicion towards the project from a neighbouring Bantu community.

The potential power of this kind of approach to tackle both the illegal wildlife trade and indigenous & local community rights abuses is great, though the work done thus far can be considered the easy stage. Working with MINFOF to transcribe Sapelli community data into on-the-ground action will certainly not be a walk in the park.

Simeon (far left), Samuel (stripy t-shirt), myself (far right), and a Baka family
Simeon (far left), Samuel (stripy t-shirt), Fanny (ZSL; blue polo), myself (far right), and a Baka family
Some Baka men being introduced to decision tree icons
Some Baka men being introduced to decision tree icons











Maisels, F. et al. 2013. Devastating decline of forest elephants in Central Africa. PLoS One, 8(3)

Challender, D. et al. 2015. Understanding markets to conserve trade-threatened species in CITES. Biological Conservation, 187

Lewis, J. & Nkuintchua, T. 2012. Accessible technologies and FPIC: Independent monitoring with forest communities in Cameroon. Participatory Learning and Action, 65(13)

Pritchard, J. et al. 2013. Securing community land and resource rights in Africa: A guide to legal reform and best practices. FERN

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