In addition to poaching, pressure is exerted on the flora of the Hlanzoun swamp forest where timber and plants are often overexploited.
Silence does not exist in the swamp forest of Hlanzoun, in the south of Benin, where, between the branches of the majestic trees rooted in the rivers, the birds whirl around and squeal and the monkeys bicker loudly.
This cacophony is proof of unparalleled flora and fauna, according to specialists who are fighting to preserve this flooded forest, the last of its kind in the country and today threatened. In this forest – which is called Zoun in the local Fon language, and bearing the name of the Hlan river which crosses it – more than 241 plant and 160 animal species have been counted.
By arming themselves with patience, visitors can hope to encounter the rare species of red-bellied monkey, the swamp mongoose or even the sitatunga, a small antelope living in an aquatic environment.
The crossing is done on small wooden boats, the only possible transport to enter this immense green space, interspersed with lakes and marshes, which stretches over nearly 3,000 hectares.
From the top of a tree with a disproportionate diameter, a hornbill, African cousin of the toucan, utters hoarse cries. “The hornbill eats insects and fruits, it accompanies groups of monkeys, which by moving disturb the insects and thus allow it to catch them”, explains Vincent Romera, photographer and ecologist specializing in ornithology.
With his binoculars, he contemplates a family of monkeys leaping from tree to tree. But between the foliage, difficult to see the bird with the long beak. “The animals have become very fearful”, regrets the ecologist, who has more and more difficulty in photographing them, to the point of considering the installation of trap cameras to quantify the remaining animal population of which “the numbers are in free fall He said.
From time to time, the concert of animal cries offered by the forest is interrupted “by gunshots”, deplores Vincent Romera. In addition, there are all kinds of traps set up by poachers.
On the edge of the road that runs along Hlanzoun, monitors, crocodiles and snakes killed by hunters are displayed for sale. Monkeys are also sold for their flesh.
The people living around the forest “need money, so those who have learned to shoot will kill animals,” explains Roger Hounkanrin, tourist guide in the region. But even more than poaching, the biggest threat to the forest is the pressure on the flora, according to the ecologist.
The trees are felled and are used for firewood or for resale, raffia parks, a kind of palm tree, are also overexploited and are used in particular for the production of a local alcohol, sodabi. However, the direct destruction of the habitat reduces the areas favorable to animal species and forces the animals to be exposed to poaching by going to the fields to look for food.
This ecosystem provides several families with the majority of their income, so “without concerted and well thought-out action, the ecosystem will eventually disappear,” explains agroeconomist Judicaël Alladatin, who worked for several years on a tourist offer project involving this unique forest.
“We are in a disadvantaged environment and we cannot blame the population for trying to feed themselves. Conditions must be created for alternatives, ”he believes. Despite stable economic growth for several years, poverty remains widespread in Benin, particularly in rural areas, where nearly 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
More recently, “the villagers began to dry up the forest to have more land to cultivate for food,” also worries Joséa Dossou Bodjrènou, director of the NGO Tropical Nature, which works to preserve the forest. .
The mobilization of several NGOs and the multiple scientific works of which the forest has been the subject since the 2000s “have not made it possible to obtain official recognition from the State”, he deplores.
However, authorities have started to recognize the importance of preserving forests, especially with the adoption of a new forest policy and a new tax system, according to a World Bank report. But in Hlanzoun, “we must act quickly”, warns Mr. Bodjrènou, who calls on the state to “support the communities so that they continue to benefit from the forest”, but in “a different way”.