For decades, poachers, farmers and illegal loggers have dominated many forests in Ogun State. This has led to deforestation and loss of revenue for government. Daily Trust on Sunday reports that despite existing laws against such practices, they operate with little or no resistance.
It had just stopped drizzling on the morning of October 13, 2020. Ahmed Mufutau, a hunter-gatherer, armed with his weapons, headed towards Erin camp, a portion of the Omo Forest Reserve, Ogun State, where elephants thrive.
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As he walked along the thick jungle path, he had no premonition of a bad day. But he was soon accosted by elephant rangers.
“Stop there! Bring your gun! Where are you going? Have you not been warned severally not to hunt in this area dominated by elephants,’’ a ranger, Adewusi Gbenga, charged at him.
“Please show mercy. I don’t kill elephants and other protected animals. I only use my gun to kill rabbits and other consumable animals; and for protection where needed,’’ he pleaded.
After a series of questions, the rangers confiscated his weapons and left for Baoku, an illegal settlement within the reserve, where Mufutau came from.
Our correspondent followed them to the house of the community head, where the matter was expected to be settled.
There are many others like Mufutau, who have been hunting wild animals at the Omo forest for years. Our correspondent saw many farmers armed with cutlasses and other farm tools plying their trade.
Motorcycles (okada) are the only means of transportation to the Omo Forest Reserve. As one journeyed to the jungle through bumpy, slippery, narrow, hilly roads, there was grave silence, as colourful plants and butterflies provided some succour of sorts. Birds also whistled to melodious tunes of nature.
It took our correspondent two days to journey to the forest, where notorious poachers mess with nature to earn a living. The forest, named after a tree called omo (African drumstick), is blessed with a wide range of wildlife, trees etc. It is the largest jungle in the state, with 1, 359.06km. It was acquired by the government in 1925 and shares a boundary with Shasha and Oluwa forests in Osun and Ondo states.
The reserve, it was gathered, is home to over 200 types of trees and 125 species of birds and mammals, including elephants, African grey parrots, monkeys and chimpanzees.
But despite these natural resources, the reserve has, for decades, suffered unchecked preying by poachers, a situation that has led to depletion and loss of huge revenue and wildlife.
For the poachers, encroaching on the forest is the only means of livelihood, but experts see it as an act of robbery on nature.
In 2013, the then commissioner for forestry in the state, Ayo Olubori, disclosed that about N60billion had been lost to forest depletion, encroachment and exploitation of timber in the past 15 years.
The state government had arrested eight poachers for allegedly killing an elephant in the reserve, saying the tusk alone was worth N25million.
Investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed that there were over 100 settlements within the forest, mostly in areas where elephants could be found. And residents have been there for decades, engaging in unchecked poaching, agricultural activities and illegal logging, against the forestry law of Ogun State 2006, section 39 (f), which prohibits cultivation of farms or plantations in the reserve.
Also, the Erin camp is located at the heart of elephants’ habitat in the reserve. It is home to rangers, who track and monitor wildlife in the reserve.
A warning on a signpost at the camp reads, “Welcome to Erin Camp Forest. No hunting, no logging, no farming, no illegal entry.’’
But despite the warning, Eseke, Sojukodoro, Baoku and other settlements are located in the camp.
Baoku, for instance, has existed for more than five decades. It was there that an elephant killed a young man in 2012.
Our correspondent saw torn bills pasted on the walls of some houses in the settlement, warning locals against killing elephants.
Some of the inscriptions read, “Elephants live in Omo Forest Reserve and they are protected by law. They are peace-loving and not dangerous when not provoked. Our federal, state and international laws prohibit killing of elephants; hence, it is unlawful to kill them.’’ It was co-authored by the Ogun State Government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF).
The question begging for an answer is: Why is it difficult for government to remove the illegal settlements from the forest reserve?
Government officials who are saddled with the duty to man the reserve and protect it against poaching told our correspondent that their hands were tied.
“We know what to do to curtail their operations, but our hands are tied. We live in the forest. We cannot afford to destroy their farmlands and send them away because at night they would come after us. They can burn our hamlet,’’ one of the government officials saddled with the duty to man the reserve told our correspondent.
