Cocoa and gunshots: The struggle to save a threatened forest in Nigeria
- Nigeria’s Omo Forest Reserve provides important habitat for animals such as forest elephants, as well as drinking water for the city of Lagos.
- But the reserve has been severely deforested, losing more than 7 percent of its tree cover over the past two decades. Satellite data indicate 2019 may be a particularly bad year for the reserve’s remaining primary forest.
- The primary cause of deforestation in Omo is cocoa farming. Seeking fertile soil and a respite from poverty, the reserve has attracted thousands of small farmers. They’re living in the reserve illegally, but the government is hesitant to evict them as doing so would disrupt their livelihoods and require a significant amount of funding.
- Instead, the focus is on preventing more farmers from invading Omo. This is the goal of rangers who patrol Omo’s remaining forests looking for footprints and listening for chainsaws and gunshots. While they’ve been successful at preventing some encroachment, the reserve is too big for the relatively small team to effectively monitor in its entirety.
LAGOS, Nigeria — Emmanuel Olabode stands over the fire at the Eri camp in Omo Forest Reserve, in southwest Nigeria’s Ogun state. The tongues of flames flicker to the wave of the wind, casting shadows on his khakis and the branches of nearby shrubs.
The songs of night birds rise as the cover of darkness grows thick, mingling with the voices of rangers sharing their encounters with farmers and hunters. Olabode sits quietly on a log bench on the deck framed of wood and rusted zinc, listening, noting, and laughing.
“Maybe, if the farmers don’t start going to jail,” one of the rangers says, “the forest will [be finished] because some of these people are stubborn.” The rangers laugh, some nodding approval and others waving objection.
“The farmers have the money to bribe the judges and police,” counters another. “People who can raise millions aren’t spending a day in jail.”
Olabode manages the Forest Elephant Initiative, a program spearheaded by the Nigeria Conservation Foundation, alongside Wild Planet Trust, Whitney Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Ogun Ministry of Forestry, to help protect the country’s dwindling population of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). This team of 12 rangers, all barely a year into the job, work with Olabode to ward off hunters and farmers encroaching into what remains of one of Nigeria’s most important rainforest areas.
While Omo’s 132,000 hectares (326,000 acres) of forest is granted official protection, with a 640-hectare (1,580-acre) portion in the middle designated a “strict nature reserve” — the reserve is under heavy pressure from farmers, hunters and loggers.
Between 2001 and 2018, Omo lost more than 7 percent of its tree cover, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD). So far in 2019, UMD has recorded more than 2,000 deforestation alerts – most of which occurred in May and June.
“There may not be Omo in the next 10 years or so if efforts are not intensified and sustained,” says Onoja Joseph, director of technical program at the Nigeria Conservation Foundation. “And it’s scary to imagine because of the ecological imbalances that [it could cause] not just to the local communities but Lagos.”
That’s because Omo serves as a major watershed for the rivers that provide drinking water to Lagos — one of Africa’s largest commercial cities, home to more than 20 million people. And as one of the largest remaining tracts of primary forest in the region, Omo is also vital for safeguarding the fragile ecological balance of southwest Nigeria.
Researchers have long feared that few forest elephants may remain in the reserve — if any at all. But early last year, it became clear that many elephants still inhabit the reserve, when a herd burst onto the Lagos-Ore-Benin Highway that transects Omo. Multiple eyewitnesses told the rangers they counted more than 60 individual elephants.
“Aside the 60 repeatedly quoted by many eye witnesses and villagers, we still found [more] in the forest here. I think we can say there are around 80 elephants here, if not more,” Olabode says.
The elephants, researchers say, are disappearing because of fragmentation of their habitat due to deforestation. Conservationists say funding and increased advocacy and awareness are needed to help remaining populations recover. Olabode says the best way to help forest elephants would be to declare them critically endangered, which would result in more robust protection from government agencies and NGOs. And he says their low numbers qualify them for this status change.
Some 125 species of birds and 200 species of trees are found in the reserve, as well as numerous other mammal species including pangolins, white-throated guenons (Cercopithecus erythrogaster), and endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti). Beset by poaching and habitat loss, there are probably fewer than 6,000 of the chimpanzees remaining in the wild, the IUCN estimates.
A few years ago, three chimpanzees were killed for bushmeat by residents of a community adjacent to the reserve. The animals, locals told Omo conservationists, had strayed into the community.
“Elephant-human conflicts are common,” Olabode says. “Clearly, there [are] no spaces left for most animals to move around. So once they move a little off this conservation spot, it’s into a farm or community.”
Forest vs. farms
Joseph says the intrusions started ramping up when enforcement of environmental regulations dropped off, allowing farmers to exploit Omo’s forest unsustainably. Today, hundreds of hectares of cocoa farms and plantations exist there. Multiple sources tell Mongabay that bribery and corruption have helped farmers get around the protection measures for decades.
“It’s one thing to designate a place, but a different thing to put measures in place to maintain that designation,” Joseph says. “If the government had been consistent all these decades, by now all the issues would have been settled — and in fact, the forest [was previously] looked upon for its utility more than its conservation merit.”
Compounding the issue is that communities that surround Omo are allegedly refusing to concede ownership of parts of the reserve to the government. Residents say traditional authorities are also leasing areas to visiting cocoa merchants and loggers from other parts of Nigeria, who comprise more than 90 percent of the overall farming population in the area.
“The indigenous people still believe this land belongs to them,” says Bolarinwa Ewulo, a local cocoa farmer settled in Eseke, one of the farming camps in the reserve. “Nobody can jump into farming here without their approval.”
