Donatien Amendo, 30, leads a group of 12 men as they leave their tents beside the river Bek early in the morning into one of Boumba Bek National Park clearings in south-east Cameroon.
Amendo abruptly comes to a stop, motioning with his hand for those following to stop. He is watchful as he hears vocal sounds in the distance; then he whispers, “Gorillas.” The team observes while remaining still, as four gorillas travel deeper into the jungle. Amendo has spent three years working in this park, which gets its name from its location between the Boumba and Bek rivers. He can tell from the vocalizations whether the crew will have to deal with poachers or wait for species such as gorillas and elephants to move on. Amendo explains his task:
I am Baka, and I work in the forest with eco-guards to follow the trails of animals. When we spot something ahead of us, we pause to see if someone or an animal is passing by. As we make our way to the watchtower, we note the names of the animals that passed by,
He tells Global Voices, “We have a mastery of the forest and the animals, and can identify the animals from their vocal sounds, their footprints, or their droppings.”
Amendo is one of the native workers on the biomonitoring team, which consists of six eco-guards nationals, five people from the locality, and a World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), employee. Biomonitoring is a system of constant human presence and the use of camera traps to monitor wildlife dynamics. For each group to feel a sense of inclusion in the work done in the park, there are always two indigenous people present — two Bakas and three Bantus — to ensure representation and tap from the local knowledge of the forest people.
In biomonitoring, the significance of the indigenous population is essential. They guide how people act in the forest. They pay close attention and can recognize the type of animal by movement, and also poachers. Ngawa Muna, a forest guard says, that “without them, we are unable to enter the forest, and risk missing our way in some areas.”
Every day at 7:00 a.m., the team departs from the camp for the clearings in order to collect data en route to the watchtower. A cutting-edge system known as the “Permanent Presence Biomonitoring System” is used at the watchtower for biomonitoring and surveillance. An innovative system began in 2017 and was upgraded in 2021 from two weeks to 25–30 days a month after overcoming initial difficulties, which included a lack of resources and few indigenous people and local communities willing to be part of the project. Rene Meigari, park assistant explains, “There is direct and indirect observation and three clearings for animal surveillance using camera traps. Two teams take the relay to ensure information is gathered and analyzed on a monthly basis.”
According to Meigari, the clearings are a zone of animal concentration where they congregate to find food and reproduce. The team keeps track of the animals they see, their arrival times, various kinds, and animal behavior in the observation tower. Since not all animals enter the clearings, they are recognized by their vocalizations, and camera traps are employed to view other creatures. Meigari adds:
As a zone with a high concentration of animals, it is tempting to poachers; keeping the zone secured through constant presence monitoring contributes to deterring poachers and to the growth or stabilization of wildlife.
There has been a noticeable drop in poaching and a gradual increase in the frequency of wildlife visits to the clearings, as evidenced by data from bio-monitoring and surveillance analyzed from firsthand observations and imagery from camera traps,”
Meigari says that between 2017 and 2021, the number of wildlife visits in Boumba Bek grew from 8,562 to 10,402, demonstrating a feeling of safety: “From 2017 to 2021, poaching and other unlawful human activities drastically decreased, with the number of instances falling from 18 to 0. There are currently no indications of any illicit human activity within or close to the clearings.”
The livelihood and overall well-being of the Baka and Bantu populations have improved since taking part in the conservation of the park, as they have a reliable source of income that deters them from engaging in poaching. More locals are now taking part in the biomonitoring program, moving from 28 in 2017 to 60 in 2021, according to Meigari.
Pressure on the park
Boumba Bek National Park comprising 238,000 hectares, and situated in three divisions, Yokadouma, Salapoumbe, and Mouloundou, is rich in wildlife: elephants, buffalos, leopards, chimpanzees, gorillas, and other smaller animals.
Securing the various sites can enable the different pools of animal concentration to be secured, and the presence of eco-guards dissuades poachers from the park. However, the challenge is to extend to the remaining 27 clearings. Meigari says there are 30 clearings and that if teams were installed on all the sites, the protected area would be fully occupied.
Boumba Bek is a protected area that has very limited means to carry out its activities. Meigari says there is pressure on the park, as it lacks the necessary finances to guard the entire area:
To get to the park from Yokadouma requires fuel, feeding, and finances for the team and their families. Also lacking, is material to track down poachers, camera traps and vehicles, GPS, and train eco-guards to be operational, build a better camp and this requires a lot of money.
The southern part, limited by the River Bek, is not inhabited by humans and thus there is less pressure on the park. The river is a blessing as it keeps poachers away. But, the northern part is closer to the village and is subjected to pressure from the population who get in to hunt for food, says Meigari. He spoke of the need for additional staff to meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (UICN) standard of one eco-guard per five hectares, given that presently, one eco-guard covers 10 hectares. The management is trying to encourage cordial relations with the local communities by engaging the population in activities that generate interest and provide them with benefits from the park.
Future of Boumba Bek
Boumba Bek National Park, established in 2005 by order of the Prime Minister, could be saved from poaching in its northern region if the government invests in ecotourism. Georges K. Azangue, an official in the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife and Boumba Bek Conservator pleads with the central government to “build eco-lodges and roads to allow visitors to see animals in a conducive setting.”
Although there is a plan to create the park's entrance road, for the time being, management is working with concessions around the park exploiting timber, and other partners, to make the road that already exists motorable. WWF as the technical partner supports the park through ecological monitoring and the fight against poaching. Additionally, the government is developing a national program of protected areas in Cameroon which, Azangue suggests, will be advantageous to Boumba Bek as a protected area.