The future is African

The whole basis of my work in Cameroon, and of the work that ExCiteS does, is to empower local communities, enabling them to have a say in conservation.

For me, this means consulting with Baka hunter-gatherer and Bantu farming communities who reside inside and nearby the rainforests of the Congo Basin, asking these community members themselves as to what their imminent issues are and whether our data collection and reporting app Sapelli might be of use.

Promoting this essential idea of community participation is best done by other local people. This means that well-trained local people with experience in social and environmental anthropology are essential for sustainable resource-use and effective conservation in Africa. Unfortunately, local people who tick this box is far too few. Aiming to change this, however, is the Centre of Social Excellence, based both in Cameroon and Indonesia.

The inspiring, beautifully made, and highly informative film below explains their work and the importance of training African leaders for the future of their continent.


“The gorillas are eating our bananas”

The second and final part of this Cameroonian voyage has taken us to another reserve – Deng Deng National Park (see posts below for a catch-up).

But first we travelled from Yaoundé (the capital) to Lomié, a small town to the east of the Dja Biosphere Reserve (DBR). On our last trip a couple of weeks ago we visited indigenous Baka and farming Bantu forest communities to the south of DBR, but thought we could also try our luck to the east.

Choosing to work in the rainforest comes with some inevitable annoyances – it rains everyday once or twice and often really heavy, meaning that getting to some communities is pretty tough (even in the ZSL 4×4); there’s mosquitoes eating you all day as well as lots of other little plasma-sucking, blood-curdling, wasps-as-big-as-your-thumb flying things; there’s almost always only one meal on offer at the local eatery, so you either eat it or fall back on your secret supply of delicious but horribly sweet Boost bars from Sainbury’s.

In Lomié most of these were true, and we were two hours late for a meeting with a Bantu community due to heavy rain and pools of mud to cross through the forest. They weren’t too impressed. To be fair, everyone’s late to everything here, but I think two hours was slightly overdoing it… The other two communities we visited though were interested in our idea of developing an app with them through which they can monitor and report poaching in the forest (one applauded after my speech about the app, and the other erupted into song and dance).

A rewarding moment occurred when sitting outside the hotel and local guy starting trying to talk with me in English. After a bit of the ol’ chit chat, he turned to me said “I’m very happy”. I replied “What are you happy about?”. “I’m very happy that you Englishman are here in Cameroon. That you have come to our country.”

We headed north to Bertoua, the capital of the East Region in Cameroon, where we met up with Virginia, a Spanish woman working for a French NGO who knows the Deng Deng region well. She warned my ZSL colleagues and I that this would not be easy – in terms of poaching all the villages are in on it, they don’t care about conservation, and the local law enforcement does nothing. Interesting.

Over the next three days we arranged and carried out meetings with five Bantu communities around the national park. These went surprisingly well with concerns including help with reporting illegal activity and gorillas raiding their banana crops; I was half expecting the villagers to either fall asleep, walk out, or reject everything we were saying about conservation, but actually they were quite engaged. However this might have just been because we had an eco-guard with us, who’s job it is to protect the park and stop illegal activity. In any case, they prepared feasts of fish, manioc wrapped in banana leaves, and rice for us and we will likely go back and revisit at least a couple of the villages to work on developing the anti-poaching app. It’s easy to think of poachers as horrible people who don’t care about anyone or anything, however the villagers we met here were perfectly friendly and poaching not because they hate wildlife but because they have find themselves in an exceptionally difficult situation through which selling bushmeat can provide an answer.


A key problem here is that we do not want villages, which lie very close to one another, to report each other for poaching. It’s easy to see how this would result in conflict between villages and only worsen relationships which should be being strengthened for networking. Given that they all poach, the reporting would have to be of outsiders to all the communities, though as to how these would be identified is tricky.

Additionally, the villages around Deng Deng are in an increasingly uncertain situation. The park itself was created in 2010 as compensation for the huge hydroelectic dam constructed nearby. I’m all for renewables, of course they are the future (and should be the present) of energy, but hydroelectic dams do bring huge environmental costs – costs to ecosystems and species which are aiming to be saved by reducing climate change through building hydroelectric dams (see the irony). And this one has flooded a huge area of primary rainforest, which is now being grossly overfished by an influx of 10,000 people from neighbouring countries, who also chop down the forest to smoke the fish, getting ever closer to the ground of Great Apes, to whom they could spread diseases. Difficult for villages though is that they are trapped between this national park (no hunting, gathering or fishing), and other managed zones (forest management units and community forests), severely restricting their space for farming.

