The Gorillas of the Ebo Forest, Cameroon
Cameroon is an important country for both gorillas and chimpanzees. To the south of the Sanaga River, western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) exist, often sympatrically with central chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes). To the forested region northwest of the Sanaga River the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes vellerosus) is present (Gonder et al. 1997), as well as a small remnant population of Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli) peppered along the Cameroon-Nigerian border area (Morgan & Sunderland-Groves 2004). The Cross River gorillas are separated from gorillas south of the Sanaga River by c. 250 km and appear to be morphologically (Sarmiento & Oates 2000) if not genetically (Clifford et al. 2004) distinct.
In November 2002 a "new" population of gorillas was discovered in the Ebo Forest, less than 100 km north of the Sanaga River (Morgan et al. 2003). Prior to this, the only indications of gorilla presence were nests (Dowsett & Dowsett-Lemaire 2001; Oates et al. 2003). Genetic analyses are underway to establish the affinities of the Ebo population but their geographical range (intermediate to the ranges of the two known gorilla subspecies in Cameroon) suggests that in biogeographical terms they are an important population.
The "discovery" of the small gorilla population led to the establishment of the Ebo Forest Research Station by the Zoological Society of San Diego's Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) which was created under Government authorization in April 2005 with cooperation from both WCS Cameroon Biodiversity Programme and WWF Cameroon Coastal Forests Programme. Since that time, there has been a permanent presence of researchers in the forest, albeit limited (until 2007) to the area within 10-20 km of the Ebo Forest Research Station.
The Ebo Forest is one of the most important remaining tracts of closed-canopy forest between the Cross and Sanaga rivers thanks to its challenging topography, and it contains one of the most complete populations of a wide variety of forest mammals in Cameroon north of the Sanaga River. As well as forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), gorillas and chimpanzees, there are nine other diurnal primate species present, including important populations of species in serious decline elsewhere, such as drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus) and Preuss' red colobus (Piliocolobus preussi). However, the relative proximity of the forest to Douala, the largest port city in Central Africa and a major hub for both the logging industry and the commercial bushmeat trade, is continuing to exert pressure on the forest from all sides.
Since our first report to Gorilla Journal (Morgan 2004) we have discovered that the gorilla population at Ebo is at least threatened, if not more at risk than we had previously estimated. We now know that the population is restricted to a very small area of mountains and valleys covering about 25 km² in the north west of what will be the Ebo National Park. Quite why the gorillas have chosen this area is not clear - it is relatively close to the villages of Iboti and Locndeng, where the main occupation of many of the youths is hunting to supply the commercial bushmeat trade. We now estimate that the total population of gorillas does not exceed 25 individuals, and fear that the exact number might be even less.
The area of forest currently occupied by the gorillas is also used for sporadic hunting by local populations, both using firearms and by setting traps. We will establish a permanently-manned satellite camp in this area in mid-2008, since it is clear that our mere presence in the forest is deterring hunting from those areas where we regularly visit. We will put in place stringent rules to limit disturbance of the gorillas by our team, relying on indirect signs such as nests, faeces and footprints to determine their presence and ranging patterns.
The last incidence of a gorilla killing was in early 2006 when we heard, through our contacts in multiple villages, that hunters from Locnanga had come across gorillas in the forest and "taken the opportunity" to kill what was described as a single female gorilla. Unfortunately the gorilla had already been taken to Douala and sold by the time we heard of the information, and despite significant reaction to the information from our NGO partners, the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) officials and the local traditional rulers, the culprits were not identified (through fear of reprisals). Since this time we have increased our presence in all these villages through our education program and, at the very least, we believe that we would come to hear of any other such incident.
Thus since our last report we have established and are gradually growing an education program in the villages surrounding the Ebo Forest, with an emphasis on these villages to the north and northwest of the Ebo Forest, specifically because they hold the key to the survival of the gorilla population in the longer term.
As well as being awarded a grant from Conservation International in 2007, through the IUCN Primate Specialist Group's Section for Great Apes, we now have a grant from the Ecolife Foundation to bring the most "accomplished" hunters to the Limbe Wildlife Center in Limbe, South West Province for 2-day workshops covering topics as diverse as identification of endangered species found in the Ebo Forest, the will and increasing use of law enforcement to protect the species by the Government, and potential alternative income-generating methods in the villages. Our commitment to the education program in villages themselves, targeting the whole population, has increased in recent months thanks to an award from the USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service) African Elephant Conservation Fund, which has also equipped us with audio-visual equipment to take films and documentaries to the villages concerning conservation issues. The Great Ape Film Initiative has provided many of these films, which we will show with our translations into French and the local languages of Banen and Bassa. This is essential, since many of the village elders and children speak only their traditional languages.
