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© Paul Estève
Aristide Takoukam is president and founder of the NGO AMMCO (African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization) in Cameroon. He explains how AMMCO has launched apps to monitor and protect endangered marine species in Cameroon. The project is part of the Small-scale Initiatives Programme (PPI) implemented on the ground by the IUCN’s French Committee and funded by the FFEM.

Aristide TakoukamCan you tell us more about your project for monitoring endangered marine species?

Aristide Takoukam : Back in 2014, AMMCO developed the SIREN mobile phone app to collect data on manatees, an endangered marine species, in Cameroon. Fishermen collect the data at sea.  In practical terms, the app allows you to store photographs of these animals and at the same time records their GPS coordinates along with the date and time they were observed. The data can be temporarily stored in the phone if it's not connected to the internet and uploaded to our server later. It can then be viewed freely by the general public on our website.

This first project worked so well that we launched a second app, “SIREN Turtles”, for monitoring sea turtles, this time for researchers and the scientific community.

During the initial pilot phase, the SIREN project was focused only on manatees over a limited area. Once we saw the results from that first phase, we expanded the project to cover all aquatic species – dolphins, whales, turtles, etc. This encouraged the fishermen to continue their observations and use the app. But more importantly, the data collected revealed a threat we hadn't suspected. It turns out that sharks and rays are actually the most endangered species in Cameroon.

Why is this approach innovative?

Our starting premise was that ecological monitoring of marine mammals couldn’t be done effectively because the collected data was erroneous, improperly stored in paper format and never digitised. That meant it couldn’t be analysed effectively and the research wasn't sustainable over the long term. What our app has done is to facilitate and modernise data collecting, sharing and storing. Not only is it collected more efficiently, but it can also be viewed immediately on online maps, along with supporting photos. SIREN Turtles therefore allows us to monitor sea turtles in real time.

Beyond its technological innovation, the project is special because it’s based on participatory monitoring. Over the years it has nurtured true environmental citizenship. Efforts to raise awareness in the field are working and we’re noticing changes in the behaviour of fishermen and locals as communities take ownership of these challenges. In the past two years, fishermen participating in the project have helped rescue some fifteen sea turtles accidentally caught in nets or on beaches during egg-laying season. They send us an alert so we can help them free the turtles.

How will you disseminate the lessons learned from this project?

The first results from SIREN and SIREN Turtles were so useful that AMMCO has gone on to help two other NGOs, one in Cameroon and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo, replicate the app to monitor elephant-human conflict and fishing under the PPI programme. We’re also looking into developing a “Great Apes” app, again in Cameroon.

In addition to the Small-scale Initiatives Programme (PPI), other funding partners have got involved in the project, including National Geographic, which has allowed us to extend it to the entire Cameroon coastline. This has further enhanced the app because it has brought together 80 observers for SIREN. We’ve been able to collect around 5000 observations from the fishermen networks in just one year.

Plus, the SIREN app has allowed us to collect solid, reliable data on dolphins and whales. Armed with that data, we lobbied the Cameroon government for better marine mammal protection.  There are now five legally-protected marine mammal species in Cameroon (the humpback whale, two species of dolphin, the African clawless otter and the sperm whale), in addition to the African manatee. We plan to do the same for sharks and rays. Specifically, we'll use the data collected through the app to obtain better government protection for these species.