Indigenous Baka hunters vs. The illegal wildlife trade

“Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money” (Plains Sioux Native American)

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It’s important to remain optimistic about conservation and inspire people to effect change, but the facts must first be acknowledged: over the past 40 years, 58% of Earth’s vertebrate wildlife has been lost. That means that if you were born in 1970, all of the species that you see around you today only make up 42% of what existed at your birth. There is scientific support to not only declare that we have entered a new manmade geological age, the Anthropocene, but have also initiated the 6th Mass Extinction Event, the 5th being the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Of the key threats identified as responsible for this elimination of animal populations, overexploitation is one to note. In Central Africa, overhunting of forest species – especially forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, and pangolins – in an incredibly well-planned and efficient commercial international wildlife trade, is emptying the Congo Basin rainforests, the second largest after the Amazon. In Minkébé National Park, northern Gabon, previously regarded as an elephant stronghold, numbers have declined by 80% over 10 years. That’s 25,000 individual elephants and 50-100+ hunted per day.

And that’s just elephants. But probably enough negative stats for now.

Back in Cameroon, I’m again working alongside local colleagues from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to develop an app through which forest communities can report and monitor illegal wildlife activity. This is not a top-down effort; we’ve visited each community and held meetings, focus groups, and consultations to find out exactly what issues each is facing, and how they want to use the app, if at all, to tackle these. Indigenous Baka communities should be conservation’s key allies, yet they have been forced out of their forest and treated as part of the problem rather than the solution. Read this post for a quick rundown of the project.

My ZSL colleagues, supervisor from UCL (the brilliant Jerome Lewis) and I have just returned from an area south of the Dja Biosphere Reserve, around the town of Djoum. As the communities themselves decide what they’d like to report and monitor using the app, we went back and forth to the 2 indigenous Baka hunter-gatherer villages and 1 Bantu farming village repeatedly to share ideas, listen to problems they might have with the software, and test out different icons. Interestingly, it was largely not the icons of poachers and animals which villagers found confusing, but rather the cancel icon (red cross), confirm (green tick), and forwards and backwards arrows. This makes perfect sense when you live in a rainforest.

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Example of a decision screen

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To my surprise, we found both mobile network and data connection in all three villages visited. In the forest! This will make the job a lot easier; records will be able to send without having to climb a moabi tree.

Building up trust with communities is central to having any hope of success. They need to know we’re not just another NGO passing through to make big promises, perhaps building a toilet block someone in New York decided they needed, and never returning. So, we stayed overnight with 2 villages. Both were very hospitable, with one showering us with as much fish, rice, papaya, bananas, pineapple, and cacao pods as we could eat. Sitting around the fire talking with Baka elders about how their grandfathers used to hunt elephants in the forest with spears was a rather unique experience. This Baka village is a strange mix between old forest tradition and the 21st century. One man, who owns a mobile phone and wears similar clothes to mine own, revealed his ancient culture persisting: “I came across a gorilla in the forest. A huge gorilla. And thought it was a grandfather. It was big and I thought it was a grandfather. I saw after a while that it was not a grandfather, it was a gorilla. It started approaching and banging on trees aggressively, and so I started cutting branches, waving and throwing them, and shouted until it moved on”.

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It can be tough having to spend weeks in a country you don’t really understand, don’t speak the language, eating what you’re given, being hot and sweaty most of the time, and getting constant attention and comments because of being white. But the positives also stack up: excellent music (like this and also this from Guinée), fried plantains, beautiful forest. Cameroonians are a friendly and happy bunch (Bantu and Baka alike), even in situations with great food insecurity and endless corruption. One boy asked me for money to buy some deep-fried beignet (a rare occasion). After my declining, he merrily replied “d’accord”, and trotted down the street.

But the best positive is the rewarding nature of the work. As part of completing the initial free, prior, and informed consent process, we test the community members who are keen to take part on what the possible advantages of the project will be for them:

“If the records get registered we will be very happy. This will give us control over the forest”

“This will strengthen us to monitor the forest ourselves. To be part of it and show we are not lazy”

“It’s our life, we live in the forest. We can watch over it. It’s our forest, and other people benefit from it”

“We would like our children to see these animals long into the future”

Just being given the chance to have a say in the future of their forest (let’s remember the Baka have lived successfully in these forests for at least 70,000 years), not even a promise of action yet but the very act of consulting them, brings much joy and gratitude and reminds me of why this is the only way conservation here will work.

Gaining the trust of communities leads to much more open and frank discussions. Through this, and engaging with law enforcement officers, it’s clear that the level of corruption is severe, with the very people responsible for trialing poachers and overseeing the process sometimes at the head of organising such activity. Tactics will therefore have to involve the collection of hard evidence by communities (the eyes and ears), accumulating this, and taking it the bosses of the bosses with a healthy dose of international pressure.

But in any case, the focus for now is to get the technology slick and discuss the final details with the communities, after-which we can introduce the phones, get reports streaming in, and reinstate indigenous rights whilst securing the biodiversity of Cameroon at the same time! (Good to remain optimistic, right?)

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