As an incredible highlight, and important reminder of why we are doing this work at all, we stumbled across two gorillas crossing the forest path one evening


Over the 13 communities we have visited in total over the last month, we’ll now need to decide which to work with. As I am working for ExCiteS, the UCL research group developing an app to empower marginalized communities to engage in conservation, my priority is to work with the indigenous Baka groups. Talking to them over the past month has been both inspiring and saddening, but I remain confident that based on their openness to work with us, we can restore at least a tiny bit of their pride, confidence, and governance over the forests of their ancestors. But for now, back to London.

Forest peoples, cow skin soup, and extreme citizen science

The indigenous Baka hunter-gatherers of Cameroon represent one of the oldest lineages of the human species. They are members of a central African group often referred to as ‘Pygmies’ due to their short stature, with recent genomic studies finding a lack of genes known to result in tallness in Europeans, as well as genes enabling the Baka to neutralise and digest harmful plant toxins found in central African rainforests¹.

Having inhabited the Congo Basin for such an extended period, the Baka have incredibly in-depth and diverse indigenous knowledge of the geography of these forests and the myriad species which survive here². Most Baka people now live near to roads interweaving the forest, within short distances from Bantu farmers settlements, largely a result of being forced out of the forest by the government’s National Zoning Plan (handing large parts of forest over for logging and mining concessions), and to create people-free conservation reserves. That’s right, there is a dark side to some conservation NGOs³.

The rich local knowledge the Baka have accumulated over thousands of years, as well as the continuous marginalisation and abuse they suffer from the authorities and Bantu farmers makes them perfect partners to develop a way in which they can take back some control in the use and monitoring of their ancestral lands. Technically they have hunting exceptions through so-called ‘users rights’ and can enter ‘community forests’, but these can be small areas, not necessarily in the same regions as ancestral hunting grounds, and indeed the Baka are sometimes targeted as illegal hunters none-the-less. Enter ExCiteS.

Last week, four ZSL colleagues and I travelled to the Dja Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Cameroon to try and identify villages  who might be interested in working with us in participatory mapping and reporting of illegal poaching. This area suffers severely from the illegal wildlife trade, including the hunting of gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, pangolins, and pythons. Samuel, the social officer, already had a good idea of where different villages were which we could approach – a total of 8 including both Baka and Bantu, as well as those with both Baka and Bantu. Important to remember is that Bantu villages also rely heavily on forest resources and so suffer from illegal activity and restricted users rights.

In order to set up meetings with each community, we started by greeting the chief of each village, introducing ourselves, and arranging a date a time to return. Meeting five village chiefs on the first day one after another, one involving spontaneous dancing, was for sure an interesting experience… (the chief below insisted that I share his chair at the front).


Communities were generally very interested and listened intently as we discussed village characteristics, livelihoods, subsistence, associations etc. We had to be careful when introducing the ExCiteS anti-poaching technology, as local people are not necessarily completely against such short-term benefits. This was judged by inquiring as to how often they go into the forest, what resources they exploit, how species abundances have varied, and what their thoughts are on any outsiders entering the forests. Fortunately, almost all of the villages recognised a problem with outsiders (poachers) entering the forest, and queried as to how they can take more control. One Bantu village had concerns over who to report on, and the neighbouring Baka village could not be approached about the app due to marginalisation by the Bantus. If things went well though, the meeting would end with the community keen to take part and awaiting our next move.


Some Baka expressed very vocally as to how they have been promised many things by NGOs in the past and never heard another word. This was particularly difficult to answer as we too will unlikely be able to work with every village, but even for those we felt strongly that we’d like to revisit, making concrete promises is definitely a bad idea. In the end the only thing we could do is reassure them that we’ll return (to those selected), and that will be the evidence of our commitment.

Over the next week of meeting more communities, greeting local authorities, eating endless ndole, maize mash, and mysterious meat (including cow-skin soup), and enduring Britney Spears playlists (that was unexpected), we visited all 8 communities and had made some valuable contacts (there’s also some great local music like this and this). Now we’ll need to decide which to re-visit next time and continue the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) process before the app is introduced.


