Ibrahim Musa Goni Conservator-General, Nigeria

A visit to the nearly 1000km2 Okwangwo Division of the Cross River National Park in Cross River State shows the many challenges threatening one of Nigeria’s richest conserved areas and a global conservation hot spot, declared by the United Nations Educational Scientific Organisation, UNESCO, in 2020. These range from uncontrolled logging to pollution of natural sources of water

By Nkrumah Bankong-Obi

“Ebony boys,” his face lightened up, his spare frame bent over a makeshift table, head tilted to one side as he spewed a plume of tobacco smoke into the atmosphere. “I like to join that group, I want to do business with you,” he said, regarding this reporter as a timber merchant, on scouting mission for some of the best species of wood from Boki forests. As the meeting at a local pub in Butatong village unfolded, Ken Osor (not his real name), a local hothead and businessman lays out a plan that would mean exploring the reserved forest where prized trees are found. A clue to exacerbated plundering of an ecosystem is embedded here. Indeed, weeks of trolling and trudging through swathes of hitherto dense forests and jungles yield pieces of evidence as to why Okwangwo Division of the Cross River National Park is losing its reputation as one of the world’s most endowed rain forests.

About forty kilometers away in Bumaji clan, a matter of urgent importance had just been deliberated upon at the community’s annual conference. Someone had just polluted a major stream with lethal chemicals, including gammalin 20 and cobalt, during a fishing expedition. Besides the destruction of the immediate stream, a section of the community would be without drinking water for some time. The stream in question, with some rivulets, meander through shrubs and crags, winding its way through parts of Okwangwo Division before emptying into a major river elsewhere.

Ready for cultivation. Bush burning is rife in Okwangwo Division

Much further afield in Bashu – on the fringes of the Nigerian-Cameroon border, Asu Ojong gazes at the sky nostalgically. As the temperate evening unfurled, he shares with his collaborators, plans for the next logging cycle. The dry season had hampered the trade and the savings from the last one have been depleted. He anticipates the rains to come quickly so he can resume business. But what exactly is the modus operandi of business? This reporter asked him “we go into the deep forest on the boundary with Cameroon. That is where we find the finest species of trees for logging. But it is tricky because we float logs like raft in water,” he said flashing an inviting smile.

None-visitors to the Okwangwo Division of the Cross River National Park, CRNP, in Cross River State could think that the voice bands described in the situations above are the only challenges threatening one of Nigeria’s richest conserved areas and a global conservation hotspot, declared by the United Nations Educational Scientific Organisation, UNESCO in 2020. After weeks of sleuthing in the Park, this reporter found that Okwangwo Division is buffeted by not just uncontrolled logging and pollution of natural sources of water, but that the annihilation of that Park is hastened by myriad of other human actions. As PMNEWS went around parts of the nearly 1000km2 Park, it crystalizes that the forest is on the verge of being stolen and wasted. The usurpers intruders and their collaborators are, as our findings show, a legion.

At the base of illegal activities and unquantifiable human footprint in parts of the reserved area are farmers. From cocoa to banana, cassava to yams, farming activities have nicked a sizeable portion of Okwangwo Division. Aging gatekeepers say, and historical photographs confirm that the land previously populated by shrubs, climbers and trees is now mostly divided into patches of farmlands. In Bumaji and Kakwe-Beebo (where demarcation pillars one and two are believed to be located) for example, our reporter saw large expanse of land cultivated by farmers. Some individual farms, especially cocoa, stretch to kilometers. In this area as it is the case with most communities encircling the Park, the beacons have given way, core lines and buffer zones, breached.

Farming and logging are united at the detriment of the wildlife. With the vicious rise in farming and illegal felling of trees, important plants and animals migrate or are killed. An agronomist who previously worked for an international conservation non-governmental organisation in the area blames the subsistence system of farming for the encroachment: “Our people are small-holder croppers and they move from one piece of land to another, year after year. And they can only cultivate a particular piece of land seven years after the last cropping. This ancient farming system pushes them far into the jungle, the mountains and perhaps into restricted areas,” he told PMNEWS craving anonymity.