These educational activities are being conducted in the shadow of the continuing efforts to bring the Ebo Forest a new status of national park. The Government of Cameroon has earmarked the region as a protected area since 2003, but it was only in late 2006 that the process started in earnest with stakeholder meetings throughout the region. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Coastal Forest Programme are the main technical advisers to the Government for this project, although the Zoological Society of San Diego has provided some funds for the sensitization meetings to assist in these efforts.
The "gazettement" process to determine the boundaries of the proposed protected area has not been without its difficulties. There have been some major obstacles in the process, due to the fact that much of the Ebo Forest was inhabited until the period of civil unrest that troubled much of Cameroon in the 1960s. The remains of abandoned villages are evident in many of the valleys, and the village "elites" - well-to-do Cameroonians who were born in these villages but who have spent most of their lives away from the region - have raised numerous concerns regarding the classification of what they regard as their land as national territory. In late 2007 several contingents of "elites" returned to the land where their villages used to stand and began construction of wooden houses to symbolize and reinforce their ownership of the land. Tragedy struck in November 2007 when an elderly man was hit by a falling tree, and soon after this event the majority of the elites left the forest and returned to Douala and Yaoundé to continue their protests via letters and lobbying.
A complex and lengthy series of negotiations between Government, technical advisors and the elites has now been completed, and a visit by a technical team to the forest and the Ebo Forest Research Station confirmed that, while there is no permanent human habitation in the forest (save for our research station), graves, ruins of colonial-time buildings and cocoa farms were present. The limits of the national park were thus re-drawn to take account of these land claims and resubmitted to the Government in December 2007, but unfortunately the technical advisors to the Government failed to verify the new boundaries with us, and we discovered only after the plans had been resubmitted to the Government that the small gorilla population was now exclusively outside the park boundaries.
Thankfully our partners and the technical advisors to the Government listened to our concerns and withdrew the revised boundaries, altered them to take account of the gorilla population, and resubmitted the plans to the Government and elites, who appear to now accept them. The final documents outlining the boundaries for the future Ebo National Park are currently awaiting signature by the Prime Minister, and we hope that this procedure will be completed in the coming months. The next hurdle to cross will be the development of a long-term Management Plan with secured funding for the Ebo National Park.
We continue to seek strong local support for our work, and tread a delicate line between striving to conserve the forest and its fauna whilst remaining understanding and sympathetic to the concerns of the local peoples. Importantly, we continue to have an excellent relationship with the traditional ruler of this district of Ndokbiakat, His Majesty Dipita Gaston, who has supported our project from the start and is an important bridge between us, the exterior elites, and the local peoples.
In summary, we continue to have a strong presence in the forest, in the villages, and with the authorities and our partners in the towns and cities of the region. We are resigned to a long period of slow and steady progress, with setbacks and challenges dogging every step, but we believe that the eventual demarcation of a national park, with effective management strategies put in place by the Government, accompanied by strong enforcement and education policies, will allow for the development of a successful protected area with all of its benefits felt by the local populations - both human and great ape.
This work could not have been possible without ongoing support from the Zoological Society of San Diego, Offield Family Foundation, USFWS Great Ape Conservation Fund, USFWS African Elephant Conservation Fund and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, to whom we are extremely grateful. We work in conjunction with the Government of Cameroon (MINFOF and MINRESI) and with WWF and WCS in Cameroon, and we also thank our hard-working staff for their commitment and dedication to their work.
Clifford, S. J. et al. (2004): Mitochondrial DNA phylogeography of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Molecular Ecology 13, 1551-1565
Dowsett-Lemaire, F. & Dowsett, R. J. (2001): First survey of the birds and mammals of the Yabassi area, south-western Cameroon. Unpublished report, WWF Cameroon
Gonder, M. K. et al. (1997): A new west African chimpanzee subspecies? Nature 388, 337
Morgan, B. J. & Sunderland-Groves, J. L. (2006): The Cross-Sanaga gorillas: the northernmost gorilla populations. Gorilla Journal 32, 16-18
Morgan, B. J. (2004): The gorillas of the Ebo forest, Cameroon. Gorilla Journal 28, 12-14.
Morgan, B. J. et al. (2003): Newly discovered gorilla population in the Ebo forest, Littoral Province, Cameroon. International Journal of Primatology 24, 1129-1137
Oates, J. F. et al. (2003): The Cross River gorilla: Natural history and status of a neglected and critically endangered subspecies. Pp. 472-497 in: Taylor, A. B. & Goldsmith, M. L. (eds.): Gorilla Biology: a multidisciplinary approach, Cambridge University Press
Sarmiento, E. E. & Oates, J. F. (2000): The Cross river gorillas: A distinct subspecies, Gorilla gorilla diehli Matschie 1904. American Museum Novitates 3304, 1-55.