Chimpanzee Subspecies: Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti)

Known Range: Forests of Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon.

IUCN Red List classification: Endangered

Species of gorilla: Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)

Known Range: Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria.

IUCN Red List classification: Critically Endangered


The dwindling ape population in Nigeria is a cause for concern, attributed to deforestation, illicit mining, insecurity, and ritualistic practices.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla spp.) are the two main ape species found in Nigeria. They reside in diverse forested regions across the country, spanning from the South West, South-South, South East, to the North East.

In Nigeria, the predominant chimpanzee subspecies is the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti). This particular subspecies is native to the forests of Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon.

A Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee. Photo by Susanne Jutzeler

Among the four recognized subspecies of chimpanzees, each with its own distinct geographic range across Africa, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee stands out. Notably, it is well-suited to the forested environments of West Africa, including those within Nigeria.

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) has been categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This subspecies confronts substantial challenges stemming from habitat loss, hunting, and other human-induced pressures, which jeopardize their survival and ecosystems.

In Nigeria, the primary subspecies of gorilla found is the Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). This particular subspecies is one of two acknowledged subspecies of the Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), with the other being the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), located in the border region between Nigeria and Cameroon. Nonetheless, the Western lowland gorilla exhibits a broader distribution across Nigeria’s forested areas, especially in the southern region.

The Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  Likewise, the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Western lowland gorilla and the Cross River gorilla subspecies are under significant threat from habitat loss, fragmentation, hunting, and diseases like the Ebola virus. Vital conservation endeavors targeting habitat protection, hunting reduction, and disease control are imperative for ensuring the survival of the Western lowland gorilla.

Apes have historically inhabited forests in Nigeria, where forest trees provide them with essential food sources, as noted by Ogunjemite Babafemi George, a professor of primate conservation ecology at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria. Consequently, the destruction of their natural habitat, the forest, puts them at significant risk.

According to Global Forest Watch, Nigeria experienced a loss of 25.0 thousand hectares of humid primary forest between 2021 and 2022, representing 12% of the country’s total tree cover loss during that period.

Nigeria is among the foremost nations in Africa experiencing significant deforestation. Overall, Nigeria’s humid primary forest area decreased by 1.3% during this time frame.

Chimpanzees primarily inhabit forested areas and rely on these habitats for food, shelter, and breeding. The loss of forest cover reduces the available habitat for chimpanzees, leading to habitat fragmentation and isolation of populations. This loss directly threatens their survival by limiting their access to resources and increasing their vulnerability to human disturbances.

Relatedly, forests provide chimpanzees with a diverse range of food sources, including fruits, leaves, insects, and small mammals. Deforestation reduces the availability of these food sources, leading to food shortages for chimpanzees. This can result in malnutrition, decreased reproductive success, and increased competition among individuals for limited resources.

Deforestation in Nigerian forests can be attributed to various actors and activities including large-scale logging operations, both legal and illegal. These companies extract timber for domestic use and export, often without adequate consideration for sustainable forest management practices.

But also, several forests are cleared for agricultural purposes, including the establishment of large-scale plantations for crops such as palm oil, cocoa, and rubber.

Small-scale farmers also engage in slash-and-burn agriculture to cultivate crops and graze livestock, leading to forest loss.

But also mining, including both legal and illegal operations, contributes to deforestation in Nigeria. Mining for minerals such as gold, tin, and coal often involves clearing forests to access mineral deposits, leading to habitat destruction and environmental degradation.

According to Professor Ogunjemite Babafemi not only is deforestation a concern, but humans also represent a substantial threat to apes in Nigeria. They hunt and kill them for food, as well as for sale to foreigners, utilizing powerful weapons.

“In Nigeria, there are mainly two species of apes, chimpanzees, and gorillas, but these species are facing extinction due to habitat loss,” he added.

He also noted, “Traditionally, apes are subjected to rituals.”

Rituals indirectly and directly threaten ape populations in Nigeria by contributing to habitat destruction, hunting and illegal trade among others.

Some Nigerian rituals involve clearing forested areas or altering natural habitats, which directly impact ape populations of apes by destroying their habitats and reducing available resources.

In certain cultural practices, apes are hunted and sacrificed as part of rituals. This leads to direct mortality of ape individuals and negatively affect population numbers.

Relatedly, in some cases, apes are captured and sold illegally for use in rituals or traditional medicine. This contributes to the decline of ape populations and poses additional threats such as disease transmission and trauma from capture and transportation.

Additional kidnapping, banditry, and insecurity in Nigeria all exacerbate the threat to the country’s apes according to Professor Ogunjemite Babafemi.

