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Wildlife use and the role of taboos in the conservation of wildlife around the Nkwende Hills Forest Reserve; South-west Cameroon



Cameroon is known as Africa in miniature because of its multitude of ecosystems and associated biodiversity, cultures and traditions. The country also harbors very ancient human populations whose relationship with nature is very intimate and where animals play important roles for their livelihood. Located in the South-west region of Cameroon, the Nkwende Hills Forest Reserve (NHFR) represents an important wildlife conservation site because of its strategic position at the periphery of Korup National Park (KNP). The periphery of NHFR is inhabited by several ethnic groups amongst which are the Obang and Ngunnchang clans who share particular relationships with wildlife. The present paper studies these relationships and contributes to the growing trend of scientific ethnozoological studies across Africa.


From August to December 2011, a questionnaire survey was addressed to 126 randomly chosen household respondents (HRs) in seven villages at the Northwest periphery of NHFR. In households, preference was given to parents, and to the eldest child in case the parents were absent. Questions related to the uses and local taboos on wildlife species were asked to HRs.


Both communities have accumulated knowledge on the use of 51 wildlife species of which 50.9% represent mammals, 21.6% birds, 15.7% reptiles, 7.8% fish and 3.9% invertebrates. Four main use categories of wildlife by both communities were identified, namely (1) Food, medicine and sales values (41.2%), (2) Ethnomusical animals and parts used as trophy (29.2%), (3) Decoration and jewelry making values (21.9%) and (4) Magico-religious and multipurpose values (7.8%). Regarding local taboos, species specific taboos (generation totems and acquired totems), habitat taboos (sacred forests), method and segment taboos still persist but are rarely respected among the youth mainly because of the scarcity of wildlife (65.3% of HRs).


Like other communities living around forest areas, the studied communities use wildlife in their culture and tradition. Wildlife is not only used for consumption, but also for traditional medicines, craft materials and spiritual purposes. But, threats to wildlife and their traditional uses are real and acculturation seems to be the main driver. High priority should be given to the reconciling conservation of species with high values for local communities and human needs.


Tropical evergreen forests are the most species-rich ecological ecosystems and are highly endangered all over the world [1]. According to [25], Cameroon forests are primordial for the conservation of African biodiversity, but continue to face alarming threats. Some of these threats are closely related to people’s dependency on Non Timber Forest Products for their livelihoods [68]. Taking into account the importance of biodiversity in our communities today [9], integrated conservation measures for sustainable management seems to be the best solution [10, 11]. The adoption of such measures requires knowledge from local populations who are the principal indicators of the changes observed in their area [12]. Ethnobiology helps adapt a link between natural resources and local populations and requires two basic components i.e. the knowledge on biodiversity and its uses (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) and a comprehension of the culture [13, 14]. It has been demonstrated that these uses are generally guided by laws and restrictions important for conservation [15, 16]. Several studies have shown how these uses, cultures and traditions lead to wildlife conservation [13, 17, 18]. Also, the culture and tradition regulate the use of certain species especially those of nutritional and medicinal importance [1922]. Ethnozoological studies can be a valuable asset to increase our understanding of the economic, cultural, social, and traditional roles played by animals and reconcile human and conservation needs. In this context, they have a central role in conservation and management [23]. Increased consideration for traditional uses of wildlife will help solve important conservation problems related to human-wildlife conflicts [24]. Therefore, to secure a future for animal populations, conservationists must understand not only the ecological, but also the cultural and economic interactions that link ecological and social systems [25]. Furthermore, there is a great need for ethnobiological studies in Cameroon given the increasing relevance of this science across Africa. The present paper documents traditional uses and cultural values of wildlife for local populations, and the contribution of taboos to wildlife conservation around the NHFR.


