OMO FOREST RESERVE – Sunday Abiodun, carrying a sword in a single hand and balancing a musket over his different shoulder, cleared weeds on a footpath resulting in a cluster of latest timber.

Till lately, it had been a spot to develop cocoa, certainly one of a number of plots that Abiodun and his fellow forest rangers destroyed after farmers minimize down timber to make approach for the crop used to make chocolate — driving away birds within the course of.

“When we see such a farm during patrol, we destroy it and plant trees instead,” Abiodun mentioned.

It may take greater than 10 years for the timber to mature, he mentioned, with the hope they ease biodiversity loss and restore habitat for birds.

He was not all the time smitten by conservation. Earlier than changing into a ranger, Abiodun, 40, killed animals for a residing, together with endangered species like pangolin. He’s now a part of a staff working to guard Nigeria’s Omo Forest Reserve, which is going through increasing deforestation from extreme logging, uncontrolled farming and poaching.

The tropical rainforest, 135 kilometers (84 miles) northeast of Lagos in Nigeria’s southwest, is dwelling to threatened species together with African elephants, pangolins, white-throated monkeys, yellow-casqued hornbills, long-crested eagles and chimpanzees, in line with UNESCO.

To guard animals and their habitat, 550 sq. kilometers — greater than 40% of the forest — is designated as a conservation zone, mentioned Emmanuel Olabode, undertaking supervisor for the nonprofit Nigerian Conservation Basis, which hires the rangers and acts as the federal government’s conservation companion.

The rangers are centered on almost 6.5 sq. kilometers of strictly protected land the place elephants are thought to reside and is a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, the place communities work towards sustainable improvement.

“The rangers’ work is crucial to conservation because this is one of the last viable habitats where we have forest elephants in Nigeria, and if the entire area is degraded, we will not have elephants again,” Olabode mentioned.

For many years, the conservation basis has assisted in forest administration, however hiring former hunters has confirmed to be a recreation changer, significantly within the battle towards poaching.

“The strategy is to win the ring leaders from the anti-conservation side over for conservation purposes, with a better understanding and life that discourages them from their destructive acts against the forest resources and have them bring others to the conservation side,” mentioned Memudu Adebayo, the inspiration’s technical director.

For poacher-turned-ranger Abiodun, it provided a brand new life. He began serving to the inspiration defend the forest in 2017 as a volunteer however realized he wanted to totally decide to the answer.

“Again then, I used to see college students on excursions, researchers and vacationers go to the forest to study concerning the timber and animals I used to be killing as a hunter,” he mentioned. “So, I mentioned to myself, ‘If I continue to kill these animals for money to eat now, my own children will not see them if they also want to learn about them in the future.’”

He said he now sees “animals that I would have killed to sell in the past, but I cannot because I know better and would rather protect them.”

Abiodun’s staff consists of 10 rangers, which they are saying is just too few for the dimensions of the forest. They established Elephants’ Camp, named for rangers’ high precedence, deep throughout the protected a part of the forest, the place they take turns staying every week and arrange patrols.

The camp has a small solar power system and a round room where the rangers can rest amid the sounds of birds and insects chirping and wind blowing through the trees. Outside, the rangers plan their work at a large wooden table beneath a perforated zinc roof.

The roughly hourlong journey from their administrative office to the camp is difficult, with a road that is impassable for vehicles and even motorcycles when it rains. But once there, ecologist Babajide Agboola, who mentors the rangers and helps document new species, declared, “This is peace.”

Despite the physically taxing work, Adebayo of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation said the rangers have a better life than as poachers, where they could spend 10 days hunting with no guarantee of success.

“Now, they have a salary and other benefits, in addition to doing something good for the environment and humanity, and they can put food on the table more comfortably,” Adebayo said.

The rangers have installed motion-detecting cameras on trees in the most protected part of the forest to capture footage of animals and poachers. In a 24-second video recorded in May, one elephant picks up food with its trunk near a tree at night. Other images from 2021 and 2023 also show elephants.

Poaching has not been eradicated in the forest, but rangers said they have made significant progress. They say the main challenges are now illegal settlements of cocoa farmers and loggers that are growing in the conservation areas, where it is not permitted.

“We want the government to support our conservation effort to preserve what remains of the forest,” said another poacher-turned-ranger, Johnson Adejayin. “We see people we arrested and handed over to the government return to the forest to continue illegal logging and farming. They’d just move to another part.”

One official from the government’s forestry department said they were not authorized to comment and another did not reply to calls and messages seeking comment.

Rangers implore communities in the forest, particularly farmers, to avoid clearing land and plant new trees. However, they called the government’s enforcement of environmental regulations critical to success.

“We are losing Omo Forest at a very alarming rate,” said Agboola, the ecologist, who has been visiting for eight years. “When the forest is destroyed, biodiversity and ecosystem services are lost. When you cut down trees, you cut down a climate change mitigation solution, which fuels carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.”


This is the first in a series of stories from the Omo Forest Reserve.


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