“Finding My Hidden Treasure”
I am Anna Murphy from Scotland. The two-week volunteering experience with ERuDeF has indeed been full of surprises, all memorable, and one in particular absolutely magical!
I was warmly welcomed into Cameroon by brightly smiling Bertrand, whose gentlemanly nature I immediately appreciated as he demanded to carry my heavy backpack immediately bombarding me with information about ERuDeF, his passion was so energetic that I could not help but become even more enthused about the volunteering I had come to do.
Observing a goat being strapped to the top of the bus, much as if it were one of the cabbages it lay alongside, was not exactly something I had love to see as we head for the expedition proper in the Mak-betcou area.
The next day that is after the long and challenging journey, I had to take part in the ERuDeF Conservation Education Programme in G. S Njentse-Andu. I was to face a classroom full of curious primary school students, and at the time this prospect daunted me far more than the thought of an arduous five hour trek I had to take subsequently into the Proposed Mak-betchou Chimpanzee Sanctuary. However, after watching a competent ERuDeF member easily maintain their attention, I was determined to share my love for the apes too. By explaining my love for the apes and why I had come to help their protection, I was genuinely encouraged by the ease with which the children picked up new ideas, thus rapidly understanding why ERuDeF values conservation education so highly.
After an initial challenge of the next day, I relaxed into the tranquil atmosphere, enjoying the misty silence of the mountains and authentic beauty of the local houses. That evening the tranquility was broken by the talkative Chief Fondu of Andu as he excitedly gave us a tour of his palace, proudly pointing out the 7 separate kitchens (one for each of the previous fon’s wives) and lecturing us in considerable detail about the ceremonial uses of his many wooden masks and sculptures.
From the Fon’s palace, our next stop was the Mak-betchou Proposed Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While waiting for the porters to ready themselves, I enjoyed playing with the fon’s young children, encouraging them to draw gorillas and chimps, and explaining that no, they were not for eating. I hope the message got through. ERuDeF is certainly working hard to sensitize these traditionally hunter communities about the importance of the apes. Chadeaus, our field guide, had certainly come round, proudly chirpily explaining the economic benefits of the pigs and beehives ERuDeF had provided, saying ‘the chimps are our friends now.’
But the expedition to the forest was what I really came for, and it was phenomenal. The blue and purple butterflies dancing in and out of the shadows, the beauty of the trees whose trunks appear to extend into the canopy, and the intertwining vines and branches below, the methodical process of collecting data, knowing that each sign recorded will help persuade the government that Mak-Betchu is an area worth protecting, were so amazing. The excitement of a fresh elephant footprint in the mud; laughing out loud when Bedwin, our kind-hearted fun-loving ERuDeF guide, appeared into the campsite with an angry chameleon; when I went for a pee in the forest and was greeted by a spotty little frog staring right up at me; the hours of trekking, or indeed sitting and waiting for the rain to pass, are all treasured moments. The most special of these revealed itself by cheerful and raucous vocalisations on the last day, and I was blessed enough to gain a glimpse of chimp strolling down a branch and swinging away. My grin hardly dwindled the whole walk back to Andu. Next time, the most hidden treasure will certainly be the all-elusive, critically endangered Cross River Gorilla.
AUTHENTIC GORILLA VOLUNTEERING EXPERIENCE
I am Daniel Cohen, an American based in Switzerland. My experience was “authentic” in the ERuDeF Cross River Gorilla Volunteering Programme in Cameroon. We traveled many hours by bus and then by motorbike to reach the Besali village bordering the Tofala Forest. The villagers immediately gave me a warm reception which lasted my entire stay. Staying in our Field Guide’s house allowed me to feel part of the community and his family.
Although I was eager to journey into the bush to begin the biomonitoring, I knew we had other critical work first.
I had the opportunity to discuss conservation with the villagers. However, the children and adults required a different approach. The schoolchildren crowded into a room and permitted us to speak about the importance of primates in maintaining a healthy forest, and to explain that these animals are gentle, shy and not a danger. The hope is these children will share their learnings with their parents. I also had the honor to tell my ‘story’ – to explain my motivation for visiting their forest because of my desire to ensure future generations are able to study and enjoy primates. In return, the children taught me the local words for gorillas (chimunga) and chimpanzee (bokum).
I also was able to participate in the Women’s Association meeting. Here, we discussed creating a village bakery that would provide an alternate income source instead of an arduous trek into the forest that yields minimal revenue over the years (yet, destroys the forest). The women understandably face challenges with changing their current behavior, but all seemed extremely interested in the bakery as a way to increase their income (and reduce impact on forest, and its primate inhabitants).
We then trekked into the bush, which was an incredible mental and physical challenge. I am grateful to both the Biologist and local Field Guide for their enthusiasm and guidance to ensure I remained safe and provided valuable input to the biomonitoring program. We quickly settled into a routine of a hearty breakfast before walking up the steep and muddy hills. And then down the steep and muddy hills. And up..and down..and up! My heart would pound with excitement each time we found signs that a gorilla had feasted on a plantain plant or that the chimpanzees had arranged beds of leaves. Perhaps my primate friends were nearby? And we heard the chimps throwing stones and vocalizing to each other many times.
Once, while we sat quietly, we heard a cross-river gorilla walk near pounding his chest. We dutifully recorded each of these signs along with GPS coordinate and other pertinent information. The days were hot and I needed to keep my concentration on each slippery step so I could make it back to camp for a hot meal and refreshing shower in the waterfall, even when our Field Guide was excited by the black mamba snake on the trail. The biologist told me I was “lucky” (as very rare to see); I smiled and wondered if “lucky” has a different meaning in Cameroon, or at least to someone very afraid of snakes.
After a few days of biomonitoring, we had to leave our forest home and return to the village where we entered the information into a database. I was able to spend some more time saying goodbye to the wonderful people of the Besali village and return to Buea for a final debrief, as well as a trip to the Limbe primate sanctuary to check in on some of the gorillas and chimpanzees which were unlucky in their encounters with poachers and losing their families. Now, I have my pictures and videos, as well as my experiences, to share with my friends and colleagues in a hope that they too will understand the importance of primate conservation in Cameroon.