Study area

The present study was carried out in seven villages (Abat, Mgbegati, Bayib-ossing, Osselle, Okoroba, Mbinda-Tabo and Bakogo) situated in the support zone of KNP, specifically between the Northwestern part of NHFR and Northeastern part of KNP, in the Southwest region of Cameroon (Figure 1). The name “Nkwende” in Ejagham tribe, meaning “a water source for animals”, was given to those hills in 1960. The Nkwende hills lie to the Northwest of Nguti town and to the West of Nguti-Mamfe road. The highest peak is about 737 m asl around Bayib-Ossing village [26]. Part of NHFR extends to Okoroba village recognisable by rock faces commonly called by the locals “chimpanzee stone”, alleged to be a refuge for chimpanzees. The forest at present is a secondary forest in the surrounding villages due to logging and agricultural activities. Intact primary forests still exist in higher altitudes where no suitable timber trees were found or where the sloppy nature of the hills made forest exploitation impossible [26].

Figure 1
figure 1

The study area in the map of Cameroon, showing the studied villages.

Due to its proximity to KNP, the study area shares similar climatic, fauna and flora characteristics. The rainfall is about 5000 mm per year and the mean annual temperature is about 25°C [27]. The large mammal fauna of KNP consists of 33 families with 161 species. KNP contains one quarter of all Africa’s primate species and represents an important site for primate conservation. It contains species with restricted distribution including a number of endemics such as the giant otter shrew Potamogale velox, Calabar angwantibo Arctocebus calabarensis, drill Mandrillus leucophaeus, and Preuss’s red colobus Procolobus preussi. Concerning small mammals, Korup contains as many as 55 species of bats and 47 species of rodents. Here, the presence of three shrews (Crocidura crenata, C. grandiceps and C. lamottei) were recorded for the first time in Cameroon and a new species was discovered Sylvisorex pluvialis [28]. In ornithological terms, KNP is reputedly the most diverse lowland site in Africa with a total of 420 bird species recorded so far in 53 families [2931]. Four species found in the area are considered to be ‘rare’ including Green-breasted bush-shrike Malaconotus gladiator, White-throated mountain-babbler Lioptilis gilberti, Red-headed rockfowl Picathartes oreas and Yellow-footed honeyguide Melignomon eisentrauti. The African grey parrot Psittacus erithacus is heavily hunted for export trade. In addition, Korup contains 82 reptile and 92 amphibian species, a number of them being endemic to the area. They include three caecilian species, 89 species of frog and toad, two species of tortoises, two species of aquatic turtles, 15 species of lizards, five species of chameleons, three species of crocodiles and 55 species of snakes. Amphibians listed as endangered or vulnerable include Amietophrynus superciliaris and Nectophryne afra [32, 33]. Finally, regarding fish, rivers draining Korup and Nkwende are not uniform in their taxonomic composition and diversity. Peculiar to this zone are colonies of sting-rays, typically marine snappers Lutjanus sp.; and a jack Trachinotus goreensis, all living over 300 km from the sea. About 130 species of fish are known from the area [34].

Socio-economically speaking, the social organisation of the village around the NHFR is made of a chief, regent chief (traditional) and other community-based structures. Although important decisions are usually taken in consultation with the traditional council and regent chief, the juju society locally called “Ekpe”, remains the most important social institution and governing body in all villages of the support zone of KNP [3538]. Community based institutions for the management of natural resources, such as Forest Management Committee (FMC) and other village development associations, exist in the study area. The inhabitants are the Lower Oban people, precisely the Ngunnchang and Obang clans. The common communication language is Pidgin English and the traditional spoken language is the Ejagham.

Socioeconomic profile of Household Respondents (HRs)

Distribution of HRs per gender and age

HRs were dominantly males of the age group 20 to 40 years old (Figure 2). This represents the active age group. Females were less represented because during interviews, preference was given to males who were considered to be the head of the household, originating from the village, principal hunters and having more knowledge concerning culture and traditions in relation to wildlife.

Figure 2
figure 2

Distribution of HRs per gender and age.

Distribution of HR by level of education

About 94% of HRs went to school. Among these, 53% have attained the First School Living Certificate (FSLC) at the end of their primary education. This high proportion of HRs with the FSLC is explained by the absence of secondary schools in the area [39, 40]. About 11% of HRs have gone to university, i.e. having more than the General Certificate of Education - Advance Level (>ADV), and 6% were “Illiterates” i.e. have not gone to school at all (Figure 3).

