It’s been a year since we first visited five communities in the rainforest in south-east Cameroon.
Two of these are indigenous Baka hunter-gatherer villages, the other three being Bantu farmers. Almost no-one in these villages had used a smartphone before, indeed many of the community members had never even seen one (they don’t come around often in the rainforest). It’s quite amazing that after a handful of meetings, training sessions, and field-trials, all of these communities are not only successfully and independently reporting wildlife crime using smartphones, but taking photos, audio clips, and GPS points!
There is a considerable amount of skepticism from scientists and organisations on the ability of local and indigenous communities to contribute valuable data and act as collaborators, rather than recipients (or obstructions), of conservation programs. For the most part, this is based on a perceived lack of technological capabilities and ecological and holistic knowledge. To say this is a misinformed approach is an understatement; such communities are proving their technological abilities time and time again, their ecological knowledge directly inherited from generations of accumulated environmental interactions. If you’re a quantitative person, the data says it all: 144 reports have been independently taken since June 2017, including 71 photos and 31 audio recordings, directly contributing to anti-poaching efforts.
Re-visiting the communities again on this trip has been as enjoyable as ever. They are clearly both delighted and shocked by our commitment to them, exclaiming “Simon! You’ve come back! How is London?!”, followed by a long series of hugs. Despite several people’s fears that the phones would get stolen or mistreated, every phone and solar panel is in perfect condition – quite remarkable considering they’ve been taken around the rainforest for three months.
Three new communities have began the process of joining the project, after introductory meetings with six. Only those who mention outsiders hunting and trafficking animals in their forest are considered; the project is not to be forced upon any community or initiated where it is irrelevant. One of these new communities is far along a small mud track, quite isolated from town- and city-dwellers, yet they told us of outsiders coming in with lanterns and stealing their resources from the forest. This Baka community has clearly maintained a strong connection to the forest, repeating how the forest is “our father and mother” and telling stories of visiting chimps and gorillas. They expressed their anger and outrage over the designation of a ‘community forest’ for them to utilise; “This does not make sense to us” they said. Cameroon’s 1994 Plan de Zonage, fencing off chunks of land to be allocated to forest and mining concessions, agriculture, protected areas, and community forests, has resulted in forced relocations for Baka hunter-gatherers to the roadsides.
Technologically-speaking, an interesting event occurred. Whilst re-training a couple of guys in one village as to which icon category to press in order to find specific icons, I asked them “What is this category for?”. They were confused by this and answered incorrectly for almost all of the categories. I found this bizarre as these guys had already sent accurate reports on their own. I rephrased the question, “Where would you go if you wanted to report a poacher’s cabin, for example?”. They immediately pressed the correct icon category and found the icon in question.
Jerome Lewis, my supervisor at UCL, told me of the difficulty for such forest hunter-gatherer groups to recognise the idea of things within things invisible at first (folders, files, categories). Most things in the forest are either there or they’re not. The experience shows that those two guys remember where the icons they want are; the icons for each icon category, though often the same as those for icons inside, are considered almost a meaningless entry point.
With law enforcement currently the bottleneck to action taking place based on community reports, an insight into the mind of a Ministry Chef de Poste was very welcome. This came in the form of a baby chimpanzee. His mother had been shot and he was chained up in a trafficker’s house, up for sale in the illegal pet trade. We received information about the baby chimp from a local businessman who had been made an offer to buy the chimp. After various phone calls, texts, and group talks, we approached the local ministry officer, responsible for illegal wildlife crime. Corruption is the primary issue to effective wildlife law enforcement in Central Africa, and the official had a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Most interestingly, his primary reservation was fear of reprisal from the community holding the chimp – he would be seen to be at war with local people, despite this being his job. He called a colleague down the road to deal with it. After several days of no updates, we decided to contact the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), a law enforcement NGO in Cameroon with a reputation of getting things done. I wasn’t sure at this point whether the baby chimp had been sold off, or even killed, but finally we received a message: “Thank you for your information. The trafficker has been taken away. The baby chimp is enroute to a sanctuary”. A shame that it took an Israeli NGO to take action, rather than the Ministry’s own wildlife crime officers, but an incredible and rare success story none the less. The baby chimp has been named Farah, and is now in the excellent Mefou Primate Sanctuary, run by Ape Action Africa. You can see a video of his arrival below, and donate to the sanctuary here.