Fifteen years ago, Ekwoge Abwe was trekking through Ebo Forest in Cameroon when he heard something cracking in the distance. He scanned the forest, searching for the source of the sound.
“One of my local assistants said, ‘Those are chimpanzees cracking nuts,’” Abwe, a biologist, postdoctoral fellow at San Diego Zoo Global and manager of the Ebo Forest Research Project, told Mongabay. “I said, ‘How do you know that?’”
They traveled toward the noise. Then Abwe gazed up at the trees to see several Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti), including a mother with an infant, using quartz stones to crack open nuts from an African walnut tree (Coula edulis).
“One individual actually still had a flat stone in the hand,” Abwe said. “It dropped the stone, and it almost fell on my head.”
While the local people in the Ebo Forest region were clearly familiar with this chimp behavior, this was a new discovery to science. Prior to Abwe’s encounter, scientists believed that only chimpanzees living west of the N’Zo-Sassandra River in Côte d’Ivoire used tools to crack nuts, and that chimps living east of the region didn’t have these skills. As it turned out, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in Ebo are the only population of chimpanzees known to use tools in two different ways: stone hammers to crack open nuts, and flexible sticks to fish out termites from mounds.
But these chimpanzees, which are endangered and have a population of about 700 individuals in Ebo Forest (out of a global population of less than 6,000 in four major habitats in Nigeria and Cameroon), are facing an imminent threat due to a state-run logging plan, conservationists say. On July 22, the Cameroon government released a decree confirming that a logging concession in Ebo Forest had been approved, encompassing 68,385 hectares (169,000 acres) of intact rainforest, an area about half the size of London. Sylvie Djacbou, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said the logging plans, which will transect chimpanzee territory, will be a “death sentence” to the local primates.
Logging given the green light
Ebo Forest, which spans more than 200,000 hectares (about 500,000 acres), is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems in southwestern Cameroon, and home to 11 primate species, including endangered drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus), critically endangered Preuss’s red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus preussi), and a small and mysterious group of critically endangered western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), thought to represent a new subspecies of gorilla, although this has yet to be confirmed. There are also African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), several species of duiker antelope, and giant slippery frogs (Conraua goliath) living within the forest. The biodiversity of Ebo Forest has been internationally recognized, and several organizations and individuals are actively campaigning to protect it, including Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), Greenpeace Africa, and Leonardo Dicaprio.
In a press briefing released on July 22, Jules Doret Ndongo, the minister of forestry and wildlife, said that his ministry (MINFOF) recognizes the area’s biodiversity, and that the 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) in the Mbam et Inoubou division, which is “linked to the various conservation areas by wildlife migration corridors,” will be preserved for conservation purposes.
“It should be noted that logging is governed by instruments that allow for the protection of biodiversity in general and wildlife in particular … which highlights the ‘Government’s ecological awareness’ and its concern for the preservation of the country’s wildlife resources,” Ndongo said in the statement.
Yet Djacbou said she doesn’t think the Cameroon government is doing enough to protect the wildlife in this region.
“This is completely oblivious to the real needs of wildlife and there are many other threatened animal species living in Ebo forests beyond the gorillas and the chimps,” Djacbou told Mongabay in an email. “What makes Ebo forest special is that it still is a pretty large area of largely unfragmented forest which is still rich in wildlife — a haven for many threatened species.”
Abwe is also concerned about the logging plans, which he says will directly cut through the primary gorilla habitat, and disrupt other species like chimps, even though they have a wider range throughout the forest.
“We suppose that the whole area [of gorilla habitat] will potentially be logged,” Abwe said.
On a more general note, Djacbou said she doesn’t believe that the forests can be sustainably managed, despite a claim by MINFOF that this is possible.
“‘Sustainable logging’ so far has been a myth in a context like in Cameroon where there is no proper monitoring on the ground, and a general lack of law enforcement,” Djacbou said. “Even FSC certified concessions have not proven to be entirely legal and have no adequate answer to prevent intact forest landscape degradation.
“There are many indirect negative ecological impacts related to industrial logging: opening up the forests with logging roads that put even the deeper part of the forest easily accessible for further destruction, influx of workers that lead to poaching,” she added. “Thus, opening up the forest would inevitably have a very detrimental impact on wildlife, local communities and the climate.”
On April 28, Abwe and more than 60 other conservationists and researchers sent a letter to the Cameroonian government, asking it to suspend plans to allow logging in Ebo Forest, and to engage with stakeholders, including local community members, to develop an inclusive land-use plan. The letter went unanswered. And now, the Cameroon government is forging ahead with the logging concessions, apparently without input from conservationists or local community members.
