At the start of an experiment on if conducting multidisciplinary research closer to policymakers, communities and businesses can lead to greater societal impacts, I encounter some eye-opening nature and people moments in the Congo Basin forest.
By Verina Ingram, 15 January 2020
A recent trip into the Lobeke National Park, located on the border of Cameroon, Central African Republic and Gabon, was an opportunity to see how different people perceive the forest and indictive of how important understanding and reconciling multiple "stakeholders’" perceptions of one landscape, the services and products it provides, is as a starting point for research that aims to have a societal impact. As I walked for 4 days in the many footsteps of elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and buffalo (often barefoot given the many steam crossings and saturated shoes), I talked to different people. Agents from the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife saw the Park as their responsibility, and on behalf of the country told how they worked to maintain the natural patrimony and treasures. Trained in forest and wildlife management, they looked at the forest through lenses of both exploitable timber species and its high biodiversity in wildlife. also, in liaison with adjacent communities, Poaching is under control and large mammal populations are now stable, although they are concerned at the impact of recent government field staff cuts. Their military training came into good stead: when we walked into one bai (a natural clearing) and bumped into a herd of buffalo gently chewing the cud. As buffalos are some of the fiercest forest animals, you do not want to take them by surprise. Whilst one agent scared them gently with some timely handwaving and yelling, the other took photos on his mobile. The agents had different strategies when we surprised a lone, male elephant: first cocking their guns in case a scaring shot-in-the-air was needed, and only when the elephant flapped his ears and turned silently in the dappled forest light, then trying to capture a photo. The family of gorillas we also encountered were as scared of us as we of them! they slid down quickly down the tree trunks whilst making a huge noise with much branch shacking, especially the youngster who was slower than the rest yelping at his family to wait, much to the merriment of the guides!
Baka and Bantu people living in adjacent villages work as guides, cooks and porters in the Park. Petite Jean, one of the Baka guides, explained how he had grown up in the forest hunting and gathering mushrooms, seeds, fruits and leaves to eat and as medicines. He likened the forest to a "market", providing (nearly) all his family needed to survive, including the rattan and fiber rucksack that he prefers to mine (and I preferred too!), and the direct income it provides for him as a guide and porter. Issues of access to non-timber forest products and using traditional hunting methods by Baka in the park are now being addressed in consultations and a revised legal framework that reflects a more conciliatory and open approach to indigenous peoples and adjacent community’s rights to resources and use of protected areas.
The three biologists I was with were awed at the biodiversity, despite the recent high levels of poaching of elephants and the fact that only 20 years go large areas of this park were a logging concession. The numbers and diversity of tracks we saw, records from massive camera trap exercise, as well as the signs of elephant feeding and movement, and the amount of fresh dung, were their main indicators. The bio-monitoring expert from WWF pointed to the fragility of the ecosystem and continued need to monitor and conduct research to examine other, lesser known species that the iconic lowland gorillas and elusive forest elephants, as well as the need to share the results of such research both in Cameroon and internationally, to demonstrate the "value" of the I’m going to be following the value chains of non-timber forest products (one of the least researched aspects of the forest- but one that almost every Cameroonian, Gabonese and Congolese uses, eats, or drinks daily), and how they are governed from such landscapes in the Congo Basin. I am increasingly excited about what we are learning from past and current initiatives to enhance the incomes, and sometimes also sustainability of this trade and the landscapes these products originate from. Also at how the lessons we are learning can best be developed and communicated with those engaged in the trade and governing the landscape, as well as policymakers, communities and businesses. Walking in the footsteps of creatures that have such an effect on the forest makes me realize that one way of looking at the science I’m doing is as the systematic recording of "footprints" from different perspectives.