A closer look at our Primate Conservation Project in Cameroon from one of our dedicated volunteers
Project Story: Primate Conservation in Cameroon
20 January 2014
I am now back in Europe, sitting at my desk, and 5000 kilometers from Cameroon. Still, my thoughts are occupied by my volunteer experience. Possessing a passion for primates and desire for adventure, I arrived in Douala to a warm welcome. Over the next few days, the volunteer project coordinator provided an orientation to the amazing conservation work. I soon met the Field Biologist, who then guided me from Buea to our ultimate objective – working with rural villagers to protect gorillas and chimpanzees.
My experience was “authentic” Cameroon. We travelled many hours by bus and then by motorbike to reach the Besali village bordering the Tufala Forest. The villagers immediately gave me a warm reception which lasted my entire stay. Staying in our Field Guide’s house allowed me to feel like part of the community and his family. Although I was eager to journey into the bush to begin the biomonitoring, I knew we had other critical work first.
I had the opportunity to discuss conservation with the villagers. However, the children and adults required a different approach. The schoolchildren crowded into a room and permitted us to speak about the importance of primates in maintaining a healthy forest, and to explain that these animals are gentle, shy and not a danger. The hope is these children will share their learnings with their parents. I also had the honor to tell my ‘story’ – to explain my motivation for visiting their forest because of my desire to ensure future generations are able to study and enjoy primates. In return, the children taught me the local words for gorillas (chimunga) and chimpanzee (bokum). I also was able to participate in the Women’s Association meeting. Here, we discussed creating a village bakery that would provide an alternate income source instead of an arduous trek into the forest that yields minimal revenue over the years (yet, destroys the forest). The women understandably face challenges with changing their current behavior, but all seemed extremely interested in the bakery as a way to increase their income (and reduce impact on forest, and its primate inhabitants).
We then trekked into the bush, which was an incredible mental and physical challenge. I am grateful to both the Biologist and local Field Guide for their enthusiasm and guidance to ensure I remained safe and provided valuable input to the biomonitoring program. We quickly settled into a routine of a hearty breakfast before walking up the steep and muddy hills and then down the steep and muddy hills. And up...and down...and up! My heart would pound with excitement each time we found signs that a gorilla had feasted on a plantain plant or that the chimpanzees had arranged beds of leaves.
Perhaps my primate friends were nearby? And we heard the chimps throwing stones and vocalizing to each other many times. Once, while we sat quietly, we heard a cross-river gorilla walk near pounding his chest. We dutifully recorded each of these signs along with GPS coordinate and other pertinent information. The days were hot and I needed to keep my concentration on each slippery step so I could make it back to camp for a hot meal and refreshing shower in the waterfall, even when our Field Guide was excited by the black mamba snake on the trail. The biologist told me I was “lucky” (as they are very rare to see); I smiled and wondered if “lucky” has a different meaning in Cameroon, or at least to someone very afraid of snakes.
After a few days of biomonitoring, we had to leave our forest home and return to the village where we entered the information into a database. I was able to spend some more time saying goodbye to the wonderful people of the Besali village and return to Buea for a final debrief, as well as a trip to the Limbe primate sanctuary to check in on some of the gorillas and chimpanzees which were unlucky in their encounters with poachers and losing their families. Now, I have my pictures and videos, as well as my experiences, to share with my friends and colleagues in a hope that they too will understand the importance of primate conservation in Cameroon.