Somié Chimpanzee Conservation Project:
Restoring Forest Ecosystems and Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods
Nestled between the Mambilla plateau in Nigeria and the Bamenda highlands in Cameroon, Somié is home to the Mambilla people who share a common identity with their counterparts in Taraba State, Nigeria. Somié lies in the northern borderlands that connect Cameroon with Nigeria and forms part of the Western Cameroon highlands ecoregion, known for its exceptional levels of avian diversity and endemism (Figure 1). The existing forests and forest fragments are extremely important in both a global and local context; they represent a sequence of forest types and many supports vulnerable populations of faunal taxa. The area is home to a distinct subspecies of chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes ellioti. These chimpanzees are the most endangered of all four chimpanzee subspecies, with a total population between 3,500 and 9,000 in Cameroon and Nigeria. The chimpanzees play a vital role in maintaining the diversity of these forest ecosystems, primarily through seed dispersal. Their presence is evidence of the region’s ecological significance, but their habitat is rapidly disappearing, putting them at risk of local extinction. Other endangered species such as giant pangolins and banded wattle-eye, also call this landscape home.
Map : The location of Somie in west Cameroon ( David Zeitlyn )
Conservation and Development Challenges
The landscape has experienced a severe decline in biodiversity due to factors such as increasing human population, habitat fragmentation, conversion of forest into coffee plantations, bushfires set by cattle grazers, climate change impacts, and unsustainable farming practices.
In the last decade, Somié has experienced a population increase from about 5,000 to 8,000 people. With more mouths to feed and few reliable sources of income, poverty levels have risen significantly. High poverty levels typically lead to a higher dependence on natural resources. Consequently, the number of people converting forests to grazing land or farmland have increased, exacerbating the threats to Somié’s forests. Fires set to improve grazing forage for cattle are the most severe threat to forest ecosystem. These wildfires also increase carbon emissions, and soil erosion, further exacerbating the conservation and livelihood challenges.
Slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional practice in Somié, has become increasingly unsustainable and destructive in the face of growing populations and dwindling forest resources. This method leads to deforestation and habitat loss, contributing to a decline in biodiversity. Additionally, it causes increased air pollution and carbon emissions, exacerbating global climate change. Soil erosion and landslides are also common consequences, as the lack of vegetation destabilizes the soil.
The loss or degradation of forests, particularly around the water catchment, led to a series of landslides a few years ago. Following the landslides and persistent bushfires, the village’s gravity-fed water supply has stopped running after twenty years of service. Having brought clean, fresh water from a catchment in hills above the village to standpipes located on roadsides and public spaces around the village, the system provided potable water accessible to most homes. After the landslide, a temporary fix was put in place more than six years ago but this has now failed. The cost of repairs is beyond the means of the community.
CBBM’s approach in Somié is guided by three interlocking themes: improved land governance through community forests, enhanced forest and wildlife protection and habitat restoration, and promotion of ecotourism and income generation from natural resources. Sustained consultation and engagement with the local community is an essential component of CBBM’s approach. CBBM engages the community persistently through various approaches, such as regular meetings with the traditional council, youth, and women’s groups, as well as through participatory video sessions. Conservation education in schools and communities is also a vital component of CBBM’s approach to ensure the success of the program’s interventions.
Establish a Community Forest in Somié:
- Goal: Protect an area of about 5,000 hectares composed of forest and savanna vegetation.
- Timeline: Three years.
- Budget: Central African Franks (XAF) 120,000,000
- Process: Complete a Community Forestry feasibility study, secure funding, develop a Simple Management Plan (SMP) signed by the government and community representatives, create the community forest, and support the implementation of the simple management plan, develop conservation education packages to improve forest management.
Forest regeneration through tree planting:
- Goal: Reforest 100 hectares annually with 50,000 seedlings of native tree species and supply 3,000 seedlings for tourists and volunteer planting.
- Timeline: 15-year community-led plan.
- Budget: XAF 25,000,000 annually
- Process: Run community nurseries, train, and equip local tree planting Associations, build the tree planting capacity of the local population, integrate reforestation into tourist and volunteer visits, and post-tree planting management/monitoring for survival.
Establish a Village Forest Management Committee (VFMC):
- Goal: Create a VFMC as the main village conservation and livelihood development authority in Somié.
- Budget: XAF 18,000,000 for 15 years (XAF 1,200,000 annually)
- Process: Constitution of members, building capacity of members, support monthly meetings of members, support field visits to supervise reforestation and chimpanzee conservation work and to sensitize the public on the VFMC’s work.
In practice, the VFMC will be charged with making decisions on all aspects of land use and forest management. The VFMC will be the main instrument of wildlife management in the village and will work closely with CBBM and the government to ensure effective management of the community forest and protection of wildlife habitat. It will consist of 11 elected people from the village and will be chaired by the village or one of his deputies.
Train and recruit community members for a community-led chimpanzee guardianship program:
- Goal: Recruit five chimpanzee guardians to carry out monthly chimpanzee monitoring.
- Budget: Approximately XAF 7,000,000 annually
- Process: Train guardians in wildlife monitoring tools (GPS, compass, rugged smartphones with Sapelli software, and/or camera traps) and data collection techniques and provide them with incentives to conduct monthly chimpanzee patrol and report threats to the Village Forest Management Committee (VFMC).
Support livelihood and ecotourism:
- Goal: enhance community livelihoods and promote ecotourism in the region.
- Budget: To be determined
- Process: Finalize ongoing feasibility studies to explore potential activities and their impact on the local economy and environment. Develop livelihood support programs with options that include apiculture, pisciculture, tourism, and agroforestry.
This comprehensive list of interconnected activities showcases the dedication of CBBM and the Somié community to address conservation and development challenges in the region. By working together, we can protect and restore forests, empower the local population, and create sustainable economic opportunities for generations to come.
Monitoring and evaluation
CBBM will employ the Standardized Protocol for Evaluating Community Conservation Success (SPECC) methodology developed by the Wilder Institute to carefully monitor, evaluate, and measure the impact of this work. The SPECC methodology, described in a publication available at https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eap.1788, provides a robust framework that will enable us to systematically record learnings, share outcomes, and adapt approaches when necessary to follow best practices. Throughout the program, we will engage the local people in a continuous consultation process, ensuring they have adequate time to understand, raise awareness in their communities, address concerns, and make informed decisions. By implementing this comprehensive evaluation tool and fostering active community consultation and participation, we will assess project performance against well-defined indicators, track progress toward conservation and socio-economic goals, and ensure continuous improvement through iterative learning, ultimately maximizing the impact of our project on both the wildlife and the people of Somié.