Limbe Botanic Garden and Rainforest Genetic Conservation Project
By T. C. H. Sunderland
I am currently a little over three months into a 12 month student internship at the Limbe Project in Cameroon, West Africa – a year’s experience between graduating from the Kew Diploma last September and undertaking further study (M.Sc. in Forestry at Oxford University).
Despite there having been a botanic garden at Limbe for the past 100 years (we will celebrate our centenary in November of this year), there have been many changes in the management of the garden, mirroring the changes in colonial control of the country as a whole, and this has led to a distinct pattern of development and decline throughout its history. However, in 1986 the Overseas Development Administration (O D A), with the favourable results of a feasibility study undertaken by Kew personnel, committed itself to a bilateral aid programme (with the Cameroon government) to a five year programme of restoration and development of the botanic garden and the initiation of two associated forest reserves, which took effect from 1988.
The botanic garden is based on the coast at Limbe and the area is dominated by Mount Cameroon (4,079 metres), an active volcano that last erupted in 1982, which rises dramatically and imposingly behind the town. On the slopes of the mountain lies the Etinde Reserve, a 300 sq./km area of unbroken forest and subsequent Afro-montane vegetation in its complete altitudinal range from sea level to the summit of the mountain. The Mabete-Moliwe Reserve on the other hand, is a much smaller area (40 sq./km) and is essentially an area of lowland forest which has undergone a certain amount of timber exploitation and subsequent encroachment by both commercial and subsistence agriculture, yet is still of considerable botanical importance.
My role within the project is essentially split between providing technical assistance within the botanic garden and undertaking extensive plant collections, of both herbarium and live material, within the two reserves.
In the gardens I am responsible for the initiation and training of selected staff in arboricultural techniques (with much of the essential safety equipment kindly donated from R.B.G. Kew) in order that there will be a fully operational “tree gang” functioning when I eventually leave the project. Whilst the work is not without its difficulties, not least of which is due to climatic stress, we are progressing well and those staff selected have shown considerable aptitude for the work methods involved, despite having little previous experience. I am also involved in certain other technical aspects of the management of the botanic garden, such as the updating of the plant records system, labelling, propagation and the development of planting themes within the remit of the gardens future development.
The botanic garden, whilst not instantly aesthetically pleasing as an amenity area, houses a number of wonderful individual specimens, many of which are obvious relics of a colonial past. Consisting of three distinct areas, a central field that contains the majority of the exotic collections and amenity plantings, and two hills at either end of this central area; Bota Hill, an area supposed to represent the last vestige of Biafran forest in the area, but in reality is rampant with many exotic weed and indigenous pioneer species, and SDO’s Hill, an area of both “wild” and amenity areas. The more notable specimens within the amenity collections are huge individuals of exotics such as Cycas revoluta and Ravenala madagascariensis, and representative samples of local megaphanerophytes (trees above 30 metres) such as Chlorophoraexcelsa, Lophira alata, Ceiba pentandra, and an extensive collection of West African Ficus sp. There are also many useful plants displayed, such as a collection of tropical fruit trees, the majority of which are fairly common but nonetheless of interest, and a wonderful collection of different Musa cultivars and species highlighting the incredible phenotypic variability of this group and the amount of breeding and selection that has occurred in the past.
One of the most impressive areas of the gardens is Jungle Village, a natural amphitheatre recently renovated by Operation Raleigh, that is set within a semi-wild area between the central field and SDO’s Hill. It is basically an amenity site where many local dances, meetings and concerts are held, the diversity of which is staggering. The last dance festival I witnessed there culminated in the sacrificing of a goat and the drinking of its blood by the participants – and all of this just before lunch!
Under the auspices of Dr, Martin Cheek of the Herbarium at Kew, who is compiling a floristic checklist of the reserves and the surrounding area, I am involved with undertaking systematic herbarium collections and vegetation sampling within the designated forest area, It is apparent from such collections that there is a vast diversity of forest structure, dynamics and speciation within our reserves and, along with the Korup National Park (which I have also had the good fortune to visit), the forest around Mount Cameroon may be some of the richest in West Africa. The reasons for this lie with the fact that this area is part of the Cameroon-Gabon configuration; a notable Pleistocene refuge and hence an important centre of botanical and faunal diversity.
Since my arrival over 400 specimens have been collected and, given the relative paucity of flowering material during the dry season, which we are experiencing at present, this is a good start. Although with over 8,000 flowering plants present here (that have been formally described), we still have along way to go. The collection sites have varied from the lowland forest, dominated by huge canopy trees such as Irvingis gabonensisStaudtia stiptata and smaller understorey trees such as the wonderful African orchid nutmeg (Monodora myristica) of which we made the first herbarium collection of fertile material by the project, to mid-elevation forest dominated by Schefflera spp. and Syzygium staudtii, interspersed by dense monospecific stands of the tree fern Cyathea manniana, right up to the windswept and freezing summit of Mount Cameroon, where only a few small herbs such as Helichrysum mannli and Crepis cameroonica and a grass, Pentaschistus mannii, retain a precarious foothold.
The advent of the rainy season from March/May will see a considerable change in emphasis of the work undertaken for the project and will hopefully enable me to gain a wide range of experience of tropical botanic garden and forest reserve management. Whilst I am here in Cameroon, it is envisaged that I shall be involved with other natural resource projects; I have recently attended an agroforestry seminar at Korup which was very rewarding indeed, I will travel to the Mbalmayo Forest Project in S.E. Cameroon next month to undertake some vegetation sampling for the O.D.A. and will also take a team from Limbe to the Mount Koupe Forest Reserve to undertake research for Herbarium and Living Collections there in June.
I am exceptionally grateful to the Guild for their continual support of my activities and look forward to returning to Kew as a Horticultural Research Fellow in 1993.