In a letter to the Cameroonian government, more than 60 conservationists and researchers asked the government to suspend plans to create two long-term logging concessions in Ebo Forest—one of the last remaining intact forests in the region—and instead to engage all stakeholders, including the local communities living around the forest, to develop an inclusive land-use plan.
The letter was delivered to Prime Minister Joseph Ngute’s office April 28. Scientists, including members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group, wrote that there may be sustainable development options that could benefit communities, the forest and generate revenue for the country.
The 1,500 square-kilometer forest in Cameroon’s Littoral region is the most biologically diverse area in the Gulf of Guinea. Ebo Forest makes up one half of a Key Biodiversity Area, making it a site of global importance to the planet’s overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. It holds an estimated 35 million tons of carbon and is home to many rare and endangered species, including forest elephants and grey parrots.
“The people living in the communities here live with the forest and by the forest,” said Bethan Morgan, head of the Central Africa Program at San Diego Zoo Global and long-time researcher in Ebo Forest. “Everything about the health of the forest is reflected in the health of the communities. That makes it especially important to include them in any discussions about developing the forest.”
Ebo Forest has been a hotspot for conservation research and discovery during the past 20 years. In 2005, researchers discovered that the tool-wielding Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in Ebo are culturally distinct from other chimpanzees in Africa. They are the only chimpanzees in the world who both crack nuts and fish for termites. And numbering 700, this population is one of the largest populations of endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees.
In addition, there is a small population of gorillas in Ebo Forest, and that population may actually be a new subspecies. The gorillas live about 200 kilometers away from any other groups of western lowland or Cross River gorillas. Ebo is also home to one of only two remaining populations of Preuss’s red colobus, a critically endangered monkey, as well as one of the largest remaining populations of endangered drills.
“Because of its biological richness, Ebo is an incredibly special place for researchers,” said Barthélemy Tchiengue, a Cameroonian botanist from the National Herbarium of Cameroon. “And this great reservoir of biodiversity has not yet revealed all its treasure.”
Ebo Forest is deeply culturally significant to the communities living around it. They depend on it for food and traditional medicines, and they consider Ebo Forest to be their customary land. Before Cameroon’s independence in 1960, many communities lived in the forest and their patriarchs and matriarchs have close relatives buried there. The traditional chiefs of the communities are legally recognized by the Cameroonian government and they have worked closely with the government in efforts to protect Ebo Forest in the past.
Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry signed two orders Feb. 4 proposing the classification of two forest management units for timber extraction. The units combined total 1,296 square-kilometers, nearly the entirety of Ebo Forest. This would destroy the entire gorilla habitat, level the western part of the forest where chimpanzees crack nuts, and could destroy food sources for animals with specific diets, like Preuss’s red colobus.
The orders were posted publicly March 9, and they signal a shift in the government’s intentions for Ebo. It took initial steps to establish the forest as a national park in 2006, but the process stalled in 2011.
“Ebo Forest is a phenomenal place,” said Dirck Byler, great ape conservation director at Global Wildlife Conservation and vice chair of the Section on Great Apes of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “We were hoping by now it would be a national park, but there are other ways to protect the primates living in it while simultaneously helping the communities around it.”
In their letter to the prime minister, scientists and researchers urged the government to consider sustainable alternatives to logging. They propose using the methodology currently being developed by Cameroon’s Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development (MINEPAT) to guide an inclusive and transparent land-use planning process with local communities and other stakeholders. They wrote that the process could include financial and technical support from the government and multinational partners to build consensus on options for sustainable use.
Scientists specifically suggest in their letter that moving forward with sustainable land-use activities could generate revenue for the country and support the socio-economic livelihoods of Ebo’s nearby communities. It would also signal to Cameroon’s international partners during this critical year for biodiversity that the government intends to honor its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government may also be able to sell certifiable carbon credits on the carbon market.
“The government of Cameroon has a great opportunity now to support both its human and non-human primates by protecting the forest in a way that aligns with local communities, the wildlife that lives there, and Cameroon’s international agreements,” said Russ Mittermeier, chief conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation and chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. “We are looking forward to continuing to learn about the natural and cultural heritage of Ebo Forest with the Cameroonian government leading the way.”