By Yakubu Mohammed
Like Sambisa Game Reserve, now taken over by Boko Haram insurgents and rival fighters of Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), Kamuku National Park and Kainji National Park where predatory armed bandits camp; Yankari Game Reserve now harbours terrorists, poachers and other intruders, upending eco-tourism fortunes in the reserve. These, WikkiTimes’ YAKUBU MOHAMMED, reports are bare footprints of the negligence and maladministration by the successive governments of Bauchi State where the reserve sits on an estimated 2,244 square kilometres of land in Alkaleri LGA.
More than 16 villages have experienced the simmering waves of killings and kidnapping for ransom by bandits lording over the forest of Yankari Game Reserve. At least, N50 million had been paid in ransom across these villages, according to locals interviewed.
Before the general elections, locals in Diji, Gwanan Dutse, Digare, Nahuta, and Jarkasa among other villages, fled their homes to escape banditry attacks. A temporal peace was enjoyed when Bala Mohammed, Bauchi State governor toured some of the troubled areas for his reelection campaign.
The governor hails from Duguri, a district in the LGA which also had a share of the attacks.
Earlier this year, Bauchi Police Command paraded some terrorists who confessed to having kidnapped locals from some villages and camped them in Yankari forest. Last year, in December, bandits killed at least 21 villagers in Rimi, a village within the reserve.
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a pro-wildlife international not-for-profit organisation, supporting poorly armed rangers in the reserve, confirmed this in its 2022 third quarter report.
“A recent and developing threat within Yankari, its neighbouring communities as neighbouring states, is the issue of kidnappings by armed bandits,” it bemoaned. “Armed with AK-47 type assault rifles, these criminals have staged many attacks in communities surrounding the reserve, killing a number of individuals and collecting huge ransom fees from the already struggling family members of the victims.”
“These criminal elements are believed to escape into Yankari Game Reserve with kidnap victims, to hide for a period before moving on,” the report continued. “These criminals pose a significant threat to our patrol staff as they often move in large gangs with each individual heavily armed.”
The reserve was founded in January 1956 as a Game Preservation Unit of the Northern region. It was handed over to the federal government and converted into a National Park in the early 1990s. The ownership control was in 2006 reverted to the Bauchi State government.
However, in 2014, the state government signed a co-management agreement with the WCS.
Poaching, grazing, logging — threatens wildlife conservation
The reserve also suffers from mounting activities of poachers, grazing herders and loggers who sometimes dare the rangers that secure the reserve and its forest. Despite efforts by the rangers supported by WCS, the activities of the intruders would not stop. At least 213 intruders were arrested by the rangers between January 2019 and September 2022, according to data obtained from WCS website. Various weapons, particularly Dane guns were recovered from the intruders. Some of them were spotted by our reporter when he visited a museum at the reserve.
In 2019, not fewer than 103 intruders were arrested in a total of 189 patrols. Among them are 35 armed poachers [hunters], 33 livestock grazers, a bushmeat trader, seven Borassus seeds collectors, nine Gum Arabic collectors, seven loggers and 11 firewood fetchers.
The number of arrests, evidently, decreased in the subsequent years as the 2020 WCS’s annual report showed that 37 intruders were arrested between January and December. A total of 168 patrols were completed within the period. The arrests, in a total of 143 patrols, sum to 53 in 2021 and tremendously reduced the following year with a total of 20 arrests [within 69 patrols] made between the second and third quarters. WikkiTimes could not get the reports of the first and fourth quarters as they were not found on WCS’s website.
According to WCS reports, weak wildlife laws encourage poachers and other intruders to target animals in the reserve. It argues that penalties against the intruders are “not tough enough to completely deter offenders.”
The WCS Project Manager, Nurudeen Ahmed, explained this further. “Basically, the punishments are very soft, the fines are very soft and, although there was a revision to create a separate Yankari special law which imposes an automatic six-month sentence to these offences,” he said, adding the law was rarely implemented in courts.
Documents reviewed confirmed this. Some intruders that were arraigned in court got a week’s jail term. Some end up paying between N10,000-N20,000 fine. A few of them [caught with Dane guns and other exhibits] were sent to six months in jail.
Rangers who spoke to WikkiTimes in confidence [for fear of being victimised], said the government needs to upgrade their firearms from shotguns to assault rifles as criminal activities intensify in the reserve.
The rangers also lamented low wages. And because of this, their turnout is negligibly low during the rainy season — some of them prefer farming to patrols. Although, the rangers augment their meager salaries with stipends.
