On the ground for great apes

25 November 2022


Your generous donations to our recent Apes on the Edge appeal have already had a remarkable impact. Our delighted Head of Conservation Dr Nikki Tagg reports.

Mwira, Son of Chimanuka and Mwinja

(c) Rowan Griffiths, The Mirror

With your support and kind donations to our Apes on the Edge appeal this summer, Born Free’s brand new conservation programme launched this year, and has gone a long way in the first six months. Our programme aims to protect rare chimpanzees and gorillas in the Dja Biosphere Reserve (DBR), Cameroon, by helping local people reduce their pressure on the forests and its wildlife.

‘Guardians of Dja’ helps communities develop a reliable and sustainable trade from traditional activities, like cocoa farming. We are currently providing skills training to 41 12 to 25-year-olds in the local Agroforestry Training Centre, and three others recently graduated. We set them up with farm tools so they can create their own seed nurseries and eventually their own agroforestry plantation. We provide training and support for the director, three teachers and two local assistants of the Centre.

The Guardians of Dja team has also launched their primary education and community outreach work, with 54 children (30 boys and 24 girls) enrolled in the local ‘Gorilla School’, representing seven neighbouring villages. The children receive ten hours of lessons on conservation theory each week, as well as watching films about their forest home. Guardians of Dja Programme Lead, Donald Mbohli, explains: “Through the Gorilla School, children are involved in the creation and use of a school nursery to grow their own seedlings, a school vegetable garden and compost, and a forest trail to learn about forest ecology”.

The team has rolled out a ‘Conservation Points’ system in the school, and the two children who have performed the best and demonstrated the most interest in conservation issues over the last academic year received a wonderful reward – in July, we took 12-year-old Roger Fabien Manza (from Mimpala), and 10-year-old Dorcas Ankanka (from Bintsina) on a field trip to Limbe Wildlife Centre, near the coastal city of Douala, and Ape Action Africa in Mefou National Park, near the capital Yaoundé. Here they had the opportunity to see rescued and rehabilitated gorillas and chimpanzees – in some cases for the first time – and to learn about their behaviour and biology.

The Gorilla School’s inspiring teachers need additional training on conservation issues, so we took them – together with staff from the Agroforestry Training Centre – along with us on our field trip!

Yves Dobo, a teacher, expressed his thanks following this important trip: “I thank the project for this trip because there are many things that are new to me, I can say that since I was born, I have never seen a gorilla closely as I did today. I have well reinforced my capacity to be able to teach not only our school pupils but also the rest of population.”

For the rest of the community, we held two huge conservation outreach events, implicating more than a thousand people. On National ‘Reunification Day’ on 20th May we took 50 agroforestry students and school children, plus their teachers, to the town of Messamena, the capital of the district, to march for conservation in front of a crowd of several hundred. In August, we invited six local teams of footballers and handball players to join our very own local team – ‘Jeunesse Footballers pour la Conservation’ (Young Footballers for Conservation) – in the first ever Guardians of Dja sports tournament. One hundred and sixty-two people took part in the tournament, more than 400 people came to watch, and the event was enjoyed by all.

At both these events, we had lots of evening entertainment, including music and dance, and a screening of a video of the field trip to see the gorillas at Mefou.

Through the Guardians of Dja programme, we also support the local wildlife authorities – the Services of Conservation of the Dja Biosphere Reserve (SC-DBR) – in their anti-poaching activities and to help reinforce understanding and compliance of wildlife laws among communities. We invited them, including eco-guards representing the SC-DBR, along to our outreach events, where they gave speeches to the community on the importance of conservation.

To improve the connection between wildlife authorities and the local communities, we recruited 12 Great Ape Guardians (GAGs) (five women and seven men) across the three villages. Their job is to inform the Chief of the village of any poaching events they become aware of. If the same person is caught poaching on several occasions the Chief will call upon SC-DBR to intervene. GAGs also keep in close contact with our team, to let us know when illegal bushmeat is being transported from the village, so that we can arrange for the forestry post eco-guards to intercept them. So far since the programme launched, eco-guards have conducted two such missions, confiscating bushmeat and arresting the poachers. We have also financially supported two anti-poaching patrols by SC-DBR in the locality, in which ten eco-guards covered over 900 miles (almost 1500km), arresting two poachers and confiscating poaching equipment.

The Guardians of Dja teams is also working with families and school groups to plant native and food crop trees on abandoned fallows, to pro-actively reforest the buffer zones around the reserve for local and global resilience to climate change. So far, almost 50 villagers have expressed willingness to participate in this scheme to restore abandoned plantations and have provided the required information to the team about the size and location of their fields. The next step is to set up seed nurseries, and the seedlings will be distributed next March. In a highly ambitious project, we are aiming to restore 60 hectares (0.6km2) with 100 trees each, totaling an impressive 6000 trees!

Through all this work, we hope to see people’s understanding and acceptance of conservation in the Dja Biosphere Reserve improving. As a result of this, and the investment in skills training, we hope to observe reduced hunting efforts in favour of sustainable trade, resulting in more people’s incomes coming from non-hunting sources, helping to stabilize food security in the long run.

Ultimately, with you by our side, we hope for an increase in animal populations in and around the Dja for a secured and healthy future for all.

You can support this incredible work by donating to our Apes on the Edge Appeal.

Two images side by side, showing community members at Limbe Wildlife Centre and a march past by pupils of EJMV