Replacing poaching with snail farming may be the only hope for Cameroon’s last gorillas. The Cross River Gorilla inhabits the mountainous Cameroon-Nigeria border, and may be the world’s most endangered gorilla species.
In this remote location, the area is faced with habitat loss and poaching, but is very difficult to patrol. In response, a non-profit called the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) gave seed grants, technical assistance, and a starter population of Giant African snails to eight former poachers in order to foster an alternative income. These snails reproduce quickly, and, most importantly, fetch a premium price in neighboring Nigeria.
If all goes well, the annual earnings for each farm should vastly exceed the profit from poaching. This model recognizes the importance of local buy-in for successful conservation efforts.
In 1991, the establishment of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda nearly ended in disaster when local people were excluded from the decision-making process. Harvest activities local people had pursued for generations were suddenly forbidden. Tensions were further inflamed when forest animals damaged crops.
Local residents saw no benefit from the park, only restrictions. The park’s gorillas as well as tourists were threatened. A series of presumed arson incidents damaged the park, and the entire plan was set to backfire against conservation efforts.
Fortunately, adjustments were made and local people were granted limited harvest rights for Nyakibazi bark and forest honey, as well as a share of tourism revenue and money for local communities from a conservation trust fund.
Virtually all unprotected land in Uganda has been converted to agriculture, so the successful turnaround at Bwindi has been instrumental in protecting Uganda’s biodiversity.
Against this backdrop, the effort at Cross River is a great start. Snail farms are a particularly good idea since they take up little space, especially compared with traditional agriculture. Traditional French snail farms kept up to 2000 snails in a 3’ by 6’covered pen. Clearly, giant snails will take up more room than that, but given that much more meat is obtained per snail, fewer are needed to turn a profit. Snails will eat any discarded plant material, so they are cheap to maintain, and do not require coddling.
Time will tell whether these innovative farms can be commercially successful, and whether the concept can be scaled up to build a genuine sustainable industry in the mountains of Cameroon.