Established in 1991 from three former forest reserves, the Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park covers an area of 640km2 of mostly lowland and sub-montane closed canopy forest. Located at the headwaters of the River Cross, topography is rugged and elevations range from 150m in the southern lowlands to around 1,700m on the edge of the Obudu plateau in the north. Okwangwo is contiguous with Takamanda National Park in Cameroon and together they represent the main stronghold for the critically endangered Cross River gorilla Gorilla gorilla diehli as well as a number of other important species such as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee Pan troglodytes ellioti, the drill Mandrillus leucophaeus, Preuss’s guenon Allochrocebus preussi, forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis and the grey-necked rockfowl Picathartes oreas.
Hunting is widespread throughout Okwangwo and as a result the density of all large mammal species is very low. Most of the hunting is done with wire snares and shotguns to supply the bushmeat trade as well as hunting of forest elephants for their ivory. Montane forests on the edge of the Obudu plateau are also gradually being degraded and destroyed by grassland fires. Three enclave villages within the park have become hotspots of hunting and provide sanctuary for poachers whilst expanding farmlands belonging to these same village enclaves are gradually eroding the park from within and dividing the park into two. Illegal logging, particularly for ebony, is a growing problem. Collection of NTFPS such as bush mango is widespread and large camps are often established inside the park for this seasonal activity, unfortunately the camps also attract hunters.
In 2011 WCS signed an MoU with the Nigeria National Parks Service which forms the basis for the current work in Okwangwo. The agreement focuses on the provision of technical advice and support as well as the development of conservation activities such as staff training, conservation education and research and monitoring.
WCS supports SMART-based ranger patrols in Okwangwo to provide more effective protection of gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants. We do this through ranger 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.
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 Okwangwo.
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 Nigeria through genetic analysis of dung collected at three sites in Cross River State. 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 Okwangwo is essential for long-term success and a vitally important part of our work in Okwangwo. We currently provide support for 28 school conservation clubs including regular field trips and exchange visits. Mobile film-shows have also proved to be popular, spreading conservation messages through entertainment.
Alternative livelihoods for hunters are promoted to reduce pressure on endangered species and the remaining forests. To date WCS has trained 25 hunters from around Okwangwo in bee keeping and the rearing of African giant snails in an attempt to provide them with an alternative source of income thereby reducing the incentive for hunting.
Promoting transboundary conservation with the contiguous Takamanda National Park in Cameroon is an increasingly important part of our conservation approach for Okwangwo. Transboundary conservation aims to harmonize the protection of two or more contiguous areas separated by an international boundary, facilitates the sharing of data and information and makes conservation more efficient. We are currently supporting the process to develop Okwangwo as a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.