A Grassroots Effort to Save Africa’s Most Endangered Ape

The Cross River gorilla population in equatorial Africa has been pushed to the brink of extinction. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, a Nigerian scientist working to save the gorillas describes how local villagers are vital to protecting these apes.

The Cross River gorilla holds the lamentable distinction of being the world’s rarest ape. Inhabiting an arc of mountainous forest along the Nigeria-Cameroon border, this primate was thought by scientists to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1980s. Today, fewer than 300 members of the Cross River subspecies exist, most squeezed into high, rugged terrain as rising human populations hem them in.

Leading the fight to save these beleaguered apes is a Nigerian scientist who comes from Cross River State and knows its forests — and its people — intimately. Inaoyom Imong, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project, is taking the practice of local community engagement to a new level as he and his colleagues work to pull the Cross River gorillas back from the brink.

Inaoyom Imong
Inaoyom Imong. WCS

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Imong — who last month received an international award from the Whitley Fund for Nature — describes the remote region in which three population groups of Cross River gorillas live, explains how stepped-up ranger activity is relieving pressure on the gorillas, and discusses how local residents living in rural Nigeria and Cameroon hold the key to saving this magnificent ape.

Yale Environment 360: What’s unique about this subspecies of gorilla that you study?

Inaoyom Imong: This is a very poorly known subspecies of gorilla. It is found only in the border region between Nigeria and Cameroon — quite a large landscape, 12,000 square kilometers, and most of it is still forest. The actual area occupied by the gorillas is very limited, mainly because of human disturbance, so the population is very fragmented. There has been a long history of hunting these animals that has forced them to use only hilltops as refuge areas. Most of the population is already within protected areas, but one-third still live outside of protected areas in community land without any formal protection.

e360: A lot of your research has looked at why Cross River gorillas remain more or less isolated in these smaller groups even though their forest habitat is fairly continuous. What’s keeping these gorillas isolated?

Imong: There’s still a lot of good forest that these gorillas can use, so we could have seen a more even distribution. The main factor driving the fragmented distribution is human disturbance, hunting, encroachment on the habitats. So even though there is still good forest, just the human presence in those areas and the threat to their existence makes them retreat to these high lands and difficult terrain. Despite increased conservation efforts, increased protection and increased awareness among local people, there is still opportunistic hunting of these gorillas.

‘Seeing a gorilla in the forest is actually like Christmas for me.’

e360: What’s it like to see a Cross River gorilla in the wild?

Imong: Seeing one in the forest is actually like Christmas for me. I’ve been working in these areas studying Cross River gorillas for over 12 years now, and I have seen them only twice in the forest. However, our eco-guards in the Mbe Mountains are now seeing them more often. They go out every day patrolling the area and that is probably an indication that hunting in the Mbe Mountains has continued to decline. So they are probably a bit less shy compared to 10 years before. But it’s really rare to see these animals. Many conservationists, many researchers have been here and worked for years and have not seen these gorillas.

e360: But the fact that that the eco-guards are seeing them might indicate that they’re getting used to a human presence that’s not dangerous to them?

Imong: We have three base camps from which eco-guards go out on patrols on a daily basis. And so, for example, the gorillas are probably not hearing as many gunshots as before, which would be a sign that it’s safe for now. So [they] are maybe moving into areas where they previously didn’t move so much. They’re probably gradually moving out into more accessible areas, losing a bit of the fear. But we are not currently making any conscious effort to habitually follow the animals. We avoid contact with them as much as possible because we don’t want to habituate the gorillas yet [to our presence]. Because even though hunting has gone down, there is still opportunistic hunting.

Cross River gorilla
This Cross River gorilla is in captivity at Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon. AFRICAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

e360: A lot of your work is in the Mbe Mountains. Can you talk a little bit about what that area is like and how is it important to this subspecies of gorilla?

Imong: My work actually spans the entire range of the Cross River gorilla population in Nigeria. The Mbe Mountains is where we are trying to protect the gorillas and the habitat through community-based action. These mountains are particularly important because they not only have this small population of gorillas inhabiting the area, but it is also a critical corridor linking two other gorilla sites in Nigeria — the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cross River National Park. So protecting the forest in the Mbe Mountains is protecting the corridor that will allow the gorillas to move between these two localities. Obviously, gene flow is very important for such a fragmented population, so it’s important that individuals are able to move between these small, isolated groups to exchange genetic material and to maintain a viable population overall.

e360: What’s life like for people in these communities where you work?

Imong: People around there are very dependent on the forest for their subsistence — gathering forest products, subsistence agriculture. There is also a long history of conservation effort in the area and people are committed now to protecting the gorillas. They take very strong pride that they have gorillas in their forest.

‘The people realize the value of what they have in the forest and the value of the gorillas.’

And that is the main attraction for me, the fact that people themselves realize the value of what they have in the forest and the value of the gorillas. People have heard how gorilla-based tourism is bringing revenue to communities in Uganda and Rwanda, and so they are hoping that by protecting their forest they are protecting gorillas and they may be able to add some benefits in the future.

e360: Are the poachers typically local, and are they hunting for subsistence or are they selling the meat?

