Cameroon Initiatives Confront Ape Poaching and Raise Profile of Rare Gorilla

August 19, 2013

Ten years ago, not a single poacher, dealer, or trafficker had been prosecuted under Cameroon’s wildlife laws, even though Central and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees and western lowland and Cross River gorillas were being traded or killed in numbers that threatened their survival.

But in 2012 and every year since 2006, an average of one major wildlife dealer has been arrested and convicted every week in Cameroon, with 94 percent imprisoned for their offenses for periods ranging from 2 to 30 months, according to data from the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA).

“We take a…direct, activist approach,” says LAGA director Ofir Drori. “Long-term solutions can take decades to be implemented, and there’s a serious risk there will be no apes left to save by then.”

“Our fight is against the corruption and complicity that facilitates this trafficking, and our sole aim is getting wildlife traffickers arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned to deter future crimes,” says Drori, whose organization was recognized in 2012 by the Marsh Christian Trust Award, the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, and the Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award.

Working in close collaboration with Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, a LAGA network of undercover investigators and informants gathers evidence to support law-enforcement agencies, while its operations team helps coordinate arrests and monitors cases closely to minimize corruption risks.

LAGA’s legal-assistance team supports the prosecution of wildlife cases, and a sustained media campaign resulted in 367 radio, television, and press stories in 2012, showing the enforcement of wildlife laws and the consequences of law-breaking.

In line with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Cameroon is a signatory, the country’s national wildlife-protection law prohibits the sale and trafficking of endangered species, with penalties ranging from fines of about US$1 million to life imprisonment.

The LAGA model of support for law-enforcement authorities is now being used in Togo, Benin, Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Central African Republic.  Similar plans are also advancing in Chad and Nigeria.

Some successes were seen in 2012, including the arrests in Congo of a trafficker found with a chimpanzee on a boat on the Congo River and the boat’s captain, who had allowed the use of his vessel. In Gabon a forestry official who was found with his car full of bushmeat has been imprisoned and is awaiting trial for his role in poaching and corruption.

The growing movement around stronger law enforcement includes the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) efforts to conserve the Cross River gorilla, Africa’s most endangered ape, whose habitat straddles the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

The main threats to the 250 remaining gorillas are illegal hunting for body parts and meat, and habitat loss due to logging and agricultural expansion.

A WCS partnership with national governments, communities living close to the endangered populations, and nongovernmental organizations has helped to increase surveillance around a main habitat site.

Foot patrols in the Okwangwo Division of Nigeria’s Cross River National Park rose from 87 days covering 327 miles in 2011 to 235 days covering 996 miles in 2012, according to WCS reports.

These patrols discovered and destroyed 130 hunting camps, more than double the number in 2011. The average number of wire snares found per mile dropped from more than three in 2011 to around two in 2012.

Okwangwo and Cameroon’s adjacent Takamanda National Park are home to about one-third of all Cross River gorillas. In 2012, Takamanda patrols covered more than 925 miles over 118 days, resulting in 12 arrests and the removal of 205 hunting camps and 1,028 wire snares.

The number of gorilla and chimp nest sites recorded by patrols in Okwangwo increased from 32 in 2011 to 50 during the year, and, for the first time in many years there were direct sightings of both Cross River gorillas and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees.

In January WCS captured its first camera-trap footage of a group of elusive and rarely observed Cross River gorillas strolling through the forest, including a chest-beating display and a charge from a silverback.

The footage spread widely online, attracting more than 400,000 viewers on YouTube, and was posted on several high-profile news sites.

“This type of exposure is hugely important in terms of raising awareness and creating a movement to save these extraordinary and critically endangered animals,” says Graeme Patterson, deputy director of WCS’s Africa Program.