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Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee Facing Extinction 

By Azore Opio

Man’s closest living relatives; the apes, monkeys and other primates are on the brink of extinction. Amongst the most endangered subspecies of them on the African continent is the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee species (Pan troglodytes ellioti).

Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees.jpg; in dire need of conservation

Virtually unknown, unlike the Cross River Gorilla, which has been in the spotlight of studies and conservation efforts spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), scientists have expressed increasing fears that if swift action is not taken, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, with its small range found in an area progressively coming under more human pressure, could go extinct in the next 10-20 years. 

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee population, thinly spread to the north of the Sanaga River in Cameroon, the eastern edge of Nigeria, the forest remains in the Niger Delta and South-western Nigeria, constantly confront death due to lack of enforcement of hunting laws, habitat destruction, logging and fragmentation.

Red-listed by the IUCN, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimp is typically hunted with guns and its flesh provides bounty to the hunter, while the commercialization of the trade in “bush meat” also means that some chimp meat makes its way to Europe, the US, and other international markets. 

Chimps have also been observed to take so long to mature that the females don’t have a lot of offspring in their lifetime, hence chimpanzee populations cannot take high levels of hunting. In addition, infant chimpanzees are sold for pets and often end up in the hands of private owners, roadside zoos, laboratories for medical testing because of their close relationship to humans, and the entertainment industry. This has not only led to the extinction of the chimpanzee across much of its former range, but also continues to add pace on the path to extinction of the primates.

As it were, Cameroon and Nigeria provide the only habitat to the remaining 5,000 to 10,000 chimpanzees in the world. Both governments also recognise the great importance of biodiversity conservation, and it is in this vein that they have been closely involved in the development of a conservation action plan for the chimps.

Conservation Efforts

Prompted by the increasing awareness of the threats of extinction faced by the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, government wildlife authorities, national and international conservation organisations and chimpanzee researchers attended several workshops in a four-year process to develop a management action plan. The meetings were concluded in Limbe in February 2010, culminating in an ambitious conservation management action plan.

On completion, the management action plan would include education outreach programmes to communities living adjacent to chimpanzees and other flagships species in order to change societal attitudes towards wildlife; increase institutional and human capacity in Cameroon and Nigeria, and encouraging community participation in local conservation projects. “The governments of Cameroon and Nigeria are currently working on a joint management plan piloted by Dr. Bethan Morgan, Director of the Ebo Forest Research Centre in the Littoral Province of Cameroon.

It will require working with all the stakeholders in wildlife conservation; hunters, farmers, loggers, collectors of non-timber products, medicinal plant collectors, traditional priests, bio-monitors, and law enforcement officers. Both governments would have to hold regular meetings to share information, carry out joint patrols and surveys,” says Mrs. Grace Mbah, Delegate of Forestry and Wildlife for the Southwest Region, adding that “there is need for trans-boundary management of the chimps.”

Currently, there is only one long-term study of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimp led by Volker Sommer, a Swiss primatologist. This study is being carried out in the northernmost range of the species in Nigeria, at Gashaka-Gumpti National Park.

A number of other short-term studies and field surveys to assess wildlife in some areas of Nigeria and Cameroon include collecting data on wild chimpanzees. Meantime, conservation efforts on ellioti chimpanzees have paid off significantly in the Ologbo forest in southwestern Nigeria, which has seen an increase in its legal status after a chimpanzee survey in 2006.

There are also four primate sanctuaries in Nigeria and Cameroon that not only keep chimpanzee victims off the “bush meat” trade, but also actively pursue conservation education programmes. A number of zoos house chimps, and also a number of sanctuaries in Africa are housing hundreds of chimps who are by-products of the bush meat and live trade. 

The population size of chimps in captivity worldwide is in the thousands; however, this only serves to point out the depletion that has been occurring for years in wild populations, mainly for human entertainment.

Chimps are very intelligent and difficult to maintain in all captive settings. They belong in the wild and live under the same kind of human pressure that most of the animals living in the African forest do; they are hunted for meat, and are also losing their forest home to deforestation.

In the Southwest Region of Cameroon, which provides refuge to the largest number of surviving P.t. ellioti, four national parks and one wildlife sanctuary have been established since 1986; Mt. Cameroon National Park (2009), Takamanda National Park (2008), Bayang-Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary, Korup National Park, and Mone-Oko Complex, which includes the Mone Forest Reserve.

In the Lebialem Highlands, ERuDeF (Environmental and Rural Development Foundation) in collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, MINFOF, is working to conserve the remaining patches of forest, which are home to critically endangered chimps and gorillas.

In this vein, ERuDeF is helping the Government of Cameroon to create the proposed (Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in the present Bechati-Fossimondi_Besali Forest and the proposed Ellioti Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the present Mak-Betchou Forest. This includes a critical Wildlife Corridor between the proposed Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mone Forest Reserve to become permanently protected areas for gorillas, chimpanzees, other animals, birds and plants.

In 2009, ERuDeF carved out the current Lebialem-Mone Forest Landscape as a permanent constituency for the protection of not only chimpanzees, but also the Cross River gorillas. Furthermore, ERuDeF is expanding its conservation work into the Northwest to focus on the conservation of chimpanzees in the remaining forest patches in that Region.

Besides core research and conservation, ERuDeF is also working towards supporting the local livelihoods and economic development of the people of through the introduction of projects in the domains of improved palm oil processing and regeneration, cooperative marketing, soil health restoration and improved agricultural production, amongst others.

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