A team of scientists undertook an unprecedented week-long trek last month deep into one of Africa's largest rain forests.
Their mission: survey the tropical wilderness and scout for animals such as endangered chimps, western lowland gorillas, and forest elephants.
But instead of spying some of the 50-plus mammal species that call Cameroon's remote Dja Faunal Reserve home, the team documented poaching camps and gun cartridges—and surprisingly few signs of animals.
“There were lots of hunting camps in the core of the reserve, 16 in total, and we saw cartridges all over the place,” says the African Wildlife Foundation’s Jef Dupain, the expedition leader for the grueling 60-mile (90-kilometer) journey. “We found more cartridges than signs of animals—and this is in the middle of the World Heritage Site!”
On Wednesday in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, government officials, NGOs, and donor organizations from around the world are meeting at the Conference of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership. They’re discussing threats—from wildlife poaching to mining and logging—facing fragile rain forest ecosystems like Dja reserve, which covers some 1.3 million acres (560,000 hectares) of the Congo Basin, the largest river catchment in the central African rain forest region.
Dupain was hoping that his team would find more wildlife in the interior of the densely forested reserve.
“We found traces of animals, such as gorilla nests, chimpanzee knuckle marks, and elephant dung every day,” Dupain tells National Geographic. “But we were disappointed with the number of traces we saw.”
In total, they found signs of 36 animals, including forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, giant pangolins, forest buffaloes, and leopards.
The trek covered only a small part of Dja, so Daupin hasn't lost hope. More animals are likely to be sheltering in the reserve’s remote swamplands, he says.
Ecosystem on the Brink
Poaching in Dja Faunal Reserve is a microcosm of the larger problem facing the central African rain forest region and its wildlife.
According to a 2013 study, forest elephants are decreasing in the region—which covers Cameroon, Central African Republic, DRC, Congo, and Gabon—by 9 percent a year from poaching to satisfy demand for their ivory in Asia, predominantly China.
Hunting for bush meat—wild animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, forest antelopes, and bushpigs hunted for the pot and increasingly these days also for sale—is responsible for losses of most other mammal species.
Commercial hunting is prohibited in Dja, but the Baka people (pygmies, as they were traditionally known), who live in and around the reserve, are still allowed to take animals for food.
But growing demand for bush meat in cities such as Yaounde and Douala is providing financial incentive for other communities to illegally hunt animals for the trade.
“About half the bush meat hunted out of forests is consumed by villagers around the reserves, and the other half is sold in towns and cities,” says Fiona Maisels, a conservation scientist who has spent more than 20 years working in central Africa.
According to Maisels, advisor for the Wildlife Conservation Society's central African wildlife survey and monitoring programs, bush meat costs more than domestically produced meat from chickens or goats but is considered tastier. And it’s valued as a status symbol.
Maisels is concerned that at current rate of hunting in central Africa, “the large-bodied animals won't last more than another couple of decades.”
A 2013 study on the ecological impact of hunting in the region said that overhunting could cause knock-on problems for the forest. Reduce the numbers of monkeys and other natural gardeners that disperse the seeds of trees, for example, and the forest loses tree diversity and density.
“Immediate hunting regulation is vital for the survival of the Central African rainforest ecosystem,” the study warned.
Not Too Late
Members of UNESCO are attending the conference in Yaoundé to review the status of Dja as a World Heritage Site—in particular, whether it should be considered for the list of World Heritage sites in danger.
There are now 46 areas on this unhappy list, five of them in the Congo Basin, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We do not take these decisions lightly,” says Bandiougou Diawara, the UNESCO Program Specialist for Africa. “A monitoring mission to Dja will be undertaken in the coming months to see whether the criteria for which the site was inscribed are strongly threatened.”
Dupain is leading a workshop at the conference on improving anti-poaching systems in Dja and other protected areas in central Africa.
Meanwhile in Dja the African Wildlife Foundation is introducing a cybertracking device that transmits GPS information about illegal activity in the reserve to antipoaching teams.
In future, emphasis will be given to creating alternative livelihoods for communities around the reserve and building a sense of guardianship for its wildlife.
“These are big tasks,” he says, “But we’re confident that it’s possible to turn things around.”
"Dja is still a massive rain forest habitat, he continues. "We will not leave the area and say it’s too late.”