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Nigeria, Cameroon to Protect World's Rarest Gorilla

DURBAN, South Africa, September 17, 2003 (ENS) - Fewer than 280 Cross River gorillas still exist in the world, living in the isolated mountains straddling the border between Cross River State, Nigeria, and the South West Province of Cameroon, an area identified as one of Africa's biodiversity "hotspots."

These rare and threatened gorillas won some protection from both countries as the IUCN-World Parks Congress wound up today in Durban.

Ministers of the environment from Nigeria and Cameroon agreed to protect the Cross River gorilla, whose survival is threatened by poaching as well as habitat fragmentation and loss.

Cameroon's Minister of Environment and Forestry Chief Tanyi-Mbianyor Clarkson and Nigeria's Environment Minister Colonel Bala Mande (Retired) signed an agreement that will pave the way for a transboundary protected area, in effect combining the Takamanda-Okwangwo complex.

"This is a major conservation victory for Africa's rarest great ape, as well as an example of the spirit of transboundary collaboration that has since emerged from Durban," said David Hoyle, Wildlife Conservation Society conservationist for Cameroon and a delegate at the World Parks Congress.

"This is an avenue to diffuse tensions and bring the two countries closer together. This is a major political success," said Hoyle.

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Cross River gorilla (Photo courtesy e-Nigeria.info)
The agreement marked the conclusion of a workshop hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Cameroon Ministry of Environment and Forestry in late August in Limbe, Cameroon, convened to review the status of the Cross River gorilla and identify conservation priorities.

At the World Parks Congress, a group of conservation stakeholders from both countries under Conservator General Alhaji Lawan Marguba of Nigeria and Director of Wildlife Denis Koulagna of Cameroon held four days of technical meetings to consider the threats to the Cross River gorilla and to formulate a strategic action plan.

The newly forged plan to conserve the gorillas and their habitat depends on the revision of land use practices in areas needed by both gorillas and people, and the establishment of corridors where the threatened gorillas can travel freely.

Under the plan, the impact of major new roads in the area on the gorilla population will be evaluated, and increased protection and enforcement of existing laws will be attempted.

A public-private collaborative partnership was formed in Durban to protect the Cross River gorilla. Partners include the relevant government departments, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Flora and Fauna International, the German Technical Corporation, and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.

This great ape was only recently designated as a distinct subspecies of gorilla through genetic studies conducted by Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Dr. John Oates and others. Professor Oates, a member of the Conservation Committee of the International Primatological Society and of the Steering Committee of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group has been studying the ecology of tropical forest primates since 1964.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, based at New York's Bronx Zoo, has been working in the region for several years researching the Cross River gorilla, while promoting conservation awareness and supporting government partners on law enforcement efforts.

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A gorilla on Afi Mountain, Nigeria (Photo by Karl Lang courtesy Sheffield Community Information project)
Nigeria too has been working to conserve the Cross River gorilla for several years. In April 2000, Oates wrote in "Gorilla Journal," that Nigeria's Cross River state government had declared Afi Mountain a wildlife sanctuary to shelter the threatened gorillas from hunters.

"This welcome news," wrote Oates, "which brings more formal protection to the Afi Mountain subpopulation of gorillas, was the result of vigorous activity by the reorganized State Forestry Commission - formerly the Department of Forest Development - and especially by its new Director of Wildlife and Ecotourism Chris Agbor, and its Permanent Secretary Etim Amika."

The Cross River gorilla population is composed of seven to nine small sub-populations in Afi Mountain, Mbe Mountains and Cross River National Park - Okwangwo Division in Nigeria, and in the Takamanda and Mone Forest Reserves and Mbulu Forest in Cameroon, all geographically separated from one another.

Agriculture is encroaching on Cross River gorilla habitat, which is also shrinking due to logging and forest fires. Underlying these problems, says UNEP, is the poverty in local communities and lack of local economic alternatives to farming, logging and hunting.

The Afi Mountain population in Nigeria has only 20 to 40 individuals remaining, living in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and facing strong hunting pressures, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The UN agency is supporting Cross River gorilla conservation through the Great Ape Survival Project.

To this end, UNEP is requesting financial assistance of US$150,000 to improve training and capacity building, particularly for protected area staff, install basic infrastructure, and establish environmental education and awareness programs with local communities. In addition, UNEP wants to improve the effectiveness of anti-poaching measures, and enhance protection and demarcation of the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.

Last week at the World Parks Congress, Nigeria and Cameroon announced the creation of a giant trans-boundary protected area that shelters endangered species on both sides of the border. The trans-boundary area targeted for protection takes in Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria and Tchabal-Mbabo in Cameroon.

Commercial bushmeat hunting is increasing on both sides of the border, and carnivores like lion and hyena are being killed by cattle owners.



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