Greetings to my fellow Masters students working hard on summer research and also to all you kind readers interested in our adventures! I am writing from the town of Mundemba in Southwest Cameroon, where I have been based for just a little over a month now for my research on human-wildlife conflict. I had hoped to write earlier, but in just the first week my computer was tragically killed during one of the frequent power surges. Electricity is patchy and internet nearly non-existent. But, alas, I am writing now – here and well and better adjusted to the trials and tribulations of research in Cameroon!
For those of you not familiar, my research is centered on understanding human-wildlife conflict in the form of crop raiding within the context of existing and increasing oil palm development in Cameroon. Oil palm production has gained international attention in recent years due to the extensive deforestation and human displacement caused by plantation expansion in Indonesia. Now, many of the same Southeast Asian companies operating in Indonesia, in addition to new oil palm companies from the U.S. and Brazil, are looking to the forests of West and Central Africa as a new frontier for expansion. There are many reasons why large-scale oil palm production will differ between Indonesia and Africa, way too many to address here. Most significantly, the oil palm tree (Elais guineas) is native to Africa, so palm oil and its by-products hold significant cultural relevance bolstered by a long legacy of smallholder production. I chose to conduct my research in Cameroon, a country where many industrial oil palm concessions are in the works, because I believe the potential impact of these companies on human-wildlife conflict surrounding forested areas needs to be addressed in the African context.
My work here in Cameroon involves visiting four different villages at varying distances from two protected areas – Korup National Park and the Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve – and two oil palm production sites – one a long-standing government-owned oil palm plantation called PAMOL and the second a recent concession acquired by SGSOC (Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon). Within each village, I spend two weeks interviewing households chosen through systematic random sampling of homes. Each interview involves a set of around 40 questions regarding basic household information, diet (particularly bushmeat consumption), farming, and perspectives on land use change. The section on farming is the most substantial part of the interview. I ask about the different animals that visit the participant’s farm, how frequently, and the extent of damage for each animal. I then schedule a time to visit the farm and take a GPS point so that I can later uncover spatial predictors of crop raiding.
So far, I have completed a pilot study in the village of Meka Ngolo, two weeks in the village of Mundemba II, and am now wrapping up my first week in the village of Ikondo-kondo. Each village has proved to be an enriching experience for my perspective of conservation science in practice, as well as my personal development. I have been received with welcoming arms and in many cases, enthusiasm, because my research indirectly provides an outlet for them to express the daily grievances they face with the animals damaging their farms. As the majority of people in these villages identify as farmers, the damage caused by animals on farms often has significant consequences for household income and subsistence. Thus, it is not surprising that the direct, negative impact of animal raiding behavior on livelihoods often results in lethal action.
As I carry out my research, there have been some really interesting developments. I am not able to describe all of them just yet (without some preliminary analysis!), but one revelation concerns how deeply entrenched human-wildlife conflict is with broader elements of land use and tenure in this region. Both Meka Ngolo and Mundemba II share close boundaries with the Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve and the PAMOL plantation – two vastly different land use types with their own set of restrictions to farming. The village I am currently working in, Ikondo-kondo, was resettled out of Korup National Park fourteen years ago to a new area where crop-raiding by elephants is on the rise. And so, as goes the scientific process, I am working on adjusting my framework to incorporate the critical, changing dynamics of land use.
All in all, I am finding my time here to be incredibly rewarding. The work has certainly not been easy. Interviews often require tricky translation into Cameroonian Pidgin and local dialects. Visiting farms often involves trekking up hills that feel as if they are on a 90 degree incline, crossing wide streams and failing to keep my wellies dry, and trotting through thick farm bush that is known to hold Rhinoceros vipers and pythons. However, at the end of each day I remember that I am very privileged to be here – learning from the rich, bright culture of Cameroon while trying to make a dent in conservation practice through my work!