In the Congo Basin, a road cuts through once-untouched ape wilderness

first_imgThe TRIDOM landscape, encompassing forests in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, is home to more than 40,000 great apes as well as Central Africa’s largest elephant population.TRIDOM is in the path of a planned road link between Cameroon and Congo. Associated projects include a hydropower dam.While the project’s environmental impact assessment estimated only 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of woodland would be cleared for the road, on-the-ground observation of work in progress indicates the impact will be much greater.In addition to the direct impact of forest clearing, conservationists fear the road will increase habitat fragmentation, facilitate hunting and mining, and encourage human migration into the area — something that is already happening. DJOUM, Cameroon — “This right there used to be hell.” It’s early February 2019, deep in the tropical rainforest in southeastern Cameroon, the day after a night of heavy downpour. From his front porch, Jean Pierre Ondoua, a good-humored Baka Pygmy whom everyone calls JP (JEE-PAY), can see the weak glitter of the morning sun hitting the wet road. “Cars would line up here, unable to move. Timber trucks would topple over,” he says.Three years ago, the stretch of road passing through Ondoua’s front yard was little more than a dirt track, sculpted by the combined forces of rushing rainwater and daily beatings from galloping timber trucks. Apart from these trucks, few vehicles came by regularly except for old Toyota Corollas with tuned-up suspensions, which ferried people and supplies hundreds of kilometers to and from Sangmelima, the nearest city. When it rained, cars and travelers waited for days for the slippery mud to dry up. When it didn’t rain, a thick layer of the mud piled on the road, rendering it even more slippery.“It was hell, but things are different now,” Ondoua says, as the sun rises above a brush of towering trees in the distance.Jean-Pierre Ondua (left) and an elder at Ekom Village hope the road will transform their village. Image by Eugene N. Nforngwa for Mongabay.A brand-new highway, which will link Cameroon to the Republic of Congo by road for the first time, is replacing the old dirt track. After the overnight rain, the freshly poured patch of gravel and tar outside Ondoua’s home — a collection of mud huts nestled in the hillside — forms a pitch-black contrast against the green surroundings.Ondoua and thousands of villagers along the way have welcomed the change. But within the conservation community, the road is mostly viewed as a tragedy in progress: The new highway, more than 650 kilometers (400 miles) long, cuts right through the heart of one of the least disturbed forests of the Congo Basin, threatening biodiversity that has been tucked away from human reach for ages.By almost every account, the greatest risk is to a declining elephant population, along with tens of thousands of gorillas, chimpanzees and a host of other wildlife, some of which conservation workers suspect have never experienced human contact.last_img

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