Yankari Games Reserve used to be a large wildlife park located in the south-central part of Bauchi State. It covers an area of about 2,244 square kilometres (866 sqm) and is home to several natural warm water springs, as well as a variety of flora and fauna.
Its location in the heartland of the West African savannah makes it a unique place for tourists and holidaymakers to watch wildlife in its natural habitat.
Yankari was originally created as a game reserve in 1956, but was later designated Nigeria’s biggest national park in 1991. It was one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Nigeria and, as such, played a crucial role in the development and promotion of tourism and ecotourism in Nigeria. It also used to be one of the most popular eco-destinations in West Africa.
Yankari has rich wildlife resources. The park used to be an important refuge for over 50 species of mammals, including the African bush elephant, olive baboon, patas monkey, Tantalus monkey, roan antelope, western hartebeest, lions, African buffalo, waterbuck, bushbuck and hippopotamus but poaching, hunting and illegal grazing have drastically reduced the number.
It also has a large and diverse freshwater ecosystem around its freshwater springs and the Raji River.
There are also over 350 species of birds in the park. Of these, 130 are resident, 50 are Palearctic migrants and the rest are intra-African migrants that move locally within Nigeria. These birds include the saddle-billed stork, white-rumped vulture, guinea fowl, grey hornbill, and the cattle egret.
As of 2005, Yankari was recognised as having one of the largest populations of elephants in West Africa, estimated at more than 300. The growth of the elephant population has become a problem for surrounding villages at times as the animals invade farms during the rainy season. The elephants have also stripped the park of many of its baobab trees.
Management of the reserve has been neglected and under-funded since 2006 when the Bauchi State government took over responsibility of Yankari Games Reserve from the federal government after an extensive struggle that went as far as the National Assembly.
As a result of the transfer the level of poaching increased, with emboldened poachers operating even near the tourist camp in the centre of the reserve.
Reports suggest that large numbers of elephants have been killed in recent years to supply Nigeria’s illegal trade in ivory which flourishes in Abuja and Lagos. In addition, conflict between elephants and nearby communities as a result of crop damage has negatively affected community support for the games reserve and encouraged the locals to aid poachers from outside the region.
Poaching of other large mammals to supply the lucrative bush meat market also threatens to undermine Yankari’s ecotourism potentials by further reducing opportunities for game-viewing by tourists.
Following its return to the state government, Yankari is managed by the ministry of tourism and culture, subjecting it to bureaucracy such that the once cherished park which attracted tourists from all over the world no longer attracts visitors even from Bauchi State.
As the tourism aspect of the park was allowed to nose dive and become less lucrative the care for the animals suffered even more. Dr. Ajoge Akpan, a conservationist, said the number of wildlife in the reserve has declined seriously due to lack of care and protection.
“No one can be too sure of the number of lions or elephants that are in Yankari as of today , illegal hunting, poaching and grazing have either driven the animals away to other habitats or they have been killed by those trading in ivory,” Akpan said.
Yankari even lacks the necessary facilities to attract tourists. Stephen Zailani Haruna, a former director at the National Park Services and one time manager of the games reserve, said there is nothing at the place to attract people.
“If you have nothing to attract anybody, don’t expect anybody to come that is one. Secondly, this attraction, how accessible is it? How good is the access, because when you do tourism, don’t forget there are other competing destinations, so you have to make it very easily accessible,” Haruna said. “If they come because of the wildlife, then how accessible is the wildlife, how easily can they see the animals? Do they have to go through so much stress?”
Succour however, seemed to have come the way of the wildlife park in 2009 following the signing of an agreement with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Since then, issues that deal directly with conservation such as poaching and grazing were given priority attention. The WCS has provided support for regular anti-poaching patrols through the provision of camping allowances, arrest bonuses, field rations, equipment and training.
The WCS also undertakes periodic surveys of key species such as lions and elephants while supporting the state government to protect the games reserve and its population of elephants, lions and hippopotamuses.
Under the deal, Yankari is protected by an 80-strong ranger force, with another 25 trained recently by international trainers. The rangers, who are stationed at strategic posts in the reserve, are managed and supervised by the state ministry of environment.
With support from WCS levels of protection have improved since 2009 although hunting and grazing within the reserve still pose a serious problem. The rangers are poorly paid, owed months of salaries, ill-equipped and lack proper training and adequate supervision, just as their morale is low thereby making them vulnerable to corrupt tendencies.
According to WCS, Nigeria is a centre for illegal exports of ivory and demand for ivory in the country is growing – fuelled by its rapidly growing Chinese population. As a result, at least 10 elephants are shot by poachers every year and their ivories hacked off.
Though the reserve’s boundaries are well respected by farmers and there is little encroachment, groups of marauding elephants damage crops in surrounding farms every year, and are often shot by irate farmers in retaliation.
Mr. Andrew Dunn, WCS Country Director, said Yankari is harbouring the last of the Nigerian elephants, adding that the quest of making it a centre of international attraction will fail if efforts were not stepped up to protect the elephants and other wildlife there.
This prompted the state government to recently declare its preparedness to sanction traditional rulers and communities through which grazers access the reserve.
As hope appears to be on the rise for the revival of the reserve a recent comment by its general manager is worrisome: “The reserve lacks electricity, water, no vehicles for game viewing, encroachment by Fulani herdsmen for grazing purposes, high gate fees as students are required to pay N2,500, adults N5,000 and vehicles N5,000.”
Whatever the situation may be, the fact that Yankari has the potentials of overcoming the challenges confronting it is not in doubt.