A survey on elephants conducted by the NCF in 2008 put their population in the reserve at 40. But findings on the migration of the animals in 2018 showed that nearly 100 elephants resided in the forest.
Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the elephants migrated from the reserve due to poaching and farming activities in their habitat, as well as a series of clashes with humans.
Residents said the elephants, about 50, and their babies from the J4 area of the forest, crossed to the Benin-Ore-Ijebu-Ode expressway and found a new location at Itashin, a border community between Ogun and Lagos.
The team leader of the Forest Elephant Initiative, a project under the NCF, Olabode Emmanuel said, “The elephants are somewhere on the Ogun-Lagos boundary. That is where they have been since 2018. From what the villagers are saying, some of them actually returned. They are giving us an estimate of 40, but we still have several others here.
Luckily for us, the event of 2018 gave us some global recognition. People were surprised that elephants could be found in Ogun State.’’
At Eseke settlement, a number of residents our correspondent met were shy to tell their stories. Adeoye Nurudeen, however, said he had never encountered elephants since he started visiting the village in the last four years.
“I have never seen an elephant. We know there are elephants in the camp close to us, but I have not seen it. We don’t disturb the habitat,’’ he said.
At Baoku, the village head, Baale Isola Apola, told the story of how a young man was killed while filming strayed elephants with his phone.
“It was over-confidence that caused it. I came from Ijebu-Igbo that day when I was told that they saw an elephant. They did not disturb us. But, this person that was killed took a camera and started following them to the forest path. It was along the path that the elephant attacked him. He was the one that killed himself, and since then, we have not heard about them.
We also gave them their space because we met them in the forest. They don’t fight people if you don’t touch them,’’ Apola narrated.
During our correspondent’s 48-hour sojourn in the jungle, it was a herculean task to see the elephant. However, in most of the areas visited, elephants’ dung, footpaths, yam, okro and huge salt lick were seen, a proof of their presence in the area.
The footsteps of the elephants were fresh at the time of our visit, an indication that an elephant just passed through the location less than 30 minutes of our arrival, the rangers explained.
Asked why it was very difficult to see an elephant, one of the rangers, Emmanuel explained, “Elephants are very shy animals and very sensitive to human movement. If an elephant notices that human beings are close by, it maintains its stand on that spot; and you know it is a huge animal. It can stand by a tree and the body blends with it, such that you may not notice its presence until the person walks away.’’
Led by Emmanuel and other rangers, Daily Trust on Sunday also visited what is called “Elephant Salt Lick,’’ a huge decomposing tree where elephants visit to play and lick the tree to extract mineral salt.
“What determines where elephants go include where they can find food, water and mineral salt. Periodically, they come here in groups to lick this wood to extract some salt,’’ he said.
Emmanuel also said there were groups of elephants in the forest despite the 2018 migration, but he could not put an actual number to it.
According to him, rangers monitor the movement of the elephants into the forest with the aid of a camera. The camera is usually fixed on a tree at a specific location in the forest for at least a period of 30 days.
‘We have a duty to protect elephants’
Emmanuel said the Forest Elephant Initiative had a duty to protect the animals and their habitat against continuous poaching by farmers and hunters.
“Basically, our assignment here is to protect the elephants. And the only way we can do that is to protect the habitat. We can’t even go near, we can only protect the home of the elephants and they will be fine. Part of what we are doing is to carry out monitoring. We have many of our rangers involved in this. One of us who grew up here used to be a hunter, so he has a vast knowledge of this area. He is an asset to the project.
We have a programme for elephant monitoring. We have our schedule for this. Our men follow the tracks of the elephants. We check the dung, with which we can actually tell how an elephant passed through that area.
We also carry out biodiversity monitoring. Apart from the elephants, we also want to know about other wildlife that can be conserved. We do awareness and community sensitisation,’’ he explained.
We have nowhere to go – Baale Baoku
The Baale of Baoku told Daily Trust on Sunday that the settlement had been in existence since 1985, adding that they had nowhere to go should the government decide to send them away.