Figure 3
figure 3

Distribution of HRs by level of education. Notes: FSLC refers to HRs who are holders of the First School Leaving Certificate; ADV refers to HRs who are holders of a General Certificate of Education - Advanced Level and ILLITERATES refers to HRs who have not been to school; FSLC < X < ADV refers to HRs who attended secondary education but did not obtain the ADV; <FSLC refers to HRs who attended primary education but did not obtain a FSLC; >ADV refers to HRs who attended higher education after the ADV.

Religion of HRs

About 85% of HRs are Christians. Among these, 55% are Presbyterian Christians (Figure 4). These religions greatly influence the uses of wildlife in the culture and tradition. For example, Jehovah witnesses do not use wildlife because it is prohibited by their religion. On the other hand, non Christians continue to practice traditional rights and respect their tradition. Irrespective of the religious affiliation, HRs use wildlife for traditional purposes in the study area.

Figure 4
figure 4

Distribution of HRs per religion.

Economic activities

In Cameroon, agriculture represents the primary production sector and it is the main source of employment. It contributes significantly to the Gross Domestic Product of the nation [41]. In the study area, 43% of HRs practiced only agriculture. Main agricultural products in the study area are cocoa Theobroma cacao, plantain Musa spp.; oil palm Elaeis guineensis, cocoyam Colocasia esculentum, cassava Mahinot spp.; groundnut Arachis hypogea and maize Zea mays. Livestock production is poor in the study area and few goats, chickens, pigs and cattle constitute the main livestock products (as in [37]). People practicing other activities in association with agriculture (“Others”) represent 8% of HRs. About 13% and 10% of HRs are students and hunters respectively (Figure 5).

Figure 5
figure 5

Distribution of HRs per economic activity.

Data collection

A questionnaire survey was carried out in 126 randomly chosen households from the seven studied villages. Households were chosen by simple random sampling based on the size of the village. It consisted in counting the number of households in each of the seven studied villages, producing a sketch map with the positions and numbers of each household, then numbering them on papers, and then proceeding in a draw without replacement. For villages with households between 0 and 20, a 100% sampling was performed, between 21 and 50, a 50% sampling was performed, and greater than 50, a 25% sampling was performed. Globally, the sampled households in the studied villages ranged between 25% and 57.1%. HRs were any of the parents or eldest child met at home. Within a household, preference was given to the family head who was considered to be the eldest, the principal hunter, originating from the village, and then supposed to know more concerning the culture and traditions of the village in relation to wildlife. In case of his absence, preference was given to the mother. If both parents were absent, the eldest child was interviewed. In each household, questions were asked to assess their awareness about wildlife used in their culture and as local taboos. Furthermore, self observation and discussions with villagers of all age and sex during meetings, community works and football occasions helped for cross checking. Wildlife species were identified thanks to local names given by HRs, and with reference to the field guide of African mammals [42].

Prior to the realisation of the study, the Chief of the village and the head of the family were consulted and their verbal approval was obtained before any interview. They are aware of the possibility of writing any publication from the data collected and wish to receive a copy of the publication when ready.

Results and discussions

Traditional uses of wildlife

Like in other areas of Central Africa, the primary use of wildlife in the study area is for consumption. This is because many people depend on bushmeat as a means to survive during time of hardship (e.g. unemployment and crop failure), or to gain additional income for special needs (e.g. school fees, festivals and funerals) [43]. This ‘safety net’ is often more important for the more vulnerable members of the community [15]. Traditional hunting of wildlife in Cameroon for subsistence purposes is not prohibited, though the wildlife law addresses restrictions on the class of species to be harvested, places of harvest, harvest methods, type of weapons and quantity/final use of product [44]. As concerns consumptive uses of wildlife, the most consumed mammal species are Brush-tailed porcupine Atherurus africanus, Blue duiker Cephalophus monticola, Ogilby’s duiker Cephalophus ogilbyi, Pangolin Uranamis tetradactyla and monkeys Cercopithecus spp.; (see also [40, 4547]). Consumed reptiles are African rock python Python sebae and Rhinoceros horned viper Bitis nasicornis. The birds consumed are generally large in size such as hornbills Tockus spp.; African grey parrot Psittacus erithacus and Black guineafowl Ageslates niger. As concerns amphibians, toads Bufo spp.; is the most consumed. Lastly, the most consumed fish species are Tilapia Tilapia spp.;, Sarotherodon sp.; and mudfish Heterobranchus sp;.

