Picking up the shattered shreds of a sacred forest: Kupe Forest, Cameroon

Posted on July, 21 2006

Gone are the days when taboos helped protect rich forest areas so highly reverered in Africa's traditional society. Find out more about forest protection in and around Cameroon's Mt Kupe.

The wise men of the Mount Kupe rainforest area are at a loss as to what suddenly unmasked the myth that once made their forest a traditionally sacred, no-go area.

Today, the traditional rulers and elders of the land are lining up behind WWF to weed out ruthless poachers and illegal loggers whose nefarious activities are seriously affecting rare tropical plant and animal species.

Rich Biodiversity
Mount Kupe, in Cameroon's southwest, covers an area of approximately 42km2 with an altitude that ranges from 600m to a high peak of 2064m. The forest is largely made up of evergreens and surrounded by 16 villages and towns with an estimated population of 140,000 inhabitants, predominantly of the Bakossi tribe.

The Kupe Forest has a wide range of plants and animals that can hardly be found elsewhere, such as the Mount Kupe Bush Shrike. In addition, there are seven bird species for which Mount Kupe is a very important population center; a unique chameleon species; eight primate species such as the preuss’ monkey, the red-eared monkey, drill, chimpanzee and red-capped mangabey; and about 20 endemic plant species, including a wild coffee plant believed to be of more value than the robusta and arabica coffee species common in Cameroon.

Sacred Forest
Until only about 50 years ago, the Kupe forest was considered a sacred area. It was generally believed to be the home of the ancestors of the area. Among the many stories that existed about the mystical powers of the forest was the one that the local Bakossis were never beaten in tribal wars because they lured their enemies in to the sacred forest where the ancestors acted like invisible fighters. All revered the forest and all it incarnates. Killing an animal from that forest or felling a tree was like killing an ancestor and by extension weakening the battle lines of the village. This tradition enabled the forest to stay largely intact. But this was soon going to change.

Threatened forest
The spirit of nationalism that gripped Cameroon between the 1950s and 1960s opened the once sacred Kupe forest to “sacrilege”. The forest became a hideout for guerrilla fighters locally known as the maquisars. When peace and order returned in the early 1970s, the towns and villages of the area witnessed a dramatic increase in population with many coming in mainly from the grassland areas of Cameroon in search of the extremely rich soil of the volcanic area for agricultural purposes. Slash and burn consumed large areas of the forest as people grabbed more hectares for farmland. Alongside the agriculturalists came the poachers and even loggers. The onslaught for the Kupe Forest was full scale.

Rekindled hope
The arrival of conservation organisations such as WWF evidently slowed down the pace of on-going destruction. Through sensitization campaigns, local communities came to understand that their livelihood s depended on the forest and its products. They are now conscious of the fact that the forest is all they have and that present and future generations stand to benefit provided there is better management.

With the erosion of the mythical tradition of old that made the forest sacred, local communities, through their respective chiefs, are now taking different measures to achieve better results that will guarantee a better future for their once revered Mount Kupe Forest. With the help of community-based organizations, conservation NGOs, including the WWF Coastal Forests Programme, and the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife, the Bakossis have decided to establish a farm-forest boundary to save the remaining forest from further human encroachment.

Towards a protected area status
This, they did with a very strong commitment towards creating a protected area. In an enlarged stakeholder meeting recently held in one of the towns in the Kupe area to decide on the legal status for the forest, an integral ecological reserve was chosen as suitable status. If approved by the government, this will be the first of its kind in Cameroon. It would imply that all human activities are strictly prohibited in the area.
Not completely relying on the creation of boundaries, the local chiefs recently decided to finance an anti-poaching group, the Nyasoso Eco-tourism Group, that act like rangers in the region. The finances of the group come from the meagre fund of the village development associations. The locals are looking up to WWF and other conservation organizations for more material and technical support to boost their activities that aims at saving biodiversity and promoting development.

For further information contact: Peter Ngea, WWF CARPO Communication Manager
pngea@wwfcarpo.org Tel 237 221 70 83

One of the many tips of Mount Kupe on a bright day
© Peter Ngea
Project Manager, Dr. Atanga Ekobo (left) arrives at a village on the slopes of Mount Kupe to honour an invitation from influential traditional rulers of the area to discuss the future status of Kupe forest
© Peter Ngea