A herd of hundreds of elephants that have returned to north-east Nigeria are under threat from jihadist groups and increasingly in conflict with thousands of refugees whose crops they have trampled weeks before harvest.
More than 250 elephants ventured last month from Chad and Cameroon into Kala-Balge, a district in Nigeria’s Borno state.
The presence of numerous village populations in Borno had for years deterred the elephants, who are usually wary of human settlements. But more than a decade of Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in north-east Nigeria has forced many villagers in Kala-Balge and across the region to flee to refugee camps or urban centres, leaving much of the rural expanse emptied and more appealing to the elephants.
A population of about 8,000 internally displaced people remains in Kala-Balge, mostly residing in camps, and there are growing concerns over hunger.
Babagana Shettima, a community leader in Kala-Balge, said the presence of the elephants has compounded misery in the district. “The situation of the elephants here is very terrible, they are really destroying our farmlands,” he said. “People here are already suffering, they are living in the camps or in the bush, they have to farm to eat and this is the only source for their food. If the elephants destroy it, they will not have any food to eat.”
He said residents and refugees in Kala-Balge had resorted to walking 12 miles to the Cameroonian border to buy food. “Last month we received some food aid from the government but he had to come by helicopter because the roads are completely cut off.”
The elephants in north-east Nigeria make up one of the last great herds in west Africa. Their first sighting in the region since the Boko Haram insurgency began was in December last year.
“It is a very dangerous area for the elephants because of issues with the local populations and because there is still fighting,” said Peter Ayuba, the director of forests and wildlife in Borno state. “The elephants shouldn’t ordinarily be in Kala-Balge but the main issue is the conflict. The people need a place to live and farm their crops and the elephants also need peaceful areas to travel. The insecurity has affected their migratory routes because before there were many settlements of people but everywhere is now open.”
Before the herd arrived in October, Nigeria was estimated to have an elephant population of only about 300, scattered in small groups across the country and highly vulnerable to poaching for their ivory.
Dolmia Malachie, a conservationist with the Elephant Protection Initiative, said work to protect the animals had been hampered by insecurity across west Africa. “Last year we put a radio collar on one of these elephants in Chad, we tracked the movements and migratory patterns. Sadly, the animal was killed earlier this year in Nigeria,” he said. “We need the governments of the Lake Chad area to work together to secure the survival of these elephants.”
Two national parks in Cameroon provided vital terrain for the animals, but the jihadist insurgency in the Lake Chad area and conflict spreading across the Sahel has left the elephants exposed to greater threats. Taskforces set up to tackle poaching face threats to their safety when operating in the region.
The Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad area has forced 2 million people to flee their homes and caused tens of thousands of deaths.