On August 2, 2015, the corpse of a man identified afterwards as 59-year-old Talla Francois Xavier was discovered in the Mt. Cameroon National Park (MCNP), some 300 metres to Hut III. The guide of a local ecotourism association, Fako Guide and Porters Association (Fako GUIPA), who was facilitating a tour of three Canadians, discovered the lifeless body. On the instructions of the Buea State Counsel, the MCNP hired five community members accompanied by two eco-guards to recover the corpse which was brought down on August 5, 2015. The Divisional Officer for Buea, the State Counsel, police, and the Mayor of Buea Council received the corpse, which was taken to the mortuary of the Buea General Hospital Annex. On August 16, 2015, the MCNP Conservator, Besong Simon Besem, was detained at the Buea Judicial Police based on a petition by Mt. Cameroon Ecotourism Organization (Mount CEO).
Explaining that the MCNP is managed under the auspices of the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF), with the involvement of some 12 local ecotourism organizations mostly composed of former hunters and trappers, Besong Besem said after receiving the news of a corpse discovered in the park, they checked their data base of visitors into the park for the past month but no information was found about this person.
“A detailed report was written on this and sent to the appropriate administration,” said the Conservator. But on August 16, 2015, Besong said he was called by the judicial police and presented a petition from Mount CEO titled “Illegal Tour on Mt. Cameroon”.
The Conservator told The Green Vision he was interrogated, detained and was bailed hours later by the Southwest Regional Delegate of Forestry and Wildlife, Eben Ebai Samuel.
The petition claimed that the local organization, Fako GUIPA, which discovered the corpse of Talla François Xavier in the MCNP, was acting in illegality and with the blessing of Besong Simon.
Brandishing the certificate of authorization of organizations working with MCNP in facilitating ecotourism, Besong said Fako GUIPA and Mount CEO have the same legal status. This, to him, makes the question of illegality and complicity ridiculous.
“Just like I told the State Counsel, Mount CEO is not carrying out 100% of what is expected of it but we overlook some of these things because we are at the building phase. In other national parks in the country like WAZA, it is the Park Authority that organises visits but MCNP because of its specificities and the need to bring as much as possible, the local communities together with local organizations have been given the mandate to organise visits and we only facilitate. So if Mount CEO should be the organization to go and report to the State Counsel, then I find it a bit ridiculous,” the MCNP Conservator said.
He said if Mount CEO was in doubt with any activity of the park, its head would have approached to the park office for clarification or written to the state council and be clarified.
The MCNP boss said there is a difference between the Mt. Cameroon area and the MCNCP. “We do not have jurisdiction over the management of ecotourism area within the whole of Mt. Cameroon area. The Mt. Cameroon area covers a total area of 250,000 hectares, but Mt. Cameroon National Park, which I have the responsibility to manage, covers only some 58,178 hectares,” Besong told The Green Vision.
Besong explained that the MCNP cuts across 41 villages each of which has about three to five inlets with a 130 km boundary. This means that to effectively restrict clandestine visits into the park, government will have to employ 1000 eco-guards to guard entry into the park, a venture the conservator said is virtually impossible.
He said at the level of the park, they are empowering the local communities and including them in the day-to-day management of the park. He, however, warned against covert visits to the park, stating procedures which must be followed to access the park.
“You must first visit the Park Service and indicate your interest. The Park Service then links you to any of the 12 legal local NGOs or CIGs we are working with and you will be asked to pay a park entry fee of 5000 francs cfa, 3000 francs cfa and 1500 francs cfa for foreigners, foreigners resident in Cameroon and Cameroonians, respectively. Forty-five percent of these fees goes into the special fund for the development of wildlife, while 55% goes into the national treasury.
“You will also fill a visitor’s form including personal information like your name, country of origin, passport or ID card No, the period/duration of visit. This form is submitted to MCNP authority, who addresses a letter to the Chief of Sector Territorial Surveillance at the Governor’s office notifying them of the visit and the CIG/NGO facilitating the visit. During the visit, there is a first check at old BICEC and a second check at Hut One,” explained the Conservator.
