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Saving forest elephants more important than ever

The race to save the now critically endangered forest elephant has never been more important as its habitat is suffering from one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world.

The conservation charity Wild Planet Trust has been working with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) to save the forest elephant as well as other endangered species living within Omo forest in Nigeria for many years and this week they were delighted to welcome Dr Joseph Onoja, Director General of NCF to Paignton Zoo. Dr Onoja has been working for NCF since 2015 as the Director of Technical Programmes (DTP) and was appointed Director General in August 2022.

Dr Andrew Bowkett, Conservation Planning and Partnerships Manager for Wild Planet Trust said: “We have been working with NCF for nearly 20 years and together we are making great contributions to the conservation of endangered animals in Nigeria. It’s a pleasure to welcome Dr Onoja at Paignton Zoo, give him a tour of one of our zoos, and discuss future plans.”

Wild Planet Trust has undertaken conservation work in Nigeria since 1993, partnering with NCF in 2006.  Their efforts have focused upon Omo Forest in South West Nigeria, home to critically endangered forest elephants as well as important populations of chimpanzees, cherry-crowned mangabeys, white-throated guenon monkeys, pangolins, grey parrots and other globally threatened species.

All these species have one issue in common – much of their natural forest has been logged and replaced by non-native timber plantations or crops such as cocoa and plantain. As a result of the reduction in natural habitat, these animals are forced to venture further from their forest home leading to more frequent contact and conflict with local residents and poachers.

Wild Planet Trust and NCF’s collaboration in Nigeria has a clear mission – to protect animals in Omo Forest and this has two main components. The first is through a conservation education program which has been funded by Wild Planet Trust since the early 2000s. The second is via ranger patrols funded by grants initiated by Wild Planet Trust since 2018. The core running costs of operating this project are approximately £50,000 per annum.

In practice these initiatives include education officers who deliver weekly environmental sessions to several hundred primary school children and run a conservation club for teenagers. Biodiversity officers and forest rangers also monitor the wildlife and reserve boundaries and manage a patrol of local guards who protect the wildlife and destroy illegal farms and hunting traps. They work alongside local villagers, chiefs, and hunting groups to increase awareness of conservation in Omo and encourage them to use the forest in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way.

A key role of NCF is to manage relationships with the Ogun State government and other Nigerian authorities. This is critical to the long-term success of the project as only a small part of Omo Forest Reserve is formally protected and the boundaries are contested by other stakeholders.

Dr Onoja said: “the support of Wild Planet Trust is even more important now that the forest elephant is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This species is a flagship for many other threatened species in Omo and there may be some that have not even been discovered yet.”