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Thursday, June 20, 2024

African forest elephants teetering on brink of extinction

In April 2018, a group of Forest Elephants surged out of the undergrowth of Omo Forest in Ogun State and ambled across the Benin-Sagamu Expressway, bringing traffic to a standstill and killing one foolhardy passerby determined to capture a video of the elephants on his phone.

African Forest Elephant
A camera trap photo of an African Forest Elephant at the Omo Forest in Ogun State, Nigeria. Photo credit: Nigeria Conservation Foundation 

When the first clip of this unlikely event, already forwarded many times, showed up on my screen, I initially dismissed it as yet another attempt by a content creator at sensationalism. Until more videos and news flashes started rushing in.

To my amazement, it wasn’t fake news at all!

Some 30 magnificent and very focused Forest Elephants with babies in tow, actually did cross the dual-lane highway, heading towards Itasin Forest close to the lagoon near Epe.

A journey of 11 hours, if one is an elephant.

Historically, the Forest Elephants are said to have come out of Itasin Forest in 1946. So, in a way, harassed beyond endurance by the goings-on in Omo Forest, that group of 30 had just decided to go back home.

Until the 2018 elephant crossing, I had no idea that there were Forest Elephants in South West Nigeria, and certainly not so close to Lagos.

And it is only a few weeks ago that I was informed that elephants could still be seen in the forests covering Jericho Hills in Ibadan as recently as 1958 and 1959. I am so sorry to have missed them.

It just goes to show how little I had been taught about our magnificent wildlife and forest spaces during my otherwise extensive education in Ibadan.

A highly knowledgeable forest conservator friend insists that Forestry be taught as a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools.

After my recent emergence into conservation groups and environmental matters, I am beginning to agree with him.

Being aware that our very survival is dependent on our natural environment, would dramatically alter the prevailing attitude towards our forest reserves and the wildlife which they house – that they are simply a waste of valuable space.

Even as I embark on this story about the key role the Forest Elephant plays in maintaining the ecosystems of Omo Forest, I realise that very few of us will appreciate the urgency of rescuing the Forest Elephant from the brink of extinction; because in the first place we don’t understand why trees and forests and the intricate biodiversity they support are so crucial for the continued existence of man and animals.

Elephants are referred to as a keystone species because of the very important role they play in maintaining the ecosystems in which they live. Be it forest or savannah.

In architectural terms, a keystone is the uppermost central brick in an arch. Without which the whole arch would collapse.

In the same way, take away the Forest Elephant and the whole ecosystem of Omo Forest would collapse. With the added risk of driving other species, both plant and animal, to the verge of local extinction too.

Elephants are the largest herbivores on the planet, eating for close to 18 hours a day, just to keep their strength up.

For most of their waking hours, our Forest Elephants in small matriarchal family groups lead by the eldest female in the group, trample through Omo Forest, feasting on up to 150kg a day worth of leaves, grasses, the barks of trees, fruits and seeds; washed down with about 70 – 100 litres on water (though they can drink more than this if they are thirsty enough).

The seeds that they eat, which include the heavier seeds of high carbon content trees, pass through the elephant’s digestive tract and are expelled in huge balls of dung. Sometimes as far as 60 km away from the tree that produced them.

Indeed, the seeds have to pass through the elephant’s digestive tract in order to germinate.

And without the elephants’ part in their dispersal, the heavier seeds would just fall to the ground, with little chance of germinating or growing into a viable tree under the shade of the parent tree.

I am also told that the Forest Elephant is partial to the fruit of Irvingia trees. Also known as bush mango. (The seeds of Irvingia gabonensis are called ogbono by the Igbo and apon by the Yoruba. Which, as we all know, are made into delicious soups by both cultures!)

Sadly, the Irvingia species are also in demand for their timber, so with increased felling of these trees, there is less and less of the fruit available for the Forest Elephant.

Another factor that might push them to migrate.

Elephants are very intelligent animals and are able to remember when specific fruits come into season, and they are also able to locate fruiting trees in the forest by using the ripe fruit odour as a tracking guide.

When the mounds of dung, which are a rich natural fertiliser, fall to the ground, dung beetles swarm over them eager for their own share of the nutrients within.

When they have broken down the dung into bite-sized pieces and eaten their fill, they carry the rest of it into an underground labyrinth of tunnels where their voracious larvae live, eat and grow. Preparatory to becoming the next generation of dung beetles.