A ‘lethal’ threat to primates
Gorillas would be particularly vulnerable to any changes in the forest, according to Bethan Morgan, head of San Diego Zoo Global’s Central Africa program and principal investigator at the Ebo Forest Research Project.
“The area of forest they’re in doesn’t cover much more than 40 kilometers square,” or less than 10,000 acres, Morgan told Mongabay. “There’s no doubt that if the logging happened within the gorilla habitat, it would be devastating.”
In 2016, gorillas were caught on camera for the first time in Ebo Forest, and since then, scientists have been trying to learn more about this small population, which is geographically situated between populations of Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli) and western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). It’s believed there are about 25 individuals living in Ebo, although the population needs to be reassessed.
“We’ve got some new cameras in now, which we started putting in in November and December,” Morgan said. “We’re hoping that with enough footage, we will be able to identify individuals, and get a handle on exactly how many animals there are. There are too few animals to do normal transect surveys. The other thing we could do is a genetic marker capture on them, but again … the amount of surveying that would require would be enormous and certainly not feasible at this time.”
The Cameroon government’s plans seem to directly conflict with an international agreement to protect gorillas and their habitat, which was signed on July 20.
“This is a practical example of how to accelerate the extinction of critically endangered species, like gorillas,” Morgan said in a statement published by GWC. “This forest and its resources are the lifeblood of local people who have worked so hard to conserve the unique population of gorillas and their habitat over the past decades. This government decision takes the land away from community custodianship and into the hands of those with short-term interests in mind. We can only hope that those with a long-term interest in the survival of Ebo’s communities, forest and wildlife succeed in influencing any forthcoming management plan.”
Other species would be affected in a myriad of ways. A primary food source for Preuss’s red colobus monkeys is the leaves from a hardwood tree called azobé (Lophira alata), but these trees are likely to be logged, according to Abwe. Drills tend to travel in large groups, which makes them susceptible to hunters who gain access to the forest through newly paved logging roads.
And while chimpanzees have a wider range across Ebo Forest, logging would inevitably impact them as well.
“Each chimp community has a defined territory and logging may affect ranging behavior and even lead [to] intercommunity conflicts which could be lethal,” Abwe said. “But even more problematic is the fact that logging will open up remote parts of the forest to poachers.”
If the population of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees is impacted in any way, this could be devastating for the subspecies, Morgan said.
“Ebo is one of the strongholds for this subspecies,” she told Mongabay. “A similar stronghold is in Korup National Park, which is on the border with Nigeria. But given the conflict in Anglophone Cameroon, we don’t quite know what’s happening there at the moment. Increasingly, it seems that politically, Ebo might be the best remaining site of conservation of this chimpanzee in Cameron, and by far, the biggest populations are in Cameroon, not Nigeria.”
While it is clear that Ebo Forest possesses a wide range of biodiversity, Abwe says there is still much to learn there — and logging, if done inappropriately and thoughtlessly, could impede any future discoveries.
“Everytime we work with a different group of researchers, they bring out something amazing about the forest,” Abwe said. “So much is still unknown … and we actually may be at a loss if it [the forest] was subjected to logging.”
What happened to Ebo National Park?
In 2010, WWF announced that it was working with the Cameroon government to transform Ebo Forest into a national park, encompassing 111,288 hectares (275,000 acres), or approximately 53% of the total Ebo landscape. To celebrate this decision, WWF organized a low-altitude flyover so key stakeholders could “have a comprehensive view of the proposed park, as well as further raise awareness about the conservation importance of this Congo basin biodiversity hot spot.”
But three years later, WWF closed its office in Ebo, stalling plans for the national park.
“When it became clear that agreement could not be reached between the Cameroonian government and the local community on a proposed protected status for Ebo Forest, WWF closed its office in Ebo in July 2013 and is not involved in the current process being engaged by the government to consider ceding the forest to logging,” a representative for WWF told Mongabay in a statement. “However, as with any such process, we firmly believe that any decision to change the designation of the land must be taken with the full participation and consent of any potentially affected communities.”
Morgan says she believes the main reason WWF pulled out of Ebo Forest came down to financial pressures.
“For a new national park to be established, a big donor has to be behind it,” Morgan said. “The government itself rarely of its own accord instigates a new protected area, because that means lots of money and lots of development, and the government struggles to do that with all its different other responsibilities in the country.”