Imong: Most of them are local people, coming from communities living right next to the park or the Mbe Mountains. And hunting is mainly for subsistence. Depending on how much a hunter kills, he will sell part of that to get income. Historically, hunting gorillas was purely for subsistence. There are many areas where selling gorilla meat was actually prohibited. Gorillas were historically hunted because hunters gained a little bit of status in society by killing gorillas. So for example, during traditional ceremonies, a hunter who had killed a gorilla will dance with the skull, for example, or other parts that he has kept. He will gain respect by killing gorillas. It was mainly for these reasons that people hunted gorillas. But as populations increased, as people became more interested in economic gains rather than cultural incentives, people began to hunt gorilla meat to get income. But even now, not many people who kill gorillas would openly sell gorilla meat. It is sold in secret because people are aware that this is a protected species that should not be hunted.

e360: Is there a demand that’s coming from outside west or central Africa for gorilla meat or gorilla parts?

Imong: We haven’t actually seen hunters come in from farther than central Africa. But more and more, we are seeing gorilla parts being trafficked, especially from Cameroon into Nigeria — gorilla skulls, limbs, all kinds of parts — mainly, we hear, for purposes of rituals. And we really worry about this new development, because if the focus is now on parts, then we might have a crisis on our hands because it’s so much easier just to take the skull or hand of a gorilla and move between places, rather than carry the whole body of the animal to sell as bush meat. We’re looking into how we can get security agents sensitized, aware of these developments at the checkpoints.

e360: The communities in the Mbe Mountains set up a wildlife sanctuary back in 2005, is that correct?

Imong: Yes. The communities realized that it would be difficult to do this by themselves, so they invited other stakeholders like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They formed the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains. Over the years, WCS has been providing technical support and some funding to these communities. WCS employs 14 eco-guides, who are themselves retired hunters or ex-hunters who now protect the forest. They are based permanently in the forests. We have established base camps for them, and they go out from these base camps on a daily basis, conducting anti-poaching patrols and also helping to monitor the wildlife.

‘We are helping to build the next generation of passionate conservationists.’

When rangers — or eco-guards in the Mbe Mountains — apprehend a person, they usually confiscate shotguns from them and any live cartridges or wire snares. In the case of the Mbe Mountains, such a person would then be reported to the community; eco-guards don’t physically arrest somebody because they are not armed. They will take the particulars of the hunter, return to the community and report to the conservation association, and the communities will deal with that person. In the case of the national park or the wildlife sanctuary managed by the government, arrests will be made of such a hunter and then later [prosecution] …

e360: What are some of the activities that seem to be most effective at engaging these communities in protecting this area?

Imong: One of them is promoting conservation awareness. It is important that everyone in the community is aware as much as possible of the value of the Cross River gorilla. So we are doing very vigorous conservation education — through regular community meetings, through forming conservation clubs in schools, talking to children to assert the idea of conservation to them early in life. We are helping to build the next generation of passionate conservationists, hopefully.

The other thing we do is support alternative livelihoods, so people no longer hunt as they used to. We are advising people to adopt more sustainable farming practices. So, for example, we have helped train ex-hunters in beekeeping. Some people want to keep chickens or goats. We are helping equip them with the skills that they need to be able to adopt these alternative livelihoods. We are limited by funding, so we are not able yet to scale up to the level that we know would have the desired impact, but we have had a good start and the communities appreciate this effort.

e360: Has anything you’ve tried not worked in terms of community-based conservation, and more broadly, what are some of the challenges that you face doing this kind of work?

Imong: The approach we have taken in the Mbe Mountains is to get all of the nine communities that claim traditional ownership of the forest to work together. As you know that can be very challenging — getting different people, sometimes with different interests, to come together and work together as one unit. That has been a challenge, but we have managed to overcome that in the sense that all the communities have a single, common goal of protecting the forest, but also hopefully in future gaining some benefits from there.

e360: You mentioned hoping that the community wildlife sanctuary could be a model for other conservation efforts in Africa. Are the communities in the Mbe Mountains outliers in terms of their enthusiasm for this conservation?

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Imong: I don’t think these communities are unique. It’s a question of first talking to people, getting people to understand why it is important to protect the forests and the wildlife around them. It is also important to have the communities themselves make a commitment. This is not an imposed idea. This is an idea that actually came from the communities. And I know there are many other communities that would want to protect their forests. What is missing sometimes is somebody to go in and talk to these communities. It is a long process. It took a long time for me to go around to all of these nine communities. We had really lengthy discussions to get everybody on board. Sometimes the mistake is going into a community and looking to find one person who is very active and trying to work with that individual. What we’ve done here is actually getting whole communities involved. I’m sure this can be replicated elsewhere.

e360: It sounds like person-to-person communication is key to ensuring that success.

Imong: It is really key. In the early years I would spend weeks living with the people — sleeping in their houses, eating what they eat, and very slowly getting their ideas and then advising and pointing out areas where things could be improved. It took a long time to build that trust. When I go to the Mbe Mountains now, in any community, I feel that people trust what I am saying to them. We’ve managed to build a really good working relationship.