Omo is one of the few wild places where forest elephants still survive in Nigeria, as well as being home to a diverse range of other threatened wildlife, including a sub-species of chimpanzee that is only found in Nigeria and Cameroon.
Omo Forest is also home to endangered cherry-crowned mangabeys. Paignton Zoo is one of just a handful of zoos that houses a troop of cherry-crowned mangabeys, which are part of an EAZA ex-situ breeding programme.
Nigeria has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world (an estimated 90% of its forests have already been lost) and Omo’s close proximity to Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, means the forest and its wildlife are under constant pressure.
Much of the natural forest in Omo has been logged and replaced by non-native timber plantations or crops such as cocoa and plantain. As a result, the once elusive forest elephants are forced to venture further out of their forest habitat into more frequent contact, and conflict, with humans. This also puts them at greater risk from ivory poachers, particularly as Lagos is a major hub for wildlife trafficking in West Africa.
Until 2010, forest elephants were considered to be a sub-species of African elephant, but genetic studies revealed that they were actually a completely different species hiding in plain sight. They are more closely related to prehistoric European elephants than their cousins on the African savannah. We were able to capture the first photos of forest elephants in Omo Forest, as well as the first pictures of chimpanzees there.
Forest elephants are unlike savannah elephants in various ways; for example they are smaller and darker in colour. They possess tusks, which means that they face the exact same issue of poaching for ivory as their more well-known relatives.
We been working with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation since 2006 to help conserve one of the last populations of forest elephant in Nigeria.
We work closely with rangers to monitor poaching and habitat clearance, and in recent years have expanded our remit to manage conflicts between elephants and people. Activity in the forest has disturbed some of the elephants who have left their traditional ranges and moved out of the reserve. This puts them at greater risk of poaching and also means they may enter populated areas and farmland where they may not be welcomed. As with most conservation challenges, solutions will only be found once people come to agree on a sustainable way forward.
Working with local communities
Wild Planet Trust works closely with the communities that live and work in the forest. Our education officers deliver weekly environmental education sessions to several hundred primary school children and run a conservation club for teenagers. They meet every week to carry out practical conservation activities in the forest, like litter picking, bird watching and tree planting, as well as running campaigns to bring attention to local environmental issues.
Our project team also includes a patrol of local guards who protect the wildlife and destroy illegal farms and hunting traps. The ultimate aim of the project is to establish a wildlife sanctuary within which logging, hunting and farming are prohibited, thereby protecting biodiversity and the associated natural benefits to local people such as water catchment, carbon storage and ecotourism potential.