For many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, tourism offers the hope of economic development to deal with poverty and overpopulation, but in many cases, development of the tourism sector is hampered by increasing reductions in the very resources that attract tourists. Species of animals are hunted and poached to the brink of extinction, and habitats are destroyed through deforestation and human encroachment.
Some countries are taking steps to reverse this unfortunate trend – small steps, but necessary if the cycle of poverty on the continent is ever to be broken.
One such project, in the West-Central nation of Cameroon, is the Primate Sanctuary at Mefou National Park, south of the capital city of Yaounde. The park was created in 1999, and is currently devoted entirely to the sanctuary project, which is attempting to halt the destruction of monkey and ape species such as the red-capped mangabey, the mandrills, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Managed by a British NGO, Ape Action Africa, and supported by the Cameroonian government and international donors, the sanctuary cars for 250 primates at Mefou and another 150 at the zoo in Yaounde.
Most of the animals have been orphaned when their mothers were killed or captured by poachers. Animals are poached for local consumption, either as traditional food or for ritualistic purposes, and for international markets such as Southeast Asia where certain animal parts are used for medicinal purposes. While some of the devastation of primate species is due to animals damaging crops, most of the poaching, according to a guide at Mefou, takes place in primary forests far from human settlements. Poaching has resulted in the virtual extinction of many of the country’s native primates
In addition to providing care and treatment for the animals, the sanctuary conducts education programs to introduce wildlife conservation to young Cameroonians and show the interrelationship between humans and animals. A motto prominently displayed at the Mefou site says, “Where will the great apes be without man? Where will man be without the apes?”
Mefou is about an hour or so drive from Yaounde, with the last several kilometers over a bumpy dirt road. A knowledgeable guide conducts a walking tour of the facility, which takes nearly two hours and covers more than a kilometer as each species is given an amount of area suitable to its needs. Among the species currently at the sanctuary are gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, and some smaller monkeys, such as the agile mangabey and the red-capped mangabey.
Restoring Cameroon’s primate population is a monumental task, and probably beyond the capacity of one sanctuary, but one has to applaud the effort. If nothing else, it goes a long way toward helping mitigate the damage humans are doing to their own environment.