“We don’t know any other place apart from here. The government should just have pity on us. We were told not to go near the location of the elephants. We don’t know anything about illegal loggers. We can’t talk or order them around. It is those guards that know them,’’ he claimed.
He promised to always abide by the rules and regulations of the government against killing of wildlife and deforestation.
Another leader in the settlement, Olusoji Osuntoki, an indigene of Osun State, recalled that Baoku used to be a hunters’ camp before farmers finally settled there.
He said they didn’t know that killing wildlife and tree falling were illegal until they were visited with the threat of evacuation some years back.
“We have already changed. We didn’t know that it was an offence. It was when the government asked us to move out that we asked questions and they told us that what we were doing was illegal. We agreed with them and stopped it immediately. We also promised to plant trees,’’ he said.
He confirmed that he had several encounters with elephants but he did not kill them.
Apart from the activities of poachers, it was gathered that illegal loggers equally cause a lot of havoc to the forest by falling trees and taking them away.
Our correspondent observed that a lot of trees are cut on a daily basis.
“Any tree you see on the road that is not stamped by government officials belongs to illegal loggers. They embark on their activities at night; and most times we can’t confront them because they are always fully armed,’’ a forest guard told Daily Trust on Sunday.
In 2018, a statement from the government quoted the manager of the Forestry Plantation Project, Area J4, Waheed Ajibose as saying that N33million was generated between January and August of that year.
‘Government lacks political will to tackle forestry challenges’
Top government sources, who would not want their names mentioned because of the sensitive nature of this matter, told Daily Trust on Sunday that past and present administrations in Ogun State lacked the political will to remove illegal settlements in the forest. They also said that government had little or no interest in developing the forest.
“A number of the farmers are from Ondo, Kwara and Osun states. At least 10,000 of them are occupying the forest illegally. But government lacks the political will to evacuate them. The government is afraid of the noise that would follow such measure,’’ one of our sources said.
He also blamed some monarchs in the state, accusing them of installing village heads (bales) in the settlements, with a view to collecting royalty (isakole) from them.
“Monarchs in the area aid and abet them. They install baales in those illegal communities and collect royalty from them. Those village heads, therefore, embark on illegal activities in the forest to sustain payment of the isakole to the monarchs.
“Each time the government makes a move to evacuate them, you would see those kings rising in their defence,’’ the official said.
Another official said, “Those illegal settlements are used to perpetrate electoral fraud. During elections, how many Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials can go into those jungles, so, each time you raise the issues they wave it aside.
We only need a governor’s pronouncement to evacuate them. We have suggested that severally to the governor, but to no avail. His adviser will always weigh the political implications of such action.’’
The officials expressed worry that activities of the poachers “are causing a lot of havoc and destroying the economy of the state. And they do it with impunity.’’
Going down the memory lane, a source said, “In 2007, all the farmers in the forest were ejected. It was brutal because they resisted the move. A lot of people died during the exercise.
The mistake government made was that we didn’t destroy their cocoa farms. When they discovered that their farms were still intact, they returned at night.
They slept in the farms and nurtured it, subsequently reclaiming the forest.’’
We prosecuted 15 offenders – Commissioner
The Commissioner for Forestry in the state, Tunji Akinosi, stated through an email that no fewer than 15 people had been prosecuted while others were standing trial.
“The impression that illegal farmers have taken over the Omo Forest Reserve is wrong. Government is still very much in control; that is why a quit order has been given to all illegal settlers there. The enforcement of the quit order would soon commence. Unlike in the past, there has not been any issue of poachers in the forest in recent times.
There is no doubt that government is losing revenue to illegal loggers, however, the amount lost in the last one year has been drastically reduced,’’ Akinosi said.
Speaking with our correspondent, a conservationist, Abionye Francis, blamed the challenges of the forest on corruption and lack of implementation of conservation laws.
“If you can’t protect animals that are defenceless, you can’t protect human beings. You can’t get it right with humans if you can’t get it right with defenceless animals. If those committing crimes against conservation laws are brought to book, nobody would be interested in going there again.
Is the government even interested in investing in conservation? Are the programmes funded according to budget?’’ The national president of the Nigerian Association of Zoological Gardens and Wildlife argued.
This report was supported by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and the Ford Foundation.