Southeastern Nigeria is home to some of the most immense biodiversity in Africa. The tropical montane forests in this part of the continent spread far and wide across the Mbe Mountains, which run close to the border of Cameroon.
Two designated protected areas in this region are the Cross River National Park and the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, both of which are home to the critically-endangered Cross River gorilla. There are less than 300 such animals left in existence, making them the most threatened ape in all of Africa.
Traditionally, these gorilla populations would cover the whole Mbe Mountain region, and so the gorillas are naturally drawn to crossing the entire area. But the separation of the region into different parks has left gorilla populations increasingly isolated from each other. Attempting to navigate the narrow corridor between the Cross River National Park and the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary has proved a dangerous activity for them to undertake – with this unprotected region also a hotspot for hunters catching animals for the illegal bushmeat trade.
‘Protecting and maintaining this corridor is critical for the overall survival of the population,’ Inaoyom Imong, Director of the Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project, emphasises to Geographical. ‘They need to go across.’
Imong grew up in these forests, hunting with his father. ‘They’re my gorillas, it’s my forest,’ he says with a smile. ‘I was always super excited about the sheer diversity of the forest. My father would describe the different plants, their medicinal value, the animals and birds. I was really intrigued by all of these.’
After moving away to study Conservation Biology, he returned home to find the pressure of growing human populations had left the forests very different to how he remembered. ‘I was shocked to go back into the same forest where I used to hunt with my father and, due to hunting, could no longer see many of the animals I used to see commonly,’ he says. ‘At that point I felt like I needed to do something.’
“The communities take extreme pride in having gorillas in their forests. They will brag to other communities that do not have gorillas in their forests”
The growth of the illegal bushmeat trade (an estimated 900,000 reptiles, birds and mammals are sold each year for bushmeat around the Nigeria–Cameroon border) and the deforestation which accompanies local people’s subsistence farming, has resulted in a genuine threat to the continued existence of the Cross River gorilla. Imong hopes to change this.
Together with the Nigerian Wildlife Conservation Society, he began engaging with local communities to educate and motivate people about the potential environmental damages of hunting and deforestation, as well as the detrimental impact which it was having on the Cross River gorillas.
‘The really interesting thing here is that the communities take extreme pride in having gorillas in their forests,’ he explains. ‘They will brag to other communities that do not have gorillas in their forests. And they realise the forest is valuable, because they get a lot of products from there.’
Imong hopes his project can educate people about alternative sources of income. For example, people have been greatly encouraged by news about countries like Uganda and Rwanda, where investing in gorilla protection is making money for people from ‘gorilla tourism’.
‘I’m going to support the communities to make that happen,’ he continues. ‘But also to further strengthen law enforcement and increase the work that I’m already doing; raising awareness amongst the communities, taking school kids into the forest on field trips, giving them that experience in the forest. They are always excited when I take them into the forest and I point out all these things. They go back home to their parents and talk to them and there is increasing interest and support for conservation in this area.’
Securing the Mbe Mountain region as a community wildlife sanctuary, engaging local people, and creating patrols of eco-guards to enforce the new legislation, looks to be essential in ensuring the long-term survival of the Cross River gorilla. Then, Imong can legitimately aspire to future generations being able to enjoy the same wildlife forest experience he grew up with.
Inaoyom Imong is a winner of a 2015 Whitley Award, from the Whitley Fund for Nature