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“Welcome To Erin (Elephants) Camp Forest. No Hunting. No Logging. No Farming. No Illegal Entry,” a signpost mounted at a strategic area in Omo Forest Reserve at Area J4, Ijebu-East, Ogun State, reads.
For many years, the elephants lived peacefully in their habitat. However, in April, some of them reportedly left their domain and invaded some farmlands both in Ogun State and neighbouring communities in Lagos State, which led to destruction of crops.
While some farmers in Lagos communities were said to have raised an alarm, it was gathered a number of farmers whose crops were destroyed in the settlements which fall under Ogun State kept their agony under wraps.
The elephants that left the reserve were said to have roamed at the Ogun-Lagos border, where Imobi-Itasin-Epe lagoon communities are located.
It was further gathered that of those elephants, whose number couldn’t be ascertained, many left the reserve and have not returned. Findings revealed that the scenario of April this year was not the first time in the series of near scrapes between man and elephants in the area.
In 2003, some youths in the area were arrested for allegedly killing an elephant in the reserve, in a bid to sell its tusks for about N25 million each.
The then Ogun State Commissioner for Forestry, Ayo Olubori quoted the suspects to have confessed that prominent people in the society gave them the contract to get them the elephant tusks.
In what appears to be a twist, the elephants left their habitats to cause havoc on farmlands, resulting in economic losses.
It was learnt the elephants might have equally destroyed some farmlands in Ondo and Osun states. This is because Omo Forest shares boundary with Shasha Forest in Osun State and Oluwa Forest in Ondo.
Several sources who spoke with Daily Trust Saturday said only two out of about 30 communities located around and inside the forest are legal settlements. A number of farmers admitted this in interviews.
A farmer at Eseke, a settlement located close to Erin camp, Olatunji Festus, told our reporter that the elephants destroyed their farmlands at interval of “two to three times a year.” According to him, the elephants’ invasion usually occurs in the raining season.
Festus said: “They destroyed our cocoa, plantain, maize, and yam on the farmlands. This has caused us huge economic losses. It happens twice or thrice in a year, most especially during the raining season.”
When asked on steps taken to rescue the situation, the middle-aged farmer said “There is nothing we can do. We know this forest belongs to the government as well as the elephants in there. We are only learning how to leave peacefully with the animals.”
At Sojukodoro, another settlement within the forest, a female farmer called Adejoke, described economic losses incurred during invasion as “huge.”
“My son”, Adejoke said categorically, “There is nothing we can do. We met them (elephants) in their habitat. Therefore, whichever damage done to our farmlands, we must endure.”
The Acting Project Manager of Ogun State Forestry Plantation Project, Adebosin Babatunde admitted destruction of farmlands by the elephants, but was quick to add that “such incidents do not happen without human incursion.”
Babatunde, a member of Forest Association of Nigeria (FAN), blamed the illegal settlements on economic hardship and unemployment.
On compensation to the farmers, he said “There is no basis for compensation. This is a gazetted forest and they are illegal occupants.”
Babatunde, however, called for conservation of the forest and limiting of human interference as the way out.
Daily Trust Saturday gathered the Africa Nature Investors Foundation (ANI) and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) are working hand in hand to establish a Wildlife Sanctuary in Omo Forest Reserve.
The sanctuary, if established, will give room for conservation of the forest in order to protect the elephants and other animals in the Omo Forest Reserve.
A wildlife sanctuary is a naturally occurring one, that provides protection for species from hunting, predation, competition or poaching; it is a protected area, a geographic territory within which wildlife is protected.
An official of ANI, Tunde Morakinyo, told Daily Trust Saturday that not many people are aware of the presence of elephants in that forest, just as he harped on the need to keep them from going into extinction.
He noted that Nigeria’s signing of Elephants Protection Initiative (EPI) in October was a step in the right direction. “These animals are going into extinction. Nigeria must be proud that they have forest elephants more than the whole of West Africa put together. Many people have not even seen an elephant, and they wish they could. The area [in Omo Forest] is not safe. We have to keep it safe, to protect the elephants, and other animals too.”