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In Nigeria, hunters turn into guardians of the rarest gorilla on Earth

A Cross River Gorilla at Cameroon's Limbe Wildlife Centre. Image by Julie Langford via Wikemedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  • The Cross River gorilla was thought to be extinct by the 1980s, even though people living and hunting in remote areas along the Nigeria-Cameroon border knew the apes were still present deep in the forest.
  • After the ape was formally rediscovered in the late 1980s, conservation groups and the Nigerian government worked to protect its habitat.
  • In one part of the Cross River gorilla landscape, the Mbe Mountains, traditional landowners organized themselves into a community conservation association, keeping the forest under their stewardship.
  • The association faces ongoing challenges, but with the support of NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society, it works to protect gorillas while improving the livelihoods of local people.

KANYANG, Nigeria — Former bushmeat hunter Jacob Osang says poverty and lack of options drove him to the trade. “There were no jobs, no opportunity anywhere,” Osang says.

In 1985, after failing to find a job in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, Osang, then in his early 20s, returned to his village in southeastern Cross River state. Almost immediately, he took to hunting bushmeat, which he sold to local restaurants.

Hunters like Osang knew there were gorillas deep in the remote forests along the Nigeria-Cameroon border — though Osang says he never hunted them himself — but at the time conservationists believed the last of the Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli) subspecies had died in the wake of the 1960s civil war in Nigeria.

Eventually, accounts that Cross River gorillas still existed in the mountains around Osang’s village began to filter out to the outside world. The rumors prompted the Lagos-based Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) to send gorilla experts Alexander Harcourt and Kelly Stewart and researcher Ibrahim Inahoro to conduct a population survey.

Osang was recruited alongside another hunter, Napoleon Mkpe, to help them. At the time, he says, he had no particular interest in conservation. He was just happy for a break from hunting, which he describes as “very difficult work” for “small money.”

Former hunter Jacob Osang now works as an eco-guard and research assistant with the Wildife Conservation Society. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Between December 1987 and January 1988, the team ventured into the forested mountains and hills in and near Kanyang in search of signs of gorillas, such as nesting sites and the species’ distinctive tri-lobed dung.

At the end of their survey, the researchers established that gorillas were indeed present. They estimated that there were around 150 of the great apes in Nigeria. And these gorillas were under threat.

Harcourt, Stewart and Inahoro reported that around 15 communities hunted in the gorillas’ habitat, and that gorillas were sometimes their target. “In 1986 one community alone killed eight gorillas; in 1987 another killed six,” they wrote. “Others kill one or two every year or so. And these figures count only those gorillas butchered.”

News that gorillas still occurred in Nigeria brought an influx of reporters and researchers to Kanyang. Osang and Mkpe were profiled in The New York Times. Local communities watched in awe, their minds turning to thoughts about the value of their forest, of gorillas, of conservation, and of how much income could come from ecotourism. In February 1989, Britain’s Prince Philip, the president of WWF, visited the area, drawing additional attention to the Cross River gorilla.

“If only the sighting of gorilla could develop our village to become big and beautiful like Lagos,” Osang recalls thinking to himself. “Then I would devote my entire time to save them.”

A cross river gorilla, one of only about 300 believed to survive in the wild. Image courtesy of the WCS.

Establishing a community conservation area

By the time Prince Philip visited, plans to develop a national park were in the works. Cross River National Park was established in 1991, with two non-contiguous divisions, Oban and Okwangwo, spanning a combined area of about 4,000 square kilometers (1,545 square miles).

In 2000, the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary was set up to protect gorillas and other endangered species. In between the sanctuary and the Okwango division of Cross River National Park lie the Mbe Mountains, a tract of roughly 85 square kilometers (33 square miles).

When plans to annex the Mbe Mountains as part of the national park were broached, nine communities that traditionally owned the forests refused. Instead, they chose to manage the forest themselves.

In 2006, with a grant from USAID, these communities were supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Cross River State Forestry Commission to develop a constitution.

The nine communities, including Osang’s home village of Kanyang, became known as the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains, or CAMM. These communities worked together to design a land-use plan for their territories. Some areas were demarcated for farming and logging, while other land was set aside as protected areas, with restrictions on hunting and harvesting of forest resources.

Two eco-guards listen to orders before they head out for their daily patrol. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

CAMM has three organs: a general assembly, a management committee, and a board of trustees. In addition, an advisory body with experts from organizations like WCS and the Cross River State Forestry Commission offers support.