What sticks in my mind the most was talking to the Baka communities (through two translators). Sitting around their small round houses made of leaves, mud, and branches and hearing their stories of how they use the forest, how they’re so bitterly angry with outsiders taking their resources, how they often work for Bantu farmers for little pay and poor treatment, but yet greet us warmly and share a smile and laugh certainly inspires a lot of hope in me. In one village children were crying as they saw me, likely the first white person they’ve ever seen, and adults were nervous, but on leaving we shared a roar of laughter as I hit my head on the roof of their tiny shelter.


1. Jarvis et al. 2012
2. Betti, 2004
3. Hoyte, 2016

Why, What, When, How, Pizza


To get you quickly up to speed:

I’m working as a researcher with the Extreme Citizen Science Research Group (ExCiteS) at University College London (UCL), who:

“bring together scholars from diverse fields to develop and contribute to the guiding theories, tools and methodologies that will enable any community to start a Citizen Science project to deal with issues that concern them. With an interdisciplinary research approach we aim to provide any user, regardless of their background or literacy level, with a set of tools that can be used to collect, analyse and act on information according to agreed upon scientific methods”

The current project is in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), working in the southeastern rainforests of Cameroon. In this region the grossly marginalised Baka hunter-gatherers are in conflict with poachers who are rapidly depleting the forest resources and biodiversity (including chimpanzees, gorillas, pangolins, and pythons) which the Baka rely on. Local Bantu farming peoples also rely on such forest resources. Our aim is to create an app, called Sapelli, which will empower the indigenous peoples and local communities (ILCs) to report illegal wildlife trade activities, based entirely on what the communities want to report, and how they want the information they collect to be used – this is participatory monitoring. The app has already been trialed in the Congo.


Borders in general are not particularly great places to be. African boarders must be surely some of the most sketchy in the world, and my experiences in Mozambique and Zimbabwe have more than earned this title. Cameroon, however, was much more positive. “You are welcome” is what greeted me from the boarder guard after checking my passport. A good start.

Yaounde is expectedly hectic, with insane drivers and people all over the streets throughout the day and night. The ZSL office is in a weird, slightly-gradeoise building, that looks like it might have housed an elderly, powerful woman at some point. The staff are great and very knowledgeable, all of whom are Cameroonian bar three. Unfortunately the wi-fi is not quite up to the same standard (except in my excellent hotel room).
Slightly less expected was the quanity of pizza. I’ve only been in Yaounde itself for 3 days and already had the same number of pizzas (one good, one bad, and one which could not be called a pizza). This has mainly been when eating with the ZSL staff so perhaps they’re trying to settle me in gradually.

In terms of the work, so far its just been many many meetings so not too much to share. The staff here are certainly keen to see if our anti-poaching app (called Sapelli) could work here and have christened me as the ‘ExCiteS expert’, insisting that I take ‘VIP’ rooms and get cheuffered everywhere.

When we try and meet with Baka and Bantu forest communities around the Dja Biosphere Reserve next week, that’ll be when we can really get an idea of whether the project might work or not. It has to be done very carefully though; it’s not just the ‘bad guys’ from outside communities that are engaged in poaching, but also those from within communities and indeed other bodies who are supposed to be protecting wildlife. The illegal wildlife trade can provide short-term economic benefits to local people even if the long-term losses are far more severe. So, turning up and declaring we’ve come to help them stop the people who are stealing away their livelihoods (in terms of forest resources) isn’t guaranteed to always go down swimmingly. At this stage, therefore, our aims are centred on understanding community relationships, community issues, and building community trust.

‘Community Surveillence Networks’ (CSNs) are systems set up by ZSL already in various communities whereby community members can report any poaching activities they witness in the forests their villages encircle by ringing ZSL using a coded identity, afterwhich ZSL will notify the relevant law-enforcement authorities (namely la Ministre de Foret et de la Faun). CSNs may act as a stepping-stone for seeking out communities which are keen to be involved with Sapelli. Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs), another scheme set up by ZSL where villages can meet together once a week to create a savings system, may well also act as a priceless platform through which to get communities together to discuss ideas of forest resources, monitoring, and using Sapelli.


