Nigeria is one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. However, over the past few decades, this plethora of biodiversity has come under significant threat amid a rapidly growing population. Within a decade, Nigeria’s population rose from 161 million in 2010 to 208.3 million in 2020. This has further mounted substantial pressure on the rich diversity of flora and fauna species in the country’s tropical forests, savannas and mangrove ecosystems due to the continuous shrinkage of wildlife habitat resulting from anthropogenic activities of the country’s rising population.
In this interview, our reporter, Abdulkareem Mojeed, who is currently a Y. Eva Tan Conservation Reporting Fellow with the global conservation news outlet Mongabay, spoke with Andrew Dunn, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Nigeria country director, about his voyage into conservation and how WCS, alongside other partners, is helping to protect and preserve endangered species of gorillas and other wildlife in Nigeria’s forests.
Mr Dunn noted that one of the biggest conservation issues in Nigeria today is insecurity and that three of Nigeria’s seven valuable national parks — Kainji Lake National Park, Kamuku National Park and Chad Basin National Park — have been taken over by bandits and insurgents.
As a result of this, he said, wildlife rangers are unable to patrol under such conditions, resulting in the parks being declared “no-go areas,” which he said is having serious repercussions for conservation and regional security.
The conservationist called for more support for the National Park Service, particularly the provision of better firearms and ranger training, which he said is urgently required, together with stronger collaboration with the Nigerian Army.
Recently, Nigeria emerged as a major international illegal wildlife trade source, destination and transit country for illegal wildlife trade globally after it was established that the country’s population of more than 200 million is a major player in the value chains of rosewood, elephant ivory and pangolin scales, among other illegal wildlife commodities being trafficked globally.
Aside from the country’s rapid population growth, some of the major factors identified as drivers of Nigeria’s biological resources losses are increasing rates of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss, porous borders, corruption, limited political will, enforcement difficulties, regional instability, growing economic development, weak governance and institutions, population growth and associated pressures and poverty.
Other factors such as habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, climate change and trafficking of wildlife and forest products are also mounting both direct and indirect pressures on the country’s biodiversity.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, Nigeria has a total of 23 critically endangered, 42 endangered and 104 vulnerable animal species. Those classified as critically endangered in Nigeria include the Niger Delta red colobus (Piliocolobus epieni), Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), Gambles’s relic (Pentaphlebia gamblesi), Gambles’s flatwing (Neurolestes nigeriensis) and Perret’s toad (Sclerophrys perreti).
Mr Dunn said he is especially proud of bringing Cross River gorillas from the edge of extinction to a population now estimated at 100 in Nigeria and 200 in Cameroon.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Kindly tell us more about yourself and your background.
Andrew Dunn: My name is Andrew Dunn, and I’m the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Nigeria. After graduating from university in the UK, I worked as a volunteer research assistant on various projects in the UK, helping to study the ecology of Soay sheep, red deer, grey seals and fallow deer. I worked on a marine biology station on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, and I worked as a botanist in the idyllic Hampshire countryside [in southeastern England]. But it was always my dream to work in Africa, and I feel blessed to be living and working here today. I feel at home in Africa, but I fell in love with Nigeria.
Q: What led you to embrace conservation work?
Andrew Dunn: I always had various pets as a child, enjoyed visiting zoos and camping in the hills in northern England. As an undergraduate studying biology at London University in the 1980s, where, in addition to traditional courses on anatomy and taxonomy, we were also taught about nature and the environment, and I was heavily influenced by books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. At the time, conservation was a very new and exciting idea to me and I desperately wanted to get involved. There was nothing else I wanted to do, so the choice for me was easy. Of course, I later came to realize that conservation work requires determination and commitment; it is a way of life rather than a job.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have been working on conservation issues for a very long time — what are some of the biggest things you have learned over this period?
Andrew Dunn: I’ve been working in conservation since 1986 and in Africa since 1989. That might sound like a long time, but I like to think that I’m still a young man. Living in Africa, I have obviously learned so much, and I’m still learning new things every day. Over the years I have been lucky to have had some great mentors and to have worked with some wonderful people. When I worked at Gashaka Gumti National Park [Nigeria’s largest national park] during the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to be guided by Salamu Waziri, a retired buffalo hunter. He didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Hausa, but it was enough, and somehow we connected. We trekked the length and breadth of the newly established national park together; he was a patient teacher and showed me numerous animal tracks and signs that would otherwise have remained unseen by my untrained eye. Whilst I scribbled away in my notebook, he carefully collected bark and roots for use as ingredients in traditional medicine. Every day I saw something new, and one day we tracked a group of elephants, which had crossed the border from Cameroon. He was always collecting wild honey and we were frequently chased by swarms of angry bees.
