“Hope for Our Gorillas” After Decades of Conservation on Nigeria-Cameroon Border
Among the 24 priority landscapes in which Arcus Foundation focuses its support to apes conservation and captive care, the Cross River area at the Nigeria-Cameroon border is one of the most threatened. This key habitat for Cross River gorillas and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees is affected by industrial agricultural expansion, logging, and infrastructure development. Local human communities face loss of land and livelihoods, and are forced into closer proximity with wildlife, increasing the risk of human-wildlife conflict and disease transmission. Armed conflict in the area exacerbates these threats.
Conservation organizations are partnering with communities to support their livelihoods alongside conservation efforts in this complex environment. Here, we highlight the Nigeria work of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) (which also works in Cameroon) and the Cameroon work of Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF).
It was an ordinary morning in May of 2020 when the gorillas clambered out of their night nests on the forest floor of Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains. One silverback, two juveniles, and two adult females—one toting an infant on her thick-furred back—made their way slowly through the liana-draped forest.
But suddenly, a motion-triggered camera sparked to life, capturing the group’s image and adding to a trove of photographs (see below) that would, when downloaded, delight those who live and work in proximity to the most endangered ape in Africa, the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli).
Researchers have been keeping tabs on these extremely shy animals for more than two decades. But the gorillas are nothing if not elusive, and their rugged terrain challenges all who try to track them.
“I’ve been studying them for more than 15 years and have managed to see them only once,” says Inaoyom Sunday Imong, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project. “Seeing these photographs was absolutely amazing because the animals are very rare.”
Today, the entire population of roughly 300 individuals—a number based on nest counts and DNA extracted from gorilla fecal samples—lives only in fragmented reserves on the higher slopes of the transboundary region between Nigeria’s Cross River State and southwestern Cameroon.
Previous camera-trap images caught only glimpses of one or two gorillas. Seeing a whole family with young of different ages, says Imong, “was a refreshing indication that the population is in good health and was reproducing after many decades of intense hunting.”
Gorillas in the region first became known to science in 1904. But their population was already on the wane as human communities expanded and guns, which accelerated hunting, became more accessible. In the following decades, only sparse anecdotal evidence of the ape—eventually recognized as a distinct subspecies of gorilla—appeared in the journals of local administrators.
By the 1950s, sightings were so rare that the gorilla was considered extinct. Then, in 1983, a hunter delivered a baby gorilla to an officer with the Cross River State Forestry Department: clear evidence the subspecies was surviving. Surveys in the following years put the Cross River gorilla population between 100 and 200.
In the 1990s, WCS and other international and local groups began to make plans for protecting the gorillas and their habitat. But there were so few animals left, and they were so hard to find, says Andrew Dunn, WCS’ country director for Nigeria, that efforts were almost abandoned until several substantial, multiyear grants, including from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowed long-term projects to be launched.
Today, 16 uniformed eco-guards—local men trained by WCS—make weeklong patrols of the Mbe Mountains Forest, which is jointly managed as a wildlife sanctuary by WCS and the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains. Another 13 community rangers patrol the nearby Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, also inhabited by Cross River gorillas.
Scrambling on steep slopes with their hand-held computers, guards and rangers log sightings of gorillas, fresh dung, evidence of feeding, new gorilla trails, and gorilla calls. Traveling several hundred kilometers a month, the patrols routinely come across wire snares, which are set for other animals but can maim or kill gorillas.
They also find camps used by loggers, who target ebony trees, and the empty cartridge shells of hunters, who tend to kill gorillas only opportunistically as they pursue other types of wild meat. But the animal’s large size—up to 440 pounds—means it is still prized both for the cook pot and for income for expenses like school fees and medical bills, says Imong. When the patrols identify hunters, they alert local authorities empowered to make arrests and levy fines.
To reduce pressure on the forest from hunters, loggers, and farmers—whose plots encroach upon the protected lowlands that connect core gorilla habitat—WCS is working to develop alternative or more sustainable livelihoods.
