As fate would have it: the story of the Nigerian Montane forest (Ngel Nyaki) – an interview with Dr Hazel Chapman (Episode 6)

The Nigerian Montane Project in Ngel Nyaki forest on the Mambilla Plateau empowers young people, this gives joy.

– @AminaJMohammed ( Deputy Secretary-General, Former Minister of Environment, Nigeria)

Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzees/Picture by Ridwan Jafar

In the 1980s whenever I was travelling with my family between Lagos and Ogun state in Nigeria, one of the memorable sights I still remember are the sights of monkeys climbing trees in the forests by the highway. Also, I remember when I used to go on holidays at my Aunt’s place in Coker village in Ogun state and how we used to see chimpanzees climbing trees across the local stream, whenever we went to the stream in the morning. Part of the ecosystem of the stream environment back then was the sights of these chimpanzees climbing trees in the then thick forest across the stream, with some of them backing their young ones and the continuous  sound making by the chimpanzees.

The Nigerian/Cameroon chimpanzee Pan troglodytes ellioti, is a rare subspecies of the common chimpanzee. It lives in forests along the Nigerian/Cameroon border.  only found in this part of the world. A small population in Ngel Nyaki forest-  they rarely if ever, now move out of the area because of hunting and forest loss. Previously would have moved freely into and out of Gashaka Gumti National Park.

– Dr Hazel Chapman

These two unique sights were part of the ecosystems of these two different routes. However, as a child I did not appreciate the uniqueness and specialness of such experiences; to me as a child those animals were there and would remain there, but how much more wrong could I have been? For those sights are no more existing in those places and the absence of such landscapes can be traced to so many factors, but the main one amongst them would have to be human induced factors like: deforestation, farming, construction, hunting, improper use of natural resources, and most importantly – lack of proper eco-diversity strategy by the government and most of the citizens.

Amina J Mohammed (@UN Deputy Secretary-General, Former Minister of Environment, Nigeria) with Dr Hazel Chapman (@sulbyrd07)/Picture by Amina J Mohammed

As a nomadic radio and podcast listener I enjoy discovering and listening to new and interesting sound bites. It was one of my nomadic radio listening habits that led me to the discovery of the Nigerian Montane Forest project founded by Dr Hazel Chapman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. I was searching for a podcast interview of a Nigerian American photographer and writer, Teju Cole, when I was led by my Google search to a radio interview that he had granted to Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and there and then I travelled across: continents, oceans, seas, time zones, cultures and geographies and landed in New Zealand in the digital world through my mobile phone and I listened to the interview and I enjoyed it. So, out of curiosity I decided to search RNZ’s archive for any other interview that might relate to Nigeria and the interview with Dr Hazel Chapman of the Nigerian Montane Forest (Audio) popped up and I sat there and listened to it and I was not only enthralled, I was also hooked on the significance and importance of maintaining bio-diversities and the beauty that is in humans when our energies and resources are channelled towards constructive, progressive and productive activities in our everyday life.

Research team working at night/Picture by Ridwan Jafar

The story of the relationship between Dr Hazel Chapman and the Nigerian Montane Forest in Taraba state, Nigeria is a story that can simply be put as “as fate would have it”, just like Dr Chapman said during my interview with her. It is interesting to know that a childhood experience has become a lifelong career and hobby. When Dr Chapman decided to visit Nigeria in the year 2002, little did she know that she was going to embark on something that would not only be life changing to her but would be a bee-hive of activities for Nigerian and international: PhD researchers, postgraduate and undergraduate students, and the host communities of Ngel Nyaki in Taraba state as a whole.

The passion and commitment of Dr Chapman radiates in her voice and is highly infectious, such that, after listening to her, one would probably have Ngel Nyaki imprinted at the back of one’s mind most of the time, if not all the time. And despite the numerous successes that the project has achieved up to date, Dr Chapman remains modest and humble, and constantly reminded during the course of our interview that – the success of the project has been a team effort and that without the commitments and supports of the whole research team and the host communities, Ngel Nyaki would not have been a successful expedition.

Mambilla Plateau, Taraba State/Picture by Hazel Chapman

In community development, there is the “Assets Based Community Development (ABCD)” model, this model emphasises the use of the resources a community has to improve to achieve communal goals. Rather than spending their little resources and energies in just advocating for change, a community would use its available tangible and intangible resources in working towards improving their situation.

The ABCD model emphasises the use of in-house resources both materials and non-materials for the betterment of the community. For instance, if a community lacks a medical facility, the people in the community would come together and get a plot of land, do the necessary documentations, build a small clinic and then solicit for supports in terms of the necessary medical experts and apparatuses they need; this model does not abdicate the statutory agencies or authorities of their responsibilities, duties or obligations.

Conservation play performance by the team/Picture by Ridwan Jafar

This ABCD model can be said to fit in with Dr Chapman’s approach to the Nigerian Montane Forest (Mambilla plateau) project. She integrated the local communities in the forest preservation process from the inception; she did not look at the “limitations” in these communities, rather she emphasised their strengths, tapped into them and then consolidated on their collective strengths. From setting up a forest preservation project, she was able to create a social business for the locals that has led to the employment of over thirty six locals in various capacities from researchers to security guards. The project boasts of having graduated over seven PhD researchers in about a decade and a half, many postgraduate students and undergraduate industrial trainees. Also, numerous academic publications have been published on the project, along with extensive media coverages from institutions like the Smithsonian institute in the US, Radio New Zealand and Taraba state television.

Ngel Nyaki Forest/Picture by Ridwan Jafar

The continued success of the project has led to the Ngel Nyaki forest becoming a Smithsonian’s forest monitoring plot and the Ngel Nyaki forest is now an ecotourism site in Nigeria, that anyone can visit and experience nature at its sublime and serene best. The Ngel Nyaki borders the tallest mountain in Nigeria Chappal Waddi or Gangirwal (wikipedia) and runs into part of Cameroon. The Nigerian Montane Forest (Mambila) has certain species of birds and trees that are unique to it and it is also a home to the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, a rare breed of chimpanzee, that’s found mainly in that part of the world.

You can click on the link here (PDF) to download the book Dr Chapman co-authored with her father (J.D. Chapman), who was a forest reserve officer in Nigeria in the 1970s. Also, you can download other books and publications on the forest through this link. The Radio New Zealand interview with Dr Chapman can be downloaded or listened to here (Audio) and documentaries on the Nigerian Montane forest by Lawal Sani Kona can be viewed here (YouTube).

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • Dr Chapman’s childhood experience in Mambilla plateau
  • The successes of the Ngel Nyaki Forest reservation project
  • Building local capacities
  • Eco-tourism

Enjoy!

  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here

 

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