Biodiversity in the Lebialem Highlands might have hit its biggest ever catastrophe in history, with IUCN Red List species, such as the Gross River Gorilla,the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee and the African Forest Elephant totally abandoned due to two dreadful crises;s the outbreak of the intransigent Cameroon Anglophone crisis in 2016 and COVID-19 in 2019, the conservation of biodiversity in Anglophone Cameroon has been nearly impossible in most localities, especially with frequent armed conflicts in these areas, thr leave most protected areas unmonitored or unprotected.
The conservation of wildlife and their habitats in the Lebialem Highlands was paralyzed in 2017 by the Anglophone crisis that forced the management of the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary to flee along side many other people who were running for their dear lives.Many others sort refuge in the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary. As a result of this war, all conservation activities were halted including, monthly anti-poaching patrols, village sensitization campaigns, research, biomonitoring and others. This armed conflict also resulted to massive destruction of local livelihoods, properties and homes.
In most areas in the Lebialem Highlands, the affected population is being displaced into the forest where accessibility is difficult. it is believed that the people who are living in the protected area are heavvily dependent on their nautural and biological resources including the Cross River Gorillas, the Nigeria Cameroon Chimpanzee, the African Forest Elephant and many other globally threatened species. This is because the people solely depend on these natural resources for their livelihoods.
Besides the bad shape of the protected areas in the Leboialem Highlands, the crisis has also brought about increase in gender based and sexual violence especialy for the women, total close down of educational facilities, loss of homes, construction of new camps in the forest, and recruitment of young people into the armed separatist mnovement.
In the midst of the worsening Anglophone crisis, most Forest Rangers have been caught up in what can be termed a “bitter ordeal”. In the Lebialem Highlands, Eco guards have had their hearts in their hands, as they flee away from the consequences of the crisis especially with frequent military and secessionist raids in and around the villages, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Eco guards working in the Tofala Hill Wild Life sanctuary area have recounted their bitter tales.
During an interview with the Green Vision Newspaper reporter, they all recounted that, their guns have been seized, their main sources of livelihood destroyed, and wildlife conservation nearly impossible. They also revealed , law enforcement in their areas of operation is in the hands of secessionist fighters, with schools, markets and hospitals completely closed.
One of them explained, “new farms have been created in the sanctuary, most families have been displaced, there have been an increase of unwanted pregnancies and little or no medical facilities. I depend only on my farm for survival. My children have all stopped schooling as there are no schools. I don’t even know where some of my children are, as some of them ran away from the village.”Another Forest Ranger who voted anonymity revealed that, poaching by guns has reduced drastically because local hunter’s guns have been seized. however trapping has increased. He also revealed that, there has been an increase in the number of gorillas, chimpanzees and other animals, given that they come right down to my farm and feed on plantain and banana stocks”. He noted.
Despite the challenges, the Environment and Rural Development Foundation is even more determined to save biodiversity in the Lebialem Highlands from total peril. ERuDeF is bent in furthering conservation in the Lebialem Highlands through its new project called the Lebialem Highlands Initiative.The Lebialem Highlands Initiative is committed in the next 15 years to the conservation of Biodiversity with focus on the Cross River Gorillas, the cameroon Nigerian Chimpanzee, the African Forest Elephant and other wildlife species in the area, through a long term partnership with the African Conservati on Foundation and the Cross River Gorilla Project, both UK charities.
The works of ERuDeF will focus on nurturing and promoting the conservation in the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, the proposed Njoagwi Fotabong Essoh Attah Wildlife Sanctuary , Sanchou Wildlife reserve and the associated corridors.
According to Louis Nkembi, the President/CEO of ERuDeF, the situation of biodiversity in the Lebialem Highlands is not in good health. “The outbreak of the Anglophone crisis forced many people to flee into neighbouring towns and also into the forest. Those in the forest solely relying on forest resoursces for subsistence and livelihood .Information collected from local informants show that hunting with guns has been on a steady decrease while encroachment for agricultural purposes and hunting through trapping has been on the increase. This implies habitat loss and forest resource exploitation has increased while hunting with guns has been reduced to near zero.”
According to Tim Killian, the Focal point Manager of the Lebialem Highlands, ERuDeF is currently revising its conservation strategies in the Lebialem Highlands, inorder to focus on the most important and urgent actions that will save the Cross River Gorillas, the Nigerian Cameroon Chimpanzees and the African Forest Elephants across their targeted ranges.
“Among some of the urgent prioritis being considered include the reassesment of the current population status of the Cross River Gorillas,Nigerian Cameroon Chimpanzees, African Forest Elephants and other species, assesssing the current impact of forest encroachment of forest inhabitants and assesing the best management option that will be used in the context of the current Anglophone crisis as well as putting into place an effective education strategy that will engage all the stakeholders into the conservation of these species.” The new strategy is also considering the development of a biodiversity in crisis fundand as well as an economic recovery fund and education fund to support conservation in times of crisis and other pandemics .
Inorder to attain the noble objectives of the Lebialem Highlands Initiative ERuDeF and its partners are calling on the global commuinty of funders to support the risky and emergent work of the local rangers ( local conservation ambassadors) their livelihoods and the lives of the affected local populations. It is important to note that, the Government of Cameroon recently approved the management plan of the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, the first of its kind, for a sanctuary in Cameroon.