Bannerman's turaco is hanging by a red feather
It is a common custom in the grasslands of Cameroon to reward an outstanding fellow with a red feather planted on his hat. However, what the people of the grasslands are ignorant about is that red feathers used for decoration, the making of special hats and masquerade costume comes from the Bannerman’s turaco, a critically endangered species. The Bannerman’s turaco (Tauraco bannermani) is a species of bird in the Musophagidae family, endemic to Cameroon. The population is estimated to be just 1,500-7,000 mature individuals, mainly restricted to the Bamenda Highland forest, with another small share in the Mount Mbam Forest.
Local prestige a major cause
Conservation efforts in Cameroon often confront local realities and cultures. In the case of the Bannerman’s turaco it is facing a huge cultural barrier as the red feather prize is hugely popular and hotly coveted by Cameroonians, both at home and abroad. The red feather is a life honour that symbolises achieving greatness through hard work, sweat, and iron. In the Bamenda Tikar, Bamileke and Bamoun ethnic groups, chiefdoms decorate dozens of people every year with the red feather during traditional ceremonies and special events, such as the funeral of a king or high-ranking noble. The red feather is also worn as part of a masquerade costume consisting of a sumptuously beaded fabric mask, tunic and fly whisk.
One particular event where the popularity of this prize was witnessed is the February 2016 annual cultural week in Ashong village, Batibo subdivision, where dozens of senior citizens and well-paid civil servants were decorated with the red feather. This kind of ceremony takes place in several other villages in the grasslands of Cameroon at different periods of the year.
Because the red feather is an emblem of prestige, high class and middle class citizens from the grasslands have developed a special love and respect for the decorations. Thus, the demand from citizens in Cameroon and the Diaspora is increasing. Special hats, made of red feathers, are being marketed in the US and Europe for about 160-200 Euros, 5-10 times the local price.
Consolidating local efforts
Efforts to protect these species by the government has led to Mount Oku, the principal area in the Bamenda highlands, being considered a protected site, while Mount Mbam has no legal protection. Though there is a small group of unarmed local forest guards stationed at Mount Oku, hunters are still able to penetrate the forest and hunt the birds for their feathers.
Consolidating national conservation efforts is generally important, but local efforts are also significant, and very much valued, specifically if it is driven by an indigenous person or local. Alain Senghor K. Ngute is a post-Graduate student (Applied Ecology and Wildlife Management) at the University of Dschang, Cameroon, resident of the grasslands. He designed a project entitled “Conservation of the threatened avifauna of Mount Mbam forest, Cameroon: An important site for Bannerman’s turaco,Tauraco bannermani” seeking to address the problem through research and advocacy.
The research he is undertaking, seeks to enrich the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) monitoring database developed by BirdLife International as well as the update of Cameroon’s National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan (NBSAP) and the global biodiversity conservation priority areas.
While advocating for change in these areas by raising awareness of other locals and hunters on the dangers of hunting the Tauraco bannermani for its red feather, and educating elites on conservation needs, he is hoping to close the knowledge gap. Alain’s ultimate goal is to engage the youth and many locals in the grassland area to join the fight in changing mentalities to protect the birds.