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Nigeria declares new conservation zone for most threatened chimpanzee

  • The government of Nigeria’s Ekiti state has issued an executive order establishing a conservation area within the Ise Forest Reserve, where about 20 Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees are believed to survive.
  • With perhaps as few as 3,500 left in the wild, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee faces threats including hunting, logging and forest clearing for agriculture across its range.
  • Upgrading the reserve to a conservation area will put stricter forest-protection measures in place.
  • Before doing so, conservationists say they will work to gain the consent and support of forest-dependent communities in the area.

Nigeria’s Ekiti state government has moved to establish a conservation area within the Ise Forest Reserve, an important step toward protecting the habitat of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti).

The 46-square-kilometer (18-square-mile) forest reserve is deemed an important priority site for the subspecies, the most threatened type of chimpanzee. Its total population, which occurs in the forested border areas of Nigeria and Cameroon, is projected to number between 3,500 and 9,000 in the wild. Fewer than 20 individuals are believed to survive in Ise, distributed across an area of 32 km2 (12 mi2).

While already established as a reserve, the Ise Forest is surrounded by farmland and human settlements, and is grappling with heavy logging and land clearing for farms and illegal marijuana cultivation. Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency said it destroyed 400 acres, about 160 hectares, of marijuana plantations in Ise Forest in late 2014; a year later, it discovered 2,000 cannabis farms in Ise and Ogotun, another town in Ekiti state.

Encroachment is a problem in forest reserves throughout Nigeria’s chimpanzee habitats. These reserves, which are controlled by state governments, are established to promote the controlled use of resources rather than as strictly protected areas. They often are poorly monitored, leaving them vulnerable to logging, hunting for bushmeat and for traditional ritual medicines, and clearing for farming and human settlements. Underfunded and understaffed forestry departments struggle to tackle these problems.

Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, project director of The South-West/Niger Delta Forest Project (SWNDF), which pushed for the establishment of a conservation area in Ise, says she hopes the forest’s upgraded status will protect the forest from these dangers. This will not just aid chimpanzees, she says, but also improve the outcome for other plant and animal species in this highly biodiverse ecosystem.

“The results we are hoping to see in the next few years are simple — good quality habitat, thriving wildlife populations — basically an improved version of what is obtainable in the forest reserve today, all things being equal,” Ikemeh tells Mongabay.

The exact size and location of the conservation area has yet to be determined. Since March 11, when the state government issued an executive order establishing the conservation zone and indicating that it was willing to ultimately transfer authority to SWNDF, the group has conducted a preliminary assessment. It is also working to attract partner organizations with the expertise and resources to effectively manage the areas, and to work with local communities to gain their support.

A Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the most endangered chimp subspecies. Image courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global/R. Whytock.

In her 2013 survey of chimpanzees in Ise Forest and the Idandre forest cluster, a  2,159-km2 (834-mi2) swath of forest reserves in the neighboring state of Ondo, Ikemeh conjectured that the chimpanzee population had likely declined by more than 60% since 2000.

Chimpanzees are “heavily threatened,” she says, warning that without immediate action the “populations may never stand the chance of recovery.”

Key to protection efforts, Ikemeh says, is the recruitment and training of “committed individuals as eco-guards/rangers then instituting a patrol and enforcement regime.”

“However, prior to this, is to ensure that a free, prior and informed consent is duly conducted … to ensure we carry the border communities along every step to guarantee a significant level of cooperation,” she says.

Implementing strict conservation measures can come as a blow to forest-dependent communities. Ikemeh and her team are working to assess the needs of communities living adjacent to the reserve, and to hold discussions with them to explore alternative livelihood projects.

“However, we also expect that there’s no amount of support we are going to provide that will completely deter everyone from attempting to exploit the forests within the conservation area,” she says. “That’s why there will also be attention paid to effective law enforcement.”

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