Lake Oku – first weeks in the field

Here is an update from Thomas Doherty-Bone, who is working in Cameroon on EDGE Amphibian number 34, the Lake Oku clawed frog.

Arrival in Cameroon

After a week in Yaoundé, meeting colleagues and processing permits at the Ministry of Wildlife and Forests, I took a bus to North West Province. While it was a 2 hour wait for it to leave Yaoundé, we went like a bat out of hell, arriving at Bamenda, the provincial capital in good time. Being met by my local guide at the bus station, our passage to the Oku community’s capital, Elak was interrupted by my collapsing in Kumbo with a simultaneous allergic reaction to bush crickets (we were later told these are collected using pesticide) and salmonella poisoning.

Two days and an intravenous drip later, we made our way to Elak-Oku, the centre for the Oku community. Meetings were held with the District Officer (local government representative) and mayor. Most importantly of all, we met with the Fon (king) of the Oku community. The latter is the most important figure as he is the traditional authority for the people and the Lake, and is arguably the most powerful authority in this region. After this, equipment was purchased and field staff mobilised for the upcoming project.

Recce and the Striking base camp

As the lake is a four hour walk from Elak, we made a reconnaissance trip to Lake Oku, to see about setting up a base camp. So we took a couple of motorbikes up the dirt road, into the Kilum Mountain Forest, to the lake. We found a good spot for pitching tents, by the old Baptist House in the forest, and then headed down the lake to see if we could see any frogs. Even our motorbike riders helped scour the lake’s shore for frogs, and showed a robust interest in their local biodiversity and the work being done. They even reminisced to us their high school biology lessons, and what they had learned about frogs themselves.

We found many Phrynobatrachus puddle frogs, but not many of our target species (you remember, the Lake Oku Clawed Frog Xenopus longipes). In fact, of the few we did find, these were all dead or dying, just like two years before. We were therefore not too late to catch the frogs should they be on the path to imminent extinction.

Local Liaisons

As with any visit to the lands of the Oku people, paying respects to the Fon and the palace was in order. The Fon of Oku is the absolute ruler of this land, and is the landlord for the Kilum Forest. Similarly, if one were to work on the other side of the mountain in the Ijim forest, one would be expected to pay a visit to the Fon of Kom. The Fon had been presented with the proposal for our work earlier in the year, so was already familiar with why we were there. Understanding the importance of this work, His Excellency felt it appropriate to provide the project co-ordinator with a traditional title.

So, I have been bestowed the title of Fai Mawes, meaning “notable of the Lake”. In an official ceremony, I was dressed up (like a Christmas tree) in traditional robes, sat down with other Fai (notables), then asked to present myself, and the upcoming project. Many of the people there were surprised to learn the biological importance of the Mawes, and showed immense interest in the work to be carried out. Many of the Oku people I talk to did not realise that the frog living in their spiritual resting place is endemic to that lake. Awareness is therefore a task left undone with regards the Lake Oku Clawed Frog (or maybe we should be calling it Frog of the Mawes). This shall be remedied with a notice board on the lake, for which we are still trying to secure funding.

The Study – First Impressions

We have hit off the research well, setting traps at different parts of the lake, and taking measurements on the water each morning. Oscar Ndifon, the junior field assistant is an apt chemist, and is taking to environmental chemistry with great zest. My local assistants and cook have grown up in and around the mountain forest, and love being here. They have spent their childhoods in the forest: herding goats; gathering honey and herbal medicine; collecting firewood; and hunting. They are also very keen to see the results of the work, and to help conserve the biodiversity of the lake and the forest. They are very understanding and obliging about disinfecting their boots and equipment, to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases between frog populations. In fact, being Oku men, they see it as some other version of cleansing ritual that they often perform as part of their culture.

The people of Oku still have a great love and respect for their forest, and try to resist pressures to develop at its expense. The lake is still surrounded by a thick blanket of forest. Pressures are however mounting, and these will be discussed in the next blog, along with highlights of the field work.

Read Thomas’ previous blogs on this research: Conservation Research: Lake Oku Clawed Frog and Introducing The Lake Oku Clawed Frog.


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  1. Immanuel Jenling said,

    on May 23rd, 2009 at 11:56 am

    the people of oku , my people has what it takes to be happy, nature, handicraft, smiles and a great tadition but what they lack is ROAD NETWORK from the main regional city of Bamenda. If there was a road connection to Oku through Babungo ,Ibal, Kevu Jikejem and Elak , one can discover more yet undiscovered.
    there is honey in oku
    there is handicraft which needs to be promoted and one of the promotion is if there are connecting roads it can encourage creativity , research

  2. on March 31st, 2011 at 11:59 am

    As a Native of Oku and Oku based High School biology teacher…the prospects to use this project to sub-project ecological works for my AL Students is really of great impetus. I see a future where our culture and science are fused to preserve our very rich environment and biodiversity. Think about how the Oku culture is closely linked to nature!! Notables in our community refer to the environment as “a living being” reason why the gods of the land are linked to nature and why they offer sacrifices to the land. This believe further states that nature like a human needs to be fed and to be treated with respect…reason why nature is also nourished when the rites and sacrifices are done…nature is also appeased when people misuse or abuse the land…..Now can you see how and why the this culture is superb?! who says African cultures are primitive? Scientifically speaking,our environment is a living entity which needs a balance of biological and physico-chemical factors to survive, any imbalance…… know the rest.!!


    on September 24th, 2011 at 10:30 am

    lake oku is not just a place for one to know of but for one to visit and not just to visit the lake but also enjoy the hospitality of the oku people.


    on September 24th, 2011 at 10:40 am

    my people i as a geography student wants to let you know that our village is geographically gifted and that is one of those things we should be proud of .I am proud to be a native of Oku

  5. Godlove Ngek said,

    on April 10th, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Dear Thomas Doherty-Bone, I am so impressed with the zoological and ecological work (research) you are undertaking in my beautiful native village of Oku especially focusing on specific frogs that are near extinction. Please since you are also doing research on birds, you should already know that Baberman’s Turaco (fen) is also unique to that montane environment. The bird is also endangered as it might soon go out of existence. You will get more titles by looking into propagating the existence of this species. Please we are in dire need of conservation projects in Oku.Birdlife International did their best but with rapid population growth in Oku, I am afraid something urgent need to be done to preserve that rich ecological zone
    Please we need more researcher like you in Oku.
    Thank you for all your endaevours and good luck with your research.
    Chifon Godlove
    Cape Town, South Africa

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