WikkiTimes gathered that the rangers’ monthly salaries range between N33,000 to N46,000. There are four ranks of rangers — The Park Ranger, Higher Park Ranger, Senior Park Ranger and Chief Ranger. This is way below what their counterparts make in Kenya and South Africa.
“The salary is very poor compared with the nature of our job,” said a park ranger. “All the rangers in Yankari are Bauchi State government staff, so the salary is very poor.”
“There’s no ranger that earns up to N50,000, not even the senior ones among,” he disclosed.
Each time a team of rangers go for patrol, WSC supports them with N2,000 per night, Ahmed, the project manager, explained. “So if they spend nights, each of them has N14,000 and if it is eight nights, they get N16,000.”
Return of banditry
Locals told WikkiTimes the governor sought the intervention of a Taraba-based warlord, famously known as Babangida, to help confront, alongside military operatives, the bandits that have held his homeland hostage. The intervention yielded a result, locals acknowledge, but they argue it was done in the bid of his reelection as banditry now returns gradually.
In the wee hours of July 21, terrorists kidnapped the ward head of Gigyara, Alhaji Usman Gigyara. This was the second time the monarch would be abducted. In 2022, he was kidnapped and later set free after his family paid N6 million ransom.
His abductors, who demanded N20 million, would later settle for N7 million before he was released a week later.
The ward head who was still recovering from the trauma of his abduction declined an interview. Locals close to him said “the authorities” warned against speaking to the press about it.
James Danjuma, a park ranger and his colleagues were on a routine patrol along the Duguri axis of the reserve when bandits waylaid them and shot him multiple times on August 23. His colleagues, poorly armed with shotguns, dispersed into the bush when the AK-47-wielding terrorists ambushed them.
The field ranger survived seven bullet wounds: one on his back, three on his right arm, one each on his chest and right ribs and one on his left arm. He was placed on blood support when WikkiTimes visited him at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University Teaching Hospital (ATBUTH) a day after.
The terrorists would have shot him dead, one of his colleagues who lives in Yashi, a hamlet of the reserve, told WikkiTimes.
“They had fired at him several times before he fell down and one of the terrorists wanted to blow off his head, but one of them said there was no need to waste the bullet,” the ranger said, adding the terrorists believed Danjuma would not survive.
“They also thought they had killed Danjuma’s colleague, Baba Ali, but God saved his life. He was laying low in the forest while the terrorists fired in his direction,” he added.
His superior, a chief ranger, Sulainman Saidu, told WikkiTimes poaching, and illegal grazing among other criminal activities, are no longer common in the reserve, “but the activities of bandits who use the reserve as their cover.”
Saidu said the terrorists could be flushed out if the government provided the rangers with superior firearms.
“WCS had trained us well, but the arms are not there to face the bandits,” he lamented, adding the WCS as an NGO is not permitted to purchase arms for the rangers.
The Bauchi Police Command said its operatives, specifically the anti-kidnapping team, are trying their best to fight the menace, its spokesman, Ahmed Mohammed Wakil, told WikkiTimes.
“The Commissioner of Police, Auwal Musa, at his resumption, invited some stakeholders including the rangers to discuss some security measures,” Wakil said, noting the collaboration led to the arrest and neutralisation of “some bandits in the reserve,” last year.
According to him, the police in partnership with some quasi security outfits are making tremendous success against the bandits.
“We have 18 units of anti-kidnapping and many of them are in Alkaleri, Ningi and many many other forests,” he said. “The issue of establishing a police post in the reserve(s) was also considered.”
Bala Mohammed, Bauchi State governor recently lamented the presence of the terrorists in the reserve, vowing to “die” than bandits taking over the reserve.
“We have been battling with bandits inside Yankari. I will never allow them to take over Yankari from me, under my time, no, no way! I will either die or they die. They will not be there. I am assuring you, the people of Bauchi,” he had said.
His words were motivated by the fact that British investors were planning to take over the tourist center and invest $18 million.
“Today, we are happy, we’re being recognised by the international community. Bauchi has become the next investment destination,” he had said. “Our biodiversity, which is Yankari, has attracted British investors that came here, discussed with us seriously and are ready to take over Yankari to save our Fauna and Flora, to save our animals with an initial investment of $18 million of their own money and to bring security.”
Footprints of successive governments of Bauchi State
The last time Yankari Game Reserve saw significant intervention from the government was during the administration of Muazu Abubakar, workers and ex-rangers who had worked in the reserve, told WikkiTimes. This was the time lodges and other facilities in the reserve were renovated, they said.
