Eco tourism Cameroon style

Posted: 21 February 2005

Author: Olivier van Bogaert

The majestic waterfalls of Memve'ele, though largely unknown are one of the natural jewels of the West African state of Cameroon. Now, local villagers are planning to open them up for eco tourism. Olivier van Bogaert of WWF, which is helping to develop the project, reports.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it really make a noise? Perhaps. If you are walking through the dense old growth forests of south-western Cameroon, and no one is around, do you hear a noise? Absolutely.

The sound is penetrating and loud, like an endless roll of thunder. You can't help but be drawn to the primordial sounds, following the narrow trails to the forest's edge. Finding yourself on the top of a steep cliff looking down into a great abyss, you know that you have finally arrived.

Memve'ele waterfalls bordering the Campo Ma'an National Park, Cameroon. © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
Memve'ele waterfalls bordering the Campo Ma'an National Park, Cameroon. © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
The spectacular Memve'ele waterfalls bordering the Campo Ma'an National Park, Cameroon.© WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
The great waterfalls of Memve'ele drop an imposing mass of water and foam some 25m into the bowels of the jungle's deep canyons before quieting down towards the Atlantic Ocean. This is by far one of Cameroon's natural jewels, but still largely unknown to the outside world.

For Sylvain Motto, though, sitting in his dugout canoe on a calm river tributary just upstream, this is his world and one in which he would like to share with others.

"We opened up trails to the waterfalls and are keeping them maintained," said Motto, who comes from the nearby village of Ebianemeyong. "Hopefully, one day tourists will come here."

Wildlife viewing

Ebianemeyong and the neighbouring Campo-Ma'an National Park is a hard day's drive from the capital, Yaounde - literally off the beaten track as the paved road ends less than half way to this remote corner of Cameroon. Without a sturdy 4x4, a knowledgeable guide, and general perseverance, you might never arrive. But despite the obstacles, Sylvain Motto and others are optimistic.

Bertin Tchikangwa, WWF Project Leader  with Pygmy chief of Nkongo, Cameroon. © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
Bertin Tchikangwa, WWF Project Leader with Pygmy chief of Nkongo, Cameroon. © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
Bertin Tchikangwa, WWF Project Leader in Campo Ma'an, meets with the chief of Nkongo, a Bagyeli pygmy village in the buffer zone of Campo-Ma'an National Park, Cameroon.© WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
"Eco tourism is a key component for development of this region," said Bertin Tchikangwa, a sociologist who leads a WWF project in the Campo-Ma'an National Park.

In Ebianemeyong, WWF has plans to build bungalows close to the river and observation towers for wildlife viewing. It is part of a larger project that aims to ensure the protection and sound management of the national park and surrounding areas.

Hunting grounds

The Campo-Ma'an National Park and its buffer zone - covering an area of approximately 700,000ha - is a nature lover's paradise with 80 species of mammals, 302 species of birds, 122 species of reptiles, more than 80 species of amphibians, and 249 species of fish. In addition, some 390 species of invertebrates have been identified, including seven species not yet officially recorded in Cameroon.

This area has traditionally been the hunting grounds of local communities - which include such diverse ethnic groups as the Bulu, Mvae, Ntumu, and Bagyeli pygmies - but much of the land is now off limits since the creation on the park in 2000.

"We rely mostly on the forest for our subsistence," said Motto, who is Ebianemeyong's chief. "With the creation of the park, access to vital resources such as game has been restricted. We switched to agriculture, but gorillas and elephants are repeatedly destroying our fields."

Although smaller than its savannah cousins in southern Africa, the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) still weighs in at 3,200 to 6,400 kg and can cause considerable damage to the villagers' manioc and maize crops.

"My village's tourist potential could solve many of the problems we are facing," Motto said. "It would generate revenues and create jobs for our young people."

The potential is certainly there. Wildlife, forest walks in the national park, waterfalls, dugout canoe rides, and ancient Neolithic caves are some of the many assets that Ebianemeyong and the surrounding villages can offer ecotourists and adventurers alike.

However, the main thing that seems to be missing is strategy and infrastructure.

Gravel roads

Coastal beach town of Kribi, Cameroon.  © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
Coastal beach town of Kribi, Cameroon. © WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
Coastal beach town of Kribi, Cameroon - one of the few villages in the region with existing infrastructure for tourism.© WWF-Canon / Olivier van Bogaert
The coastal beach town of Kribi and its 40 hotels is an exception in a region where accommodation is rare, but that is about 140km away from Ebianemeyong on large stretches of poorly maintained gravel roads.

Outside Kribi, tourist infrastructure is practically non-existent, and potential tourist sites are not advertised or difficult to access. The national park's conservation office does not have a tourist information centre and most local communities have no idea of how to begin managing eco tourism.

"As long as the tourist value is inadequately promoted, Campo-Ma'an National Park will not contribute very much to improve the local economy and increase the residents' standard of life," Tchikangwa added. "We need to find ways to get people to visit this very unique area, but only if it is done in a sustainable and responsible way."

With this in mind, WWF is working with local communities to promote potential tourist sites that the park and buffer zone have to offer. At the same time, the project is providing support for community-based tourist services and accommodation.

The coastal village of Ebodje - some 30km south of Kribi - is already open for business, promoting visits to a nearby beach where two species of marine turtles - loggerhead and olive ridley - lay their eggs each year between November and January.

Ebodje's chief, who reads detective novels on a lounge chair in front of his beach-front hut, oversees a committee whereby the community participates in all tourism-related decisions. Several villagers have added guest rooms in their homes to lodge tourists. And, small restaurants have sprouted up, offering tasty local dishes such as Poisson braisé à la Camerounaise (grilled fish), Mbounga (smoked fish), Ndolé (a bitter leaf stuffed with meat or fish), Alloko (fried plantains), and Mussolé (plantain chips).

WWF is also supporting communities who want to develop dugout canoeing excursions. Several areas of the park can be explored by canoe, and some rivers offer spectacular viewpoints of rapids and waterfalls, as well as excellent sites for recreational fishing. A canopy walk through Campo-Ma'an National Park's tropical treetops to observer wildlife is also being considered following a survey carried out by Antwerp Zoo's Great Apes Project.

Gorilla watching

"The park shows great potential for gorilla watching," said Virginie Vergnes, a French primatologist working with the Grat Apes Project.

"We cannot draw definite conclusions from our initial findings, but we would not be surprised if there were between 500 and 1,000 gorillas and chimpanzees in the park."

A possible site for gorilla watching has already been identified, but is contingent on available funding and plans to slowly introduce gorillas to visitors on their territory.

"Establishing nature-based tourist activities will take some time and require hard work, particularly by all those concerned," reflected Bertin Tchikangwa. "But if we succeed, the local communities, and ultimately the protection of the park, will surely benefit in the long run."

Source: WWF