Raids of plantations by starving protected elephants frustrate Cameroonian farmers

Trackers and eco-guards take a break in the middle of Campo Ma’an National Park in Cameroon on October 13, 2022. Photo: AFP

Banana farmers on the edge of a giant national park on Cameroon’s Atlantic coast say they can no longer bear the destruction of crops by starving elephants as human-animal conflict escalates.

Near the southern border with Equatorial Guinea, eight villages have lodged complaints with Campo Ma’an National Park, a vast area of ​​virgin forest from which the animals emerge.

About 500 gorillas and more than 200 elephants – two endangered species – roam the 264,000 hectares of the reserve.

A week after elephants razed his banana plantation near the park, Simplice Yomen, 47, is struggling to cope.

“We are out of breath,” he sighs.

Elephants eat the new shoots inside the trunks of banana trees after splitting them.

Cassava, maize, sweet potato and peanuts are also favorite snacks, says park administrator Michel Nko’o.

In Cameroon, the cohabitation between humans and animals on the edge of dense forests is proving increasingly difficult.

Most crop destruction is recorded near protected wildlife reserves.

For Nko’o, elephant raids have become noticeably more frequent since agro-industrialists began settling near the park.

More than 2,000 hectares of forest have been cleared to grow oil palms for Cameroun Vert, an industrial plantation project for which the government first approved the clearing of 60,000 hectares before reducing it to 39,000 hectares.

“The elephants that lived here have no place to go and end up in people’s fields,” said Charles Memvi, park ecologist.

‘Discouraging’

Affected villages near the town of Campo saw “three to four hectares of plantations destroyed, which represents a major financial loss for the local population”, says Nko’o.

Elephants are responsible for 80-90% of attacks.

The rest are gorillas, chimpanzees, hedgehogs, pangolins and porcupines.

Almost all of these species are threatened due to habitat loss and/or poaching.

Daniel Mengata’s two hectares of banana trees were “devastated” in 2020.

“Animals really put us off,” admitted the 37-year-old.

“I started crying after seeing the damage because in one night a year of work was wiped out. It really hurts.”

“I can no longer feed my family,” adds Emini Ngono, 57. Starving elephants ruined his smallholding, which once produced squash, cassava and potatoes.

Ngono says she could earn more than 1,000 euros ($970) selling gourd seeds, a traditional stable food throughout the region.

Reconciliation

Not far from there, the logs extracted from the forest pile up.

The high-pitched sound of a saw masks the chirping of birds as a group of trackers go in search of rare gorillas.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched a gorilla-focused “primate habituation” project a decade ago with the aim of developing ecotourism in the region.

Part of the revenue was to go to local communities to encourage them to help protect animals and reduce conflict with humans.

Chimene Mando’o hunts elusive primates.

“There! It’s Akiba,” the 25-year-old shouts after the gorilla’s call.

Shortly after, Akiba – which means “thank you” in the local language Mvae – appears briefly at the foot of a tree about ten meters away, before scampering off into the jungle.

“We have to find a way to generate development… so that everyone benefits from this natural resource”, explains Yann Laurans, biodiversity economist at WWF.

The Ministry of Forests and Wildlife says Cameroon has no legal framework to compensate people after attacks by animals in national parks.

WWF is testing and studying an insurance system to cover people who lose their livelihoods due to animal attacks.

Smallholder Simplice Yomen is hoping for a more secure future after installing beehives to deter elephants from encroaching on his plantation.

Others try lemon trees and other thorny bushes to keep elephants out.

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