Apart from their consumptive uses, 99.7% of HRs in the study area recognised the effective use of wildlife in their culture and traditions. It was found that 26 mammal species (Table 1, Figures 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16), 11 bird species (Table 2, Figures 17, 18, 19), eight reptile species (Table 3, Figures 20, 21, 22), four fish species (Table 4) and two invertebrates (Table 5), representing respectively 50.9%, 21.6%, 15.7%, 7.8% and 3.9% of all animal groups, are used in various ways for cultural and traditional purposes.

Table 1 Mammals parts used and reasons
Figure 6
figure 6

The horn of an African forest buffalo.

Figure 7
figure 7

Skin of the blue duiker.

Figure 8
figure 8

Skin of an African civet.

Figure 9
figure 9

Skin of the flying squirrel.

Figure 10
figure 10

Skin of an African palm civet.

Figure 11
figure 11

Tail of an African palm civet.

Figure 12
figure 12

Spine of the brush tailed porcupine.

Figure 13
figure 13

Tooth of a red river hog and red tail feather of an African grey parrot. Notes: Both are used in combination to decorate caps of chiefs and elders of sacred societies. Depending on the position of the feather on the cap, it denotes hierarchy between members of sacred societies.

Figure 14
figure 14

Tsinabup leaf. Notes: Unidentified herb important for mixtures of medicine.

Figure 15
figure 15

Ntemaker leaf. Notes: Unidentified herb important for mixtures of medicines.

Figure 16
figure 16

Osselleayong leaf. Notes: Unidentified herb important for mixtures of medicines.

Table 2 Birds parts used and reasons
Figure 17
figure 17

The head of a hornbill.

Figure 18
figure 18

The feathers of a palmnut vulture.

Figure 19
figure 19

The feathers of a great blue turaco.

Table 3 Reptile parts used and reasons
Figure 20
figure 20

Fats extracted from the African rock pythons skin.

Figure 21
figure 21

The shells of tortoises.

Figure 22
figure 22

The skin of a Nile monitor.

Table 4 Fish parts used and reasons
Table 5 Invertebrates parts used and reasons

Some of the uses concerning mammals and reptiles correspond to those described by [49] at the periphery of Rumpi hills forest reserve, and by [18] in the Korup area for mammals only. Some of the uses concerning some of the birds species described in this paper were also identified in [18, 50]. Some of the uses concerning fish and invertebrates correspond to those described in [51].

Adapted from [22], we classified the above uses of wildlife in the study area in four categories namely:

Animals with food, medicinal and sales values

This category represented 41.2% of all uses of wildlife in the study area. This group contains animals like Ogilby’s duiker, blue duiker, flying squirrel, potto, chimpanzees (Table 1), African grey parrot, hornbills (Table 2), African rock python, rhinoceros horned viper (Table 3) and all fish (Table 4). According to [1921]; [4851], the overlapping of food and medicinal uses is a common finding from India and other parts of the world. Such animals with dual role are important for healing and providing nourishing food items to boost up the immune system [22]. In the present paper they were also considered as a source of income. It should also be noted that the culture regulates the use of species especially those of nutritional and medicinal importance [1922].

Ethnomusical animals and parts used as trophy

This category represented 29.2% of all uses of wildlife in the study area. The skin is the main part used for making drums. Animals whose skins are elastic, resistant, durable and non fatty are preferred. Species like blue duiker, Ogilby’s duiker, bay duiker (Table 1), African rock python, dwarf crocodiles and Nile monitor (Table 3) are cherished (see also [18]).

Animals used in decoration and jewelry making

This category represented 21.9% of all uses of wildlife in the study area. The main parts used are the teeth, feathers of birds and skins. Parts of African civet, leopard, Red river hog (Table 1), African grey parrot, crowned eagle, palmnut vulture (Table 2), African rock python and tortoise (Table 3) are preferred.

