Africa
15 May 2017

Ray of hope for endangered Cross River Gorilla in West Africa Forest

The Cross River Gorilla is a rare and iconic species photo © WCS
The Cross River Gorilla is a rare and iconic species photo © WCS
By Jude Fuhnwi

With only about 300 individuals remaining in the wild, conservationists have expressed concern that the critically endangered Cross River gorilla could be extinct if everyone does not come on board to protect the species, found only in the Nigeria-Cameroon border region, in the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot.

"There are some rare and iconic species that we should give everything to protect; one of these is the Cross River Gorilla. I would not want my grandchildren to be told fairy tales of the Cross River gorilla,” said Ruth Akagu, Nigeria-based project officer of the BirdLife/Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund’s (CEPF) Regional Implementation Team (RIT) in the West Africa biodiversity hotspot.

The Cross River gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli is the most endangered of the African apes and was listed as critically endangered in 2013 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).The species has been under pressure from poaching and loss of habitat due to human encroachment; that has fragmented forests, reduced connectivity between several sites and isolated the species, thus reducing gene flow.

According to experts, the Cross River Gorilla is a unique subspecies and the most western and northern form of gorilla. Cross River gorillas are more terrestrial in lifestyle and differ from other lowland gorillas in their physical appearance, their diet and culture.

“Less than an estimated 300 survive in approximately nine sites spread across an area of about 12,000km2,” according to a revised regional action plan for the conservation of the Cross River Gorilla prepared by local and international forestry and wildlife conservation agencies, spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Nigeria.

A view of the Mbe forest in the Cross River Region photo © WCS

This border region where the Cross River gorilla occurs is a biodiversity hotspot of global significance in West Africa, and requires combined efforts to conserve this ‘flagship’ species and other wildlife species that are under pressure in the hotspot. The Cross River region is home to the Cross River Gorilla and other primate and endemic species like the Preuss’s gibbon, forest elephants, forest buffalo, Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee, many species of duiker and 26 endemic birds among others. Several parts of this region have also been designated by BirdLife International as important bird areas.

New hope for Cross River Gorilla

Much of this rainforest that is home for the critically endangered Cross River Gorilla and other wildlife was about to be lost to development, but was saved by the timely intervention of conservation groups, including significant advocacy by BirdLife International. A six-lane, 260-kilometre highway road project proposed by the Nigerian government and designed to pass through the centre of the Cross River National Park in eastern Nigeria, met with resistance and intensive advocacy from organisations active in the conservation of natural resources  and wildlife, championed by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Working together with all the stakeholders to protect and conserve this species is an obligation," stressed Ms Akagu.

In response to the concerns of conservation groups, Nigerian officials have now altered the path of this superhighway project, shifting the route to the west, away from the centre of the park to mitigate the damaging effect on the very rare Cross River gorilla, and on other wildlife species and local communities in the area.

“I was a bit relieved that government listened to advice and rerouted the highway. It shows that development and conservation work well together for the benefit of all, if we talk amongst ourselves and share information vital for sustainable development,” added Ms Akagu.

Hunting and trade in bush meat, often caused by poverty, remain a primary threat to the survival of the Cross River Gorilla. The illegal trade in pets and the absence of a regulated law enforcement system have also been identified as key threats. In a recent report (Stiles et al. 2013) Nigeria was identified as a hub for the trade in apes and has been the focus of high-profile ape smuggling cases in the past.

The Mbe forest and river in Nigeria's Cross River state are home to many endemic species © WCS

In the north of the Cross River range, much of the montane forest that probably harbored gorillas in the past has been lost to agriculture or, through burning by pastoralists, converted to grasslands – resulting to habitat loss for the rare apes.

Therefore, conservation efforts depend largely on engaging local conservation groups and people who live in and around communities bordering the forested areas where these apes are found.

BirdLife, the CEPF RIT in the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot has introduced its grant portfolio in Nigeria and other countries in the hotspot to support efforts by stakeholders, especially local conservation groups, civil society organisations, government, research institutes and private sector to preserve biodiversity in the region and save threatened species like the Cross River gorilla.

Many small human-settlements, that continue to expand, are scattered throughout the gorillas’ range, further fragmenting the forest and making it impossible for gorillas to migrate between their mountain strongholds. Upgraded roads in the gorillas’ range also contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation, as they open up new areas for settlement and cultivation, and act as possible barriers to migration.

Road building in the forests to meet growing development demands or for logging and mining operations has also facilitated the killing of gorillas and other animals by villagers for sustenance.

CEPF’s investment in Nigeria will provide civil society organisations at grassroots, national and international levels with the capacity and resources to establish and sustain multi-stakeholder partnerships that demonstrate models for sustainable growth, target the poorest populations and achieve priority conservation outcomes in the country and beyond.

 

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.