Omo Forest Reserve
Photos from top to bottom:
1.Emmanuel - Paignton Zoo's field agent and our guide
2. Logging is a major industry in the reserve and a major problem for wildlife
3. School children at J4 Forest School
4. Team photo: Emmanuel, Chris, Driver, Jono, Driver, Titus
5. Chris in our accommodation at Erin camp
6. A hunter's trap
7. An hour after this photo was taken an elephant walked behind the spot Jono was hiding in...
8. A gaudy agama lizard. The males head-bob to attract a mate
9. Video map of the Omo Forest
Filmed and edited by Jono Gilbert
Produced by Jono Gilbert and Chris Guggiari-Peel
Entering into J4 is entering into the heady cacophony of chainsaws, trucks, dogs, local pop music, crickets, motorbikes, calls to prayer, babies, children, and chickens. The noise is constant. The hustle and bustle of the third largest village (approximately 20,000 people) in the Omo Forest Reserve is ascribed to the logging industry, which sustains most of its populace. Trucks carrying tonnes of wood constantly come and go, and the sound of chainsaws can be heard from dawn to dusk, even in the most remote and protected areas of the forest. As long as there is daylight, there is logging (although in the adjoining Shasha forest it is a common practice to use industrial sized lamps to allow logging to continue long into the night). Hundreds of tonnes of timber are removed from the forest every year, and once one designated area is completely felled, the loggers move onto the next one. Logging in the reserve is under management, however, and those in charge are in firm support of local conservation efforts. But perhaps their efforts are not the most effective - permits are easy to acquire and illegal felling in restricted areas is fairly common. This is very problematic when trying to preserve the forest for the future and save its animal inhabitants.
Omo is one of three contiguous forests in South West Nigeria, a last stronghold for many vulnerable and endangered species. Some of the most vulnerable and enigmatic species include the African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), White-Throated Guenon (Cercopithecus erythrogaster), African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). These, and many others like them, are under great threat from the outside world. Their forest is shrinking, and they are being hunted for both legal bush meat and illegal trade on the black market (such as with Pangolins (Manis temminckii)). Conservationists have a spiderweb of historical, cultural and political complications to navigate when attempting any sort of project, no matter how small.
In the mid 1940's the Nigerian government planned to set up a large scale pulp/paper industry. In what some would call a mildly misguided move they decided to clear a huge section of indigenous rainforest - what is now the reserve - and plant in its stead a monoculture of Gmelina trees (Gmelina arborea), natives of India. Gmelina trees support nowhere near the same levels of biodiversity as native trees, yet now they make up approximately 90% of the reserve. The paper making industry for one reason or another never got off the ground, and so the government decided that logging was a reasonable alternative. Although the setting up of this plantation was hugely damaging, due to the Gmelina supporting very little wildlife, the logging of these trees is of minimal consequence. Worse than this is the continual encroachment into what is left of the native forest both by loggers and farmers.
Many people farm a range of things in the forest - mostly non-native species - including cocoa, banana, mango, cassava, papaya, cashew, chilli and pineapple. This practice not only destroys large areas of natural forest (they would be heavily fined for clearing Gmelina trees), but also ruins the land for future reclaiming by native species. Logged areas are left for several years and allowed to recover slightly, whereas the slash and burn method for farming makes it difficult for plants to reestablish. The government is particularly apathetic to cracking down on illegal farming as even these can be taxed on their goods.
The population in these reserves is on the rise, and illegal communities are constantly popping up all over the place. Again the government does little-to-nothing to help this crisis, due to unnecessarily complex bureaucracy and an unwillingness to spend money.
Like all community based conservation projects the challenges are never easy to solve. Local people need somewhere to live, food and a source of income. But left unchecked, the destruction of this forest and its animals will leave the locals with nothing, as well as having disastrous consequences for global biodiversity and the climate.
Luckily a project by Paignton Zoo aims to tackle the major threats to the forest.
In February 2017, Farsight was invited to visit the project in order to create videos for Paignton Zoo's awareness and education push, both in Nigeria and the Western world.