While I was up in the bush site of Drill Ranch a week or so ago I went for a walk up Afi Mountain. At 1300 metres high it dominates the skyline of Drill Ranch and creates a wonderful backdrop to the rain forest.
The reason to climb the mountain was to test an animal tracking collar that we are hoping to use to track the group of Drills that Pandrillus is hoping to release soon. The release is going to be the first of it’s kind for such a large group of primates (currently around a hundred) and will break new ground in conservation of a highly endangered species.
In order to track the animals in their environment we are testing a radio collar that has a built in GPS receiver and a UHF transmitter that can be used to get readings and track the Drill’s movements on the mountain. It’s a challenging environment for this technology as we have ravines, canyons and dense rain forest vegetation with a huge amount of moisture in the rainy season (which it is now). So in order for all this to work we need to test the viability of the equipment in advance to judge it’s suitability for our environment.
So loaded up with the collar and the tracking equipment I set off early in the morning on another rainy day (we are in the rainy season) with my local guide, Levinious, to climb up to a ridge at 800 metres and down the other side of the mountain. It was a lovely walk through the fields around the village of Buancho, first through the cassava plantations (the most efficient plant at converting sunlight into food energy) and up into the cocoa farms and then the banana plantations before crossing into the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary where no farming, hunting or logging is allowed.
Once you enter the sanctuary the difference in the vegetation is incredible, with dense bush all around and trees towering up into the sky to form a dense canopy overhead. It’s an amazing habitat for animals and incredibly rich in the bio-diversity of millions of species of plants, animals, insects and birds. As we walked up the increasingly steep mountain side Levinious was busy pointing out different types of plants and animals and he even showed me where he once saw some of the incredibly rare Cross River Gorillas, there may only be 30 of these gorillas left on the mountain, however they are so rare that there is only one photo of them in the wild here on Afi mountain!
We stopped along the way to test the collar on the mountain side and to check out the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary Ranger’s campsite, which is supposed to have a ranger there all the time, however there was nobody at all on the mountain and in fact the only evidence we saw of humans was a path that a hunter had cut through the forest! It’s a bit depressing to think that the Rangers are paid a really decent salary by the government to keep the trails open and the sanctuary clear of hunters and they are too lazy to actually do their job. The management of the sanctuary also doesn’t seem to do too much to make sure that the Rangers are doing their job, so the trails are all closed over and the Ranger’s camp falling apart. This was an initiative that Pandrillus managed to get the government to setup a few years ago to protect the remaining wildlife and biodiversity in the area.
As you come down the other side of the mountain the difference between the boundary of the sanctuary and the surrounding mountain is even more stark. Immediately after crossing the boundary there are thick plantations of bananas on the higher slopes, followed by 4 kilometres of Cocoa farms on either side of the trail and as you approach the village on the other side you enter the cassava plantations where the forest has been totally cleared for farms. It’s a clear demonstration of what a rapidly rising population has done to their local environment in order to survive. The population of Nigeria has doubled in the last 20 years and this has put a tremendous strain on their natural resources. Unfortunately areas that are this rich in bio-diversity are not renewable either and the damage done by slash and burn farming, illegal logging and hunting for bush meat has really damaged the rain forest in Nigeria and particularly here in Cross River State on the border with Cameroon.
There obviously needs to be an alternative for these villagers living just above the poverty line in their little mountain villages. There are alternatives available such as carbon conservation schemes where people are paid, fairly huge sums, by western governments and companies to keep their forests from being chopped down. However this would require the Nigerian government to take some bold steps fairly rapidly in order to preserve the forest before they are irreparably damaged, which they are close to right now. The sums of money involved are significant and would certainly pay more than the current illegal logging and farming generates for the local community, however the steps involved would cut off money to a small group of people who are getting rich from plundering the resources of the forest.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the walk was still to come as we came around the side of the mountain into the village of Boje which is the capital of the Boki people and the seat of their local government. Coming off the trail we were soaking wet from rain and sweat and in need of some refreshment, so it was off to the local drinking hole for some palm wine with the boys.
Palm wine is a white liquid that is drained from palm trees and naturally ferments over a few days. There are two kinds of palm wine, up wine and down wine, depending on how the wine is extracted. Up wine is drained from the top of the tree and ensures the tree goes on to survive, however this is a skill to do and people are often more likely to fell the tree and take the wine that drains out the bottom. Since there are plenty of palm trees here there isn’t likely to be a shortage of palm wine any time soon, even if they mainly drink down wine!
The number of days the wine has been out of the tree determines it’s potency and also taste, the more alcoholic it is the more vinegary in taste it gets. So it starts out as women’s wine and progresses to men’s wine!
Men tend to head out fairly early in the morning into the forest to fill a few large containers with palm wine, drink a fair bit, and then return to the village to sell the rest or drink it with their mates for the rest of the day! Quite a relaxed life, and one that has been going on for quite some time!
The local drinking hole in Boje was serving some very fine up wine and we soon heartily joined the locals in a few glasses of the stuff. The craic was good at 12 pm in the day and most of the other people there had very bright eyes, one of the side effects of the wine I’m told, along with being good for your health.
Suitably refreshed and relaxed after our long walk we were now ready for the hour long bone jarring ride on a 150cc bike, three up, back to Drill Ranch on the other side of the mountain. Considering Boje is the capital of Boki it is surprisingly remote with kilometres of terrible dirt road that is half washed away and only accessible by bike and land rover.
All in all an invigorating and interesting day and far better than sitting at a desk looking out at a faded and grey British summers day!