Magico-religious and multipurpose animals

This category represented 7.8% of all uses of wildlife by both communities. These animals are generally used to communicate with ancestors. Species like Ogilby’s duiker, leopard, African civet (Table 1), and crowned eagles (Table 2) are preferred. This category is also represented by animals whose parts serve in various ways such as the buffalo and elephant. Like the Tamang community in Central Nepal, the populations of the study area maintain not only material level relationships with animals but also spiritual relationships [22]. This has been reported in different parts of the world [52, 53].

Cultural taboos

With respect to wildlife use, four types of taboos were identified. These are habitat, species specific, method and segment taboos (see also [5456]). Among taboo species we found totems that differ according to their origin. On one hand, we found totems which are acquired at birth known as inborn or generation totems, e.g. red river hog, drill, forest elephant and chimpanzee. On the other hand, we found voluntary acquired totems or personal totems such as red-capped mangabey, African rock python and owls. These personal totems are purchased in spiritual markets with the aid of native doctors. These totems play great roles in the conservation of certain species because it is believed that when a totem is killed, a person will die in the village or neighboring village. As concerns habitat taboos, sacred forests exist in the study area. According to [13] they are crucial conservation sites characterised by high biodiversity. They varied between one and four sites per village. The four locally identified sacred forests are Ekpe, Mawooh, Obhon and Amgbu sacred forests. Habitat taboo was the most common in the study area and seems to be the most known and respected form of taboo in Africa [55]. The restriction to use gamaline and toxic products for fishing by the village traditional councils was the main method taboo. Segment taboos are manifested by the restriction of women and children from consuming certain animals such as Red river hog (according to 15.6% of HRs), Snakes (according to 8.5% of HRs) and most primates. It is however important to note that threats to wildlife is real. An evaluation of the perceptions of HRs on the use level of wildlife showed that, wildlife use for cultural and traditional purposes is disappearing progressively (according to 96.7% of HRs). This trend was mainly because of the scarcity of wildlife (65.3% of HRs) and the loss of culture among the youths (12.5% of HRs).


Literature on efficacy of indigenous knowledge offers huge hopes to conservation success [5760]. Like other indigenous populations, the Obang and Ngunnchang populations possess rich ethnozoological knowledge. They have accumulated knowledge on the uses of several species of wildlife which were classified into animals with “food, medicinal and sales values”, “ethnomusical animals and parts used as trophy”, animals used in “decoration and jewelry making” and “magico-religious and multipurpose animals” based on the method of use and the reason attributed by HRs (see also [22]). Body parts such as the skin are used in making musical instruments such as drums. Flesh cooked with plantains and palm oil is used for liberation ceremonies and communication with ancestors. Bones are used for strengthening; feathers are used to denote hierarchy between members of sacred societies and many others are used for medicines. Plants like Ageratum cornisoides, Aframomum melegueta and Elaeis guineensis happen to be very important for mixtures of medicines and thus play important medicinal roles (see also [50]). Both communities believe in species specific, habitat, method and segment taboos which, if respected duly, are great conservation measures. They are traditional practices known to have promising potential for enhancing sustainable resource use (see also [61]). To evaluate the level of respect of the culture in other to ascertain the role played by traditional knowledge and taboos in conservation, it is imperative to know the level of loss of the culture (acculturation) as the conservation of not only biodiversity but also cultural diversity is necessary for development [22]. Strategies to fight against threats to wildlife should thus be defined taking also into consideration traditional knowledge and taboos. High priority should be given to reconciling conservation of species with high values for local communities and human needs.


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The study was carried out thanks to the financial support from the VolkswagenFoundation, under the “Africa initiative - Knowledge for Tomorrow: Cooperative Research Projects in Sub-Saharan Africa”, through the project «Managing Forest wildlife for Human Livelihoods in the Korup-Oban Hills region, West-Central Africa». Special thanks to the population of the studied villages for their hospitality and valuable contribution to the research.

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Correspondence to Kadiri Serge Bobo.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

All authors conceived the study. KSB drafted and revised the manuscript. FFMA and BCN conducted the field study, performed the data analysis and drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Bobo, K.S., Aghomo, F.F.M. & Ntumwel, B.C. Wildlife use and the role of taboos in the conservation of wildlife around the Nkwende Hills Forest Reserve; South-west Cameroon. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 11, 2 (2015).

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