He points out that many kidnappers take refuge in the forest to perpetrate their crimes. “Those residing in the forest require sustenance, including protein, leading them to resort to utilizing apes as a source of protein.”

In regions like the South East, West, and North affected by insecurity, there are increased instances of conflict, displacement, and lawlessness, leading to unchecked deforestation, habitat destruction, and land conversion. This loss and degradation of forest habitats directly impact ape populations by reducing available resources and fragmenting their habitats.

In Northeast and Southeast such as Imo and Plateau states insecurity is leading to disruptions in governance, law enforcement, and conservation efforts. This is resulting in increased illegal activities especially poaching, logging, and mining, which directly threaten ape populations.

Specifically, Illegal mining and deforestation in areas such as Borno and Taraba involves clearing large areas of forest for exploration and extraction activities. This results in the destruction and fragmentation of ape habitats, reducing available food sources and shelter and increasing the likelihood of human-wildlife conflict.

The only way to save the apes in Nigeria is to preserve the country’s remaining forests. Photo by William Warby.

According to studies , fragmentation of ape habitats disrupts migration routes and social dynamics among ape groups, ultimately leading to population decline and increased vulnerability to extinction.

Nigerian law prohibits the invasion of reserved forests, yet due to insecurity and banditry, this law seems to be ineffectual.

In Nigeria, the laws governing the invasion of reserved forests primarily fall under the purview of the Forestry Laws and Environmental Regulations. These laws aim to protect and manage forest reserves, ensuring their sustainable use and conservation. Here are some key aspects typically covered by Nigerian forest laws regarding the invasion of reserved forests.

Nigerian forestry laws provide for the establishment and management of forest reserves by the government. These reserves are designated areas intended for the conservation of forest ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources.

Forest laws in Nigeria prohibit unauthorized entry into reserved forests and activities that could degrade or destroy forest resources. This includes logging, farming, hunting, mining, and any other activities that could harm the forest ecosystem.

The laws stipulate penalties for individuals or entities found guilty of invading reserved forests or engaging in illegal activities within these areas. Penalties may include fines, imprisonment, or both, depending on the severity of the offence.

However, Professor Ogunjemite Babafemi laments that the same forest is now being used as a safe haven for illegal activities, “simply because there is no willingness to enforce the law.”

He says that research conducted last year revealed that only 3% of the country’s original forest remains, and it is under serious threat.

Professor Ogunjemite Babafemi suggests that the only way to save the apes in Nigeria is to preserve the country’s remaining forests, as all biological resources depend on them.

Several Nigerian organizations have been advocating for the government to prioritize wildlife preservation, including apes, and to safeguard the forests.

Dr. Ofua Mark, a wildlife veterinarian and conservationist at Saintmarks Animal Rescue Centre, expressed concern about Nigeria facing threats from extensive and sophisticated illicit logging in its forests.

He is troubled by the apparent lack of attention from state governments responsible for protecting Nigerian forests, which ultimately jeopardizes the lives of apes.

Dr. Ofua mentions that Wild Africa Fund, an organization he consults for, has conducted sensitization campaigns, including collaborations with celebrities, to educate Nigerians about the significance of conserving forests.

They utilized billboards among other tactics in this strategy. “This billboard was strategically placed in locations such as the airport.”

Photo shows billboard advocating for forest preservation/ Photo credit: Wild Fund Africa

After the sensitization campaigns, an independent survey was conducted to assess people’s understanding of the message. Mark observes that many respondents acknowledged seeing the campaign and pledged to “stop eating bush meat”.

Nigerian lawmakers are also making efforts to safeguard the forest, aiming to ensure the survival of apes and other forest inhabitants. The new Endangered Species Conservation and Protection Bill had its first reading in Nigeria’s House of Representatives in late February 2024, with the intention of enhancing current wildlife protection laws.

The bill aims to disrupt and deter illegal wildlife trade in the country by enhancing law enforcement capabilities, expanding investigative powers to include financial inquiries and intelligence-led operations, and empowering courts to expedite wildlife cases and recover assets. Additionally, it introduces corporate liability, promotes global cooperation, and imposes severe penalties on poachers and traffickers. Wildlife trafficking, including the illegal trade of apes and other endangered species, is a serious issue that poses significant threats to biodiversity and animal welfare in Nigeria.

According to Terseer Ugbor, the bill’s sponsor and deputy chairman of the House Committee on Environment, this legislation would be beneficial for the environment.

“This legislation is not just about what happens within these legislative walls; it is about a collective effort. In the face of escalating environmental challenges, this bill is a beacon of hope,” notes Terseer Ugbor.

This story was produced with support from Apes Reporting Project (ARP). ARP is a project of Water Journalists Africa, which also runs InfoNile, a geojournalism initiative.

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