Formerly part of the Afi River Forest Reserve, Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 2000 to provide improved protection to important populations of several endangered species including the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the drill and the grey-necked rockfowl. Afi comprises roughly 100km² of lowland and sub-montane forest with rocky peaks rising to altitudes of 1,300m. Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and the surrounding Afi River Forest Reserve constitute one of the largest forest blocks left in Cross River State, outside of the national park. Afi is currently managed by the Cross River State Forestry Commission/Ministry of Climate Change and Forestry. Although the steep mountainous slopes of the sanctuary have largely protected it from logging the forest is frequently damaged by dry-season bush fires set to clear new farms or to flush game. Open areas created by fire are quickly colonized by herb species which form an important staple food for gorillas. On the western flank of the mountain is a large grassland roost of migratory European barn swallows, estimated to contain up to 20 million birds at times and reputed to be the largest wintering roost site of swallows in Africa. Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary is surrounded by 16 communities with a total population of approximately 27,000.
Although Afi may not be facing a crisis, it is undergoing a slow but steady decline. The wildlife sanctuary has been poorly protected for many years and has suffered from neglect and weak management by the Cross River State Government since it was created in 2000. Illegal hunting is widespread within the wildlife sanctuary, particularly the setting of wire snares to catch smaller animals such as rock hyrax. However, these wire snares also trap larger game and one gorilla was caught in a wire snare in 2010. There are at least 1,000 illegal farms inside the sanctuary, established for growing cocoa and bananas, but there is no political will to resolve this issue. These farms are gradually destroying the sanctuary from within, reducing the habitat available for Cross River gorillas and other key species. Outside of the sanctuary, farming and logging in the adjacent Afi River Forest Reserve and within the Buanchor enclave threatens the viability of the habitat corridor linking Afi to the Mbe Mountains further east.
WCS supports SMART-based patrols by rangers to provide more effective protection of gorillas, chimpanzees and drill in Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. We do this through training and the provision of field rations, camping allowances and essential field equipment. These patrols are focused on areas known to be inhabited by Cross River gorillas and have successfully reduced levels of hunting. Afi rangers are employed by the Cross River State Forestry Commission.
Community-based Conservation. Occasionally gorillas leave the relative safety of the sanctuary and venture into surrounding community lands where they are more vulnerable. WCS is working with some of the local communities around Afi to establish a network of ‘gorilla guardians’ whose job it is to help protect gorillas whenever they leave the sanctuary and to immediately inform the Cross River State Forestry Commission.
SMART is an improved law enforcement monitoring system and a suite of best practices that help protected area managers better monitor, evaluate and adaptively manage patrolling activities. The introduction of CyberTracker in 2009 (replaced by SMART in 2016) has helped reduce poaching and other illegal activities in Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.
Monitoring of the critically endangered Cross River gorilla is an important aspect of our work which we do mainly through SMART-based ranger patrols. We are currently involved in a new project with the North Carolina Zoo and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany to assess the population of Cross River gorillas in Afi. We are also collaborating together on a study of disease risk and possible transmission between Cross River gorillas, humans and livestock.
Conservation education and raising levels of awareness within the communities surrounding Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary is essential for long-term success and a vitally important part of our work. We currently provide support for 27 school conservation clubs around Afi including regular field trips and exchange visits. Our outreach program also uses radio drama and film shows to spread conservation messages within the area.
Alternative livelihoods are promoted to reduce pressure on endangered species and the remaining forests. To date WCS has trained more than 50 farmers from Afi in various activities, such as bee keeping and the rearing of African giant snails, as an alternative source of income and to reduce levels of dependence on the forest and particularly hunting.