Our Elephants Are Returning!
We join other earth optimists globally in celebrating the 50th anniversary of earth day with good news of growing populations of forest elephants at Omo Forest Reserve, southwestern Nigeria. This observation is a result of over five years of intensive work in the area.
In Nigeria, forest elephants live in fragmented ranges within a few sites, including Omo Forest Reserve in Ogun State, south-western part of the country. The ecological integrity of the reserve is threatened by increased and unsustainable farming and high rate of logging among other anthropogenic activities. As part of conservation efforts to mitigate threats to elephants and the rich biodiversity of the reserve, a wildlife sanctuary covering an area of about 37,500 hectares of the forest reserve was established by the Ogun State government. The reserve is managed by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, and we have been working with them and other partners to promote public understanding of the precarious situation of forest elephants around Omo Forest Reserve.
Our project involves a number of studies, and community education and outreach to create awareness and build capacity at local level for responsible behaviour towards wildlife and the natural environment. The outreach programmes are purposely designed to also increase understanding of elephant conservation issues, exchange opinions and experiences, and establish dialogue among sectors of the community. This has helped greatly in positively changing people’s attitudes and behaviours towards biodiversity conservation, and many are now supportive of our conservation initiatives. Further, the project provides employment to local community scouts to help control and arrest illegal activities. The scouts together with forest officers seconded to the project by the Ogun state government to assist them are trained, and equipped to undertake patrols, enforce protection laws, and contain illegal activities in the reserve and adjoining areas.
The outcome has been regular sighting of forest elephants, herd by herd, within the forest area and adjoining communities; an occurrence no one would have imagined possible a few years back. As at 2017, a systematic survey had revealed an elephant population of 28 individuals in and around Omo forest reserve. Today, our informed guesstimate suggests elephant numbers have increased to about 60 individuals. A repeat survey is however needed, not only to firm up these numbers but also to ascertain current elephant distribution patterns.
We are stepping up work on securing and maintaining the habitat for the elephants especially in critical migratory corridors. We have identified a need for policy support to enhance protection of elephants in the area. Related is the political will to stop disruptive land use practices that destroy or fragment elephant habitats in the area. Additional support by way of equipment and vehicles for patrol in also needed to sustain as well as out scale the conservation efforts for forest elephants.
The financial support for our work came from the Rufford Foundation – to whom we are very grateful. We also thank Nigerian Conservation Foundation and other partners working in the project area for their support, and the Tropical Biology Association for providing mentorship and platform for a career-shaping experience.
Amusa Tajudeen Okekunle, PhD. Department of Forest Resources Management, University of Ilorin, Nigeria/Omo Forest Elephant Conservation Initiative