Cameroon is a relatively densely populated Central Africa country, and much of its original forest has long since been converted into farmland—vast commercial plantations of bananas, rubber, palm oil, or logging concessions. I first came to work in Cameroon in 2002, after spending two years in a remote coastal rain forest in Gabon, miles away from any human settlement. Here I encountered large, wild animals on a daily basis, and often in very close proximity (I even had to construct a rope fence around my tent to deter inquisitive forest elephants). But Cameroon is a different kettle of fish, with far more pressure on the land, and I soon realized that even finding a good field site to study my target species was going to be a challenge.
I spent weeks, and then months, scouring Cameroon forests for indications of drills–-large, elusive primates with colorful faces and large social groups. But more often than not, I just encountered more signs of human presence. The “empty-forest syndrome” was very disheartening. Many species were locally extinct, and the forest itself cannot survive without animals dispersing the seeds of hundreds of plant species. The entire rain forest system is a complex web of interdependencies that we humans are only slowly beginning to understand.
But then, while spending two weeks in a relatively unknown area called the Ebo forest with a local hunter, Jonas, I found what I had been looking for. After a night disturbed by several thunderstorms and flooded tents, we were awakened by the distinct sound of hollow, low-frequency beating noises on the other side of the river valley. The previous days had been spent finding indisputable evidence of drills in the area (footprints, turned logs, and smashed crabs), and we had heard chimpanzees distinctly on several occasions. I knew that this beating noise indicated the presence of something even more special-–gorillas.
After an hour scrambling up the other side of the valley, we eventually came across the gorillas. We spent an hour quietly watching a group of 11 individuals, until the large male silverback noticed our presence and made it patently clear that he wanted his family to be left alone by charging us noisily. We moved away slowly and left them to continue eating. But I had hit the field-site jackpot!
This two-week exploration led to the establishment of our two research stations in the forest, permanently manned by trained local ex-hunters, including Jonas, who now revel in the pride that comes with knowing that their forest is exceptional not only within Cameroon but within Africa.
Now well established, the Ebo Forest Research Project is garnering interest from a broad range of scientists. Ebo is home to an amazing scope of creatures like Goliath frogs, the largest in the world, dwarf crocodiles, chameleons, the incredible rockfowl, which build clay nests against rocky overhangs, crowned eagles and hornbills, forest elephants (we are currently conducting our fourth annual forest-wide elephant survey), a myriad of monkey species, and the two great ape species, gorillas and chimpanzees. The Ebo gorillas are unique in being a “halfway house” between two different gorilla subspecies, while the Ebo chimpanzees are among the healthiest populations of these species remaining anywhere.
My role has slowly changed over the years from physically leading all the forest research work to training, supporting, and assisting our wonderful national staff to do this work, including maintaining a higher-education program. This “capacity building” of national staff is the only sustainable, long-term approach to conservation. Our program goals are to encourage local people to conduct research, as well as to work with the local communities, traditional authorities, and government to develop the Ebo National Park.
I still relish spending time in the forest, and I am still struck by the wonder of such a complex environment that we humans can barely understand. From the flowering of a tree species new to science (and of unknown benefit to humankind) to an army ant attack on our tents (terrifying but awesome!) to watching a gorilla family peacefully enjoying a morning snack, I think that conserving places like the Ebo forest should be a priority for all of us. We have much to learn from these few remaining wilderness places and their inhabitants.
Bethan Morgan is head of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Central Africa Program. Read her previous post, Elephant Survey: Frogs and Primates.