Although the budget documents we reviewed showed allocations for various projects in the reserve. However, the budget performance reports proved that the state governments under the leadership of governor Mohammed failed to release funds for many of the projects. Hence, the ministry keeps pitching and the government would not stop approving. This trend continues concurrently between 2019 and 2023.
In 2019, at least, N31,376,000 million was approved for three projects in Yankari Game Reserve, but none of them was funded, according to the reviewed budget performance reports.
Notably, N26,376,000 was approved for the ‘Construction of Airstrip at Yankari Game Reserve’. However, the same amount was expended on the same project between January and June 2018.
When WikkiTimes visited the site of the project, our reporter saw an open field filled with gravel stones.
The 2022 budget performance report shows that N4,453,250 million was spent on ‘Renovation and Repairs of Residence at Yankari Game Reserve’. This was out of N100,000,000 million approved for the project. Yet, N20,000,000 million was approved for the same project in the 2023 fiscal year, but checks show that the money had not been released.
Further investigation shows that only one VIP lodge gutted by fire in 2021, is being renovated. An insider in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism revealed that the project had gulped over N4 million and an additional N7 million is needed to complete the chalet.
WikkiTimes gathered that a number of bridges and track routes in the reserve are in bad shape. For instance, Borkono bridge which links ranger to some part of the reserve has collapsed.
Rangers said there are over 100 tracks “including jeep and game-viewing tracks” in the serve. Although the game-viewing ones are safe, many tracks the patrol rangers ply are “bad.”
The Borkono bridge, according to a file picture attached to WCS’s 2019 annual report, was renovated by the organisation.
As a result of poor road networks and collapsed bridges, visitors who wish to go for game-viewing could not go to tourist sites like Dukkey Wells, Machido Stone Wall, Marshall Cave and Shau Shau Iron Smelting Site.
Muhammad Ladan, General Manager for Yankari Game Reserve, declined comment when our reporter met with him at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism on August 23. He requested a written enquiry to be submitted at his office located along the Maiduguri bypass.
Subsequently, WikkiTimes submitted an FOI to his office but it was not responded to. When he was reminded on September 9, Ladan said he no longer had the mandate to speak. “I’m no longer the GM of Yankari,” he wrote via SMS.
“About the questionnaire [FOI], I submitted it to the ministry in order to get approval to grant you the interview then, but it proved abortive, please,” he added.
Abdu Hassan, Commissioner for Culture and Tourism also declined comment. He scheduled an interview [in his office] on September 7 and he failed to show up. Workers in the ministry told WikkiTimes he was “not on seat.”
When contacted, the commissioner said he had travelled. “I am not around. I travelled,” he said before hanging up. He never responded to calls afterwards.
For many years, the Bauchi State government has been evading what WCS referred to as “counterpart funding,” according to publications reviewed by our reporter. WCS’s project manager further clarified this, saying, it was part of the agreement signed with the government.
Journeying from Bauchi metropolis to the first gate of Yankari Game Reserve was a daylight nightmare that would soon be effaced by a 43-kilometre ride, on a tarred road, to the second gate.
The route was decorated with seven roundabouts, purposely to slow down vehicles along animal-crossing zones of the road. But what used to be a busy tourism site is now a shadow of itself solely surviving on one of the accessible Wikki Spring Waters [where visitors go for swimming], a room-sized museum [where artefacts are displayed] and Safari game viewing.
Warthog pigs and waylaying baboons among other animals often stroll into the Wikki camp [the main environment of the reserve].
There are 78 chalets in the reserve where visitors can lodge during their stay. Among them are 36 Luxury chalets, 36 Studios, four VIPs and two diplomatic rooms. One of the VIP rooms was razed by fire and is currently under renovation.
Conservation-focused WCS to the rescue
Insiders and visitors who spoke to WikkiTimes believe the reserve would have been worse than its current situation if not for the presence of organisations like WCS.
The project manager further explained the conservation work WCS is doing in the reserve, saying they have been supporting the state government since 2009. “It was in 2014 that both parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to manage the law enforcement activities within the reserve — supporting rangers patrols and protection of the wildlife,” he told WikkiTimes. “In 2018 a new MOU was drafted which further gave WCS the jurisdiction not just for the protection but all conservration activities within the reserve including research.”
Ahmed explained that WCS understands that poachers and other intruders frustrating conservation in the reserve were not aliens, hence, the organisation sensitise the host community, especially school children.
