4 February 2023

Protecting the secrets of Cameroon

Discover why Cameroon is a biodiverse jewel in the crown of Africa, and what scientists are doing to protect it.

By Eddie Johnston

A western lowland gorilla in the grass in Cameroon

Nestled right in the middle of Central Africa, Cameroon is a haven of biodiversity.

There are around 9,000 known plant species in Cameroon, with even more named new to science every year. Just over 500 of these species are endemic to Cameroon, meaning they're found nowhere else.

Part of Cameroon’s rich biodiversity comes from the range of different environments across the country. With a coastline, savanna, desert, mountains and tropical rainforests, Cameroon is often referred to as ‘Africa in miniature’.

As we celebrate the vibrancy and warmth of Cameroon at this year's orchid festival, discover more about the incredible range of life that calls this African nation home, and how scientists from Kew are helping to protect it.

The dark slopes of a mountain, with golden plants growing in the foreground
The slopes of Mount Cameroon, Betterfoto on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hot property

The land around Mount Cameroon, a 4000m tall active volcano located on the western coastline of the country, is incredibly fertile, and home to a range of plant life, including several species of orchid, found nowhere else in the world.

Mount Cameroon is part of the Cameroon Volcanic Line, a high ridge of mountains that run from the coast of Cameroon to almost the northern most point of the country at Lake Chad. The height of these mountains creates a range of different environmental zones throughout the country, including tropical rainforests, montane forests and cloud forests.

Cameroon is also part of the Congolian rainforest, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world after the Amazon. Unlike other parts of West Africa, much of Cameroon’s rainforest remains undisturbed.

But it might not stay that way for long.

Large green Ebo forest from above
Cameroon Ebo forest © Xander van der Burgt/RBG Kew

Under threat

Across Cameroon, changes in land use are threatening these crucial ecosystems.

Acres of rainforest and cloud forest are being cleared to make way for rubber and oil palm plantations, unsustainable logging practice and other agricultural projects.

Developments such as the Memve’ele Hydropower Dam and iron ore mining exploration projects border the Campo Ma’an National Park, a haven for endangered plants and wildlife, such as western lowland gorillas, central chimpanzees and the critically endangered orchid species Distylodon sonkeanum.

While these new developments are key in supporting Cameroon’s infrastructure and supporting its growth, it needs to be done in a way that works in harmony with the rich natural environment.

Cameroon’s biodiversity is not only beautiful, but of critical importance to the culture and economy of the country. Many of the national dishes derive from indigenous plant species, like ndolé (Vernonia amygdalina) and egusi (Cucurmeropsis mannii), while culturally-important fibres and traditional medicines come from local plants.

A long green tendril with stretched star-like green flowers
Distylodon sonkeanum, Vincent Droissart from Taxonomy of Atlantic Central African orchids 2. A second species of the rare genus Distylodon (Orchidaceae,Angraecinae) collected in Cameroon CC BY-SA 4.0
Young chimpanzee looking up at the camera
Rare subspecies of chimpanzee: the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee © Paul Dutton

The Ebo forest, found in the Littoral region of Cameroon, is home to a range of communities, including the Banen, living on the edges of the forest. These groups rely on the forest for resources such as food and medicine, as well as having deep cultural and ancestral links to the forest.

It’s these communities that are leading the push to protect the natural environments. In 2020, the Cameroonian Government announced plans to create two long-term logging concessions, set to cover the entire area of the Ebo forest, previously flagged to become a protected national park.

Along with the tireless work of Banen communities protesting the proposed logging threats, a group of conservationists including Kew scientists signed a letter to Cameroon’s Prime Minister asking him to rescind these concessions.

On 6 August 2020, the plans for the logging concessions within the Ebo forest were cancelled by the President of Cameroon.

Green shrubs and three big trees in Ebo forest
Ebo forest Cameroon © Maria Alvarez/RBG Kew

How we're helping

To protect something, first you need to know what it is that needs protecting.

Kew scientists have been working across Cameroon for over two decades, cataloguing the vast range of plant species, to help support efforts to protect these vital forest areas.

We're collaborating with the National Herbarium of Cameroon to document the extensive array of plants found in the Ebo forest, with a view to recognising it as one of Cameroon’s first TIPAs.

The Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) programme at Kew aims to identify tropical areas in Cameroon, as well as all over the world, where threatened species are concentrated, helping the national authorities to prioritise their protection.

New species named to science by Kew scientists include the incredibly rare Pseudohydrosme ebo, and a new species of busy lizzie, Impatiens banen, named after the Banen community fighting against ecosystem destruction.

A thin stemmed plant has young but large leaves emerging regularly up its stem. A series of small flowers are emerging from the main stem directly, each has three petals with two hanging lower than the third.
Busy lizzie (Impatiens banen) © Xander van der Burgt, RBG Kew
Very large pink tubular flower of the Pseudohydrosme ebo
Pseudohydrosme ebo © Xander van der Burgt/RBG Kew

In 2011, Kew research leader Martin Cheek, along with Onana Jean Michel from the University of Yaoundé, published the Red Data Book for Flowering Plants of Cameroon. This book contained 815 threatened species, most of which had never been assessed for risk of extinction before.

The book also contained descriptions of plants, to help identify them, along with notes on their habitats, and the threats they currently face.

Kew scientists are working with Cameroonian scientists to collect seeds for storage in the Millennium Seed Bank; add endangered and at-risk species to the IUCN Red List; and improve global understanding of the importance of Cameroon’s rare plant species.

As we discover more about the incredible range of plant life that calls Cameroon home, it’s hoped that Kew’s work will continue to support these crucial ecosystems.

An illustrated banner showing Cameroonian plants and animals

Orchids 2023

Discover the beauty and biodiversity of Cameroon for yourself at this year's Orchids festival at Kew Gardens

Read & watch