A hunter in Oku village, in Cameroon's North-West region, has been awarded a "red feather" for killing a leopard in the Kilum-Ijim Forest, West Africa's largest remaining patch of mountain rainforest. But the accolade has spurred mixed reactions from conservationists and local authorities.
The Kilum-Ijim Forest has a rich biodiversity, and is a source of livelihood for some 200,000 people who rely on its water, firewood, timber, fibres, medicinal plants and food.
It is home to endemic species such as the brightly coloured Bannerman's turaco bird from which the coveted red feather is drawn.
The leopard, however, is not a documented part of the forest's biodiversity, says environmental activist Tah Kenneth Konsum – who told RFI the last known presence of leopards on Mount Oku dated back to the 1980s.
This information, he says, is based on the work of publications such as Bird Life International and conservation NGOs studying the populations of animals within the Kilum-Ijim range.
But on Christmas Day in 2023, a leopard became the subject of major interest after it was slain by local hunter Bongjoh Amos Njakoi.
"I had set a trap for a mole rat," Njakoi told RFI. "But when I went to check the trap that morning, I instead saw a leopard."
As well as being rewarded with a red feather, a symbol of prestige and honour among the Oku people, Njakoi was renamed "Nforme Nkohnyam", in keeping with tradition.
With the dead animal trussed up on a long stick, the villagers sang as they took the leopard to the royal Oku Palace, home on the "fon" ruler, in respect with Oku culture.
If a ferocious animal is caught, it must be taken to the "fon", says anthropologist Tatah Peter Ntaimah – adding that the fon is the only person authorised to eat the animal.
This is because the leopard is the totemic animal of the palace and the fon is known as "nyam baa", the Oku word for leopard.
"His powers are likened to that of the leopard. The animal is powerful, fast and agile, so we believe that our fon is as smart as a leopard," Ntaimah told RFI.
The palace's royal bed is adorned in leopard colours, and children conceived on that bed are considered to have an elevated status.
Price of glory
Despite its prestige, the red feather reward has raised red flags among environmentalists.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the leopard has become a vulnerable species, with its population decreasing due to habitat loss, loss of food sources and poaching.
The IUCN says the leopards' range in 1750 spanned almost all of Africa south of the Sahara, as well as parts of north and northeast Africa, Asia, India and China.
But by 2019, up to 75 percent of that range had been lost.
Epanda Manfred Aimé, of the NGO Tropical Forest and Rural Development, has been working on how to unite culture and conservation in Cameroon.
"I believe that in culture there is always an entrance for conservation. Culturally, it is a sign of bravery to kill such an animal, but this must be put into context," Manfred Aimé told RFI.
"Maybe in the past, when there were many of these animals, killing them could be considered as a sign of bravery and rewarded.
"Now that they are endangered, communities should instead be thinking about how to protect such animals."
Manfred Aimé is hoping that eco-tourism could be leveraged as a way to boost Oku's economy.
"Incentives should be given to people who work to preserve such animals, because they can become a valid source of economic growth for the whole community," he says.
Other efforts are being made to preseve Kilum-Ijim, too.
The Society for the Promotion of Initiatives in Sustainable Development and Welfare, another non-profit organisation, is working with Cameroon's Forestry and Wildlife Ministry to restore the forest.
"We received funding in 2021 to plant 3,000 Prunus africana trees over a 72-hectare plot close to the sanctuary for endangered plant life," says the society's Kenneth Konsum.
"In addition, we have collaborated with neighborhood schools to create nurseries for these trees and educate locals and young people about the environment."
The killing of the leopard came a day after the Kwifon, Oku's judiciary branch, issued a series of injunctions to preserve the forest ahead of the dry season and the threat of wildfires.
"The biggest conservator of the Kilum Mountain Forest reserve is the Kwifon," says Kwei Andrew Mngo'o, a lawmaker from Oku who is also a member of the Kwifon.
"Just before the animal was caught, the Kwifon ordered all hunters to dismantle their traps within 24 hours.
"The Kwifon also ordered all forest users, including bee farmers, to vacate the forest until further notice, and warned farmers ear the forest to avoid lighting fires."
Njakoi said he had been on his way into the forest to dismantle his traps when he found the dead leopard.