This procedure facilitates the monitoring and tracking of activities and visits into the national park in case of any eventuality, said Besong.
As to who oversees ecotourism activities within the park, Besong mentioned MINFOF, with other stakeholders like the Ministry of Tourism and Leisure, and the council having a role to play as well.
Mt. Cameroon Ecotourism Organization (Mount CEO) Manager Reacts
The Manager of Mount CEO, Chief Samuel Lyonga, admitted that a complaint was written by the Board Chair of Mount CEO, Patrick Ekema, who is also the Mayor of Buea Council, to the State Counsel because the tourism group that facilitated the tour, which led to the discovery of the corpse of Talla Xavier in the park was acting in illegality with the consent of the Conservator of Mt. Cameroon National Park.
“That tourism activity is carried out within the park does not mean the park service should go to Mile 17 and pick anybody and send to the park, collect money and pocket. How many of those CIGs and NGOs working on tourism activities within the park have accreditation from the Ministry of Tourism and Leisure? Most of them don’t have offices! Fako GUIPPA, for instance, has not been accredited to carry out tourism activities by the competent authority; the Minister of Tourism and Leisure,” Chief Lyonga told The Green Vision.
According to the Mount CEO Manager, Fako GUIPPA is carrying out tourism activities within the national park because of the manager’s affiliations with the Conservator of Mt. Cameroon National Park and not in legality.
“The Manager of FAKO-GUIPPA was a staff of Mount CEO in charge of operations, who was eyeing the position of the Manager of Mount CEO, but in April 2014, I (Chief Lyonga) was appointed manager, and he (Ikome) appointed Technical Assistant on October 14. He was disappointed and by November 26, 2014, resigned taking away official resources for his personal interest. A complaint was tabled against him and he was jailed but the Conservator bailed him and encouraged him to set up his own organization. So, Fako GUIPPA is still en route to accreditation and should by law not to carry out tourism activities,” Chief Lyonga said. He also questioned how Talla found his way into the park given the park has eco-guards if not without the consent of the Conservator.
Quizzed on which authority the Mount CEO had to write a petition against the Mt. Cameroon National Park Conservator, Chief Lyonga said Talla’s corpse was found in the municipality of Buea and there is a law that forbids clandestine tourism within the municipality.
“The council is one of the stakeholders of the national park, so Patrick Ekema had the right to complain because the death took place within the Buea municipality tarnishing both the image of the municipality and the nation. The Conservator was even supposed to be jailed for tarnishing the image of the country. What impression or message are the three Canadian tourists who met the corpse in the park taking back to their country regarding the management of the Mt. Cameroon National Park?” Chief Lyonga asked.
The Mount CEO boss recognised the fact that the Conservator his responsible for the management of the park but questioned his authority in offering accreditation.
“The park authority is no doubt responsible for the management of the national park, ensuring that every activity carried out within the park respects the rules and regulations of the park. This means every legalised tourism organization wanting to carry out activity within the park including Mount CEO goes to the park for validation before carrying out any tourism activity within the park. They, however, have no mandate to offer accreditation to CIGs or NGOs. It is the Ministry of Tourism and Leisure that visas whoever wants to carry out tourism activity in Cameroon including the park,” said Chief Lyonga, brandishing a Mount CEO accreditation signed by the Minister of Tourism and Leisure.
He said Mount CEO has no personal problem with the Conservator who is also a board member of Mount CEO.
The Mt. Cameroon National Park is one of Cameroon’s biodiversity hotspots and the only national park rising from sea level to a peak of about 4100 metres. It was created in 2009. Ecotourism was included in the creation of the park as a way of providing alternative sources of livelihoods like guides and potters to the 41 villages with over 100,000 inhabitants who depend on the resources found within this park.
The park is also the principal source of water supply to the population of Buea and its environs. It has great geographical features with the propensity of becoming a veritable touristic destination if well managed.