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Spotlight Series: David Kenfack: 25 Years with the Network & Counting

David Kenfack has been involved with the ForestGEO network since 1996 when he began as Field Manager for the new Korup, Cameroon FDP.  Since 2010 he’s been coordinating the ForestGEO Africa Program, and he’s currently a co-PI of the Korup (Cameroon), Mpala (Kenya), and Ngel Nyaki (Nigeria) FDPs.  In 2020 he was elected as a Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.  When he’s not discovering and describing new species, he enjoys playing drums and guitar, as well as promoting his traditional culture through Lemou Bafou USA.

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?

I grew up in Bafou, one of the most prosperous villages located in the highlands of the western region of Cameroon. As the son of hardworking farmers, I spent most of my childhood practicing mixed farming in coffee plantations, pruning trees that made live hedges on our properties, and extracting raffia palm wine from the stems of the swampy valley’s monodominant Raphia hookeri. I was therefore very close to nature early in my life, and by the time that I completed high school and moved to the University of Yaoundé, I could easily name most of what remained of the plant and animal diversity in my village. With this background, I didn’t hesitate to choose biology over other disciplines at the university. After my BSc in botany, I carried out a botanical inventory of a small hill in the vicinity of Yaoundé for my “Maitrise Ès Science” and later worked on the revision of the genus Striga for my “Doctorat 3ème Cycle.” Pursuing a career in forest ecology and botany, therefore, became obvious for me, not only because it involved being close to nature, but also lots of travel, another one of my passions.

Image caption below.
David Kenfack in the field at Ngel Nyaki FDP.

What led you down the path to your current job? What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?

The short answer will be “luck”. A few months after graduation from the University of Yaoundé, I got a position with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Yaoundé to carry out botanical inventories in southeast Cameroon. Unfortunately, only two months later, the entire program closed because of a disagreement with the government of Cameroon, and I was jobless.

In the process of closing the program, my boss advised me to accompany a consultant named Duncan W. Thomas (currently one of the PI’s of the Korup plot) to carry out a biodiversity assessment of the Tchabal Mbabo in northern Cameroon. I accepted the offer and spent three weeks collecting and documenting the flora of this beautiful mountain. What I didn’t know was that this was in fact an interview. Prior to our departure from Yaoundé, the consultant informed my (WCS) boss that he was looking into recruiting a young biologist for a long-term monitoring program in Korup National Park. When we returned to Yaoundé, Dr. Thomas told me about the 50-ha plot program, and a few months later, in August 1996, I was recruited as Field Manager of the Korup Forest Dynamics Plot.

After completion of the first census of the plot, I took on the positions of Herbarium Curator at the Limbe Botanical Garden, and then, later, Botanist at WWF-Cameroon, while still managing the KFDP field program and attending CTFS [Center for Tropical for Forest Science, now ForestGEO] workshops.

In 2002, I obtained a scholarship for my PhD at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and later a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan.  Throughout this time I continued to be involved with CTFS and the KFDP. In 2010, I officially joined the network as postdoctoral fellow and CTFS Africa Program Coordinator, based at the Harvard University.  In 2012 I became a STRI Staff Scientist.

What is the most interesting or unique aspect of your site?

I’m currently co-PI in three of the five African plots: Korup, Mpala, and Ngel Nyaki. The Korup plot is the wettest plot of the network, as it receives over 5000 mm, is located in a refuge forest, and the flora is comprised of many endemics and sub-endemics. The Mpala plot, of course, is the largest plot of the network (120 ha) and is so far the only one in a woody savanna ecosystem, spanning three soil types with different vegetations. The Ngel Nyaki plot, with the Indian Cave and the Niobrara plots in Nebraska, are the only three plots of the network that investigate the dynamics along the forest-grassland boundary.

Image caption below.
David studying Grewia flowers at Mpala FDP.

What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?

The particulars of each site dictate unique questions that they are equipped to answer.  For example, at Korup we examine how trees interact with lianas, while at Ngel Nyaki we look at the edge dynamics between the core forest and the grassland, and at Mpala we study the ways in which large herbivores influence tree architecture and mortality. Of course, discovering and describing new plant species remains one of our main priorities.

What kind of capacity building opportunities does your site provide for students, early-career researchers, and the local community?

In all our sites, about 80% of the field crews are always recruited from local communities who, by far, are always the primary beneficiaries of the program. They are trained in ForestGEO standard census methods, but more importantly, in plant identification, skills that often allow them pick up even better jobs between the censuses. Our censuses also involve a few high school graduates.  Most of them end up studying biology in local universities, and the census provides them with good fieldwork experience even before their coursework begins. Our partnership with local universities has also allowed several graduate students to conduct their master’s and PhD theses in our plots. Finally, we facilitate the use of the plot by international and other local independent researchers who desire to carryout research in our plots, providing them with field assistants and field training.

Image caption below.
David standing in black cotton habitat at Mpala FDP.

What is your favorite part about your work?

My job involves so many activities that I enjoy almost equally. However, there is nothing that provides me with more joy than being in the field, interacting with the field crews, and identifying trees. With my background in plant taxonomy, I love to be in hyper-diverse forests with challenging taxonomic groups because I know that at the end of the tunnel, I often end up discovering new species (e.g. Rhaptopetalumrabiense Kenfack & Nguema, sp. nov., detailed in this paper).

What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics?

Although I’m not particularly good with any instruments, I like playing guitar and drums. As vice president of Lemou Bafou USA, I spend lots of time promoting our culture and teaching our traditional dances to the Bafou community in the Washington area.

David Kenfack in traditional Cameroonian clothing.
David is vice president of Lemou Bafou USA.

Web Presence: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Bio  

Selected Publications

Abiem, I., Arellano, G., Kenfack, D., & Chapman, H. 2020. Afromontane Forest Diversity and the Role of Grassland-Forest Transition in Tree Species Distribution. Diversity 12: 30.

Abiem, I., Dickie, I., Kenfack, D., & Chapman, H. 2021. Conspecific negative density dependence does not explain coexistence in a tropical Afromontane forest. Journal of Vegetation Science 32: e12990.

Kenfack, D., Arellano, G., Kibet, S., Kimuyu, D., & Musili, P. 2021. Understanding the monodominance of Acacia drepanolobium in East African savannas: insights from demographic data. Trees. doi: 10.1007/s00468-021-02127-6

Kenfack, D., & Nguema, D.E. 2019. A new species of Rhaptopetalum (Lecythidaceae) from south-western Gabon. PhytoKeys 128: 39–46.

Kimuyu, D.M., Kenfack, D., Musili, P.M., & Ang’ila, R.O. 2021. Fine-scale habitat heterogeneity influences browsing damage by elephant and giraffe. Biotropica 53: 86–96.

Mutuku, P.M., & Kenfack, D. 2019. Effect of local topographic heterogeneity on tree species assembly in an Acacia-dominated African savanna. Journal of Tropical Ecology 35: 46–56.

Obiang, N.L.E., Kenfack, D., Picard, N., Lutz, J.A., Bissiengou, P., Memiaghe, H.R., & Alonso, A. 2019. Determinants of spatial patterns of canopy tree species in a tropical evergreen forest in Gabon. Journal of Vegetation Science 30(5): 929-939.