The general assembly, which is the most powerful, has five members drawn from each of the nine communities. The local chief, town council chairperson, a women’s leader and a youth leader all got a slot. Similar position-sharing arrangements apply to the other organs.

Communities can protect their forests better than government officials, says Stephen Tawo, chairman of CAMM’s management committee. “CAMM is a serious watchdog over our forest and the wildlife there,” he says.

Simon Adedoyin, a former director at the Federal Department of Forestry, agrees. “The local communities are very desirous of using the forests sustainably to the extent of developing community forest management plans on their own — the first of its kind in Nigeria,” says Adedoyin, now a consultant to the United Nations Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization. “This has helped immensely in ensuring sustainable use of forest resources.”

A 2016 study found that at least 97.1 percent of the respondents in Mbe Mountains were fully aware of forest benefits and there was good participation in forest management practices, citing the “bottom-up community-based forest management approach” which “supported a higher degree of participation.”

While on patrol, Osang picks an empty cartridge shell in the forest. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Bushmeat hunting an ongoing threat

In the Boki region of Cross River state, people depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Most are farmers, but some also hunt to earn money. Local restaurants rely on a steady supply of bushmeat.

For young men, hunting, even with all its risks, is worthwhile. A small duiker, a type of antelope, can fetch between $16 and $32, while a bush pig or red river hog goes for nearly $100.

“A hunter who goes to find bushmeat is desperate to bring anything that crosses his path,” Osang says. “Even a gorilla is not spared.”

WCS, which continued to provide support for CAMM, sensed that threat. Since 2006, it has recruited ex-hunters from the nine surrounding communities to serve as eco-guards. They have grown in number now, with 14, including Osang, conducting daily anti-poaching and gorilla-monitoring patrols.

The NGO also recruited a project manager from one of the communities that make up CAMM to oversee operations and coordinate the activities of the guards.

The conservation NGO provides stipends, field equipment and training for the eco-guards, who also fend off threats from farmers, hunters and loggers, and protect the forest against unsustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products such as medicinal plants like the eru or afang vine, and bush mangoes.

Armed with rugged handheld computers running CyberTracker software that automatically records a GPS waypoint for every observation, the eco-guards patrol the Mbe Mountains to record signs of wildlife and human activity and to ward off threats from hunters. When they find hunters in the forests, the guards apprehend them, confiscate their weapons and attempt to find and destroy their camps.

Jonathan Eban, the project manager for the Mbe Mountains, logs data on a handheld computer while on patrol with eco-guards. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

In one patrol in mid-November observed by Mongabay, a team of seven eco-guards and Mbe Mountains project manager Jonathan Eban meandered through the dense forest, cutting through narrow footpaths, climbing fallen trees, and ducking under overhanging branches and caves.

They stopped intermittently to record observations — trails, feeding remains, noises and vocalizations — in the handheld computers.

Throughout the patrol, they scanned the forest and the undergrowth. Osang sighted an empty cartridge shell, his face contorting into a grimace as he squatted to pick it up. Before the end of the day’s patrol, the guards found three shells in different locations.

“There is no year we don’t apprehend up to 30 persons … hunters, farmers and people coming here to collect forest products,” Eban says. “Almost every month we discover a camp in the forest and destroy it.”

They report such illegal activities to CAMM. In the past, an apprehended hunter would be reported to his community, but the eco-guards realized that communities pitied their own sons and rarely meted out severe punishment. Now, offenders are reported to the general assembly of CAMM.

“When it has to do with nine communities collectively, there is more enforcement,” Tawo of CAMM says.

He says that when a hunter is reported, the association imposes sanctions or, in some cases, hands the offender over to the police. The hunter is fined the equivalent of $32 for just entering the protected area. Last year, Tawo says, CAMM fined a hunter $163 and three crates of beer for hunting drill monkeys. In 2014, the association worked with WCS to file a case against a hunter who killed a chimpanzee. The hunter was handed a two-year jail term.

Old gorilla statue in one of the villages in Boki local council. Such statues dot the Cross River gorilla landscape. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Community management is an ongoing challenge

But CAMM itself has struggled with internal wrangling. In late 2016, Kanyang communities pulled out, citing what they felt was an unfair distribution of benefits such as livelihood programs and recruitment of eco-guards. The residents of Kanyang, especially, feel they deserve much more: It was, after all, in their village where Prince Philip’s helicopter landed. They even take issue with the siting of CAMM’s secretariat in Bamba, another community near the mountains.

