An opportunistic camera-trap survey has captured the first evidence in over 10 years that chimpanzees Pan troglodytes survive in the Omo Forest Reserve, Ogun State, Nigeria. Two photographs taken at separate locations on 2 September 2016 are the first photographic evidence of this species in Omo and the first confirmed records since nests and vocalizations were reported in June 2006 (Greengrass, 2006, A Survey of Chimpanzees in South-West Nigeria, nigeria.wcs.org/wildlife/nigeria-cameroon-chimp.aspx). Fieldwork by the Omo–Shasha–Oluwa Forest Initiative had already established that local communities knew of the continued existence of chimpanzees, and a sighting of three individuals had been reported in July 2015. Chimpanzees in south-west Nigeria are included in the Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of the Nigeria–Cameroon Chimpanzee P. troglodytes ellioti, although their taxonomic status has yet to be determined genetically. Other globally threatened vertebrates recently recorded in Omo include African elephants Loxodonta africana (assumed to be the forest taxon cyclotis), red-capped mangabey Cercocebus torquatus, Nigerian white-throated guenon Cercopithecus erythrogaster pococki, white-bellied pangolin Phataginus tricuspis, grey parrot Psittacus erithacus, yellow-casqued hornbill Ceratogymna elata and African dwarf crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis.
The Omo Forest Reserve, together with the contiguous Shasha and Oluwa Forest Reserves, in Osun and Ondo States, respectively, constitutes one of the largest remaining forested areas is south-west Nigeria, a region largely neglected by international conservation efforts despite the presence of threatened species. Located in the transition zone between the Upper and Gulf of Guinea forest biomes, this area was formerly part of a large swath of forest linking the dry forest of the Dahomey Gap (Togo and Benin) to the Niger Delta and stretching up to 400 km inland from the coast.
The remaining patches of natural forest are largely within state forest reserves established by the British colonial government in the early 20th century for timber production and watershed protection. In some cases, communities living within the boundaries of forest reserves were permitted to remain, within legal enclaves. There was also high migration to certain reserves in the 1970s associated with establishment of exotic timber plantations on land cleared of natural forest. A small area in the Omo Forest Reserve (4.6 km2) was designated a Strict Nature Reserve in 1946 and parts of the Reserve were declared a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1977. Despite these designations, Omo and the adjacent forest reserves of south-west Nigeria remain subject to uncontrolled logging, clearance for farms and plantations, and hunting of wildlife.
All the aforementioned species are threatened by the loss of habitat as forests are cleared and fragmented by farming. Moreover, even where forest remains, it continues to be degraded by the removal of timber or clearance of understorey, vegetation for planting shade-tolerant crops, such as cocoa. Hunting, most commonly for bushmeat but also for the commercial trade in illegal wildlife products and in retaliation for crop-raiding, is also a major threat.
The concept of legally protecting and coordinating the management of the remaining natural forest within the Omo, Shasha and Oluwa Forest Reserves was proposed in a management plan in 2011 by the Omo–Shasha–Oluwa Forest Initiative. The Initiative comprises the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria in partnership with the state governments of Ogun, Osun and Ondo and with the support of the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, Nigeria, and Environmental Resource Management, UK.
The management plan developed by the Initiative identified specific logging compartments for designation as a wildlife sanctuary in which further logging, farming and hunting would be prohibited. Progress towards this goal was reinvigorated with the first meeting of the Omo–Shasha–Oluwa Forest Initiative steering committee in August 2016 and a subsequent meeting with state government representatives in October 2016, in Lagos. This formal coordination of conservation efforts and engagement with state governments, together with recent species records, including the camera-trap photographs of chimpanzees in Omo, provide hope that it is not too late to protect these important forests and their distinctive wildlife.