Over my career, the biggest things I have learned are: 1. The importance of national parks and protected areas for conservation, particularly in a country such as Nigeria, where the threats are so high it is unlikely that much wildlife will survive outside protected areas. Without national parks, Nigeria would have very little wildlife left, so we need to protect them. 2. The importance of working with local communities surrounding protected areas so they derive some benefit from conservation. Without the support of local communities, protected areas won’t survive in the long term. Local communities can help save protected areas. And 3. The importance of building a good team around you and developing young talent. Conservation requires strong interdisciplinary teams: In addition to biologists and rangers, we also need educators, engineers, agronomists and communication specialists. Developing young talent is essential for the future; fortunately there is so much young talent in Nigeria, and as I have gotten older, it is working with young people that has helped keep me young too.
Q: Why Africa? Why Nigeria? And for how long have you been in your current role?
Andrew Dunn: To me, Africa represents the pinnacle of conservation work; it cannot be compared with anywhere else. The presence of iconic, charismatic species such as elephants, gorillas and lions is so exciting, and we need to protect them. My first job in Africa was in Liberia, surveying large mammals across the country, but I was evacuated from the country during the civil war. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be sent to Nigeria in 1992 by WWF-UK, conducting the first surveys of the newly created Gashaka Gumti National Park in Taraba and Adamawa states.
Nigerians are warm, generous people and I quickly felt at home. There is no place like Nigeria; I think Nigeria found me. I have worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Nigeria since 2004. WCS has grown rapidly since then.
Q: The world has undergone so many environmental changes since you commenced your conservation work in Africa. What do you see in the future?
Andrew Dunn: As the human population in Africa continues to grow, wildlife will be increasingly confined to small refuges such as our national parks. In the future, such areas will only survive if they provide real benefits to surrounding communities. So, in the future, I see stronger partnerships between protected areas and surrounding communities. A wonderful example of this is in the Mbe Mountains in Cross River state [in the southeastern corner of the country], where the surrounding nine communities came together to form a conservation association to protect Cross River gorillas and other endangered wildlife. But undoubtedly the threats will continue to grow, and this will require greater levels of political commitment from government, donor funding and expanded partnerships with local communities.
Q: What are your perceptions about Nigeria’s biodiversity?
Andrew Dunn: Nigeria still contains a wealth of biodiversity, but its importance is neglected and not widely recognized. Nigeria has very high levels of species richness and endemism, particularly for primates, birds and amphibians. Although some species have gone extinct [locally], such as the giraffe and cheetah, Nigeria has the rarest gorilla in Africa, known as the Cross River gorilla, as well as the rarest type of chimpanzee — the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee [Pan troglodytes ellioti]. Habitats in Nigeria range from mangroves, rainforest, savanna, mountains and deserts — so the country is extremely rich in biodiversity such as birds and butterflies.
Q: What are the most important projects/works of WCS Nigeria today?
Andrew Dunn: WCS Nigeria focuses on protecting Cross River gorillas, forest elephants and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees at three sites in Cross River state: Cross River National Park, Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mbe Mountains. WCS also has an important project to help protect savanna elephants and lions in Yankari Game Reserve in Bauchi state.
WCS does this by working with partners such as the National Park Service, the Cross River Forestry Commission, Bauchi state government, and the Conservation Association of the Mbe Mountains. Without the intervention of WCS over the last 20 years, it is likely that Cross River gorillas would now be extinct, and I am very proud that we have been able to save Cross River gorillas from extinction. Without the intervention of WCS, it is unlikely that there would be any elephants left in Yankari today. We are working with local communities to protect forested watersheds, important for sustainable water supplies across the country. WCS is working to improve the sustainability of cocoa production in Cross River state and to reduce rates of forest loss. WCS is working with pastoralists around Yankari Game Reserve to vaccinate their livestock and develop sustainable grazing outside the reserve.
Q: What do you think are the biggest conservation issues in Nigeria today?
Andrew Dunn: Much is talked about illegal logging, but habitat loss caused by agricultural expansion by smallholder farmers is a much more serious threat to the remaining forests in Cross River state. Hunting to supply the bushmeat trade is obviously a major conservation issue, and today there is little wildlife left outside of protected areas. A major threat to protected areas across northern Nigeria is illegal livestock grazing, and as grazing reserves and stock routes are lost and converted to agriculture, pastoralists often have little option but to graze their livestock inside national parks. The greatest threat to elephants in the county is human-elephant conflict caused when elephants leave protected areas and raid local farms.