To get a look at how these VSLAs work in person, Samuel (social officer), Simeon (community coordinator), and I went over to Lake Ossa in the west of Cameroon (next to the Gulf of Guinea) where the ZSL team there have been working on this. The lake is gigantic and well-fished by locals as a primary means of sustenance, though additionally relying on palm fruit and oil from the ever-expanding palm-oil plantations around the area. As well as attending calm and not-so-calm meetings with communities and chiefs (in French), we also got some time off to explore the lake and eat some amazing fried plantains (and not so amazing bitter-kola nuts)


Human evolution: the discipline that can save the biosphere


Understanding where we fit into the natural world and how, rather than rising above it, we depend on it like every other species, is a sobering realisation achieved through archaeological and anthropological research.

I recently wrote two articles for the Nature blog ‘Eyes on Environment’ arguing that this psychological revolution could be the only way to save the biosphere and ultimately, ourselves:

Part I

Part II

Comments encouraged

Carpets of artefacts, mountains of baboons


I must admit, I’ve slept in some pretty adventurous places…

And although I love spending the night on top of Mayan jungle temples and on Nicaraguan volcano-islands, I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer to sleep in the middle of a baboon hangout. But, for archaeology, anything….

I have arrived at my final few weeks in South Africa, but it has definitely not slowed down. It has in fact done the exact opposite. Since arriving back in January it has been almost non-stop excavations and surveying, from 500,000 year-old hominins on the shores looking out to Table Mountain, to rock-art searching in the beautiful Cederberg mountains, to Late Stone Age human burials in residential Cape Town, to trekking through the rivers and mountains of South Africa’s semi-desert: the Tankwa Karoo.

Here’s a brief impression of our time in the Tankwa Karoo in search of stone tools…

I was lucky enough to be invited to explore this incredibly beautiful yet very strange landscape in the hunt for tools made by humans both recent(ish) and ancient. Emily Hallinan, a PhD student with Cambridge, has been working in an area east of the Cederberg mountains for a little while now and recruited University of Cape Town collaborator Matt Shaw, as well as another UCT student and myself to venture through the never-ending valleys of the Tankwa to find artefacts.

The area that Emily has honed in on for this trip is a mid point between two sites of hers, one in the Cederberg mountains and the other further in the Karoo.

The team L-R: Matt Shaw, Candice Koopowitz and Emily Hallinan

The team L-R: Matt Shaw, Candice Koopowitz and Emily Hallinan

This is a really special place. Not only did we walk across landscapes so dense with Late Stone Age (~40,000 – 3,000 ya) stone tools that a ‘carpet’ is a accurate term, but they were lying right alongside those from the Middle Stone Age (~300,000 – 40,000 ya), as well as the Early Stone Age (~3.3m – 300,000 ya)! Unbelievable.


A Middle Stone Age point

An Early Stone Age (ESA) hand-axe (1 million years old or older)

An Early Stone Age hand-axe (1 million years old or older)


A Middle Stone Age radial core


The artefacts Emily and Matt have found include stunning silcrete points made in a way not seen anywhere but north Africa…until now! (Have a read of their article for more details).

Surface scatters of lithics (stone tools) are rarely in their original archaeological context, however the bizarre intermingling geology of the Tankwa (sandstone, quarzite, diamictite and others) combined with a spectacularly low annual rainfall has created a ‘desert pavement'(as Emily has put it) restricting the movement of material.

The type of lithic you want to make is achieved by using certain types of rock, by knapping rocks together in very intricate ways, and by modifying the product further afterwards. The earliest lithics, now dated to ~3.3 millions years ago in Kenya, were very rudimentary involving smashing two rocks together. Over the following millions of years, techniques developed into much more precise and selective behaviours as a result of exploiting new environmental niches and the evolution of greater cognitive abilities. Over the two weeks of research, we saw this spectrum of technological development with our own eyes, coming across cruder Acheulean hand-axes (likely ~1m years old or more) up the valley from much more recently crafted blades and retouched points. We even found ostrich egg-shell beads and hunter-gatherer handprints on the cliff wall. Amazing.

