How a coincidental wildlife conservationist is working to save rare chimps and monkeys in Nigeria
Rachel Ikemeh never expected to work in nature conservation but her efforts have helped to bring the rare and critically endangered Niger Delta Red Colobus monkey back from the brink of extinction.
Growing up as part of a typical middle-class family in a small township in northern Nigeria, wildlife and natural areas – never mind their threats – were the furthest things from Rachel Ikemeh’s mind.
Now, Ikemeh is an award-winning conservationist working towards saving some of the world’s most endangered chimps through her SouthWest (SW) Niger Delta Forest Project, a grassroots conservation initiative which began in 2012 to protect and restore species’ populations and habitats in Africa’s most populous nation.
In an interview with Daily Maverick, Ikemeh said her career in nature was coincidental after graduating from university with a degree in public administration.
As is the case with most graduates, Ikemeh searched desperately for a job in her field but eventually landed an internship at the Wildlife Conservation Society, where she was first exposed to the challenge of conservation in Nigeria and became passionate about the need to stop species extinction.
Through her work over the past two decades, Ikemeh’s conservation efforts have helped to bring the rare and critically endangered Niger Delta Red Colobus monkey back from the brink of extinction. She has also led the creation of two protected areas and won the 2020 Whitley Award for her work on chimpanzee populations in Nigeria, in hopes of securing 20% of chimpanzee habitat in southwestern Nigeria.
In her work with the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the SW/Niger Delta Forest Project conducted a genetic analysis of its populations in the southwestern Niger Delta and Niger Delta in 2018 and found that these chimps were quite different from the classification they were put in – the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee.
While these chimp populations share ancestry with the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, they are in fact a distinct group.
“So they are quite different from any existing subspecies of chimpanzee. We’re talking about a unique group of chimpanzees that had not been discovered before and which were already disappearing. There is just one site left where we, working with the government, established a conservation area to keep this sole and unique population of chimps in southwestern Nigeria alive,” she said.
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The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is found only in Nigeria and Cameroon, north of the Sanaga River, and has the smallest geographical range of the four chimpanzee subspecies (Western chimpanzee, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, Eastern chimpanzee and Central chimpanzee).
It is classified as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List but populations in southwestern Nigeria, where Ikemeh works, are edging towards extinction as a result of growing habitat loss from uncontrolled/excessive levels of farming, logging and hunting for their body parts used in traditional medicine.
Ikemeh said that despite the ecological and biological importance of chimps, populations in southwestern Nigeria remain largely unprotected and highly vulnerable to local extinction.
“It was while doing work on these chimps in the Niger Delta that one of our project advisers at the time mentioned the Niger Delta Red Colobus in the region which was volatile and very challenging, security wise. He suggested that if we could get into the Niger Delta to do work on chimps, why don’t we check out this particular species which is only found in this part of the world,” she said.
In doing this, they found that the Niger Delta Red Colobus monkey species was going to disappear in a short time. They were down to just a few hundred and the team was just seeing the situation worsen in the Niger Delta.
They are seeing for themselves the positive outcomes of conservation. They’ve seen it clear up their waters, now waters that were once polluted with crude oil are cleaning themselves up.
In all, the SW Niger Delta Forest Project drives conservation actions from the grassroots on the ground, which Ikemeh believes is the most effective conservation method to date. Through this grassroots action, the local community became a stronghold for the forest these chimps and monkeys call home.
“We established a community-based conservation area, the second in the country, and we managed to bring that species (the Niger Delta Red Colobus) back from the brink of extinction. As I speak to you, the population of these monkeys now stabilised and is actually increasing,” she said.
With only a few hundred left in the wild, Ikemeh said conservation of this species was only possible through community-based conservation as they and other conservation groups engaged with locals to protect the forest and take on loggers and bushmeat hunters.
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“My hope for conservation in Nigeria is to promote more indigenous, community-driven conservation, because in the end, besides communities being custodians of these natural areas, they are the only presence that is guaranteed to be close to these animals or to this area. They will also be the first beneficiaries of the good to come out of conserving it,” Ikemeh said.
She said the people in the Niger Delta are seeing the results for themselves and have experienced the value of conservation.
“They are seeing for themselves the positive outcomes of conservation. They’ve seen it clear up their waters, now waters that were once polluted with crude oil are cleaning themselves up. Fish stocks are multiplying and are replenished in those waters. In the forest environment, even the air is more healthy,” Ikemeh said.
As this reality becomes more widely known in the region, Ikemeh hopes more communities will take on the responsibility of conserving the Niger Delta. DM