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Elephants invade as habitat loss soars in Nigerian forest reserve

  • Elephants straying out of Afi River Forest Reserve in the Nigerian state of Cross River are reportedly damaging surrounding farms.
  • This uptick in human-wildlife conflict comes as satellite data show continuing and increasing deforestation in the Afi River reserve and other protected areas.
  • The habitat in Afi River Forest Reserve provides a crucial corridor that connects critically endangered Cross River gorilla populations in adjacent protected areas.
  • As in other Nigerian forest reserves, agriculture, poverty and a lack of monitoring and enforcement resources are driving deforestation in the Afi River reserve.

Where southeastern Nigeria abuts western Cameroon, dense rainforest still shelters iconic, threatened megafauna like critically endangered African forest elephants (Lloxodonta cyclotis) and Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli), as well as endangered drill monkeys (Mandrillus leucophaeus) and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti). But as human incursions cut apart habitat, wildlife is increasingly straying into farmland and human settlements, according to local reports.

Areas near Nigeria’s Afi River Forest Reserve in the state of Cross River are reportedly particularly affected by straying elephants.

“These elephants have been invading farms. These are personal farms. So the people are really suffering,”  Leonard Akam told Mongabay over the phone. Akam is the head of Boje, one of the largest communities near the reserve. “The destruction an elephant can cause in a day is more than the job of three people. It is just like a bulldozer paving a path.”

This increase in human-wildlife conflict comes as habitat in the Afi River reserve and other nearby protected areas is disappearing. Satellite data from Global Forest Watch show the reserve lost more than 5% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2022, with preliminary data for 2023 suggesting deforestation has skyrocketed further this year.

This deforestation is whittling away the habitat of a multitude of species, including Mona monkeys (Cercopithecus mona), yellow-backed duikers (C. silvicultor), blue duikers (Philantomba monticola), bay duikers (Cephalophus dorsalis), red river hogs (Potamochoerus porcus) and African brush-tailed porcupines (Atherurus africanus).

The region’s most iconic resident is arguably the Cross River gorilla, Africa’s most endangered ape. However, it is not clear whether the gorillas permanently reside in Afi River Forest Reserve or merely stray in at intervals. Regardless, the reserve is an important corridor that connects fragments of habitat that sustain the estimated 300-or-so surviving gorillas that live along the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Gorillas are known to inhabit three key protected areas in Cross River: Mbe Mountains Community Forest, Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and Cross River National Park. Afi River Forest Reserve joins these areas together, allowing what would be disjunct populations to interbreed.

Research suggests that, because there are so few gorillas left, failure to maintain connectivity between these fragmented populations would severely impede the exchange of genetic material, without which the subspecies would decline. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Primatology found Cross River gorillas have less genetic diversity than western gorillas (G. gorilla gorilla), putting them at greater risk of extinction. As such, conservationists say that protecting the corridor of habitat that remains in Afi River Forest Reserve is crucial for the survival of the subspecies.

The Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is considered one of the most endangered primate subspecies on the planet. Image by user Julielangford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is considered one of the most endangered primate subspecies on the planet. Image by user Julielangford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Poaching also remains a problem. In 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reported the killing of an infant gorilla by a snare. Two years later, two gorilla carcasses were found at a hunter’s camp. While news of gorilla poaching has been scarce in recent times, thanks to improved patrols by WCS rangers within the region, there are still concerns that hunting is taking place discreetly, especially with wire snares.

To conservationists working in the region, an increase in human-wildlife conflict is bittersweet. They said it might be proof that conservation is paying off, with wildlife populations growing and thereby needing more space. On the other hand, it could be driven by the fragmentation of habitat in and around Afi River reserve, forcing animals to stray into human communities. The latter is more likely, they told Mongabay.

In 2021, Mongabay uncovered evidence of cocoa, plantain, banana and cassava farms within Afi River Forest Reserve. Farmers are fond of Afi’s fertile soil, with cocoa the dominant crop in the region. Clearing of new cropland peaks right before the beginning of the planting season in March and April. Young people, largely under forty years old, constitute a significant population of the new farmers as they seek livelihoods outside cities with high rates of unemployment and poverty.