One of the activities of loggers at work at Bumaji axis of the Park

Were food crops the only challenge, perhaps, the Park would have had a chance at another life. The sheer expansion in cocoa farming has pushed the frontiers. Already, in most communities where communal land and community forest have been completely wiped out, farmers have braved distances to dig deep, the cloud on the brow of Park Rangers, regardless. Okwah, Bodam, Bashu, Beebo, Okwangwo, Bamba, Bukalom among other communities, the observed scale of trespass is enormous. Cocoa is an income spinner and the farmers are too enthralled about the cash trappings to be held back by government restrictions. “We have over 167 communities over the entire Cross River National Park of about 4000 km2. And these communities are expanding, people want to cultivate crops and earn a living. We are just managing them,” Caroline Olory, Conservator of Parks, who superintends over the Cross River National Park tells this magazine. Her view is corroborated by Ibrahim Musa Goni, Nigeria’s Conservator-General of the National Park Service. He identifies the growing population of the adjoining enclaves as a threat to the survival of Okwangwo and other Parks. Citing extant conservation principles, Goni painted a particularly intricate picture:”In conservation and protected area management, we have to look at this: Is it the creation of the forest reserve that met the people or is it the creation of the forest reserve that happened while the people were already settled in that area? If the creation of the reserve happened while the people were already there, you just have to manage them until such a time when you are able to get them to live sustainably in that environment. That is the situation we are in Cross River. The creation of the forest met the people there. We have to manage them until such a time when we are able to get them to live sustainably in that environment” he told  PMNEWS.

Perhaps, peasant farmers and loggers are in league without knowing of their unlawful connivance. As the population grows and farmers move farther in search of land, they fell trees, set fires to bushes. This magazine learnt that most times these infernos travel beyond the areas of origin and could wipe out extensive forest covers. Historically, it is believed that the exposition of the forest by wildfirespaved the way for farming activities in the Park, sources in the communities tell this medium. Huge magnificent trees are hauled down with axes, knives, burnt or with the saw machines. And now, the loggers have taken over. They are daring and travel to distances in the thick forest where farmers don’t reach. After a previously natural coppice has been cleared, farmers move in. This reporter saw cultivated farmlands as far as over twenty-five kilometers from Buabre and Yangwabe villages of Bumaji alone

But this pattern does not apply in all situations. In areas like Butatong, Bamba, farming activities are not carried out extensively in the Park. But the adjoining community forest have been wiped out. Logging is a routine in such places. The tree plunderers go from the outer layers to the heart of the Park. Here, the logging business operates in cells, like a chain linking a person to another or group to group: at the pinnacle of the illicit trade is the financier or buyer. Our reporter observed that the buyer uses a pointsman in the chosen community. The contact person engages a group that hunts the tree(s) of choice – mainly Ebony, Apa, Madrid wood, etc. The commissioned group, according to three persons who have taken part in these unlawful expeditions, travels tens of kilometers to find the desired trees.

Once the trees have been identified, the saw engine operator moves in, usually with an assistant. Once his job is done, a team of motorcycles make a couple of trips to convey the wood, if the road is pliable. If it is not, young people are hired to convey the timber from the point of sawing to a major road. “You can never operate at a loss with a specie like ebony,” one pointsman told me. “Irrespective of how much you spend, you are certain to recoup your investment. It is a good business, especially as labour is cheap here,” he beamed proudly. Indeed, labour is cheap. Carriers who convey the timber from five kilometers or more could earn as little as two hundred naira, equivalent of fifty U.S. cents. The motorcycle operators or okada as they are known in the area, are better fancied. They are faster and cheap as well. A trip to convey wood could cost five thousand naira or ten U.S. dollars.

The  road linking Butatong, Okwah and Okawngwo provides loggers a right of passage. At an improvised observation point, this reporter saw firsthand how brazen loggers operate. In less than three hours, seven motorcycles were sighted conveying various sizes of sawn ebony wood from Okwah axis of the Park to Butatong village. Entrances to most villages in Eastern Boki where Okwangwo Division is located are littered with pieces of timber. While others are openly displayed, ebony pieces are hidden from public glare.

Another small group threatening the wildlife is the hunters. This reporter encountered some hunters with their locally-made guns. He also saw snares set by trappers. In one scenario, a hunter in Yangwabe took to his heels as soon as he spotted this reporter. Obviously, he knew he was breaching the law and mistook this journalist for a ranger. This group is in a minority category and constitutes a small threat, except that their weapons could be trimmed at the rarest of animal species. Some cut down medicinal trees and harvest the barks for sale.

Farmers and fires, hunters and loggers are enemies of the wild. And the people living in the enclaves know this. But why do they disobey the restriction laws? Why is government seemingly aloof while the encroachment into the Park takes this existential turn? Our reporter put these to both Goni and Olory who identified external interference, especially from the political elite and even sabotage. “Sometimes we arrest trespassers before you know it, calls come from some quarters asking us to release them. But we must do our work,” she said. When reminded that there are few boots on the ground to police the forest, she cited the deployment of technological tools by her agency; “We use modern tools most times. We have GPS, cyber trackers and camera traps. The rangers use these and we can now monitor what is going on the forests.”

