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.” Emmanuel Olabode leads a project aimed at protecting the last forest elephants of Omo Forest Reserve. Photo by Orji Sunday for Mongabay. 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. Satellite data show Omo Forest Reserve has lost much of the primary forest it had in 2001. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch “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.