In villages near the Mbe Mountains, the organization has trained former hunters to keep bees and market their honey. And with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, WCS is providing farmers with new varieties of cocoa (diverse hybrids have been selectively bred in the region over many years) that mature earlier, yield more, and better resist disease and pests than varieties traditionally planted locally.
“Cocoa cultivation drives deforestation in this area,” Imong explains, because farmers typically abandon aging, unproductive farms, then cut down and burn new areas. Traditionally, some forms of shifting, or swidden, agriculture allowed soil to rest and regenerate, but various social, economic, and political factors have meant farming in the area has become unsustainable. Now, farmers are replanting existing lands with better seedlings and leaving more trees to shade the soil.
Since 2018, WCS has been training local women in the sustainable harvest and improved marketing of non-timber forest products, including bush mango.
“WCS linked us to big markets in the cities where we are able to sell our produce for much better prices,” says Mary Abang, a member of the women’s cooperative in Bamba, one of nine communities surrounding the Mbe Mountains.
Recalling her emotions upon seeing the images of the Mbe gorillas, Abang says, “we were very happy that [they] are increasing in number. The photos gave us hope for the future of our gorillas.”
Romanus Osang, the village head of Bamba, which also produces cocoa, calls the photos “a good reward for our efforts to protect our forest and wildlife for our children yet unborn to see. They were also a call for us to renew our commitment to protecting them.”
Toward that end, WCS educators visit local schools and guide field trips through the forest. The group also produces a weekly radio drama, broadcast throughout Cross River State, that focuses on primate conservation, and it screens great-ape films that annually reach more than 6,000 people in dozens of villages.Community engagement tested in Cameroon
Just over the Nigerian border, in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon, the principles of community engagement have been put to the ultimate test. “We especially need to engage with local communities because of the Anglophone crisis,” says Louis Nkembi, president of Cameroon’s Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF).
The conflict, in which English-speaking separatists are seeking independence from the nation’s French-speaking majority, has left an estimated 4,000 civilians dead and more than 700,000 people displaced since 2016, according to the U.S. State Department. Key biodiversity hotspots and protected areas in the Anglophone region have been besieged since the outbreak of the crisis, Nkembi says, which “leaves [much of the] field monitoring of the Cross River gorillas to local people.”
For more than two decades, ERuDeF has worked to conserve biodiversity by creating protected areas, monitoring wildlife, and promoting environmental education in forest-adjacent communities.
Now, the group is expanding on its earlier efforts to reduce human pressure on the forest by developing, in local communities, “alternative income” projects that transform raw agricultural and nontimber products—including pork, honey, palm-oil, and soap—into products for the market.
ERuDeF has a focus on supporting youth, whose livelihood options are limited due to the conflict, training them to be monitors and community rangers. Those rangers are currently assessing gorilla population and distribution, and removing traps from the forest.
“The gorillas are migratory,” Nkembi takes care to point out. That is, they are moving back and forth between Cameroon and Nigeria, oblivious to regional crises.
Despite these concerted efforts, the survival of the Cross River gorilla is far from assured. Proposals for highways and other infrastructure in the region threaten to fragment gorilla habitat, the human population continues to rise, and refugees fleeing Cameroon’s unrest have unwittingly found themselves in mountainous areas of Nigeria that appear, to them, uninhabited, thus placing additional pressure on wildlife.
One potential remedy, says WCS’ Dunn, would be “to get the area classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, to protect it once and for all against continuous, ongoing threats.” In 2020, UNESCO placed the Cross River-Korup-Takamanda National Parks on its “tentative” list—a good first step for a highly biodiverse region that also supports African forest elephant, drill, Preuss’s monkey, forest buffalo, and the threatened Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee.
The good news is that this region has a vast amount of suitable habitat left for gorillas, with much of it protected by government and local communities.
“If we could manage to reduce human disturbance in the lowland areas, if we continue to support alternative livelihoods, and people can abandon hunting,” Imong says, “then there is hope that the gorillas would spread even more.”
The population could potentially double, he says, within 20 to 40 years.
By then, the infants whose images so delighted all who viewed them could be parents themselves.
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