New Protection for Cameroon’s Cross River Gorillas
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Cameroon's Lebialem Highlands.
On Africa’s west coast lies the nation of Cameroon, whose unparalleled natural beauty and biodiversity make it one of the most biologically rich countries on the continent. Sometimes called ‘Africa in miniature,’ Cameroon boasts a diverse array of coastal, mountain, rainforest and savanna habitats that shelter a vast assortment of wildlife, many of which are endangered and found nowhere else.
The Lebialem Highlands in the southwest of the country are incredibly biodiverse, even by Cameroon standards. These forests are home to globally significant populations of the Critically Endangered Cross River Gorilla, the Endangered Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee, and a host of threatened and endemic chameleons, birds, amphibians and plants. However, the rapidly increasing human population poses serious threats to these lush highland forests.
In an urgent response to these threats, Rainforest Trust is working with a local partner, Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF), to create a new protected area in the Lebialem Highlands: the Mak-Betchou Wildlife Sanctuary. This reserve will protect 34,794 acres of montane forest vital for the region’s endangered wildlife. With the support of the local and national government, traditional authorities and surrounding communities, the creation of this reserve will add to an immense network of protected areas spanning over 1.5 million acres throughout the region.
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr CC
The Lebialem Highlands rank amongst the five most biologically diverse conservation regions in Central Africa, both in terms of the numbers of globally threatened species as well as endemic species.
Importantly, these forests are a conservation priority due to their endangered primate populations. The Drill, an endangered baboon-like monkey found only in Cameroon and Nigeria, depends on the Lebialem Highlands’ forests for its survival, as well as two of the most threatened great apes in Africa: the Critically Endangered Cross River Gorilla and Endangered Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee.
Restricted to the Southern Nigeria-Cameroon border, the Cross River Gorilla is Africa’s most threatened great ape with just an estimated 280 individuals left in the wild, and 60 of them are located within the proposed Mak-Betchou Wildlife Sanctuary. Found roughly in the same area, the Nigerian-Cameroon Chimpanzee is the most endangered of the world’s four subspecies of chimpanzee.
In addition to primates, the Vulnerable Forest Elephant and a great variety of birdlife call this area home. Considered one of the most important bird areas in Cameroon, hundreds of species have been documented throughout the area, including the Bannerman’s Turaco and Gray-necked Rockfowl.
Rare reptiles and amphibians also abound in these forests, including the Endangered Goliath Frog that weighs over seven pounds; these aptly named amphibians are the largest frogs on Earth. Additionally, the region is a center for an enormous variety of West African flora, some of which is found nowhere else.
Poachers with a turaco. Photo by CIFOR
The main threats to wildlife in the Lebialem Highlands are caused by forest conversion to farmland and habitat fragmentation that could lead to the local extinction of the many globally threatened species that are found there.
As in other parts of Africa, poaching of elephants and other wildlife together with marginalised local economies pose serious challenges to conservation. Forest Elephants and primates are critical for ecosystems to function, serving as essential “forest gardeners” that disperse seeds over long ranges through their fruit-based diets. Without them, rainforest trees are unable to regenerate or maintain diversity.
Local Children. Photo by CIFOR
The local communities involved in this project include four principal ethnic groups, namely the Bangwas, Mbos, Mundanis and the Mocks. Mostly farmers, hunters and gatherers, these groups collectively make up a population of over 45,000 people from 22 villages.
Mountainous Landscape of the Lebialem Highlands. Photo by JBDodane/Flickr
The Lebialem Highlands are covered in dense tropical rainforest with intermittent peaks whose summits give rise to sub-montane vegetation and savannas. These tropical highlands tower to over 9,042 feet above sea level in the mountainous part of southwest Cameroon.
The proposed Mak-Betchou Wildlife Sanctuary falls within the Lebialem Highland Conservation Complex, a vast area that spans a wide elevation gradient with diverse habitats, including tropical rainforest, montane forest, cloud forest and savannas.
Villagers planting native species. Photo by CIFOR
Rainforest Trust is working with a local partner, Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF), to create the Mak-Betchou Wildlife Sanctuary in the Lebialem Highlands. This new reserve will protect 34,794 acres of much-needed habitat for several highly endangered primates in addition to a wealth of other rare Central African species.
Following administrative meetings at the village, regional and national levels, the new reserve will be demarcated and declared. Once established, an official management plan for the new wildlife sanctuary will be developed by partner ERuDeF in collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, thereby finalizing the creation and management strategy of the new protected area.
With local support and backing by the national and international community, the creation of the Mak-Betchou Wildlife Sanctuary will form an important centerpiece in an immense protected area complex spanning over 1.5 million acres, offering the last chance to save the Cross River Gorilla from extinction and protect one of Africa’s most stunning and biodiverse regions.