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Studying human-elephant interactions in Cameroon’s rainforest

By Léa Mimeault, a MSc student at Concordia University

On May 3rd 2023, I set foot for the first time in Cameroon for the beginning of what would be a 4-month skill-development, integration, and connection journey.

The Campo-Ma’an Technical Operational Unit (CMTOU) in southwestern Cameroon is home to many threatened wildlife species, among which is the critically endangered forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). In addition to poaching, these elephants face new threats coming from the recent declassification of a Forest Management Unit (FMU), which was previously used for logging but is being converted into an oil palm plantation… even though previous data demonstrates that this sector is home to a lot of forest elephants! As a result of this disruption, there is an increase in elephant visits to nearby fields resulting in damaged crops. When crops are severely damaged, food security of human populations is threatened and anger may build in them, which can cause difficult-to-resolve human-wildlife conflict (HWC). As a consequence, it’s important to develop a deeper understanding of elephant habitat use across the CMTOU landscape so we can develop appropriate mitigation measures. Habitat loss through conversion of forest to agriculture is a threat that will continue to intensify HWC and threaten both humans and elephants’ survival if nothing is done in the CMTOU.

To document elephant habitat use and anthropogenic pressure, I deployed camera traps along the border between the declassified FMU and the community land. Between the camera stations, I recorded recent elephant and anthropogenic signs, such as active trails, snares, fresh elephant dung, etc.

Une image contenant habits, personne, arbre, plein air

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Setting up a camera trap in the Campo-Ma’an Technical Operational Unit to capture images of elephants.

This was done in three field sessions, each of which lasted around ten days. Every night we pitched camp near a river, and the next morning we repacked everything and continued our journey – setting up camera traps and documenting elephant and anthropogenic signs along the way.

During these field sessions, I reflected on my past field, research, and travel experiences. The challenges I had overcome during those became so relevant to the present, especially in regards to having a sense of purpose, dealing with isolation, and navigating new interpersonal relationships. The field sessions were also an opportunity to feel connected to Mother Nature through the environment, the limitations, the sweat, and the four elements that drove the journey (earth, fire, air, water).

To document people’s experiences with, and perceptions of elephants, all villages of the Campo administrative region were visited, and households were interviewed about their experiences and perceptions towards the human-elephant conflict.

Une image contenant habits, personne, sol, plein air

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Interviewing a local woman about her experiences and perspectives on elephants and the human-elephant conflict.

Meeting with locals made me realize how complex conservation and projects that integrate human aspects are. To suggest adequate and non-neocolonialistic human-wildlife mitigation measures, one should go to the field, whenever possible, and integrate the community to truly understand the issue’s complexity. The application of integrative, long-term measures requires local experience and knowledge. Correspondingly, I met and collaborated with local conservation researchers, whether they were government officials (MINFOF) or working for conservation organizations (AWF, WWF).

In addition to contributing to the development of a monitoring program in a region where data is lacking, the financial support of Quebec Center for Biodiversity Sciences (QCBS) through the Student Excellence Award helped me enhance my ecological field monitoring skills, improve my practical and specific knowledge of tropical conservation, collect data for my MSc thesis, collaborate with local researchers and international students, and contribute to my long-term career objective of conducting tropical research.

About the author: Léa Mimeault is a MSc student at Concordia University supervised by Dr. Robert Weladji. She is fascinated by the behavior of large gregarious mammals and their interspecific interactions, and is currently studying the topic of human-wildlife coexistence in tropical regions.

Post date: February 07, 2024


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