Close up of the brown eyes of a gorilla

Guardians of Dja


Through our Guardians of Dja Programme, we aim to increase the abundance of rare chimpanzees and gorillas in a great ape conservation priority area, the Dja Biosphere Reserve (DBR), Cameroon, and foster sustainable coexistence between local people and wildlife.


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Dja Biosphere Reserve, Cameroon, Central Africa.

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Bushmeat hunting; illegal wildlife trade; habitat loss via slash-and-burn farming.

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Skills training; income generation; primary education; community outreach; familiarisation of wildlife law; anti-poaching patrols; Great Ape Guardians; forest protection and regeneration.

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Association de la Protection de Grands Singes (APGS), Services of Conservation of Dja Biosphere Reserve, Ministry of Forests & Wildlife, local communities.

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A wild chimpanzee rolls on its side on a grass floor

A wild chimpanzee ©

The Dja Landscape is home to an estimated 2,785 central chimpanzees and 2,004 western lowland gorillas. Sadly, both species are in decline in the region, so these are critical populations to ensure their survival. 

The Dja Biosphere Reserve is a two million hectare (4.9 million acre) forested area, comprising forestry management units, community forests, and 40 villages, home to around 50,000 people.

The core 526,000-hectare (1.2 million acre) Dja Faunal Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1981) and a protected area.
Here, gorillas and chimpanzees are threatened by intense and widespread bushmeat hunting for local consumption and markets, as well as poaching for the national and international illegal wildlife trade.Forest overuse and degradation of habitats further threatens chimpanzee and gorilla populations.

The region is also home to many rural communities of Badjoue and Bantu, many of whom are extremely impoverished, living with hand-to-mouth economies and whose traditional livelihoods include hunting and slash-and-burn farming. The northeast corner of the reserve, where there are 11 villages, is one of a few key areas recently recognised as warranting extra protection, because great ape abundance is high and human activity not as intense as elsewhere across the reserve.
Born Free will initially focus activities in the villages Malen V, Doumo Pierre, Mimpala, Eschou, Madjuh I, and Doumo Mama, while some of our outreach activities will extend to additional villages.


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To help farmers and other community members make day-to-day activities more sustainable, enabling them to achieve reliable incomes with reduced dependence on natural resources.

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To offer a programme of school activities and community outreach to enhance awareness and acceptance of wildlife, environment, and conservation activities.

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To support the Services of Conservation of the Dja Biosphere Reserve to carry out anti-poaching activities and to publicise and enforce wildlife law to reduce illegal pressures on wildlife.

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To work with farmers and school groups to plant native and food crop trees on abandoned crop fields and plantations to pro-actively reforest the buffer zone of the reserve.

To achieve these objectives, we carry out several main activities

Find out more about each of our main objectives below.
A group of people digging

Training in Composting at the Agroforestry Training Centre ©APGS

Via an existing Agroforestry Training Centre, we support staff to deliver three-year training courses in sustainable agroforestry practices for male and female primary school graduates (12-25 years old), and one-year bespoke courses for existing cocoa farmers (25+ years old) to develop their skills and help them manage and regenerate their farms.

This provides young people with the knowledge and support they need to start a livelihood activity that will reduce pressures on wildlife and the environment.

As cocoa plants can take several years to yield a crop, we provide the wider community with the opportunity to grow pepper, which can be grown organically on fallow land (land no longer used for farming) to limit deforestation. Plants maturewithin one year, and the pepper can be sold directly in local markets.

In addition, training in tailoring is offered to women in the villages, which provides another income generating activity.

To ensure the long-term sustainability of these ventures, we help villagers to establish trade and market routes for all produce by helping community-level organisations (such as co-operatives), identify buyers and by provide technical support for sales.

The community primary school – the Ecole Jean-Michel Vichard primary school, or ‘gorilla school’ – registers 100 pupils, aged 5-14 years old, every year. We provide materials to engage students in environmental lessons covering topics such as botany and wildlife surveying, giving them the knowledge to maybe pursue a career in conservation one day!