DSCF8296 DSCF8564

Most of the time we stayed in a stunning little house perched on the side of a river valley. We reached the start of our surveying hikes either through driving around the river or canoeing along it. The canoe trips were mind-blowingly beautiful, the river so glass-like that you could turn your head upside down and convince yourself you’re standing upright. In an unexpected, yet classic archaeology-fieldwork kind-of way, we discovered a hole in our canoe whilst paddling back one day, the boat filling up by the minute! In an act of self-sacrifice, I plugged the hole with my thumb, rewarded later with extra chocolate rations (thanks Emily!). The terrain of the surveying was incredible – vast valleys, endless rocky desert, or forests of stabbing 4-inch long acacias…DSCF8162DSCF806611110796_10153448525976874_5581473344415973029_o

To continue the craziness of the trip, we learned the house had been booked for the weekend. In the spirit of adventure, we thought it would be fun to camp on the porch of a derelict house in the middle of a dry river valley. The one small catch was that this happened to be the centre of baboon nighttime festivities.

DSCF8199 copy

We woke up sometime in the early hours to loud baboon barks behind the house, and a large male replying down the front path. I’m unsure how familiar you are with baboon dental morphology, but lets just say the canines are of an unfriendly size.

Having survived the night (largely through Matt honking the car horn, flashing the lights repeatedly, and revving the engine – maybe we could have hafted lithics to spears if we had the know-how), we were looking forward to staying in a house the farm owners had allocated for us. Unfortunately for us, it turned out to be the most bone chillingly, death-horror-movie worthy, no-one-can-hear-you-scream dilapidated house imaginable. Saying that, we had a great game of carcassonne and slept like babies.

All this drama was only in addition to the catastrophe of the car nearly rolling over down a hill potentially crushing Matt underneath it as it rolled the week before… And yes, there were groups of baboons surrounding us there too.


We even managed to head over to the insane South African version of Burning Man Festival – Afrikaburn. Think thousands of hippies running around in the middle of the desert, setting fire to gigantic wooden sculptures, wearing florescent everything.

What a two weeks! But next time, I’m not partaking without a machete.


South Africa: a home more ancient than anyone thought

To an archaeologist, anthropologist or geneticist, South Africa is irresistible

And to tantalise the scientific tastebuds even further, two studies which came out this week and last have found that South Africa holds an even more ancient human history than anyone thought.

1. Little Foot

Australopithecus prometheus

In case you didn’t know, it is this country which has yielded some of the oldest and most significant fossil humans (hominins) found to date. The majority of these human relatives have been unearthed from the cave systems in Sterkfontein, Malapa, Taung and Swartkrans in Gauteng – including the famous ‘Mrs Ples’ and ‘Taung Child’ (Australopithecus africanus), Paranthropus robustus, and Australopithecus sediba.  These extinct South African human species date back to early days in human evolution; from ~3 to ~1.2 million years ago, though were unlikely our direct ancestors (as indicated by the recent find of a 2.8myo jaw bone in Ethiopia belonging to our genus Homo).

In the 1990’s, a new Australopithecus specimen was dug up in Sterkfontein which didn’t fit into any of the Australopithecus species already described. ‘Little Foot’ (Australopithecus prometheus) as it’s been affectionately known, was dated to ~2.2myo (million years old) based on the flowstones in which the fossil lay, though this dating was controversial. 9 years later, a team has re-dated Little Foot to 3.67mya, indicating that this species of hominin lived 1.47 million years earlier than thought, and at the same time as the famous East African species Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’). Clearly the early players in human evolution (the early australopiths) were far more wide-ranging and diverse than we thought. Though the oldest of the oldest hominins belong to east and central Africa, the South African hominin record gets pushed back further in time.

2. The San

The San, or bushmen, are thought to be one of the oldest human lineages, still practising a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert of Botswana and Namibia (though they’re being horribly repressed by the Botswanan government).

Mitochondrial DNA is an amazing piece of wizardry that evolutionary geneticists can use to track past population movements. Using mtDNA, previous studies have found that the San lineage broke off from that of every other human around 150,000 years ago, however a new study has re-analysed this date finding that the distinct San haplogroup (the unique mitochondrial DNA group that the San belong to) ‘L0d’ diverged from the main human line ~172,000 years ago. That’s incredibly old! Considering that our species (Homo sapiens) only evolved ~200,000 years ago, you can see how ancient the San lineage is. It is, in fact, the oldest offshoot from the main human lineage (of those analysed in this study).

And so although South Africa may not be the ancestral land of all modern humans, it has sure been a hospitable host to evolving hominins for at least 3,670,000 years