- Providing farming support to communities living near a wildlife reserve in Cameroon has been shown to lower rates of hunting, according to a three-year study.
- Thirty-five of the 64 hunters enrolled in the study near Dja Faunal Reserve were able to increase their income from fishing or cacao farming, the two main economic activities aside from hunting in the region.
- The participants spent more time working on their farms and less in the forest hunting with guns, an important indicator that they weren’t targeting “animals of conservation importance and primates in particular.”
- While the results of the experiment are promising, experts say it’s not a silver bullet and should be used alongside other solutions, including education, governance, and sustainable natural resource management.
A three-year project supporting alternative livelihoods has shown success in changing the behavior of hunters living on the northern edge of Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. Participants signed on to reciprocal environmental agreements (REAs), which provided them access to technical expertise to increase productivity of their cacao farms, develop new farms, or carry out fishing, in return for reducing hunting.
Those who signed the agreements gained more income from cacao farming and changed their hunting behavior, said Jacques Keumo Kuenbou, a doctoral student at Ghent University in Belgium and first author on the paper. The findings were recently published in the journal Animal Conservation.
The study — part of the Great Apes Project (Projet Grandes Singes) by Belgium’s Antwerp Zoo — ran between 2018 and 2021. It sought to assess REAs as a solution to address commercial bushmeat hunting, which poses a significant conservation threat to wildlife in the area, including threatened species such as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla).
According to Jacob Willie, research coordinator at Antwerp Zoo and a co-author of the paper, the findings show that such agreements can be effective conservation tools. “REAs allow the individual to be personally involved in conservation and to directly benefit from it, thus seeing its merit,” he told Mongabay in an email. “REAs can therefore more easily convert the individual into a conservation advocate.”
Researchers conducted interviews with hunters while local community assistants recorded data on bushmeat catches over a three-year period. Hunters self-declared some information such as time spent hunting in the forest and their financial situation. At the outset of the project, all 64 hunters in the study caught similar amounts of bushmeat.
The 35 men who signed the agreement were able to increase their income from fishing or cacao farming, the two main economic activities aside from hunting in the region, Kuenbou said. The project provided them with technical support, materials, and access to cocoa markets.
Over the course of the study period, participants reportedly earned roughly 30% more income from cacao farming, and spent more time working on their farms and less in the forest hunting with guns. There was no decline in the number of traps set in the forest by the men who signed up, however, as this less time-consuming hunting method continued to be practiced by both groups, according to Kuenbou. But REA participants told researchers they sold less bushmeat, eating a larger proportion of what they caught.
The recorded decline in gun hunting is important, said Julia Fa, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K. who studies the loss of wildlife in tropical forests and its impact on people who depend on it. “If you’re dealing with a conservation area, you would want to reduce the number of people hunting with guns, because they are potentially targeting animals of conservation importance and primates in particular.”
The community research assistants recorded hunting of both chimpanzees and gorillas in 2018, the project’s first year, but not over the following two years. Kuenbou said this may be due to a change in perception of some community members. “I think the project also helped to stop the killing of those animals, not because the hunters understood that they don’t have to kill them but because they now fear that other people in the village will not agree with them,” he said.
Fa, who was not involved in the study, said its findings demonstrate how alternative livelihoods can support a move away from a reliance on commercial hunting. “The paper is interesting in that it seems to be that there is a positive effect of [reciprocal environmental agreements] in a particular part of the population,” she said.
Because they reach only some individuals and households, reciprocal environmental agreements have limitations compared to other approaches that can involve entire communities, Willie added, such as implementing community-owned forest areas.
In addition, those who signed the agreements were generally older men, with larger households. Convincing younger people to sign on and reduce hunting, Kuenbou said, proved a challenge for various reasons; one principal factor being that shifting to cacao farming would not produce immediate financial benefits.
The older people sometimes already had cocoa farms, but the cocoa wasn’t producing very well,” he said, meaning they stood to benefit more from the incentives offered. “When we discussed with the younger people, they said that if they plant cocoa they will have wait for three years to benefit from it.
“You have to find other ways to convince younger people to sign the agreements,” Kuenbou said, adding that a subsequent step in the project is to identify and offer such alternatives for younger people, such as hiring them as forest guides, while offering support to set up cacao farms.
While the paper’s findings indicate that offering incentives to hunters can reduce pressure on biodiversity, co-creating solutions with hunters would be beneficial, according to Nakedi Maputla, a senior conservation scientist and planner with the African Wildlife Foundation, who was not involved in the study: “I doubt that cocoa farming will deliver such incentives in the long term. There should be additional alternatives to cocoa and fishing.”
In an email, Maputla wrote, “The study presents a strong case for the adoption of incentive-based solutions. I don’t think it can work in isolation but should be used alongside other solutions, including education, governance [and] sustainable natural resource management.”
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Kuenbou, J. K., Tagg, N., Khan, D. M., Speelman, S., & Willie, J. (2023). Socioeconomic changes influence hunter behavior in the northern periphery of Dja Faunal Reserve, Cameroon. Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12916