But the biggest conservation issue in Nigeria today is insecurity. Three valuable national parks (Kainji Lake National Park, Kamuku National Park and Chad Basin National Park) have been taken over by bandits and insurgents. Rangers are unable to patrol under such conditions, and the parks have become no-go areas with serious repercussions for conservation as well as regional security. More support for the National Park Service, particularly the provision of better firearms and ranger training, is urgently required, together with stronger collaboration with the army.
Q: We understand that in 2018, Nigeria joined the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), a group of 20 African countries working to close down the ivory trade and ivory markets and push member countries to develop National Elephant Action Plans. What impact would you say this has had on the conservation efforts of this endangered species in Nigeria?
Andrew Dunn: WCS and EPI have worked together to produce a National Elephant Action Plan for Nigeria, which will be launched later this year. We hope the plan will help focus attention on neglected elephant populations in Nigeria so their decline is arrested and that the species starts to recover. The plan identifies human-elephant conflict (HEC) as the main threat to elephants in Nigeria and proposes a number of actions to mitigate levels of HEC, such as the use of elephant guardians, watchtowers, beehive fences and the planting of less palatable crops such as chili pepper in affected areas.
Q: In July 2020, with the help of camera traps, your team was able to discover and capture the first-ever photographs of a Cross River gorilla troop, including shots of several baby and adolescent gorillas. How has the introduction and usage of camera traps affected your conservation efforts in Nigeria?
Andrew Dunn: Recent camera trap photos have recorded the presence of several infant gorillas — a major conservation success story. Camera traps help us monitor the status of rare, shy species such as the Cross River gorilla, which are hard to see. Camera trap photos of infant gorillas and elephants with young calves help confirm that our conservation strategies are working and that endangered species are slowly recovering.
Q: Do you also pay attention to lesser-known species within the forests?
Andrew Dunn: Yes, all species are important — not just great apes. But the Cross River gorilla is our flagship species in Nigeria. After decades of decline, the population has established and there have been no records of gorilla poaching for many years.
Q: How do you feel about these other species aside from the gorillas, chimpanzees and other apes?
Andrew Dunn: Besides great apes, lions and elephants, Nigeria has so many other wonderful species of which we should be proud. My favorite species in Nigeria are leopard [Panthera pardus], giant pangolin [Smutsia gigantea], red river hog [Potamochoerus porcus], giant forest hog [Hylochoerus meinertzhageni], golden cat [Caracal aurata], manatee [Trichechus senegalensis], aardvark [Orycteropus afer], crested porcupine [Hystrix cristata], roan antelope [Hippotragus equinus], hippopotamus [Hippopotamus amphibius], crocodile [Crocodylus suchus], honey badger [Mellivora capensis], flying squirrel [Anomalurus beecrofti] and otters [Aonyx capensis and Lutra maculicollis].
Q: How do those less recognized species take part in WCS’ overall work?
Andrew Dunn: Protecting habitat for iconic species such as gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants also protects habitat for less recognized species. Reducing levels of hunting benefits all species, not only gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants.
Q: There can be a lot of gloom and doom in environmental conversations today, with so many simultaneous crises (climate, biodiversity, etc.). Where do you find hope?
Andrew Dunn: I find hope in Nigeria’s young people; only they will bring about the change we need. I find hope in the young Nigerian biologists I work with every day at the Wildlife Conservation Society; they are so talented and dedicated, and they keep me young. Despite all the threats, I find hope that species such as the Cross River gorilla are thriving in the Mbe Mountains and Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.
Q: What are your hopes and goals?
Andrew Dunn: My hope is that one day we will be able to reintroduce some of Nigeria’s extinct species such as giraffe, cheetah, wild dog or even rhinoceros. My goal is to continue to build the Wildlife Conservation Society in Nigeria into a stronger, more effective organization; to expand our scope to new sites. In the past, conservation has been dominated by men, but WCS is actively seeking to address that imbalance and to recruit more women in conservation.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Andrew Dunn: Well, I’m 59, so in 10 years I would be happy to find myself still above ground.
Q: How do you picture Nigeria and its environment in 10 years?
Andrew Dunn: In 10 years, I picture a Nigeria where corruption has been reduced and young people are more involved in governing the country so that Nigeria can start to fulfil its potential. I picture a Nigeria where young voices are heard and respected and their influence helps control environmental policy in the country.
This story was originally published by Mongabay and reported by Abdulkareem Mojeed, a Mongabay Y. Eva Tan Conservation Reporting Fellow
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