There are an estimated 300 farming camps and communities in and around Omo Forest Reserve, each holding somewhere around a hundred farmers. In the Eseke camp, less than 2 kilometers (about 1 mile) from the forest center, red clay huts capped with rusted zinc mingle with old wood houses.
“The farms compromise the protection and status of the reserve. It is a worrying situation. It is increasing daily and the people are going about it as if there is no law in place. But everyone — even the government — now is waking up,” Joseph says.
“This land is special. Its qualities are so perfectly matched for the production of cocoa and farmers know that,” says Ewulo, who has been farming cocoa for nearly two decades. “If you make the cocoa farms in other places, it takes five to six years to mature, but Omo will bring out fine in three years.”
Even if new encroachment were halted entirely, reclaiming what farmers have already razed and planted wouldn’t be easy. Like Ewulo, many of the farmers have been around for decades, each establishing several hectares of cocoa farms. In addition to disrupting their livelihoods, the government faces difficulties raising the sum required to resettle the farmers elsewhere.
On average, farmers make more than $4,000 in profit yearly. Some make as much as 10 times that figure. When added up, it amounts to millions in compensation that would need to be paid to farmers evicted from the reserve.
“If we had the money to compensate all the farmers, we would have resettled the farmers elsewhere,” says Adebosin Babatunde, the project manager of he Ogun State Forestry Plantation Project, a government-sponsored initiative replanting cleared areas for commercial and conservation purposes. “For now, we can only resist new farms, plant more trees to expand the forest base or regenerate [degraded forest].”
Babatunde says it’s difficult to control factors driving people into the farms and forest. He says that when it comes to the farming attraction of Omo, the arability of the land plays a secondary role to unemployment and poverty.
“Wherever there is poverty and joblessness, conservation ideals suffer because people must place their survival first,” he says. “The government can’t control the other factors driving people back to the forest. And being that the forest is the cheapest source of survival, it’s a first choice for the deprived.”
Mindful of this complexity, the government has adopted a mild approach for dealing with farmers: resisting new settlement while allowing old farms to remain.
Habitat loss isn’t the only problem facing Omo’s wildlife; hunters regularly penetrate the forest in search of antelope, wild pigs, pangolins and other animals for bushmeat. Rangers are trying to push them back by running occasional midnight patrols, tracking the locations of gunshots in addition to the whines of chainsaws.
“The hunters have stopped coming in the day but still hunt in the night,” says one of the rangers working in the reserve. “Sometimes when we are sleeping, we hear gunshots around the reserve. They hunt in the deep night and escape before the dawn.”
While on patrol this morning, one of the rangers had spotted something that looked like the footprint of a hunter in the mud. Rainfall two nights before had partially erased it, and now it resembled a hoofprint, possibly that of a wild pig, antelope or buffalo.
In the past, finding footprints of hunters in the reserve didn’t require much searching, Olabode says. But today was different. The rangers didn’t encounter bullet cartridges, wire snares or footprints after two hours of patrolling; only animal trails.
“Our work [is] already paying off in small ways,” Olabode says. “By this time last year, we should have met many signs of hunting here. But now, what we see is the animals returning to safe places.”
The four rangers working on this particular patrol file behind Olabode, reading the gestures of his hands, reacting to his whispers, dispersing and hooking back up again. Hills mingle with lowland rainforest; in some areas small clean streams trickle through the woods, while in others the rangers sink into the mud as they navigate their way through twisted branches.
One of the rangers notices large footprints on the forest floor. After examining them, all agree they were made by elephants.
“The elephants passed here yesterday night. They are not far away and we might be lucky to find them,” says Olabode, pointing to footprints and droppings in the mud. “They are not far away.”
And so the elephant search begins, with each ranger assigned an area to cover. Olabode cups his ears, peers at the small breaks in the vegetation. Suddenly, he gestures in one direction, and the rangers disperse toward it.
More footprints are found, but the elephants that made them never reveal themselves.
“They must have noticed that we are tracking them. Their foot is … sensitive and can [detect] vibration from a long distance. If we move after them, before sunset, we shall catch up with them,” Olabode says.
Finding a way forward
There’s another task that brought the rangers into the forest: installing motion-sensitive camera traps in the hopes of capturing footage of animals and hunters.
Today’s trap faces a patch of elephant okra, so named because its fruit is a favorite food for elephants. As the rangers mount the trap, another group maintains roadblocks to limit entry into the forest.
Their aim is to prevent farmers from coming into the reserve with new cocoa seedlings and plantain suckers. In the past four hours two farmers were intercepted with cocoa seedlings disguised as flowers and food. The plants were seized and destroyed, while the farmers caught smuggling them were handed over to forest guards from the state Ministry of Forestry.
While Omo rangers have had success finding poachers and limiting farmer encroachment into the forest, they say there are challenges that curb their effectiveness. First and foremost, they say the reserve is too large for small bands of rangers to police effectively, with farmers and hunters continually finding new routes far beyond the areas the rangers cover.
While efforts of NGOs like the Nigeria Conservation Foundation provide hope for what remains of Omo’s forests, conservationists say they’re not enough to tackle the complexity of the issue.
According to Simire Michael, a Lagos-based environmentalist and urban planner, it’s not a question of if the farmers can still stay in the reserve; it’s rather a matter of exploring broader options that could allow them to coexist with the wildlife, of providing awareness and resources to help them protect the environment.
“The important thing is to provide an approach that serves the farmers and the conservation ideals,” Machael says. “Ventures like pig keeping, snail rearing can replace direct farming while farmers might be asked to replant the destroyed areas as part of the [requirements] to stay in the reserve.
“Even in protecting the forest, communities are useful, but they have to survive too. Conservation is important but the people have to be alive to conserve.”
Banner image of rangers on patrol in Omo Forest Reserve by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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