Birds and bushmeat in Cameroon

by Robin Whytock

I recently published an article in the journal Oryx, my first in a mainstream conservation journal. As pleased as I am to see the results of our team’s hard work finally published, it’s made me think about my future research aims and priorities. You can download the paper here.

The study came about through some incidental observations I made when working as a Research Associate with the Ebo Forest Research Project (EFRP) in Cameroon. I periodically came across the remains of dead birds like hornbills and eagles in hunter’s camps, but knew that birds were generally considered to be unaffected by the ‘bushmeat’ trade in Cameroon, so this seemed odd. Zacharie, my colleague and a former hunter, suggested that hunters had eaten the birds and they had no real commercial value. We began to wonder if previous research into the bushmeat trade had overlooked this aspect of hunter behaviour, since most studies had examined carcasses traded in markets or consumed in villages. To investigate further, we decided to undertake a year-long study, recording all animal remains discarded by hunters in a sample of camps.

hunter camp

Typical hunter camp in the Ebo forest

In principle this sounds quite simple, but most hunting activity in the Ebo forest is illegal (particularly using guns), and hunters are not famous for their hospitality. It was also going to be costly, since travelling between villages around the Ebo forest is expensive without a dedicated 4×4, which I couldn’t afford. It took me three years of repeated grant applications and rejections before I eventually had a run of good luck and received a total of $5,000 from three funders (The Peregrine Fund, British Ecological Society & Raptor Research Foundation). At the time it felt like a lottery win and, with some logistical support from the EFRP, I had visions of surveying all 34 known hunting camps in the Ebo forest every month for a year. This was of course optimistic, and by the time the funds actually made it to the project’s bank account I was no longer based in Cameroon. This wasn’t a major problem, since I had already developed the methodology with Zacharie and he was ready to undertake the surveys independently.

The study got off to a slow start, as Zacharie had to to hold meetings with each of the potential study villages before attempting to visit the camps. This involved protracted meetings with hunters and village chiefs, and after several weeks of negotiations he eventually persuaded hunters from two villages to cooperate. We were very fortunate to have Zacharie’s negotiating skills, and in the end we were allowed access to 13 of the 34 known hunting camps.

Zacharie went on to do a great job, even in the face of major transport difficulties. The local motorbike taxis, often the only means of transport into and out of a village, frequently refused to carry him because they could make more money transporting sacks of bushmeat. He eventually completed 50 surveys and photographed the remains of 49 animals from 21 species. As expected, we found that birds comprised the highest proportion of animal remains discarded in hunting camps. Raptors and hornbills made up the majority of carcasses, and there were also a few mammals. Perhaps the most striking result was that the most frequently detected bird, the white-thighed hornbill Bycanistes albotibialis, had never been recorded by previous bushmeat surveys in the region, which had examined some 250,000 carcasses.

white-thighed hornbill

Remains of a white-thighed hornbill Bycanistes albotibialis

From a conservation perspective, our results suggest that large-bodied birds may be experiencing unsustainable hunting pressure in the Ebo forest, and it’s likely that the same is happening elsewhere in Central Africa. Much of the interest in the bushmeat trade has focused on large mammals, which are highly vulnerable to excessive hunting pressure. Our study suggests that there is also a real need for future research to look at the impact of hunting on bird populations, particularly raptors. The crowned eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, for example, reproduces very slowly and a monogamous pair produces just one offspring biennially. They also prey on species hunted for bushmeat, such as colobus monkeys, guenons and duiker, therefore competing directly with humans for food. We didn’t record any dead crowned eagles during the study, but I’ve previously found remains in hunting camps. It’s likely that crowned eagle populations in Central Africa have already experienced population declines, and the species was recently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red-List of Endangered Species.

red-tailed guenon

Red-tailed guenons Cercopithecus erythrotis are often hunted for bushmeat, and are also prey for crowned eagles Stephanoaetus coronatus

Although I’m pleased with the outcome of the study, I can’t help but wonder if the time and resources expended might have been better used. It’s clear that excessive hunting is not only bad for those species affected directly, but also for wider ecosystems and people. Perhaps it’s time to just acknowledge this and stop attempting to quantify the bushmeat trade, instead dedicating resources to finding practical solutions. This is why socioeconomic studies have become central to much of the conservation research conducted in Central Africa. However, in Cameroon at least, results from these studies have yet to have any serious impact on wildlife legislation, people’s behaviour or lifestyles. I think this will change, and in the meantime conservation NGOs like the EFRP can be very effective at damage control, even if they can’t completely stop illegal hunting activities.

While I wonder about the value of using limited resources to simply quantify a tiny part of an otherwise well-known conservation problem, I hope that Zacharie’s fieldwork had a positive impact. He and other hunters working with the EFRP are well known in the community for abandoning hunting and using their skills to work in conservation. I expect that some of the active hunters he worked with are inspired by this, and might even apply for a job when the next round of field assistant posts are advertised. There’s a phrase in Cameroon’s pidgin English along the lines of “Small small take banana catch monkey”, meaning little by little you’ll get what you want. Conservation in Cameroon works along the same lines, and little by little hunters might start to look for alternative lifestyles if they can be convinced there are better alternatives.

juvenile_palmnut

Juvenile palmnut vulture Gypohierax angolensis, the most commonly hunted raptor in the Ebo forest

Adventures in Panama

by Rebeka Mayhew

Today marks five weeks for me on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Barro Colorado Island in Panama and surveying the bird communities in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument. I am one of Daisy Dent’s PhD students and I am currently in Panama to examine how bird species and their functional composition changes in regenerating forests. Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is located in the artificial Lake Gatun in the middle of the Panama Canal.

