CAMPO, CAMEROON - Poaching and environmental degradation are threatening the gorilla population in southern Cameroon. One young woman, Anougue France, is trying to change the trend.
"It is easy to meet a gorilla," she says as she approaches gorillas fighting over food. "When we have contacts with them, we do certain sounds with our tongue like [this - she makes the noise with her mouth], clapping our hands so that they should respond to us. When we do those signs they will be curious towards us, they will come closer to us and they will start barking and they would shout, vocalizing like huhuhuhu, just to defend their territory."
The 28-year-old has been living in the camp since early 2015. She sees herself as a diplomat of sorts between humans and gorillas, a relationship that has grown strained in recent years to say the least.
In Cameroon, gorillas and monkeys are hunted mainly for bush meat. Baby primates are captured and sold as pets. There is also a growing black market trade in primate parts believed to have therapeutic and mystical values.
"When you come towards them, you must respect all the methods," she said. "You must not turn your back on the gorilla. You must look at the gorilla into the eye, make him know that you are not afraid of him. You should not run. If you run that is when it can be risky. No matter the movement that it is doing, you should just be static. It will turn, it will charge and it will leave."
France studied environmental science at the University of Maroua. She now works for a World Wildlife Fund project launched in 2011 to protect the mammals here.
Teaching the locals
Campo Ma’an is vast. The preserve stretches over 700,000 hectares on the border with Equatorial Guinea. But park officials say there are only about 300 Cross River gorillas left here.
And gorillas are not just a tourist attraction. They graze widely and play a role in maintaining the natural balance of the ecosystem.
France tries to convince the locals to stop poaching and protect the natural habitat of the animals, which are the main causes of the animals disappearing.?
She's talked to local leaders like Eric Fotso of the Bamileke ethnic group.
"I understand your message, that gorillas are very important for the conservation of nature. But I will not stop buying and selling them because I have no other means of economic survival. The government needs to help find alternative sources of income," said Fotso.
France argues that protecting the gorilla population will drive tourism to the park. She says that revenue could fund conservation efforts and help develop the area, improving living standards for the local population.