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Friday, December 9, 2022

I forfeited a career in medicine in favour of wildlife conservation – Nacha

The Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) November Friend of the Month, Geoffrey Nacha, has recently taken over as country director in Nigeria for Africa Nature Investors (ANI), which aims to bring African leadership, capital and popular support into conservation. According to him, he forfeited a career in human medicine to pursue one in wildlife conservation

Geoffrey Nacha
Geoffrey Nacha in Gashaka Gumti National Park

Where are you from, and did you see lots of wildlife as a child?

I grew up in Adamawa state, in North-East Nigeria. Unlike many conservationists who are privileged to grow up surrounded by wildlife, I grew up in a town where there was no wildlife and the only wildlife stories I heard were from my dad, who passed away early, or from my grandad in the few opportunities I had to visit him in the village. My passion for wildlife began as an undergraduate while I was trying to become a doctor. After taking a course in zoology and being exposed to the outdoors, I realised my true passion was wildlife conservation. This was when I decided to forfeit a career in human medicine, and instead pursue a career in wildlife conservation, and I never looked back.

You worked in Yankari Game Reserve for many years with WCS. What are the biggest challenges for this Reserve, which we believe has Nigeria’s largest elephant population?

I had a memorable time working with WCS in Yankari Game Reserve. We signed a pioneering agreement with Bauchi state, whereby WCS managed all conservation and law enforcement activities on behalf of the government, and I was the person in charge on the ground. Some of the biggest challenges we faced included: (1) the failure of the Bauchi State Government to fulfil its obligations as agreed in our MoU, (2) continuous changes in government personnel and policy, (3) lack of political will, (4) corruption and lack of training/equipment for the rangers, (5) encroachment from livestock grazers, (6) elephant poaching, (7) hunting, (8) human-elephant conflict (HEC) and (9) the neglect of surrounding communities.

However, after years of commitment and teamwork, we were able to mitigate most of these problems; elephant poaching was stopped, we had zero tolerance of corruption in the ranger force, hunting and livestock grazing were reduced but remain a threat, and community support for conservation is at an all-time high. But some problems remain a serious concern. For instance, government support and commitment are at an all-time low, HEC is not resolved, and insufficient funding and a shortage of trained rangers pose a great threat to Yankari’s future, as does inadequate equipment. The rangers use obsolete firearms, worse than those of the poachers.

You’ve recently joined ANI (Africa Nature Investors). What is your role there and what do you hope to achieve?

Yes, I am very excited to have joined ANI. My role is to provide much needed support to our experienced and motivated team, to ensure we deliver on our mandate. ANI is led by African professionals committed to best-practice nature conservation. Our goal is to catalyse the participation of Africans in conservation and to attract African capital and expertise across the continent into the sector. We want to demonstrate that over time, if done properly, conservation can pay its bills while providing tangible benefits to host communities.

Please tell us a little about Gashaka Gumti NP in Nigeria, which ANI is helping to restore. Why is it a special place and what are the challenges? Any chance elephants could return there?

ANI’s first project in Nigeria is Gashaka Gumti National Park (GGNP), which is Nigeria’s largest protected area. The park is in Taraba and Adamawa States, right on the border with Cameroon. The eastern boundary is the Nigeria-Cameroon border and is almost contiguous with the Faro National Park and the proposed Tchabal Mbabo National Park in Cameroon. Gashaka’s forests are classified as part of the Cameroon Highlands Forest ecoregion, with some of the highest levels of plant and animal endemism on the continent. The park harbours approximately 1,000 chimpanzees, one of the largest populations of the endangered Nigeria-Cameroon subspecies. The park is also a regional stronghold for two of Africa’s pangolins (Giant and White Bellied). Other important animals include leopard, golden cat, forest buffalo, a wide range of primates and antelopes. The park is also an important watershed for the River Benue (West Africa’s second largest river) upon whom millions of people depend downstream.

Unfortunately, Gashaka is threatened by poaching, logging, artisanal mining, and forest fires caused by local communities, who are primarily herders and farmers. The park has been chronically underfunded with poorly trained/equipped rangers unable to tackle these threats. ANI signed a 30-year co-management agreement with the Nigeria National Park Service to turn around Gashaka’s fortunes. We are working closely with the National Park Service to protect the park through improved law enforcement, but also by working with communities to provide them with tangible benefits. ANI has invested in ranger training and equipment, procurement of patrol vehicles, tractors, a patrol helicopter, kits, equipment and many others. Additionally, we provide technology to ensure that these trained rangers are properly supported and monitored while discharging their duties. Our aim is to make nature and wildlife a source of pride to the communities we work with. We also want to demonstrate that private sector investments can make nature conservation in Africa sustainable and profitable and provide development benefits locally and nationally.

As for elephants, we believe that elephants are locally extinct in GGNP. However, we are committed to making GGNP a safe place for elephants to be reintroduced in the near future.

ANI is also working in Okomu National Park, in Edo State, southern Nigeria. What are your objectives there?

Following on the success of the GGNP Project, ANI plans to protect and develop Okomu National Park (OKNP) and Gilli-Gilli Forest Reserve which is adjacent to the national park. Gilli-Gilli Forest Reserve (also known as Gele-Gele or Gili Gili) contains similar habitat and is one of the state’s least degraded forest reserves. Specifically, we want to (1) set up a well-trained, equipped and motivated ranger force, (2) invest in critical infrastructure and vehicles, and (3) work closely with the host communities to protect the forest elephants and the remaining fauna and flora. We are doing this by working closely with the National Park Service, Edo state government and the communities. The Park represents one of the best examples of mature secondary forest left in southwest Nigeria, and supports significant populations of fauna and flora, some of which are critically endangered and others endemic to the region.

However, these forests are under increasing threat and pressure from logging activities and human encroachment in the form of agriculture, deforestation, and adjacent population growth. The opportunistic/illegal timber harvesting leads to clashes with rangers and poses an imminent threat to the forests and their biodiversity. It is no exaggeration to say that if nothing is done these forests and their elephants could be lost forever in the near future. At the moment, the rangers in the park and the state’s forest reserves are insufficient in number, poorly equipped and unable to effectively perform their duties or engage the challenges and threats they face.

Finally – you have a whole weekend off work. How do you choose to relax?

I don’t have a whole weekend off work, I work during the weekends, and I enjoy it! 

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