On the Brink: Transboundary Poaching, Habitat Loss, and Exploitation for Traditional Medicine Threaten the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee

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

Known Range: Forests of Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon.

IUCN Red List classification: Endangered

Biline Regina Leke

At a critical crossroads, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) teeters on the edge of survival, besieged by relentless transboundary poaching, habitat loss, and exploitation for traditional medicine in the heart of the Bamenda Highlands.

The Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees primarily inhabit the forested regions of Nigeria and Cameroon in West Africa. They are specifically found in the cross-border region between the two countries, particularly in areas such as the Bamenda Highlands and forest reserves like Ako-Mbembe and Kimbi Fungom National Park. These chimpanzees are adapted to living in tropical rainforests and are known to dwell in dense, lush forest habitats.

The Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees are a subspecies of the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), which is one of the two species of chimpanzees alongside the bonobo (Pan paniscus).

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Photo by Sane Noor.

Estimating the exact number of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in the wild is challenging due to the dense and often remote forest habitats they inhabit. Additionally, these chimpanzees are considered one of the least studied subspecies. However, based on available data, it is estimated that there are between 3,500 to 9,000 individuals remaining in the wild. This estimate underscores the precarious status of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and highlights the urgency of conservation efforts to protect this endangered subspecies and their habitat.

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to several significant threats to its survival.

In Cameroon, some of the key habitats of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee include the newly established Kimbi-Fungom National Park, the former Kimbi Game Reserve, and the Ako-Mbembe Forest Reserve.

“These areas serve as major strongholds for the species within the Bamenda Highlands,” notes Kari Jackson, Executive Director SURUDEV. Sustainable Run for Development (SURUDEV) is a local not-for-profit Organisation, spearheading initiatives to incentivize communities away from forest exploitation.

Kari laments that these chimpanzees face significant threats from habitat destruction, particularly due to activities like logging.

Despite efforts to create protected areas and community forests, illegal logging remains rampant, he notes, further stressing that, the smuggling timber is, “often smuggled across the border to Nigeria.”

Kari Jackson, Executive Director SURUDEV

Illegal logging in Cameroon’s forests often results in timber being smuggled to neighboring countries, such as Nigeria. The timber may be transported through various routes, including overland transportation via roads or waterways like rivers. In some cases, organized criminal networks facilitate the smuggling of illegally harvested timber across borders for sale in regional or international markets. This illicit trade poses significant challenges to forest conservation efforts and undermines the sustainable management of forest resources in the region.

Mbah Grace, regional delegate for Forestry and Wildlife for the north west region, in Cameroon, underscores the urgency of addressing this escalating threat.

While acknowledging the enduring challenge of poaching fueled by bushmeat consumption, she emphasizes the alarming surge in transboundary poaching, which has precipitated a precipitous decline in the population of this critically endangered subspecies over the past decade.

“The crux of the issue lies in transboundary poaching,” Mbah explains, highlighting the “sophisticated tactics” employed by poachers who traverse from Nigeria into Cameroon to target chimpanzees in substantial numbers.

Unlike local poachers who can be monitored by patrol units, these transboundary poachers operate with impunity, smuggling their illicit bounty to markets in Nigeria.

Mbah reveals that many of these poachers originate from Nigeria’s Benue state, targeting reserves such as Ako-Mbembe and parts of Fungom, key habitats for the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees.

Despite efforts to engage Nigerian authorities in transboundary cooperation, the absence of established mechanisms, agreements, or protocols between relevant agencies or governments in Cameroon and Nigeria to effectively address conservation issues particularly in the Benue region exacerbates the challenge.

If put in place, such protocols would address conservation issues, such as transboundary poaching, habitat protection, and wildlife management. Establishing such platforms would also be crucial for coordinating efforts, sharing information, and implementing collaborative strategies to address common conservation challenges across borders.

However, Mbah expresses hope for future collaboration between Cameroon and Nigeria to combat transboundary poaching successfully. She underscores the need for a concerted effort to establish a robust transboundary platform, akin to initiatives in other chimpanzee habitats like Takamanda and Kagwene Parks. Such collaboration, she believes, is essential to safeguarding the dwindling population of chimpanzees in the Bamenda Highlands.

In the face of this crisis, urgent action is imperative to avert the imminent extinction of the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee. It is a clarion call for both nations to join forces in protecting this iconic species and preserving the rich biodiversity of the region for future generations.

The Ako-Mbembe forest, a critical habitat, is suffering a staggering 40% reduction, according to statistics from the Regional Delegation of Forestry and Wildlife. Rampant encroachments further compound the issue, with the newly established Kimbi-Fongom National Park facing escalating threats.

