The Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) is researching how chimpanzees and gorillas can survive in forests that are extensively used by the local communities in Cameroon.
The UNESCO nature reserve ‘Dja Biosphere Reserve’ (Cameroon) is home to an untouched rainforest with no less than 107 species of mammal. Five of these are endangered, including the ‘great apes’: chimpanzees and gorillas. The Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (KMDA) hopes to focus its efforts on these great apes with the ‘Projet Grands Singes (Great Ape Project)’ (PGS). But this will not be in the reserve itself, but just outside it, in an unprotected area. All in all, the reserves account for merely a fraction of the country. This makes it essential to investigate how chimpanzees and gorillas will be able to survive in unprotected areas.
‘The forests in unprotected areas are actually community woodland,’ says Zjef Pereboom, head of the Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation, the KMDA's research centre. ‘That means the local population is the owner - they have the right to hunt animals and fell trees.’ Chimpanzees and gorillas are sought after as ‘bushmeat’. Or rather: were. Because, thanks to the PGS, the locals have come to understand quite well that it's important to protect this woodland. But even licenses to fell trees can threaten the chimpanzee and the gorilla.
This research is being conducted not only by local (doctorate) researchers - the villagers are also joining in. They might be guides, porters, cooks or guards.
‘Working with the NGO AWELY Foundation, we've built a primary school,’ says Pereboom. ‘This allows us to teach children from a young age that the forest is important for their future. Our local co-ordinator David Mbohli is organising workshops for the adults, with the aim of ensuring that they too are aware of the forest's importance. Food and drink are always provided at these events. The people are glad to attend them, as they know by now that there are advantages to it. They've already learned how they can integrate trees into their agriculture, for example, or how to set up a cocoa plantation. We also invested in sustainable fishing.’
The project remains founded upon research. What is the impact of hunting and environmental pressures on the great apes? How do the apes live together and what is their diet? What effect do gorillas have on the recovery of degraded forest? Pereboom: ‘Gorillas are large animals, which means they can eat fruit with large seeds. They cover great distances within their natural habitat, and prefer to sleep in open areas of the forest. They also relieve themselves there. The seeds in their stools stand a great chance of germinating and growing in these open, well-lit places. We're trying to find out whether the gorillas are contributing to the forest's recovery in this manner.’
PGS has paid off very effectively - there is now very little hunting for food in the area.
This research is being conducted not only by local (doctorate) researchers - the villagers are also joining in. They might be guides, porters, cooks or guards. This helps to keep them closely involved. ‘Although we originally set this up, the project is now pretty much in the hands of the Cameroonians. It is only led by Antwerp based project co-ordinator Nikki Tagg. In time, we'll hand the whole thing off to the Cameroonians.’
PGS has paid off very effectively - there is now very little hunting for food in the area. Unfortunately, the bushmeat is becoming ever more in vogue with the urban population, who view it as a luxury, which only encourages poachers. The project is therefore pushing for legislation to protect wildlife in collaboration with the appropriate government Ministry. It is also attempting to introduce hunting quotas.