While the disagreement raged, youths from Kanyang harassed eco-guards and threatened to destroy their base camp. With no patrols in the Kanyang area, hunters had unimpeded access to that part of the forest.

It usually falls to WCS to resolve such crises.

“A few communities feel they have contributed more land than anyone else. While other communities acknowledge this fact, they are reluctant on what to present to them as additional benefits,” says Inaoyom Imong, WCS director for the Cross River landscape,.

“It is work in progress, and I believe gradually the communities will find a way to resolve these issues.”

Imong is often present in their meetings and has been helping resolve disputes for more than a decade. With his help, Kanyang was persuaded to return to CAMM in October 2018, and attended the general meeting of all nine communities at the yet-to-be-completed secretariat in late December last year.

Inaoyom Imong works with communities to promote cooperation and better management of the forest. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Though Tawo happily announces that “hunting has reduced drastically,” he concedes that the biggest threats to the survival of gorillas are hunters, most of whom find ways to circumvent patrols by eco-guards.

Most of the Mbe eco-guards are ex-hunters who use their skills and excellent knowledge of the forest to facilitate law enforcement patrols. But these ex-hunters are not always fully reformed, despite training provided by CAMM.

Maintaining discipline and keeping a close eye out for corruption and truancy remain an important part of Eban’s job. In one case in 2017, an eco-guard returned to the forest to hunt when his colleagues had retired from the day’s monitoring. He accidentally shot himself in the head. Eban made sure he was dismissed upon recovery. In another incident, two eco-guards were caught abetting illegal logging in the Mbe Mountains, Eban says. Both were fired immediately.

Another challenge is farmland encroachment due to a growing population.

In 2008, WCS began to work with CAMM to introduce livelihood programs that offered training in beekeeping and rearing African giant snails. The NGO also started helping cocoa farmers with improved seed varieties, supporting households to rear goats, and helping women to generate more income from non-timber forest products.

“While our work focuses on the conservation of the Cross River gorilla and other key species, we also support local communities to adopt alternative, more sustainable livelihood activities,” WCS Nigeria director Andrew Dunn tells Mongabay. “If you don’t solve that, the danger is that they will go into the forest and cut down the ebony trees, or keep hunting the animals to provide income to pay school fees or pay medical bills.”

An eco-guard on his way to the Mbe Mountains forest. Image by Linus Unah for Mongabay.

Forestry expert Adedoyin says he believes any forest management model has to bring local communities into the “center stage” while offering them several other benefits to gain their trust.

“The benefits go far beyond providing schools, hospitals and so on, but even meeting their basic needs of food and day-to-day survival,” he says. “With that, they become the natural watchdogs to ensure the forests remain to meet their needs today and in the generations to come.”

So far, WCS’s livelihood programs have reached around 10 percent of the 12,000 people living around the Mbe Mountains. “Even though this effort may not be making the required impact, it is a good start, and we hope to continue to expand the program to reach more people,” Imong says.

WCS also runs conservation clubs in schools across the Cross River gorilla landscape, broadcasts a conservation radio show, organizes regular film screenings in more than 50 communities, and is working with researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and North Carolina Zoo to gain a more accurate estimate of the population of Cross River gorillas. Hundreds of samples of gorilla dung have been collected and sent to Germany for DNA analysis.

Meanwhile, CAMM is working to solidify its position as the rightful guardian of the Mbe Mountains. Under Nigeria’s 1978 Land Use Act, traditional, communally held land reverted to state control. Without formal registration and a government-issued certificate of occupancy, CAMM’s land is still vulnerable to appropriation for state-supported development projects like roads or plantations.

In their December 2018 general meeting, the communities stressed the need to get legal recognition for the protected area, including its designation as a community wildlife sanctuary by the state authorities, with a certificate of occupancy.

Supported by WCS, CAMM has already made an application to the Cross River state government for the gazettement of the Mbe Mountains as a community wildlife sanctuary.

“Once the protected area has legal backing, nobody can come in again,” Eban says. “There will be a total ban on hunting and other human activities that will destroy the forest. It will make our work easier and more effective.”

Banner Image: A Cross River Gorilla at Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre. Image by Julie Langford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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