Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Improving Protection of Cross River gorillas

10 August 2015

Categories: Homepage News, Primates Campaign News

Searching for gorilla nests in the Olum Hill

Currently numbering no more than 300 individuals, the Cross River gorilla is now the most endangered ape in Africa. It occurs on the Nigeria-Cameroon border in rugged rain forest habitat, in a biodiversity hotspot region of global significance and a centre of primate diversity.

Recent evidence suggests that the Cross River gorilla markedly declined one to two hundred years ago and scientists have hypothesised that it may have been caused by increased hunting pressure caused by the increased availability of guns. Indeed, although bushmeat is now synonymous with the West African region, there is no mention of this practice in early travel logs including Mungo Park’s Travels through West Africa, first published in 1799. On the contrary, the only meat that Park mentioned as being consumed, as he made his way from what is today’s Gambia across to Nigeria, came from wild birds, pigeon, francolin and the like. This omission is astonishing in today’s context. Ten years ago when I was working in the region, the forests were riddled with hunters and wildlife populations were being decimated as a consequence of the demand for wild meat.

 As well as poaching, other threats to the gorilla’s survival include habitat loss and forest fragmentation caused by human activities: agriculture, burning by pastoralists, commercial road building and large-scale plantations. Today, the Cross River gorilla persists in small populations of up to 30 individuals in nine known sites. Only five of these are legally protected. Thankfully, with the implementation of conservation initiatives – the establishment of an additional national park, ongoing field research, and the dedication of individuals and the production of two action plans – the future of this gorilla is beginning to look brighter.

Inaoyom Imong is one of these individuals. As the Director of Cross River Landscapes for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), he has worked for many years in the region.  In 2014, he won the Primate Society of Great Britain (PSGB) Born Free Award for work on the gorillas at the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. These gorillas had been known to move into contiguous forest patches outside the sanctuary - Olum Hill and Kakwagom-Bitiah community forest – and a better understanding of their range was critical in contributing to conservation planning and their sustainable management.

Results revealed that only Olum Hill presently support these gorillas, as well as chimpanzees and some other primate species. No evidence of their presence was detected in Kakwagom-Bitiah, but conserving both areas may still be important. Gorilla signs were recorded in Kakwagom-Bitiah in 2006 and it is possible that with reduced human pressure they may one day return. In 1997, for instance, an uncontrolled bush fires on Olum Hill led to the gorillas abandoning the area for eight years until the vegetation had recovered.

Southern Nigeria is highly populous even in rural areas. The idea of including these two areas in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary does not garner support from the local communities who rely on the forests for their natural resources and do not wish to be excluded from using them. However,   meetings provided an opportunity to create awareness of the significance of the gorilla, which led to an interest in a community management approach to its protection. There are challenges - notably high poaching pressure and a high rate of forest loss - but Imong has already won awards for similar work; most notably, this year, the prestigious Whitley Award for the establishment of the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains, a group comprising of local communities around the Mbe Mountains, who are working to turn the area into a designated wildlife sanctuary.  The PSGB Born Free Award shows that even modest amounts of funding can contribute to significant projects with the help of dedicated individuals.

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