The Smithsonian has administered the island and five adjacent peninsulas, collectively known as the Barro Colorado Nature Monument (BCNM), since 1946. It is one of the most-studied areas of tropical forest in the world. BCI is an exciting place to live for a couple of months; it hosts up to 90 scientists at any one time. They are associated with various universities from around the world and are here to work on a range of short and long-term projects such as the effects of lightning strikes on trees, seedling dynamics, the herbivory rates of ants and seed dispersal by bats.

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As always with fieldwork, and perhaps particularly when working overseas, there have been lots of ups and downs already! Bureaucracy kept me fairly busy for the first two weeks that I was out here in Panama, along with attempting (successfully!) to gain my Panama Canal Boat License. In order to achieve this you have to sit a theory test, a little like your driver’s theory test, in the Panama Canal Authority’s office in Panama City. No practical boat-driving test for some reason… This now means that while driving my small tin bath along the edge of the Panama Canal to access my sites, I know that the number one rule is to keep well clear of the big ships! As well as avoiding the big ships, once you leave the main canal you also have to battle with half submerged trees; the remnants of the forest that was flooded by the creation of Lake Gatun. Instead of rotting away, a century underwater has caused the stumps to petrify, ready to snag any unwary researchers passing by.

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Attempting to avoid the big ships of the Panama Canal.

In order to assess the bird communities in regenerating forests I am making use of Daisy’s chronosequence of secondary forest plots within the BCNM. These consist of ten plots in five different age categories, 40-year old, 60-year old, 90-year old and 120-year old secondary-growth forest, as well as old-growth forest. In September I will also visit another site, Agua Salud, where the forest is even younger, only 10 – 20-years old. Daisy has documented the tree species and functional composition of these forest plots. I intend to identify how the diversity and composition of the bird communities relate to that of the tree communities, and how the functional composition of birds corresponds with that of trees across the successional gradient.

I have now found all ten of Daisy’s vegetation plots, which are located both on the island and the surrounding peninsulas, a bit of a tricky task in Daisy’s absence! However, surveying the birds is now well under way. I’m lucky enough to have two teams in the field. My assistants are Ovidio, a very knowledgeable local birder who has worked with many STRI ornithologists before, and Tom and Sam, who are enthusiastic ecologists from the UK.

Now that we’ve found our sites, fieldwork is settling into a routine. Our day begins at 4.30am, with either walking for an hour into the jungle if we are surveying a site on the island, or a short boat journey to one of the peninsula sites (rather scary as it involves driving along the Panama Canal in the dark!). We then battle our way through the jungle to nine different survey points and undertake the counts. This involves standing for 10 minutes and recording all the birds we see and hear. In a morning’s survey we might perhaps only see about three birds, the rest we have to identify from their call. I’m very glad to have Ovidio with us, as it’s a steep learning curve attempting to memorise all of the birdcalls! We’ve now recorded over 2000 observations and 95 species of birds.

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A Rufous Motmot and a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird – some of the few birds we have been lucky enough to see!

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I will be here for another month on BCI before moving on to the other site at Agua Salud for September. I’ve already had a fantastic time working here; each trip into the jungle offers a new wildlife experience. Along with the amazing birdlife I’ve been lucky enough to see a tamandua, armadillo, peccary and various species of monkey. However, whilst as an ecologist I believe all animals are equally interesting, I do have a preference for the coatis over the spiders…

Brazilian research visas: a “how to?” get through the paperwork minefield and get into the field

I’m one of those lucky people that get to work overseas for fieldwork. And not just anywhere, I get to work in the Brazilian Amazon. I hope.

I say “I hope” because the long (and I mean long) process of actually being allowed to work in the Brazilian Amazon is still ongoing, and I leave in less than two months. I wanted to write this blog because behind the scenes of any field research and conservation – the “oooo I wish I was working in XYZ like you” type – there is often a bewildering maze of bureaucracy to get there. I’m going to focus on my experiences of research visas and permits for working in Brazil, but some of the general advice will be applicable no matter the fieldwork location. Continue reading

Stories of the forest: I

I am two weeks into a five-week stay at  Lopé National Park, Gabon. This is the first field trip of my PhD and I am here to meet the SEGC team and observe and learn about methodology that has been used over the last 30 years to collect the tree phenology data I will be analysing over the next few months. Firstly, Lopé is beautiful. It feels like a real privilege to be here, even for just a few weeks. The study station is a 12km drive from the nearest village in the middle of a truly un-hunted patch of forest and savanna. We regularly look up from breakfast to see or hear buffalo, elephant, duiker, colobus, parrots, mandrills (the list goes on…) just going about their business in front of us.

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A short history on the luck, failings and success of field work

This blog entry has been triggered by encountering the article: “let’s re-write the scientific paper1 flagged up by Anna Doeser on twitter.

It discusses how modern scientific papers are too formal and that we should: “… report our research more nearly as it happened; let us overcome our fear of revealing our humanity, our good luck, even our failings, and acknowledge the contributions from our intuition and imagination as well as the hard graft in the field and at the bench.” Continue reading

A scientist’s view of the European Parliament: How politicians approach data

The role of politicians is to formulate, debate, and enact policy. For this process to work effectively, they need high-quality, unbiased data. The way politicians choose and use data therefore has a profound influence on the world we live in. Likewise, the way scientists package their data will affect how policymakers view those data. This post discussing science-based policy comes from my time at the European Parliament as part of the British Ecological Society’s Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.

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A short history of protected areas and thoughts on the North-South divide

Modern notions of conservation and development surfaced somewhere in the late 1800s (of course indigenous concepts of sustainability and the value of nature go back millennia). At this time there was (and largely still is) an economic divide between countries which had enjoyed/endured an industrial revolution and those that hadn’t, broadly falling across the North-South divide.

A pre-industrial society looks something like this:

Pre-industrial Society

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