Trees cut down to inside the Park

It is said in hushed tones that the massive deforestation, especially logging in the Park and other adjoining forests has political undertones. Concerned activists say logging is a ‘gift for the boys’, a euphemism for settling local politicians and their foot soldiers in exchange for electoral support. This accounts for the lack of action by the successive administrations in Cross State to halt the menace in, at least the community forests, over which they have supervisory jurisdiction. Although Governor Ben Ayade recently told the media that the forests in his State have been “invaded by forest bandits,” there are indications that some appointees in his government are allegedly neck-deep in illicit logging or collection of kickbacks to provide cover for loggers.

This reporter learnt from dependable sources that recently CRNP officials arrested a group of loggers and got them detained in the police cell. Soon afterwards, a senior police officer of Boki extraction began to threaten the Park officials with arrest and physical attack. It took the intervention the Police Area Commander of the area where Oban Division (which also oversees Okwangwo Division) is domiciled to remind the officer that he was on the wrong side of the law establishing the reserve. Pressure from politicians and from a section of the elite sometimes results in unlawful compromises by the Park managers, a source in the Park Service told this magazine.

Exasperated with the wanton destruction of the forests and the complacency of supervisory officials, John Ewah, Chairman of Boki Local Government Area, undertook an advocacy tour to electoral wards that constitute his council, aiming to end uncontrolled logging. A statement from his office announcing the initiative confirms that conservation efforts have been subverted by government officials: “Forest management is the primary responsibility of Forestry Commission and since all government agencies have failed us, it is time to rise up, take back our forests and preserve it(sic),” he said in part.

Such failure prompted Odey Oyama, an environmental activist who runs the Rainforest Resources and Development Centre, RRDC, based in Ikom Local Government Area of Cross State, to pen an open letter to the prominent indigenes of Boki, calling for self-help to save what remains of their forest endowment. His letter opens thus; “Reconnaissance surveys conducted by the Rainforest Resources and Development Centre has confirmed the existence of widespread destruction and degradation of the rich, natural, pristine tropical High Forest in the entire Boki Community. It is evident that the people of Boki have not benefited collectively from the colossal loss of their God-given resources. The implication of this unfortunate development will be the total loss of the rich heritage of the people of Boki and their unborn generations,” he wrote.

It is obvious that the National Park Service itself has not lived up to its billing. The level of destruction perpetrated in Okwangwo puts a question mark on its ability to effectively conserve the Park. Sources within the agency told this reporter that staff morale had dipped because of poor welfare. When this reporter visited some camp accommodation for the patrol Rangers, basic amenities were unavailable. Electricity and water supply were absent, and where there were electricity generating sets, there was no fuel to power them. This extends to the poor work tools they have. Recently, a Ranger on patrol was reportedly kidnapped when he confronted some loggers in the Park. It took the intervention of security agencies and threats of dethronement before the traditional ruler of the enclave where the incident happened prevailed on the loggers to release the Ranger. But C-G Goni assures that there is a renewed vigour to reposition the National Park Service. “The Act is there, and that is what we are using to enforce the protection of that place. Don’t forget that we inherited an anthropological problem which was not solved before the reserve was handed over to us. If you met a family of ten in those days, now it is fifteen, twenty. Will you say they should not reproduce? So, that is why we are out to get support for States, NGOs to see how we can salvage the situation. And I have told you, one way we are doing it is educating the people to live sustainably with the environment.”

Indeed, some parts of the Park are unsafe to work, if one is poorly or unequipped. This reporter saw how dangerous the forest could be – his camera and other devices were nearly confiscated but for the intervention of his linkman who warned invaders of severe consequences, if they attacked the reporter whom he described as a tourist. Apart from kidnapping, Rangers have been reportedly beaten up, cajoled and insulted by loggers and hunters in the forest. Yet, they patrol the jungle with few obsolete guns, sticks and torchlights.

The adverse impact of abuse of the natural habitat is beginning to settle in the adjoining communities around the Park. Rivers have shrunken up or are extirpated. In some aquatic environments, the component of aqua life has disappeared. In the areas thoroughly abused, wild animals have migrated to safer havens, most, according to observers, to the Otsakwai-Belege-Matene-Takamanda axis and the far-flung areas of Okwah, Okwangwo, Bodam etc. Landslides have also been reported in communities like Beebo, Bumaji and Okwah. The real crisis though, is brewing in the form of the food shortage confronting some communities. Cocoayam or xanthosoma sagittifolium which used to be a stable is extinct. “Our people now eat noodles, spaghetti and other processed food. This is strange to us. I think nature is asking questions as to what we did with what it gave us. We now buy food from Sankwala, Obudu and other areas whereas those people used to depend on us for food supply,” Felicia Nshi, a housewife said, expressing worry about the grime fate that tarries ahead.

