- Illegal logging in Cameroon’s Ebo forest threatens the African zebrawood tree with extinction.
- Rising demand for its beautiful wood, lax local law enforcement, and civil strife have accelerated logging while hindering conservation efforts.
- Conservationists want zebrawood to be placed on a CITES list and for the forest — also home to endangered gorillas, chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys — to be declared a national park.
When a towering African zebrawood tree falls in the forest, it certainly makes a sound.
During a survey of the Ebo forest from August 2020 to March 2021, Eric Nana and his team from Cameroon’s Agricultural Research Institute for Development (IRAD) witnessed the destruction caused whenever one of these forest giants, supported with huge buttress roots and crowned with feathery leaves, is felled.
“Some have been there for hundreds of years,” Nana said. “Cutting down just a single tree destroys all the smaller trees around it. It considerably opens up the forest, and enables all the undergrowth species to come up. Growth from other forest tree species becomes difficult.”
A brief report on the IRAD survey, published in September in the journal Oryx, estimates that at least two metric tons of wood from this now-rare species — listed as critically endangered by the IUCN — is being illegally removed from the Ebo forest each month. That’s equivalent to two or three large trees, Nana told Mongabay: a heavy toll on a slow-maturing species that is already scarce.
“Chinese merchants [in the port city of Douala] pay people to go into the forest, harvest the tree and bring it back to them,” said Nana, who led the survey to assess the status of African zebrawood (Microberlinia bisulcata) and other threatened species in the forest, which covers an area of around 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles).
The price of a cubic meter (equivalent to 1 metric ton) has risen to $600, from around $300 in 2018. Loggers are paid up to 100,000 CFA francs (around $180) per tree. The illegal loggers only saw off around 40-50% of each tree they fell, leaving the rest to rot.
“It’s just a huge waste,” Nana said. “All standing trees we identified last year have been cut.”
Rising demand for its beautiful wood, lax local law enforcement, and civil strife are pushing the critically endangered African zebrawood tree toward extinction in Cameroon’s forests, conservationists say. Nana said zebrawood is used to make high-value furniture.
The trees — whose pale and dark wood grains resemble the patterns on a zebra hide — are only found in fragmented pockets in southwestern Cameroon, including in and around the Ebo forest, in the country’s southern Littoral region. But delays to plans to turn the critical gorilla and chimpanzee refuge into a national park are fueling the tree’s illegal extraction.
The forest is home to endangered primates, including western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti) and Preuss’s red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus preussi).
The survey found that locals were deeply involved in the illegal harvest and trade. On one occasion, a government official, known locally as a sous-préfet, was witnessed sending out harvesters to cut down zebrawood.
“When they saw us, they thought at first we were police agents coming to control them,” Nana said. He added the official was relieved when they assured him they weren’t.
“He made a call in front of us, telling those loggers in the forest that, ‘These guys are not police agents, they’re just researchers.’
“The whole value chain goes from harvesters right up to people in government,” Nana said. “Without the support of locals wanting to curb it, it will be difficult to stop.”
He and his team recommend that zebrawood be added to a CITES list to prevent its illegal trade. This will also pressure the government into protecting it, he said.
IRAD, a government research institute, and the National Herbarium of Cameroon have established nurseries around the Ebo forest to grow zebrawood seedlings. So far 4,000 have been produced — an insurance policy in case all the seed-bearing trees are wiped out.
Mixed signals from the government
For at least 20 years, there have been plans to turn most of the Ebo forest into a national park. But Cameroon’s government has also granted various permits for logging and the creation of oil palm plantations around the forest. In 2020, a logging concession inside Ebo was granted — and then suspended following an outcry from local and international conservation groups.
But illegal logging continues, and formal logging has been permitted along Ebo’s northern border by Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife, according to two official notices seen by Mongabay.
One of the new logging areas is adjacent to gorilla habitat, said Ekwoge Abwe, of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s African forest program.
“The new strategy is to allocate smaller parcels [known as ventes de coupes] in and around the forest for logging,” Abwe said.
Abwe’s Ebo Forest Research Project has been working in the area since 2002, when gorillas were discovered in the north of the forest. The project works with more than 40 communities living around Ebo, as well as grassroots conservation groups like Club des Amis de Gorilles (Gorilla Guardian Club) trying to protect its biodiversity.
“We notice illegal logging activity not only of zebrawood, but other species as well,” Abwe said.
“The wood is sawn into planks for easier transportation. The illegal logging is facilitated by the fact that the western and southern parts of the forest were logged about three decades ago. The logging roads and trails ease access [for today’s] illegal loggers.”
Six years ago, Abwe carried out a survey to assess, among other things, the availability of fruit-bearing trees for the forest’s chimpanzee population. Though the survey wasn’t aimed at finding African zebrawood specifically, it did produce a useful database that suggests the species does not grow in the north, which is more mountainous, but does grow in the lower-lying south and west: the same areas being targeted today by illegal logging.
“It is likely that the species has a limited distribution even within the forest,” Abwe said.
“Ebo could be its last stronghold and hope.”
Limbi Blessing Tata is executive director of Ecological Balance Cameroon, an environmental nonprofit based in Buea, a city on the slopes of Mount Cameroon in the country’s Southwest region.
In 2015, Tata, a trained botanist, led a project to conserve African zebrawood trees in the region’s Mokoko Forest Reserve. At the time there were 900 seed-bearing zebrawoods growing there.
Workshops were held with locals to teach them about the importance of preserving the trees, and a network of informants (she called it the “CIA of the forest”) was set up to warn of any threats facing them.
“But allowing locals to derive value from non-timber products will be vital to preserving it in the future,” she said.
Tata said Korup National Park is another stronghold of the African zebrawood in the region. But the country’s four-year-long Anglophone crisis, pitting rebels against government forces in the Southwest and Northwest regions, has meant Korup and Mokoko are now “no-go areas” for conservationists.
“As we speak, one of two things has happened,” she said. “Either the crisis has scared loggers and the species is thriving, or the remaining mature trees which served as the seed banks have been destroyed.”
Additional listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with the head of the Ebo Forest Research Project about efforts to safeguard the area, listen here:
Nana, E. D., Takor, C. M., Nkengbeza, S. N., Tchiengue, B., Ngansop, E. T., & Tchopwe, E. (2021). Illegal logging threatens to wipe out the critically endangered African zebrawood Microberlinia bisulcata from Cameroon’s Ebo forest. Oryx, 55(5), 652-653. doi:10.1017/s0030605321000910
Abwe, E. E., Morgan, B. J., Tchiengue, B., Kentatchime, F., Doudja, R., Ketchen, M. E., … Gonder, M. K. (2019). Habitat differentiation among three Nigeria–Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) populations. Ecology and Evolution, 9(3), 1489-1500. doi:10.1002/ece3.4871
Banner image: A member of the IRAD survey team inspects the remains of a felled African zebrawood in Ebo Forest. Image courtesy Eric Nana.
Ryan Truscott is a nature writer and journalist based in Southern Africa.
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