Surveying Wildlife in Nigerian Forests
by Richard Bergl
January 14, 2008
: About the Project
Dr. Richard Bergl, the Curator of Research at the North Carolina Zoological Park, left North Carolina on Sunday, 30 December 2008. He is headed for the forests of southwestern Nigeria, where he will be part of a team conducting surveys for wildlife in three forest reserves. Very little conservation work has been done in these forests over the last several decades, so Bergl’s team is unsure what it will find. The forest reserve boundaries and the region’s wildlife laws have not been well-enforced over the years, and satellite photographs show that a lot of the forest is either seriously degraded or has been converted into farmland. Nevertheless, there still appears to be some large tracts of forest, and these tracts are where the team will focus its work. Bergl and his colleagues know that there are at least small populations of elephants, chinmpanzees and several monkey species remaining in the forests.
Field Trip Earth will share stories from Dr. Bergl’s project over the next few weeks. Diary entries and other materials from the field will be added to this article as they reach the United States. Be sure to check back for field updates!
History of the region
The rain forests of southwestern Nigeria are biologically fascinating. However, they are under intense pressure as the population and economy of Nigeria has expanded since that country’s independence in 1960. Most of their fragmented remnants are in danger of disappearing completely unless important conservation steps are taken.
At a planning workshop focused on the conservation of the Guinean-Congolian forest and freshwater region, which was organized in 2000 by the World Wide Fund for Nature in Gabon, two remaining areas of the southwestern Nigerian forest were identified as “High Priority” for conservation attention. These areas were labeled, for convenience, as the Western Ondo Forest and the Eastern Ondo Forest. Both were classified as “High Importance” biologically. Unfortunately, the area is also suffering what is regarded as the “Highest” future threat. Members of the workshop also considered these forests to be only moderately well-known biologically.
Where is the team working?
The Western Ondo Forest comprises a cluster of forest reserves in eastern Ogun, western Ondo and southern Osun states—the reserves are called Omo, Oluwa, Shasha, Ife and Ago-Owu. The largest of these reserves is Omo (1,305 square kilometers), followed by Oluwa (828 square kilometers) and Shasha (about 300 square kilometers).
Prior to the creation of the states, these three reserves were all part of the Shasha Forest Reserve, which was originally created in 1925. In a direct line, the southwestern tip of Omo Forest Reserve is less than 100 kilometers from Lagos, while the southern parts of Omo and Oluwa are 30-40 kilometers north of Olokola. The Shasha (or Omo) and Oluwa Rivers, which flow through these forests and collect a significant part of their water from them, are the two major river systems to the west and east of Olokola.
What are the threats to the region?
Nigeria’s forest reserves were established in colonial times to (1) provide sustainable supplies of timber through controlled logging and (2) to safeguard water supplies. Omo and Oluwa were some of the first forests in Nigeria to be logged, beginning in the 1920s. At first, this logging was done according to careful timber-harvesting plans designed to ensure protection of the forests. By the 1970s, though, these plans were largely abandoned in many Nigerian reserves.
A broad survey of southwestern Nigerian forests in 1982 found huge pressures on the region’s natural vegetation, which was being destroyed at a rapid rate from excessive logging, conversion to plantations, farming, and oil extraction. Further, wildlife populations were being badly harmed by excessive, uncontrolled hunting for the commercial bushmeat trade.
During the 1970s and 1980s, large areas of Omo and Oluwa Forest Reserves were converted to monoculture plantations of the fast-growing exotic tree Gmelina arborea. This conversion was designed to provide material for a pulp mill at Iwopin that has never been brought into full operation. In addition to a small number of fast-growing human settlements located in the forest, large numbers of migrant farmers have moved into the area, some of them to help create the Gmelina plantations. Meanwhile, almost all the remaining natural forest of the reserves has been intensively logged, much of it in an uncontrolled fashion.
Important wildlife resources in the area
Despite these huge pressures, areas of degraded natural forest still survive in the Omo-Oluwa-Shasha area. Omo, in particular, has received conservation attention, despite the destructive forces that have been at work there. It contains a 5.6 square kilometer Strict Nature Reserve, which was established in 1949. This designation is supposed to protect the area from logging. This area is in turn surrounded by a Biosphere Reserve area of 142 square kilometers, which was established under the United Nation’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. Omo is listed as one of 26 Important Bird Areas in Nigeria by Birdlife International, and supports at least 75 bird species. One species—the yellow-casqued hornbill—is globally threatened. Two endangered mammal species, the chimpanzee and the white-throated guenon, have also been recorded in Omo.
In the 1990s, John Thornton of Lagos developed a forest elephant research and conservation project at Omo. Known as the Nigerian Forest Elephant Wildlife Survey and Protection Group, this project also conducted surveys of primates, including chimpanzees. The presence of elephants and chimpanzees in a rain forest so close to the giant city of Lagos was remarkable.
The elephant project helped stabilize forest conversion and hunting in the Biosphere Reserve, but the project’s work has declined following Thornton’s departure from Nigeria. In field surveys between 2002 and 2005, other researchers heard chimpanzee calls and found nests and feeding signs in Ago-Owu, Oluwa and Shasha reserves. Surveys in 2006 confirmed that chimpanzees still survive in Omo in small numbers, and that chimpanzees and buffalo remain in Oluwa.
Because the Omo-Oluwa-Shasha complex is of obvious significance for biological conservation—and because it is evidently very highly threatened—there is an urgent need for a more thorough survey to establish whether areas of forest remain that could form one or more effective long-term conservation areas capable of supporting populations of wildlife. If such areas remain and can be protected, they would be potentially valuable sites for rainforest research and ecotourism within very easy reach of cities like Lagos, Ibadan, Akure and Okolola. Protecting remaining natural forest would also help safeguard water supplies to downstream communities.
What is the team going to do?
The overall goal of this project is to do a survey of the distribution and status of natural forest areas and of key wildlife populations in the Omo/Oluwa/Shasha regions, and to make some recommendations for future conservation. If viable conservation areas are identified, a second project to establish a management system will follow.
A key part of the plan is to use a Geographic Information System (GIS) based on satellite data. For much of Nigeria, up to date, high-quality maps are not available. And, for the proposed project area, existing maps and data sets either do not contain necessary information, are very inaccurate, or are at too coarse a resolution for biological research and conservation planning.
To address these problems, the team will work to survey the study areas and build a GIS. This data will be used as the geographic and ecological reference into which field observations will be incorporated. Field observations will concentrate on understanding the area, especially the remaining natural forest and its farmland, plantations, human settlements, roads, rivers and state boundaries. Observation walks through the forest will record evidence of larger mammals and birds. Interviews will be conducted with forest users and with state officials to understand patterns of human use and management challenges.
The main goal of this part of the project will be to determine whether there are areas of the forest with long-term biodiversity conservation potential. If such areas are found, a second project would focus on more detailed mapping of a potential conservation areas and more detailed sampling of wildlife populations. This part of the project would incorporate transect sampling of mammals and birds, and would examine other parts of the region that are indicators of forest ecosystem health, such as amphibians and orchids.
See the following pages for more information, including Dr. Bergl’s diary entries and other materials from the field.
: Field Diary: 3 January 2008
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
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