The Northwest region of Cameroon, home to the Bamenda Highlands, grapples with high human population densities, ranging from 100 to 250 people per square kilometer. This human pressure has led to widespread deforestation, converting vast swathes of forest into agricultural land and pastures. Consequently, pristine habitats have dwindled to fragmented remnants, severely impacting chimpanzee populations.

Despite the absence of formal biological surveys, the alarming reduction in Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee populations is unmistakable in the Bamenda Highlands. Mbah highlights the drastic decline in encounter rates, dung, and nests, indicative of plummeting chimpanzee densities.

This sobering reality underscores the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts to safeguard this critically endangered subspecies and preserve the rich biodiversity of the region.

In response to the myriad challenges confronting the conservation of the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee, delegates from Nigeria and Cameroon convened in 2011 to devise a Regional Action Plan. Among its key objectives were the enhancement of anti-poaching measures, the establishment of corridors linking chimpanzee sanctuaries, and the elevation of protected area statuses.  

In Cameroon, for example, studies have indicated that chimpanzees are among the most commonly used wild animals in traditional medicine. Photo by Jiju Joy.

Key measures outlined in the plan included signing joint inter-government agreements to enhance collaboration between protected areas, improving communication, coordinating conservation efforts, and conducting awareness campaigns targeting local communities and key services.

However, Liyong Sama Emmanuel, the director of Centre for Indigenous Resource Management and Development CIRMAD in Cameroon, says that considering that the actions outlined in the regional action plan have not been effectively implemented, it’s evident that the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee population is in decline.

He also laments the use of chimpanzee products in traditional medicine following poverty and lack of access to healthcare, and the perpetuation of traditional beliefs and practices that drive the demand for chimpanzee products in traditional medicine.

In Cameroon and Nigeria these practices often involve the use of various parts of the chimpanzee, including their bones, organs, and even sometimes their meat, for supposed medicinal purposes. In some cases, chimpanzee body parts are believed to possess mystical or healing properties, leading to their use in traditional healing practices.

In Cameroon, for example, studies have indicated that chimpanzees are among the most commonly used wild animals in traditional medicine. A study conducted in the northwest region of Cameroon in 2010 revealed that chimpanzees were extensively used for medicinal purposes, with their body parts being sought after for various ailments. This includes the use of chimpanzee body parts in rituals, potions, and remedies believed to cure illnesses or bring good luck.

Similarly, in Nigeria, there are reports of chimpanzee body parts being used in traditional medicine, although the extent of their use may vary depending on cultural beliefs and practices in different regions. The demand for chimpanzee products in traditional medicine can contribute to illegal hunting and poaching of chimpanzees, further endangering their already vulnerable populations.

“Without proper conservation measures, we cannot expect to maintain the estimated 6000 individuals from over a decade ago. The threats they face, including deforestation and exploitation for traditional medicine, demand urgent attention, stresses Sama.

Liyong Sama Emmanuel, the director of Centre for Indigenous Resource Management and Development

The Ministry of Forestry has since launched intensive efforts to safeguard the remaining population of Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee including bolstered law enforcement and the reclassification of areas like Ako-Mbembe into Forest Management Units.

Additionally, the merger of Fungom forest reserve and Kimbi game reserve has birthed a National Park, complete with enhanced protection measures and planned extensions along the Nigeria border.

In tandem with these governmental initiatives, engagement with forest adjacent communities has been paramount. Forest management committees collaborate closely with conservators to address management issues.

However, staunch hunters, speaking anonymously, express reluctance to abandon hunting, citing it as integral to their livelihoods. Meaningful and sustainable alternative livelihood options are thus imperative.

Amidst this complex landscape, local non-profit Sustainable Run for Development (SURUDEV) is spearheading initiatives to incentivize communities away from forest exploitation.

Their project, “Habitat Restoration of the Kom-Wum Forest for the Conservation of the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee,” focuses on providing alternative livelihoods and enriching forest habitats with chimp nesting tree.

Executive Director Kari Jackson urges Cameroonians to embrace conservation, emphasizing the intrinsic value of wildlife to national heritage.

According to Liyong Sama Emmanuel, the director of Centre for Indigenous Resource Management and Development CIRMAD in Cameroon, despite challenges like transboundary logging, local collaboration has been essential.

However, he notes that governmental actions transforming forest reserves into timber concessions pose new threats to habitat preservation.

There have been instances where forest reserves in the border regions between Nigeria and Cameroon have been transformed into timber concessions by governmental actions in Cameroon. These actions often involve granting permits to logging companies or individuals to exploit the forest resources for timber extraction. Unfortunately, such activities can lead to significant deforestation and habitat destruction, posing a threat to wildlife species, including the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee.

“The protection of our region’s biodiversity relies on safeguarding key areas like Korup and Takamanda National Parks. Collaboration and proactive measures are essential to address emerging threats to our wildlife habitats,” he insists Sama.

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 project.

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