By Linus Unah – Mongabay
- Six elephants in Yankari Game Reserve have been fitted with satellite collars.
- The collars are the latest steps to better monitor and protect elephants and other wildlife in the park.
- Fewer than 500 elephants remain in Nigeria, survivors of poaching and the steady loss of habitat.
LAGOS — In early October, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) fitted six elephants in northern Nigeria’s Yankari National Park with satellite collars. The collars will help WCS, which works with the Bauchi state government to manage the park, better monitor and protect Nigeria’s largest remaining herd of elephants.
“The elephants’ collars are quite valuable, not just for protection and for research, but also to reduce human-elephant conflict and promote tourism,” Andrew Dunn, Nigeria director of WCS, told Mongabay.
“It will allow us to know where the elephants are and to make sure our rangers know where they are, watch them closely and make sure the elephants get close protection.”
Dunn said rangers can now track the elephants’ movements and location better and react more quickly when the elephants are in danger or move closer to the edge of the park.
Elephants once ranged from the tropical swamps and rainforests of the south of Nigeria to the savanna in the north, but a combination of poaching, human-elephant conflict, and deforestation from logging for timber and expanding agriculture have diminished these populations.
Designated as a game reserve in 1956, Yankari was managed by regional authorities until it was designated a national park in 1991. In 2006, responsibility for the park was transferred to the government of Bauchi state, where it’s located. At the time, the elephant population was estimated at up to 350, but between 2006 and 2015 the reserve suffered intense poaching and the number of elephants fell sharply.
“During this terrible period,” Dunn said, “Yankari was probably losing 20 to 30 elephants per year.”
This period coincided with a wave of poaching across the continent, which saw elephant populations decline by around 111,000 across Africa. Some 415,000 elephants can be found in 37 range countries in the continent now. Survey data for Nigeria is inadequate, but the IUCN’s 2016 African elephant status report estimated the country’s remaining population at somewhere between 169 and 463.
Around 100 savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), one of the two species of elephants found in Nigeria, live in the 2,244-square-kilometer (866-square-mile) Yankari park, making it the largest and most viable herd in the country. Smaller populations of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) can be found in the Omo Forest Reserve, Okomu National Park, and Cross River National Park in southern Nigeria. Yankari also provides a sanctuary for other wildlife, including lions (the genetically distinct West African lion is regarded as critically endangered, and just two small populations remain in Nigeria) as well as buffalo, hippopotamus, roan antelope and hartebeest.
While investments were made in the reserve’s main tourist camp after the Bauchi state takeover in 2006, authorities found management of the protected area a challenge. A lack of resources left rangers underpaid, poorly trained and ill-equipped with vehicles or firearms needed to fight off organized, well-armed elephant poachers. Communities around the reserve, often angered by destruction of crops by elephants straying outside the park’s boundaries, were hostile to rangers.
The signing of a co-management agreement with WCS in 2014 brought welcome expertise and additional resources to the park. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Lion Recovery Fund and the Elephant Crisis Fund, WCS provided rangers with training, field equipment and rations, camping allowances, and cash bonuses for arresting poachers. With increased frequency and coverage, ranger patrols were able to deter hunting, grazing and poaching.
WCS also hired a team of “elephant guardians” from neighboring villages and gave them cellphones to serve as an early warning system whenever elephants strayed outside the reserve.
“The health of Yankari elephants is now good. They are reproducing and hunting has been stopped, so definitely they will increase — but it will take time for them to fully recover,” Dunn told Mongabay.
There have been no documented killings of elephants in Yankari since May 2015.
“It is a huge progress because poaching has been much of a problem in the past,” says Modibbo Ahmed, the Bauchi state commissioner for tourism and culture.
Strengthening protection for Nigeria’s elephants
There are also ongoing efforts to protect remnant populations hanging on in other parts of the country. Emmanuel Olabode, coordinator of the Forest Elephant Initiative, thinks there could be as many as 80 elephants living in the Omo Forest Reserve in southwestern Ogun state, just 135 kilometers (84 miles) north of the commercial hub of Lagos.
The reserve is under pressure from hunting, logging, and cocoa farmers, but the Forest Elephant Initiative, backed by the Nigeria Conservation Foundation, the Ogun State Ministry of Forestry, Wild Planet Trust UK, Whitney Wildlife Conservation Trust and several other NGOs, has put a team of 12 rangers into the reserve to limit further encroachment and allow wildlife populations to thrive.
“To protect this unique species of elephants, we need to safeguard their habitat,” Olabode said. “The habitat is increasingly getting more fragmented which consequently may lead to total habitat loss if urgent action is not taken.”
Despite the international ban on trade in ivory and Nigeria’s Endangered Species Act (2016), which criminalizes trade in elephant products, Nigeria remains a transit hub for the illegal trade in ivory to Asian countries.
A recent survey by TRAFFIC, a U.K.-headquartered NGO working on wildlife trade, found raw and worked ivory was readily available for sale in Lagos.
“Though most of the ivory comes from outside — Cameroon, Gabon, Congo — the [presence] of the ivory market still increases the pressure on the remaining populations in Nigeria,” Dunn said.
Building on a National Ivory Action Plan drawn up in 2015 as well as new legislation stiffening penalties for illegal wildlife trafficking, in 2018 Nigeria joined the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), a group of 20 African countries working to close down the ivory trade and ivory markets and push member countries to develop National Elephant Action Plans.
The EPI is funding a National Elephant Action Plan, which will identify important populations and actions needed to protect these elephants. It will also outline costs needed to implement these actions and seek out donors to raise funding for implementation.