The continuous survival of one of the world’s most endangered wildlife species, the Nigerian Cameroon Chimpanzee also known as the Pantroglodytes elliotti will remain a myth if strict measures are not put in place to halt an exacerbating rate of Trans boundary poaching currently going on in some forest reserves the Bamenda Highlands. According the Northwest Regional Delegate for Forestry and wildlife, Ms. Mbah Grace, as long as people continue eating bush meat, poaching will always be there but what is bugging Cameroon’s authorities of forestry and wildlife is the high rate of trans boundary poaching in the Bamenda Highlands that has seen the population of the world’s most endangered subspecies of chimpanzee, the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee dwindled in the last ten years. ‘The bigger problem is that of trans boundary.
Highly skilled poachers sneak into Cameroon from Nigeria to hunt the chimps in large numbers and unlike small scale hunters in Cameroon who can be tracked down by our patrol units, monitoring such illegal activities is difficult because they poach and take to markets in Nigeria’. Ms. Mbah told this Reporter that most of the Poachers come from Nigeria’s Benue state and they come to the Ako-Mbembe reserve and part of the Fungom reserve, all sites hosting the Nigeria Cameroon Chimpanzees. Some of the poachers also come through Furuawa on the borders and given the rugged and enclave nature of the terrain, getting these poachers is not so evident. She hinted that her Ministry has had trans boundary meetings with Nigerians but admitted that the alarming trans boundary poaching facing the chimpanzees of the Bamenda Highlands could be attributed to the fact that as of now there is no established functional trans boundary platform for the Benue region as compared to other Chimpanzee sites like the Takamanda and Kagwene Parks. She looks forward to a day that Cameroon can sign a convention with Nigeria to see how to stop trans boundary poaching.
Research indicates that the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is the least studied and most endangered subspecies of chimpanzee and less than 50 are in sanctuaries and rescue centers. Of the four subspecies, it has the smallest geographic distribution and lowest estimated total population size, with approximately 3,500 to 9,000 individuals remaining in the wild. The vulnerability of Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee has also worsened by habitat fragmentation. Statistics from the Regional Delegation of Forestry and Wildlife estimate a more than 40% reduction of one of the main forest, the Ako-mbembe forest, hosting the species. Another forest patch, the newly created Kimbi-Fongom National Park, has witnessed high levels of encroachments in recent times.
This is unsurprisingly so given the Northwest region of Cameroon forms the heart of the Bamenda Highlands, an area known to support one of the highest levels of human population densities in Cameroon, with approximately 100–250 people km-2. Consequently, the conversion of forest to pasture and agriculture has been dramatic and widespread, and the landscape has changed considerably over the last century, with just a few fragmented forests remaining that hold only remnants of their previous primate assemblages. Naturally, chimpanzee densities have become extremely low and Ms. Mbah explained that even though no biological surveys have been conducted to estimate the population of the ellioti chimp in the Bamenda Higlands, the reduction in population is evident from reduced encounter rates, dung and nests.
It was in the light of all these challenges facing the conservation of the Nigeria Cameroon Chimp that in 2011, delegates from Nigeria and Cameroon met and drew a Regional Action Plan, some of the main objectives being to foster anti-poaching patrols, create corridors linking chimpanzee sanctuaries and uplifting the status of some protected areas. Thus, the Ministry of Forestry in frantic efforts to protect the remaining population of the P.t ellioti has been carrying out law enforcement, anti-poaching patrols and also giving some of the areas a higher protected status, such as the Ako-Mbembe which moved from a mere forest reserve into a Forest Management Unit. Similarly, the Fungom forest reserve and the Kimbi game reserve have been merged to form a National Park with a corridor linking them and an extension along the borders of Nigeria with a conservator, more eco-guards and more activities being planned.
The Ministry has also been engaging forest adjacent communities through forest management committees which work closely with conservators to discuss issues surrounding management. However diehard hunters some who spoke to this Reporter on condition of anonymity say, saying goodbye to hunting is saying goodbye to their livelihoods and unless they can be provided with meaningful and sustainable alternative sources of livelihood, quitting hunting will be difficult.
Against this backdrop, a local non-profit dubbed sustainable Run for Development (SURUDEV) is initiating some development initiatives to help turn the people away from the forest. Through a project christened ‘Habitat Restoration of the Kom-Wum forest for the Conservation of the Nigeria Cameroon Chimpanzee’ this NGO is working with the forest adjacent communities by providing them with alternative livelihood and enrichment of the forest with chimp nesting trees. The Executive Director of SURUDEV, Kari Jackson urged Cameroonians to be more friendly to conservation, explaining our wildlife forms part of our national patrimony and our heritage and it will be a shame if we loose everything.
In Ms. Mbah Grace’s words God created the world and gave it an ecological balance, ‘when we kill the wildlife, it will affect us individually because there are some seeds that have to pass through the canals of an animal before they can germinate’. She added that if the wildlife is properly managed, the tourism industry will boom and highlighted that it will be a shame if all these chimp go extinct one day and we will be telling the future generations that there used to be chimps in the Northwest as we say today that there used to be lions.
By Regina Fonjia Leke, Environmental Journalist