Commercialized cocoa farming, a fairly recent trend driven by wealthy cocoa merchants from urban centers, has spurred a new wave of demand for plantation land. Cocoa depots have been established in nearby towns and villages for trading, processing and temporary storage, signs of a booming market that, by 2021, had propelled Nigeria to become the second largest exporter of cocoa worldwide.

Workers stack bags of cocoa near Afi River Forest Reserve. Image for Mongabay by Orji Sunday.
Workers stack bags of cocoa beans near Afi River Forest Reserve. Image for Mongabay by Orji Sunday.

But this economic boon has come at the cost of Nigeria’s forests. Overall, Nigeria lost nearly 9% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2022, according to satellite data from Global Forest Watch, with Cross River losing more forest than any other state.

The situation in Afi River Forest Reserve is complicated by cultural and political issues. A local custom in the Cross River region has traditionally granted ownership of land to the farmer who clears it, even within protected areas and despite being legally prohibited. Several farmers interviewed by Mongabay in 2021 said local residents were clearing portions of the reserve far beyond their immediate needs, hoping to either transfer the land to their children, use it for new farms or rent it out to migrant cocoa farmers for a fee. A Mongabay reporter noted dozens of cleared but seemingly abandoned plots when visiting Afi River reserve two years ago.

In addition to razing habitat, this free-for-all incited conflict among neighbors. Over the course of the past two decades, what began as quarrels over perceived ownership of land escalated into violent clashes between communities which, local sources told Mongabay, resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

When Mongabay visited the community of Boje in 2021, tensions were still high. But locals interviewed in 2023 said the situation has calmed, the result of a series of meetings and negotiations brokered by local authorities.

“Peace has returned to the communities,” Akam told Mongabay. “A demarcation has been made. And those whose farmlands fall into the opposing communities will still retain ownership of the land in return for the payment of royalties. But we have a new problem, and that’s the elephants. We have made several complaints to the government, but there has been no reaction. Anyone who hunts the animals is in trouble, the government will come after you. Yet, the government is doing nothing to protect us from the animals.”

The government officially designated Afi River a forest reserve in 2000, to be managed by the state forestry agency. However, conservationists say that while the area is officially protected on paper, enforcement is lacking. When visiting the reserve in 2021, a Mongabay reporter observed several trucks loading timber along the Obudu-Ikom highway, which bisects the reserve. The roar of chainsaws was frequent and sometimes simultaneous across different parts of the reserve.

Milled lumber near Afi River Forest Reserve. Image for Mongabay by Orji Sunday.
Milled lumber near Afi River Forest Reserve. Image for Mongabay by Orji Sunday.

Conservationists said that while initiatives led by NGOs and communities have led to success in gorilla strongholds like Afi Mountain Wildlife Reserve and Cross River National Park, Afi River Forest Reserve gets comparatively little support. Forest guards working in Afi River told Mongabay that they lack vehicles to effectively monitor logging activity, as well as even basic gear such as headlamps and rain jackets. Overall, the forestry department of Cross River employs only around 324 active staff, which a 2017 study found is far fewer than required to effectively enforce forestry regulations. This, the authors write, makes the department “deficient in managing the forest estate.”

The lack of state support, conservationists said, is made most manifest during the fire season. Naturally, fires are a rare problem in humid tropical forests. But in Afi River Forest Reserve, as in other places where agriculture pierces rainforests, fires intentionally set to clear land can spread and invade surrounding habitat. Local sources told Mongabay that without enough resources, fires rage unchecked.

Such was the case in 2021, when fires reportedly set by farmers invaded nearby forests and became uncontrollable. George Mbang, a WCS ranger who works in adjacent Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, told Mongabay that fires in Afi River reserve burned for several weeks, defying firefighting efforts from local communities. Mbang said he and his team were eventually able to extinguish the fires, but not before dozens of farms and large tracts of forest were lost. Satellite data from Global Forest Watch show several areas of fire activity deep in the reserve in 2022 and 2023.

In the absence of state intervention, communities around Afi River Forest Reserve are in the process of enacting new customary laws that will impose stiffer penalties, such as fines and property forfeiture, on individuals linked to fire outbreaks. Conservationists say it is too early to determine the impact of these new changes, but remain hopeful that Afi River reserve’s remaining critical habitat can be saved.


Banner image: Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in a swamp. Image by Thomas Breuer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).

Editor’s Note: This story is 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 deforestation alerts, 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. Sign up for GFW’s monthly email updates featuring these stories.

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