This medium learnt that while cocoyam went to oblivion a couple of years ago, crops like cassava, maize and yam yield very measly. The indigenous people have thus been forced to eat “strange and previously unknown foods, believed to be the choice of city dwellers,” another villager in Bukalom said. Households, according to multiple sources now spend their meagre income to purchase food from Obanliku and Benue State.

The impending disaster perhaps, stems from government and conservation NGOs’ apparent lack of provision of tangible and effective alternative sources of living for the natives. Archival materials indicate that the acquisition of the forest was done through colonial fiat as a game reserve. And when it became a National Park, not much was paid to the aboriginesas compensation. The sudden takeover of the land with no survival alternatives appears to have left bruising studson the ego of the communities, hence, their attempt at clandestinely asserting ownership and entitlement to the reserve. The World Wild Foundation, WWF made considerable impact to find a means of livelihood for the people hence diverting their focus from the forest. But the abrupt end of the WWF project as result of the political upheaval in Nigeria at that time, reversed all the gains made, a former local parliamentarian from the area told TheNEWS. The lack of attention extends to the dire lack of social amenities in virtually all of the communities. Healthcare facilities are nearly absent or too far in-between. Schools are unavailable except the few said to have been built through community self-help. Even these are barely operational, as they are dilapidated. The roads, especially in Beebo, Bumaji, Okwah, Bashu, Bodam are impassable.

It is discernible from some scientific research that Okwangwo Division holds some of the rarest species of plants and animals. And government’s inaction or lackluster management erodes the beauty of this trove. The name rings a bell among conservation groups and biodiversity advocacy institutions across the globe. Experts note that the direly endangered Cross River Gorilla (identified and so-named in the 1880s), gorilla diehli, grey parrot, the golden greenbull, Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzee, sclater guenon, western gorilla, preuss guenon and the venerable grey-neck rain fowl are some animal species that confer incomparable prestige on Okwangwo Division. Beside these, there are believed to be nearly two thousand more species of animals including the forest elephants and monkeys. Nearly two thousand plant species of high value are documented. “You are aware of the ancistroclaudius Korupensis vine that was tried as cure for HIV at Korup National Park, which is contiguous to the Cross River National Park. In Okwangwo, experts are experimenting with plants to cure some diseases like diabetes,” Olory said, stressing why conservation activities need to focus on a large scale on the CRNP. All has not been lost. This is only thanks though, to treacherous terrains – escarpments, crags, hills and rivers and that separate the sanctuaries holding these precious species from the human enclaves. As an observer told PMNEWS, only nature has helped to preserve itself so far: “Whatever is still available in the Park is safeguarded by the providence. The wild species we still have are found around Otsakwai, Belegete and Martene (which are bounded to the northeast or so by The Republic of Cameroon’s Takamanda National Park) and distant clusters in Okwangwo, Okwah and a few unreachable places. But not for the difficult terrain and distances, all of the animal and plant gifts you have there would have been wiped out.”

In 1989, the British royal, Prince Philip, as President of the WWF visited selected wildlife zones in Boki on advocacy tour. It is believed that he visited parts of the forest reserve which became Okwangwo Division of the CRNP in 1991. Many other high profile guests have also visited the Park and other wildlife settlements for tourist and advocacy purposes. In 2016, the then United States of American Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwhistle was at one of Nigeria’s most profound natural habitat. He praised the wildlife endowment in the area but bemoaned the looming extermination of the species: “I remember I took a trip to the northern part of Cross River State to look at the wildlife that is still alive in this country – gorillas, elephants and all sorts of things[found only around Belegete-Okwah-Okwangwo axis of Okwangwo Division] that was a tremendous trip but I came away with a sense that they were under tremendous threat, and hope that Nigerians will do everything they can do to preserve that population. If I come back, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time there,” he told an online medium in a valedictory interview.

An arm of Nigeria’s fourth largest National Park, Okwngwo Division is strategically located in the deep southern flank of the country. Despite serving as a section of an international boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon, she gets little attention. Okwangwo is one of the most unreported areas in the country, regardless of being an international buffer zone.

From a picturesque luxury of lush green vegetation, Okwangwo’s reputation is diving towards a downgraded red. The Park’s pearls are now confined to a few hard-to-reach clusters. If the appropriate authorities return to Okwangwo with the conservation modalities and vigour that the WWF brought to bear on the zone in the 1990s, regeneration maybe achieved. The enemies of wildlife are many, and if left alone, the plundering could amount to the worst steal of a natural resource in Nigeria.

 ***Nkrumah Bankong-Obi is a journalist. This story was accomplished with support from the Congo-Basin Rainforest Journalism Fund, RJF, an initiative of The Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting.