Thousands of pastoralists seek refuge in Waza National Park, Cameroon
In December 2021, a decades-long conflict between Musgum fishers and Shuwa Arab pastoralists escalated at the Logone floodplain in Cameroon, resulting in 112 villages burned, 66 deaths, and 100,000 displaced people. What has not been reported is that 2,500 pastoralists, with an estimated 35,000 cattle, sought refuge in Waza National Park, on the west of the floodplain. The incursion of cattle into conservation areas has become common in Central Africa (Scholte et al., 2021, Conservation Biology. But this is the first time the inhospitable Waza National Park has served as a refuge for pastoralists and their families. To assess the situation, one of us visited the Park during 29–31 December 2021.
Waza National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Sahelian savannah of Cameroon, has large populations of savannah elephants Loxodonta africana, kob Kobus kob and topi Damaliscus korrigum antelopes, and lions Panthera leo, and exceptional birdlife. It was the most visited park in Central Africa until the 2000s, but tourism ended abruptly when a visiting French family was kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2013. It marked the beginning of a long period of insecurity from which the Park has not recovered: tourists have not returned, funding has diminished and wildlife has declined sharply.
Our investigation found that at the height of the clashes between fishers and pastoralists on 9 December, Shuwa Arab elders consulted each other and contacted Park guards by phone before deciding to enter the Park. The following day, Shuwa Arab men, women and children walked 20 km to the centre of the Park, continuing 2 days later to a nearby waterhole. There they were initially summoned by the Park warden to leave the Park but allowed to stay to recover from their journey. After 1 week, pastoralists continued through the inundated part of the Park to the north-east where they stayed until 20 January, when all but two of the 17 groups left the Park. The Park offered safety for the pastoralists, but the conditions were harsh for families and livestock, resulting in considerable loss of sheep and donkeys; three cattle were predated by lions.
Apart from some disturbance—only six kob antelopes were seen during the 3-day visit—we expect that the direct impact of pastoralists on the Park's wildlife was minor. By offering refuge in time of distress, the Park may have laid the foundation for future partnerships with pastoralists. The ecological and hydrological interdependence of Waza National Park and the Logone floodplain is recognized in the nomination of Waza–Logone as a Ramsar Site. The recent events indicate that the Park and the floodplain are also socially and politically interdependent. The governance structure that was recently created to coordinate development policies and humanitarian interventions in the floodplain should be extended to Waza National Park as the security and future of both are tightly connected.
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