Formed in 1938 on a swath of primary forest nearly four times the size of Paris, Nigeria’s Akure-Ofosu Forest Reserve is home to a diverse array of wildlife. These include red-capped mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus), putty-nosed monkeys (Cercopithecus nictitans), mona monkeys (Cercopithecus mona), and Nigerian white-throated guenons (Cercopithecus erythrogaster pococki).
But perhaps the reserve’s most iconic resident is the endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti). With fewer than 6,000 individuals estimated to remain in the wild today, according to the IUCN, P. t. ellioti is the rarest chimpanzee subspecies in the world.
In 2007, primatologists Babafemi Ogunjemite and John Oates spotted 33 nests in the 39,400-hectare (97,400-acre) reserve, noting that the area has “potential as a chimpanzee conservation site.” Hunters and long-term settlers told Mongabay in 2021 that they remembered seeing and hunting chimpanzees in the reserve in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, the subspecies’ current status in Akure-Ofosu remains unclear, with no recent scientific observations of chimpanzees recorded.
Amid this scientific obscurity, the persistence of chimpanzees in Akure-Ofosu grows less likely with each passing day due to human encroachment. Between 2001 and 2022, the reserve lost nearly half of its old-growth forest cover, according to satellite data visualized on the forest-monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. Preliminary data for 2023 show ongoing deforestation is concentrated in the southern portion of the reserve.
Officials from the Ondo State Forestry Agency said they were controlling the spread of new farms. However, Sunday Oladejo, a lecturer at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, told Mongabay that conditions in the reserve have only worsened over the past two years.
“The government has not taken control,” Oladejo said during a phone interview. “The farmers are still settled in the reserve. The level of deforestation and degradation is increasing. Some of the farmers have been there for 20 to 30 years. They have planted cocoa farms, and they are still planting. That’s their source of livelihood.”
Forest fires, the result of clearing for new farms or the expansion of existing ones, further complicate the matter. Farmers in the reserve told Mongabay in 2021 that these fires can grow out of control and are difficult, if not impossible, to contain due to a lack of staff and firefighting equipment. Satellite data from NASA show fire alerts clustered over half of Akure-Ofosu during the first few months of 2023.
When a Mongabay reporter visited Akure-Ofosu in 2021, the roar of chainsaws echoed near and clear, far and faint. Logging, an offshoot of the agricultural expansion, has created a market in its own right, with sawmills observed in the nearby towns of Akure, Ijare, Idanre and Ore, where logs sourced from the reserve are processed before being traded.
A 2013 study published in the Tanzania Journal of Forestry and Nature Conservation found Akure-Ofosu was still “highly diverse in plant species composition.” Using line transect sampling techniques, they recorded more than 80 plant species, 46 of them tree species, including obeche (Triplochiton scleroxylon), iroko (Milicia excelsa), African mahogany (Khaya ivorensis) and African walnut (Lovoa trichilioides).
But this tree diversity, while a boon for wildlife, is also attractive to loggers, commanding high prices at markets as luxury timber. While logging is illegal in the reserve, enforcement is lax. Officers from the state forestry department told Mongabay in 2021 that patrols are infrequent due to an inadequate workforce and resources.
Facing an unemployment rate surpassing 50% and a soaring level of poverty, many Nigerians have few options other than to settle in the country’s protected areas and hew farms from forest. The forest of Akure-Ofosu offers a ready and cheap escape from the competitive job markets in saturated urban centers, including nearby Lagos, Africa’s most populous city with more than 20 million residents.
“The cocoa farms in the reserves are growing,” Omotunde Kayode told Mongabay in 2020. Kayode farms 10 hectares (25 acres) in the northern portion of Akure-Ofosu. “There are no jobs in the cities. So many graduates, tired of the job hunts, are taking over the reserves — the forest has many graduates.”
Elizabeth Greengrass, a conservation biologist who has studied conservation in Africa extensively, said poverty and a lack of job opportunities hit at the heart of the issue.
“In many of these forest reserves, there are very few things people (surrounding communities) can do to survive except hunt, farm or log the protected forests,” Greengrass told Mongabay in 2020. “So many communities in Nigeria are heavily dependent on the forest. It is creating serious problems for conservation not just in Nigeria but in most parts of Africa.”
In 2019, the government began to legalize farming in Akure-Ofosu by issuing identity cards to farmers and requiring them to pay annual rates of 10,000 naira ($13) per plot to the authorities, subject to yearly renewal. According to government representatives, only established farmers are entitled to this deal, which was created as an effort to mitigate further encroachment into the reserve. However, during Mongabay’s field visit to the reserve in 2021, a reporter observed multiple areas of recently cleared farmland, and satellite data and imagery from Global Forest Watch show continuing clearing of primary forest.
“I felt the government [lost] hope of taking control of the reserve from farmers at some point,” a government official told Mongabay in 2020 on the condition of anonymity.
Local authorities are also scared of upsetting the political balance, according to two forest guards who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. They said the large population of Akure-Ofosu and the surrounding area is a coveted voting bloc that has the power to sway election outcomes, and politicians are reluctant to enforce regulations, such as evictions, that could turn the vote against them. The guards also said many farmers in the reserve are employees of influential politicians in the region.
A new threat to the region’s remaining forests reportedly looms, one that may threaten both farmers and wildlife alike. In 2022, cocoa farmers within and near the reserve began protesting against alleged plans to sell off 50,000 hectares of land in Akure-Ofosu and adjacent Idanre Forest Reserve to a Chinese-linked foreign consortium. Although the government denied the claim, farmers continued to protest at intervals, warning that such evictions would displace more than 20,000 cocoa, cassava, rubber and plantain farmers.
Two months ago, farmers in the Idanre reserve, along with traditional leaders, staged another protest, according to Oladejo. This time, he said, they blocked major roads, locked markets and demanded an immediate reversal of the deal.
“The farmers know the government cannot be trusted,” Oladejo told Mongabay. “The government is not faithful.”
Despite the loss of half its forests and continued deforestation and influx of settlers, hope is not completely lost for Akure-Ofosu, according to Oladejo. He said the reserve is worth a calculated fight, and this should include effective enforcing of laws that ban new farms, launching ambitious forest-regeneration projects, and cracking down on logging as well. He told Mongabay that if the government can show any commitment to these key issues, the ecological integrity of Akure-Ofosu can be restored and preserved.
Greengrass, however, called for a less hard-line approach. She said the livelihoods of communities in and around Nigeria’s protected areas are intertwined with forest conservation, and should be treated as two sides of the same coin. She told Mongabay in 2020 that she recommends developing rural economies to “create jobs and absorb those whose livelihoods had always come from the forest.”
“To protect wildlife,” she said, “people don’t need to suffer.”
Olajuygbe, S. O., & Adaja, A. A. (2014). Floristic composition, tree canopy structure and regeneration in a degraded tropical humid rainforest in Southwest Nigeria. Tanzania Journal of Forestry and Nature Conservation, 84(1), 5-23.
This article by Orji Sunday was first published by Mongabay.com on 10 July 2023. Lead Image: Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) by Tierpark Gettorf via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
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