“We are also involved in educating children, bringing them on field trips to Yankari, explaining about the biodiversity and the importance of the reserve to them,” explained Ahmed. “We bring them in, we give them a short presentation about the work that WCS is doing, we take them on a game viewing drive, we provide them with lunch and then transport them back to their schools.”
“As we all know, they are direct stakeholders of this reserve and the future,” Nurudeen continued. “We can raise them to grow up to support conservation rather than becoming hunters or collecting firewood or doing other illegal activities in the reserve.”
The project manager said the rangers carry out their patrols with a device called SMART [Special Monitoring and Reporting Tool] which automatically records where “our rangers have tracked, what areas they have covered and we can download it and analyse the data.”
Yankari is a home for the largest surviving elephant population in Nigeria, one of the largest remaining in West Africa, according to WCS.
Its project manager, Ahmed, decried how anti-conservation activities affected the population of animals in the reserve. Although more than 100 elephants were believed to be in the reserve, the organisation could not tell the population of other animals surviving therein.
“We have not done a formal population census [for the other animals], but nevertheless, we estimate between a 100 or 150 elephants are left in Yankari,” Ahmed estimated.
The presence of elephants in the reserve is another challenge WSC has been managing due to what conservationists described as “humans-elephants” conflict.
“Crop raiding by elephants was reported from Yalwan Duguri and Shafa communities only during the reporting period,” it said in its latest report. “Rangers were sent to the area concerned, however, typically the elephants raid crops at night and have returned to the reserve by the following morning when rangers respond to the scene…”
Tourism expert harps on partnership
Chuks Nwanne, a tourism expert and general manager, Abuja and northern operations of the TheGuardian newspaper, was not surprised about what the reserve has turned into.
He said the Bauchi State government does not know the treasure it has. According to him, the tourism potentials in places like Kenya and South Africa do not have what “we have here in our country.”
“Those countries understand the business of tourism and its importance to their economy,” he said, adding the Nigerian government is yet to see tourism as a business.
Nwanne noted that insecurity might be scaring tourists away, but when the needed facilities like airstrips are provided, it will not be “impossible for us to develop tourism.”
Contrary to the privatisation plan by the government, the tourism expert advised that the government could opt for management partnerships with other entities that have potential in the tourism business.
“You can invite people from Kenya who have been doing it right and partner with them,” he advised.
He also advised that the federal government could be part of the management system.
“As a state government, you don’t control the army or the police, so bringing in the federal government would help address the security situation in the reserve,” he said. “Infrastructure is another reason the federal government should be considered as part of the partners.”
“For instance, if a road that connects to Yankari is in bad shape, the federal Ministry of Works could help fix that,” he continued. “Also, the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), though a federal body, has a role to play in the reserve. But if its officials go to Yankari today, they may be faced by some bottlenecks revolving around ownership and control of the reserve. They will tell them the place belongs to the Bauchi State government and with that things can not really work.”
Nwanne’s words were illustrated in a research work done by Dr Dele Jemirade, a consultant and a researcher at Department of History, York University, Toronto, Canada.
The scholar who specialises in defence and security, arms control, war, conflict, violence, terrorism and, insurgency among others, contended that Nigeria’s laxity in developing its tourism potential earned it a place behind other countries considered to be smaller and less populated. He identified corruption and insecurity among many other factors setting back the country’s tourism industry.
“Nigeria is regarded as one of the most dangerous countries to live in the world because of the activities of fundamental Islamic group known as Boko Haram and the numerous splinter groups that came out of them,” the research stated. “These terrorist groups have killed many people and destroyed several communities in the country. The World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report’ published every two years has been listing Nigeria since 2015 as one of the most dangerous countries to visit in the world.” The latest report ranked Nigeria 110.
Tourism: Nigeria behind Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda
“One can see that from 1960 to the present day, Nigeria had
the opportunity and the potential to develop its tourism industry to an enviable, viable and sustainable stage, but the chances were wasted due to the factors mentioned above,” the researcher stated in the concluding part of his work.
He added: “Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, which are smaller, less populated and have fewer resources, developed their tourism industry to an appreciable level while Nigeria was groping in the dark. Some of the reasons could be the fact that Nigeria foolishly got carried away with oil revenues, and countries like Kenya did not have any petroleum resources to depend on, needing instead to utilise the resources they had, such as tourism.”
Although the three countries compared to Nigeria are more climate-friendly and suitable for tourists, the research noted. He argued that the country can still utilize its abundant opportunities to develop tourism into an enviable, viable and sustainable industry.
This investigation is produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Center for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability Project (CMEDIA) and funded by MacArthur Foundation