Tourism officials in Cameroon are meeting to revamp the country’s most important wildlife reserve, Waza National Park, which has suffered from terrorism, poaching, and deforestation. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Cameroon’s northern border with Chad and Nigeria that used to attract thousands of visitors per year. Officials say Boko Haram terrorists scared off most tourists while poachers and illegal loggers continue to wreak havoc on the park. Moki Edwin Kindzeka reports from Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Cameroon’s Waza National Park, on the borders with Chad and Nigeria, is the country’s most diverse wildlife reserve, with lions, elephants, giraffes, antelopes and numerous species of birds.
The 170,000-hectare park has been recognized since 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage biosphere reserve.
But the government says the number of tourists visiting Waza dropped from close to 4,000 in 2013 to less than 300 last year.
Atsia Tailati is a tourism official in Logone and Chari, the administrative unit in charge of Waza.
She spoke to VOA via a messaging app from the northern town of Kousseri.
Tailati says terrorism started harming tourism in Waza in 2013, when Boko Haram at gunpoint abducted a French family of seven who were vacationing in northern Cameroon. She says in 2014 the Nigerian Islamist group again forced their way into a Chinese construction camp in Waza and abducted 10 road engineers.
Boko Haram released the hostages after some weeks but Tailati says the attacks scared off tourists.
Tailati says Cameroon’s tourism officials are meeting in the region this week to discuss how to attract tourists back to the park.
The militants’ attacks on farms and shops, including some that depended on tourism, forced youth in the area to turn to poaching and illegal logging to make a living.
Officials say improved security on both sides of the borders has reduced the threat from terrorists, with no large-scale attacks reported in the area for more than a year.
But officials say poachers and illegal loggers continue to destroy the park.
The governor of Cameroon's Far North Region, Midjiyawa Bakari, spoke to VOA by messaging app from the region’s capital, Maroua.
He says about 70 poachers and illegal loggers were arrested at Waza National Park this week. Bakari says those arrested are Cameroonians, Nigerians and Chadians who kill animals in the park, harvest wood from the park for charcoal and sell the wood and game to neighboring countries like Chad and Nigeria.
Bakari says they’ve created local militias to assist ranchers and troops in protecting the park.
The head of the European Union delegation to Cameroon, Philippe Van Damme, says restoring the park would bring a multitude of benefits to the area.
He spoke Tuesday to Cameroon Radio Television.
Van Damme says protecting Waza National Park will stabilize the environment and climate, create jobs for several hundred unemployed youths, and bring in revenue from tourism. He says Cameroon and the European Union are evaluating what is needed to protect, redevelop, and bring back to life to the park, which was devastated by terrorism, poaching, and deforestation.
Van Damme, who took a group of five EU ambassadors to the park this week, said reviving it would also reduce poverty and inequality in the region.