In this way, the soil is turned over and mixed with the elephant dung and the seeds expelled by our Forest Elephants take root in this rich natural fertiliser and soon the first seedlings of the next generation of grasses, shrubs and trees appear.

Because of their role in dispersing seeds over large areas, elephants are often referred to as the gardeners of their ecosystems; in which case the dung beetle acts like an under gardener, turning over the topsoil and mixing in the nutrient and moisture rich dung and preparing the ground for the seedlings.

In addition, the larvae of the dung beetle, well nourished by the elephant dung, are favorite food for forest mice and other small animals. Which in turn are a favorite food for birds, reptiles and bigger animals.

So, by supporting the survival of the dung beetle, the elephants indirectly support the continuity of other animal life too.

Another way in which they support species survival within the forest space, is by breaking down branches as they trudge through the forest foraging for food.

Branches that would have been too high for smaller animals to reach, fall to the forest floor, becoming easily accessible as more food.

Elephants are also able to sense underground water, and use their trunks, tusks and feet to dig into these reservoirs.

When they have drunk their fill, other animals get to drink from these watering holes too. A particularly useful trait in the Savannah Elephants who roam through the drier savannah ecosystems.

Elephants also act as landscapers of the forest spaces.

As herds of Forest Elephants trample through the vegetation between the trees of the rainforest, they create large clearings, which allows sunlight to reach lower lying plants, giving them a better chance to photosynthesise and grow.

The elephants also break down and feast on smaller trees in the forest, giving more space for the growth and spread of larger trees.

As these thrive and mature into old growth trees, they are able to assume their crucial function of carbon absorption, thus converting our forests into valuable carbon sinks.

The posh scientific name for the African Forest Elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis. One of six distinct species of elephant alive on Earth today.

Loxodonta cyclotis is a completely different species from the African Savannah Elephant, Loxodonta africana, found in Yankari Game Reserve in North Eastern Nigeria.

The two species are believed to have diverged from a common ancestor a few million years ago. The Forest Elephant is smaller in size than its distant cousin the Savannah Elephant. It also has smaller ears and straighter downward pointing tusks. The tusks of the Savannah Elephant curve outwards.

More importantly, Forest Elephants have a much slower reproductive rate than Savannah Elephants.

The female Forest Elephant takes 14 – 17 years to reach sexual maturity, and when she does get pregnant, it takes up to two years before she eventually delivers her baby!

This explains why reductions in the size of the Forest Elephant populations are so threatening. They cannot be replaced as quickly when their numbers fall.

If you have persevered and read this far, I am hoping you will have begun to appreciate the critical role our Forest Elephants play in Omo Forest; maintaining the biodiversity of forest species; keeping the forest ecosystems in balance; propagating new plant life within the forest and nurturing the old growth trees that give Omo Forest it’s profound importance as one of the last major carbon sink forests in Nigeria.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: The protection of Omo Forest. Indeed, why is the conservation of Omo Forest of such extreme importance?

Apart from housing precious Forest Elephants and other wildlife species and sinking vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, it is also a major watershed for the rivers that supply drinking water to Lagos City and drain into the Lagos Lagoon.

Deforestation of the watershed area in Omo Forest will have disastrous consequences for the City of Lagos.

Without the old growth trees to mop up rainfall and slow down the speed of storm run-off, there will be an increase in the incidence of flooding in the City of Lagos during the rainy season. Which is bad enough already.

And without the channels of tree roots to draw water deeply into the soil and the underground water reservoirs, the citizens of Lagos City will be at risk of devastating water shortages.

In addition, rapid storm water run-off will lead to massive erosion and loss of fertile topsoil in the farming areas.

And this brings us back to the importance of the Forest Elephant in preserving Omo Forest.

We cannot effectively protect and conserve Omo Forest, its watershed, its biodiversity and vital carbon sink function, and allow it to grow and flourish without the Forest Elephant.

And we cannot prevent the Forest Elephant from hurtling towards local extinction and taking other endangered species along with it, without calling an immediate halt to the massive deforestation of Omo Forest.

The one cannot exist without the other. They are inextricably linked.

To allow the last few members of the elephant herd in Omo Forest to dwindle into extinction would be nothing short of an assault against Nature.

But to reduce the spectacular glory of Omo Forest, with all its life supporting functions, to shanty settlements, illegal farming spaces and firewood kindling, would herald the beginning of the end for South West Nigeria.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland reveals that between 2001 and 2017, Omo Forest lost more than 70% of its tree cover.

