Traditional cocoa farming: a win-win for wildlife and farmers?

Publication Date

A Cameroonian-Scottish team investigate how to make African cocoa farming better for wildlife and productivity.

Dawn is breaking over a thick canopy of trees in South-Eastern Cameroon. Beneath the canopy, still in the semi-dark, three women stumble around stretching out long fine nets between the trees.

A colorful bird perched on a tree
Tiny sunbird (Cinnyris minullus), one of the smallest birds caught in Cameroonian cocoa farms

The women are Regine Claire (a PhD student at the University of Buea, Cameroon), Melanie Tchoumbou (a researcher at the University of Dschang, Cameroon) and Crinan Jarrett (a Caledonian Research Foundation (CRF) PhD Scholar at the University of Glasgow), and the nets are ‘mist-nets’, the most commonly used tool for surveying birds. They need to get the nets set up before the sun fully rises and birds begin their daily activities. Once the set-up is complete, the three researchers sit quietly around the trusty orange plastic table that they carried in with them this morning. They will sit and wait until the birds begin to move around, and then, for the following six hours, they will periodically check the nets and extract any birds caught in them. The birds are not harmed – they get tangled in the nets and, knowing they cannot escape, they stay still. Once untangled from the nets, Claire, Melanie and Crinan identify the birds, collect information on their condition, and finally, collect a sample of the birds’ faeces.

A man and a woman sitting at a table
Crinan Jarrett (University of Glasgow, Scotland) and Melanie Tchoumbou (University of Dschang, Cameroon) processing birds caught in mist-nets in Cameroonian cocoa farms.

This ritual, repeated for many days in different sites, is part of the data collection for a project investigating how to balance wildlife conservation and agricultural production in cocoa plantations. Cocoa, which goes on to make our beloved chocolate, is grown in the tropics, traditionally under a thick canopy of rainforest trees. These traditional cocoa plantations are home to a high diversity of rainforest wildlife, thanks to their forest-like characteristics. However, a constantly increasing demand for chocolate, driven by countries such as the UK and Switzerland, has put pressure on producers to intensify cocoa cultivation. Intensifying, in this case, means growing cocoa as a monoculture without the shade tree canopy. These monocultures, though highly productive in the short term, are not good news for wildlife. Whilst many rainforest species can make their home in shady low-intensity cocoa plantations, the same is not true for these sunny intensively-treated monocultures.

So, the researcher’s question: is there a way to manage cocoa plantations that will result in high yields (and hence high farmer income) and high wildlife diversity? Though this question may sound optimistic, it is not unfounded. A study conducted in Indonesia found that wildlife (birds & bats), actually increase productivity in farms by 31% because they eat damaging cocoa pests. So theoretically, if plantations were managed to encourage these pest-eating species, there could be a win-win scenario for productivity and wildlife.

Melanie Tchoumbou with a Grey-headed Kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala) and a Common Wattle-eye (Platysteira cyanea)

Back to the stumbling around in the dark; these bird surveys illustrate, in each farm, which species can survive there, and, thanks to the faecal sample, which is sent off for lab analyses, what they are eating. These surveys are just part of a larger initiative, which has involved surveying a whole range of animals, plants and agricultural yields across differently managed farms in West Africa. With this data, scientists are now building complex food-web models, which will allow them to understand how tweaking plantation management can affect the different species present. The hope is that they can find management actions that will boost wildlife populations, whilst at the same time increasing farmers’ yields; all thanks to the free services that some animal species provide!

Crinan Jarrett, the University of Glasgow, was awarded an RSE funded Caledonian Research Foundation (CRF) PhD Scholarship administered by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.