Race against time to save Africa’s most endangered ape

Cross River gorilla in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary © WCS Nigeria

- By Imong Inaoyom


The forests of Nigeria’s southeastern state of Cross River, bordering southwestern Cameroon, represent the largest block of intact rainforest remaining in the country. With one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, Nigeria lost an estimated 14% of its total tree cover between 2002 and 2019, according to Global Forest Watch. The forests of Cross River form part of the Gulf of Guinea Forests, recognized for their unique and diverse array of biodiversity. The region stands out as a hotspot of primate, amphibian, reptilian, fish, and plant diversity within Africa.

Cross River is home to 18 primates including globally threatened and endemic taxa such as the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), drill monkey (Mandrillus leucophaeus), Preuss’s red colobus monkey (Piliocolobus preussi), Preuss’s monkey (Allochrocebus preussi), Calabar angwantibo (Arctocebus calabarensis) and Milne-Edwards’s potto (Perodicticus edwardsi). Others include over 463 bird species, 90 fish species, 64 reptile species, and 61 amphibian species, all which have been recorded in the Cross-River region. Notable conservation sites in the state include the Cross River National Park (Okwangwo and Oban sectors), Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Mbe Mountains (hereafter referred to as the Afi-Mbe-Okwangwo landscape) – all designated as Important Bird Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas.

The Cross River National Park, together with adjacent national parks in Cameroon, has also been proposed as a potential United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Natural World Heritage Site. The region has some of the densest human populations in Africa, with over 100,000 people living in close proximity to these conservation areas. A large proportion of this population depend directly on the forest for their livelihood. Consequently, forest cover is declining quickly, and populations of larger animals persist at relatively low densities. In addition to the Cross River gorilla, the Afi-Mbe-Okwangwo landscape, which is part of the western extension of the Cameroon Highlands into Nigeria, supports a number of other globally threatened species including the slender-snouted crocodile - Mecistops cataphractus (CR), Preuss’s monkey (EN), drill (EN) and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (EN), as well as a remnant forest elephant population - Loxodonta cyclotis (VU).

Park rangers on patrol in the Cross River National Park © WCS Nigeria

A Myriad of Threats

Classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered, the Cross-River gorilla has an estimated remaining population of less than 300 individuals. Approximately one-third of this population is found in Nigeria, restricted to the Afi-Mbe-Okwangwo landscape. Main threats to this species include hunting and habitat loss. Although gorillas may not be targeted directly, the use of wire snares to trap smaller animals is common, and occasionally the snares inadvertently catch infant gorillas. With such a small and vulnerable remnant population, the loss of a few gorillas is significant and represents a serious threat to the long-term viability of the population. Habitat loss due to logging and agricultural expansion is also threatening this endangered species.

Reducing these pressures is critical to saving the incredible wildlife and habitats of the Cross-River region. Since the late 1990s, The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has supported research and conservation efforts in the Afi-Mbe-Okwangwo landscape. In 2017 a Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) funded project was launched, building on efforts to improve the protection and conservation outlook of Cross River gorillas in Nigeria. The 3-year project is being implemented in collaboration with the Nigeria National Park Service, the Cross-River State Forestry Commission, and the Conservation Association of Mbe Mountains.

The project has three main objectives including improving effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols and law enforcement monitoring, raising awareness and changing local attitudes to species conservation, in addition to supporting local livelihoods. Improving the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols is being done through providing support to ranger patrols, park rangers and eco-guards training in law enforcement techniques including the use of Spatial Monitoring And reporting Tool (SMART) for patrol planning, data analysis and reporting, and provision of equipment, field rations, and camping allowances to enable them sustain longer and more frequent patrols. “We are now better trained, equipped, and supported to protect the sanctuary and we feel happier doing our job”, notes George Mgbang a ranger at the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Working with local communities is a key component of this project. WCS is carrying out outreach programs for local communities that includes a weekly radio drama entertainment-education program, film shows, community meetings and school-based activities built around Conservation Clubs.

Local students support Cross River gorilla conservation campaign © WCS Nigeria

Counting the Gains

The project has been instrumental in changing local attitudes, especially through a radio drama program My Gorilla My Community implemented as part of the community outreach. “I enjoy listening to My Gorilla My Community program and I have learnt a lot from it. I used to be a good hunter, but after listening to this program and learning that only few gorillas remain in our forest, and that they are found nowhere else in the whole world, I decided to stop hunting. I don’t hunt anymore”, notes Mr Jerry Osang, a regular program listener in one of the communities on the edge of the Cross River National Park. Further evidence of this positive change is demonstrated by the action of two communities around the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary (Ofambe and Okiro) who in 2017 prevented the killing of a young adventurous gorilla that spent days close to their villages, several miles away from the sanctuary, during a failed attempt to migrate east to nearby sites.

The project has also been instrumental in improving local livelihoods through improved cocoa production and sustainable harvesting, storage in addition to marketing of non-timber forest products such as bush mango (Irvingia spp.). Cocoa is the main local cash crop, and improving production through use of high quality seeds and improved farming practices will reduce the need to clear new areas of forest habitat each year for expanded cocoa farming. Working with nine existing women’s groups across the three sites the project is training women (who are the primary collectors of non-timber forest products) to improve sustainability of bush mango harvesting while increasing income through improved access to market.

Park rangers collecting data in Cross River National Park © WCS Nigeria

Over 2,000 cocoa farmers and women have been trained and over 1,000 conservation contracts have been signed with beneficiaries with a commitment to reduce deforestation while increasing productivity of existing cocoa farms and improving sustainability of non-timber forest products use. “I have learned from the training I have received that I can increase cocoa production on my existing farm without destroying more forest. In addition to training, we are now able to get high quality cocoa seedlings from CRIN (Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria) to plant. We used to find it very difficult to have these improved seedlings,” says Fidelis Kekong, a cocoa farmer in the Mbe Mountains.

The project is contributing enormously to the protection of Cross River gorillas in Nigeria. Patrol efforts have increased significantly since the start of the project while hunting activities pressure are gradually declining. While no gorillas have been killed at any of the three project sites since 2012, camera traps in the Mbe Mountains continue to capture images of gorillas including a group with several infants photographed in May 2020. “For such a perilously small population, these camera trap images are extremely exciting and encouraging to see,” concludes Jonathan Eban, WCS project manager for the Mbe Mountains.