While in the months of May and June 2019, the same institution recorded a staggering two thousand deforestation alerts.

Two thousand!!

That’s an awful lot of carbon sinking, rainfall producing, water purifying, erosion preventing, air cooling, food and medicine supplying, biodiversity protecting rainforest.

That’s an awful lot of habitat loss for our Forest Elephants and other endangered species.

Even those of us with little or no understanding of forestry, will realise that this is poorly managed, unsustainable logging at its worst.

In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), declared the African Forest Elephant a critically endangered species.

There are many reasons for the rapid decline in African Elephant populations.

Rampant deforestation with its dire consequences of habitat loss and diminishing food supplies is one of them.

A greater threat is elephant poaching.

To me, the slaughter and disposal of a fully grown elephant, merely for the sake of its ivory tusks, borders on the insane.

But to those engaged in the illegal and highly lucrative ivory trade, the average elephant in a country with porous borders and poorly enforced laws, must seem like a gift from God.

Until 1990, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the trade of ivory outright, the decimation of the African Elephant species was largely caused by poaching.

In 1980 alone, it is documented that poachers virtually halved the African Elephant populations.

Ivory is used for a variety of things. Each more absurd than the next, if you ask me, considering that one needs to first wipe out several elephants.

These range from intricately carved pieces of art, status- conferring trinkets, piano keys, and of all things, billiard balls.

In addition, elephant tusks are still used in traditional Chinese medicine, though I have read that they are as much medicinal value as chewing on the keratin of one’s fingernails.

Another problem faced by our Forest Elephants and indeed the Nigerian Conservation Foundation in conjunction with other international organisations and the Ogun State government, is human-elephant conflict.

With distressing losses on both sides.

Though I must confess that my own allegiance lies heavily on the side of the Omo Forest elephant.

A vast number of trees in supposedly prohibited areas are still being cut down to make room for farming settlements. The majority of them for small scale cocoa farming. Because cocoa saplings seem to do better in the Omo Forest soil so cleverly enriched by the Forest Elephant, than anywhere else.

Naturally, the elephants take exception to this encroachment on their ancestral habitats, and from time-to-time trample through the farms destroying precious crops and scaring away the farmers.

Even though the farmers are aware that it is illegal to kill the elephants, there are occasional losses on the side of the elephants.

For more than three decades, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), supported by international conservation teams, has had armed rangers and patrol teams on the ground in Omo Forest; striving against all odds to protect Omo Forest and its watershed for the Lagos Lagoon; and making heroic efforts to pull back the Forest Elephant and other critically endangered species from the precipice of extinction.

But as far as I can tell, even though the number of elephants killed by poachers has reduced considerably under the watch of NCF, without the cooperation of Ogun State Government, NCF and their allies may be fighting a losing battle.

It is imperative that what remains of Omo Forest be converted into a Wildlife Sanctuary with very clearly designated boundaries.

There should be more stringent deterrents in place against poachers, illegal loggers and subsistence farmers.

There are those who would argue with me that those farms are a means of livelihood to so many people.

I would suggest that the Ogun State Government compensates them adequately and takes back those farms for immediate reforestation.

If, as seems likely with the present rate of deforestation, Omo Forest in a few years becomes yet another barren desertified space, with no trees to manage the Water Cycle and no Forest Elephants to maintain the forest ecosystems, the loggers, farmers and poachers will be out of a job anyway.

They might as well start looking around now for something more sustainable to do.

Indeed, considering the terrifying rate of global warming and the urgent need to combat the ensuing climate change, which seems to be galloping out of control, the decimation of any forest at this moment in the history of mankind, has joined the league of heinous crimes against humanity.

We can no longer afford to lose Omo Forest and her keystone species. There are very few major carbon sink forest stretches remaining in Nigeria. Omo Forest is one of the last.

I am hoping against hope that my brief treatise on the importance of Omo Forest and the African Forest Elephant to the well-being of us all, will eventually find its way to the desk of His Excellency, the Executive Governor of Ogun State.

I hereby implore him to forge an even stronger liaison with NCF and their allies, to listen to their warnings and expert advice; to create new strategies and new policies, written into law if need be, to ensure the rescue of Omo Forest and the magnificent African Forest Elephant. Which will in turn positively impact on the city of Lagos and neighbouring environs in Ogun State.

Before it is too late.

By Rosalie Ann Modder-Oyefeso (In conjunction with the Save Our Green Spaces Group)

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