Community discontent might also have influenced the decision, Morgan said.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, violent protests erupted across Cameroon as residents demanded independence. To try and quell tensions and regain control of the population, the government forced villagers living inside Ebo Forest to relocate to villages outside of the forest’s borders. While this civil unrest happened several decades in the past, residents have become suspicious of the government, and some viewed the plans for the national park as another way for the government to control the area, Morgan said.
“They are very reluctant for the government to take ownership of the ancestral villages — their parents are buried there, their relations are buried there,” Morgan said. “Of course, logging the area would be just as bad — it would be the same thing — that the government would be taking over the area and owning the area and logging it. Now, of course, many of these people are saying that they would prefer a national park to logging, but of course it’s a little late for that.”
After WWF’s withdrawal from Ebo, Abwe and other conservationists tried to work with the government to continue plans for the national park, but nothing came of them. However, in 2016, the government allowed Greenfil SA, a local subsidiary of the Azur palm oil company, to start clearing forest for a 123,000-hectare (304,000-acre) plantation on the border of Ebo Forest.
As of March 2017, it’s estimated that Greenfil has already cleared 1,749 hectares (4,322 acres) of forest, according to data from the Rainforest Foundation UK. Based on a 2018 report by Earthsight, the Greenfil project is considered to be the biggest source of oil palm-driven deforestation in the region, bulldozing “six football pitches-worth of dense forest” every day.
While Greenfil’s plantation is outside of Ebo Forest, it opened up the area to a large population of workers, who would likely exploit the forest, Abwe told Mongabay in 2017.
“Because [once you plant the crops] the next thing [to come] will be a large population of poorly paid workers, who want to complement their income through hunting and farming,” he said.
The local community had ‘no say’
But would logging benefit people living in the communities around Ebo? In the press briefing, Ndongo sad the logging “prospect shall enable the private sector to create wealth, and will offer the State, councils and neighbouring communities, opportunities in terms of income and job creation.” Yet conservationists have cast doubt on the assertion that logging would bring money into the local villages.
“That’s been the theory for many years, hasn’t it?” Morgan said. “But I think most people who’ve looked at logging in the past in Cameroon would say that very little benefit has been derived by communities.”
Morgan says she is not necessarily against logging, but that any decision should incorporate input from the 40 communities living around Ebo Forest, and should directly benefit the residents, many of whom are “extremely poor.”
“They would like roads, they would like electricity, they would certainly like running water, they would like health care,” Morgan said. “We’re talking about very basic things that these communities wish they had.”
But the government did not take the local community into account when it approved the logging concession, Djacbou said.
“The 40 local Banen communities are represented by their leadership, which repeatedly expressed their rejection of logging plans,” she said in an email. “The community has been informed partially of plans by the government to open the area for logging, but they did not give their consent. They have voiced their opposition — which is shared by the majority of Banen communities — in both Cameroonian media and in a meeting they have had with the Prime Minister of Cameroon. In that sense, the whole controversy around the future of Ebo forests, is also an issue of landrights for the local communities.”
“The local communities have had no say in this,” Abwe told Mongabay in an email. “The government has worked more with a handful of elites, including the Member of Parliament from the area [and] a couple of traditional rulers.”
What happens next?
Logging has not officially started in Ebo Forest. There’s still a legal process that needs to happen for the Cameroon government to nominate a beneficiary for the logging concession. But it’s all on the horizon. Greenpeace International says it’s possible that a company called SEXTRANSBOIS, a Cameroon-registered company that prospected the forest in the last week of June, could turn out to be the beneficiary.
Greenpeace is currently circulating a petition to halt logging future plans in Ebo Forest, in hope that the Cameroon government will recognize that this issue needs to be acted upon.
“We have been in a similar situation in the past when the president of Cameroon began feeling the pressure from donors and the public, and he intervened to stop a major oil palm operation,” Tal Harris, international communications coordinator of Greenpeace Africa, told Mongabay in an email. “There are other ways to delay and alter the plans [and] we are looking into all of them together with the community leaders and other NGOs.”
Abwe is also not giving up on the forest, which he says harbors some of the richest biodiversity in the world.
“I acknowledge that there are many voices at the moment, and that these are not coordinated at all,” Abwe said in an email. “But we are actually aiming at proposing alternative land use types (carbon credits and conservation concessions) that would generate revenue for government, local councils and communities without destroying the forest. These are expensive options as you know, and so we need funding commitments from donors and government’s partners. I am sure if we have a viable alternative tabled to the government, it may be possible to stop the UFA [forest management unit] process.”
This article by Elizabeth Claire Alberts was first published on Mongabay.com on 30 July 2020. Lead Image: Chimpanzee in Uganda. Image by NH53 / Flickr.
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