By Jemini Pandya
WWF Forests for life campaign
Villagers around Cameroon's Lobeke National Park speak of a time when there were so many animals they literally found their supper on their doorsteps. Now they have to go deep into the forests. It is perhaps this fact more than any other that is helping to convince them not to poach. Lobeke, Cameroon: The scale of poaching in Cameroon's Lobeke National Park is enormous. It is the thriving market for bush meat that is the driving force behind the problem. For many, bush meat is a way of life here. Go into any restaurant in the area and if some kind of bush meat isn't on the menu, then one is bound to hear customers asking for it. Protected species such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees are prized, but illegal, pieces of meat. But the menu also includes monkey, antelope and crocodile.
Although the meat is a delicacy as far away as the capital Yaounde, the villages and logging camps in the region itself are the important bush meat markets. They are served by commercial poachers who largely come from elsewhere in Cameroon and from the neighbouring Republic of Congo. The most active poaching is the trans-boundary trade between Cameroon, the Congo Republic and the Central African Republic with the River Sangha that divides them, providing good cover for traffickers. Alongside bush meat, there is the smuggling of arms as well as ivory.
The guns, which come from strife-ridden Congo where they are easily available, are sold to Cameroonian poachers. The arms largely pass via a logging road from Socambo, on the border with the Congo Republic. Guards at the checkpoints say it is this road which facilitates access to south Lobeke for the big commercial poachers. They find large quantities of bush meat hidden underneath the logs while arms are stashed under the driver and passenger seats. The link between the logging companies and the bush meat and arms trade cannot be underestimated. Drivers of logging trucks work with the poachers, while some workers at logging camps are said to be directly involved in poaching themselves. But stamping out such widespread poaching means having effective surveillance and patrolling. Until nearly three years ago, the Cameroon Ministry of Environment and Forests (MINEF) had no forest guards at its disposal. Now there are 20, paid for by the conservation organization WWF.
They are supposed to cover an area of 2.3 million hectares - more than 100,000 hectares per forest guard. But, their employment is a big step forward and represents a huge investment and commitment by WWF to the region. "Many more forest guards are needed if the wildlife is to be protected, said Dandjouma Mboh, Head of MINEF Wildlife and Protected Areas section. He calculates he needs one forest guard with motorized transport for every ten hectares for truly effective patrolling. "The lack of personnel is our greatest liability," he says. However, the general feeling is that the guards are having a deterrent effect on the poachers. "We are still seizing bush meat today, but the numbers have definitely gone down," says forest guard Achille Mossus Djende. "We can see how among local poachers, morale is now low." Guards, sport hunting guides and villagers alike say they are beginning to see more animals and fewer people inside the forests than before. In the first ten months of their work, the forest guards seized 3,000 kilogrammes of bush meat, 52 ivory tusks and released nearly 6,000 parrots caught by trappers at Lobeke. All this and the seizures in the years since, have often been achieved in the face of danger. Many poachers are armed but the guards aren't.
They say it is galling to see poachers given only verbal warnings instead of jail sentences when they have arrested them while looking down the barrel of a gun. Surveillance and patrolling isn't the only tactic. Education campaigns are key to preventing poaching, and WWF and partners, have been taking the message to the grass root level for several years now. This includes explaining to villagers the long-term impact of poaching on them and that their participation in anti-poaching activities is vital. "They now tell us when poachers are in their area, especially if they are from outside the region," says Dandjouma. One way of not alienating the villagers has been to allow subsistence hunting to continue.
A few small antelopes or monkeys a week will pay for such essential commodities as soap, salt or petrol. What isn't sold is eaten. Only meat from protected species is confiscated. Alternative sources of income, such as poultry farming, are being introduced and negotiations are also underway with some logging companies to sell other kinds of meat in their camps such as beef, chicken or pork in a bid to wipe out the bush meat market. Finally, some logging companies, such as the French firm SIBAF, have also promised to sack any employees caught transporting bush meat or guns. If all other companies followed suit and the link between the logging industry and poaching was cut for good, then a difference will really have been made. *Jemini Pandya is a freelance journalist/photographer commissioned by the WWF Forests for Life Campaign.