Working closely with teachers, we have a points system to reward students for their environmental awareness, with the opportunity every year to ‘win’ a trek into the reserve or a visit to an ape sanctuary – both hugely popular activities with children who rarely get opportunities for such positive experiences with nature.

A group of youths playing handball on a dusty pitch

Youths playing handball in Malen V ©APGS

As part of our community outreach, we hold regular events and sessions to raise awareness of wildlife and conservation issues. Events include movies, shows, competitions, football tournaments, handball games, and debates, all of which are very popular with young people.

We also offer educational events including film screenings, evening talks and basic education courses in key skills such as literacy and bookkeeping. The community are keen to learn, and we can reach up to 3,000 people in rural areas through these activities.

Cameroon has strong wildlife laws, but implementing these laws can be challenging. Through a variety of ways, we encourage and empower local people to embrace livelihoods which reduce reliance on natural resources that may be obtained in illegal ways. This ensures everyone is aware of, and capable of following wildlife laws.

To protect great apes and other wildlife from those who continue to engage in poaching, we support the wildlife authority’s regular anti-poaching patrols across the landscape, which is a particularly challenging environment. A key part of this work also includes organising gun amnesties and confiscating bushmeat in collaboration with the wildlife authorities.

Local people are some of the best guardians of their natural environment. No one lives as closely alongside these animals nor understands wildlife as well as they do.

Our 12 ‘Great Ape Guardians’, are local men and women recruited and trained in conservation, who help us patrol, gather information, sensitise others, and act as a critical link between Born Free and the communities.
Via the Guardians, we have equipped and supported an informer network, who work together with the local authorities for rapid information exchange about poaching activities.

Sustainable agriculture and forest restoration is critically important for the wildlife of the Dja and the health of people. Slash-and-burn agriculture is unfortunately common in the area, but we are working closely with farmers to encourage sustainable agricultural practices such as using compost to boost soil health and fertility, thereby reducing the need to continue cutting down pristine and biodiverse forest.

Each year, we work with local farmers to regenerate approximately 60 hectares of abandoned fields and plantations. Together with farming families and school groups, we are setting up seven nurseries over the course of three years, to produce enough native tree and food crop seedlings to reforest this land, improving the habitat and pro-actively responding to the challenges of climate change.


A wild gorilla sitting in dense leafy undergrowth

Western lowland gorilla

We strive to ensure that all our conservation programmes are evidence based and that we can show the impact of our work. We do this in several ways:  

  • We conduct baseline and follow-up surveys on socio-economic factors that we expect will change over time with an increase in reliable trade.
  • We assess community attitudes and perceptions of wildlife and conservation, which we expect to become more positive.
  • We collect data on bushmeat hunting activity by local villagers, which would be expected to reduce with improved standards of living.
  • We conduct thorough ongoing household revenue surveys with a sample of the local population, to understand changing incomes and expenditures.
  • We administer exams to students of the primary school and Agroforestry Training Centre to monitor the effectiveness of the education programmes and growing knowledge of the students.
  • We monitor the number of new farms being cleared each year, versus how many fallows (abandoned farms) are re-used. We expect to see a decrease in slash-and-burn practices as farmers become more aware of the possibilities and benefits of composting.
  • Finally, over the longer term, we intend to monitor population figures and distribution of mammals in the surrounding forests and within the reserve, including gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants. We will compare this against data from previous surveys, with a view to recording a stabilisation or increase in their numbers.

Programme outputs and impact

In 2022-23, the Guardians of Dja Programme achieved:
  • 39 pupils

    registered at the Agroforestry Training Centre

  • 81 primary pupils

    receiving ten hours of conservation theory lessons per week

  • 400 young people

    took part in a football and handball competition, learning about conservation

  • 66 villagers

    signed ‘Reciprocal Environmental Agreements’, committing themselves to conserving wildlife and forests


A gorilla sitting amongst the green leaves of trees and shrubs

Western lowland gorilla (c) Dave Currey


  • Over 50 people have expressed a willingness to engage in forest regeneration by creating a hectare of agroforestry trees on fallow land.
  • More than 4,320 agroforestry plants have been transported to the programme’s nursery.
Close up of a chimpanzee in a tree looking at the camera

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