A herd of some 250 elephants has been spotted in Nigeria's far northeast, close to the borders with Cameroon and Chad. It is the first reported sighting of elephants in the region since the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency began a decade ago.
"The sighting of this herd means Nigeria's elephant population has effectively doubled," Tunde Marokinyo, co-founder of Africa Nature Investors, says excitedly on the telephone from London, in between visits to the Gashaka Gumti National Park in northeast Nigeria.
Hundreds of elephants used to migrate through the region up until a decade ago at around the time Boko Haram began fighting to establish an Islamic state. In 2014, Abubakar Shekau's faction of Boko Haram set up camp in the Sambisa Forest that was formerly a game reserve the size of Belgium and The Netherlands.
Three major migration routes passed through the Sambisa Forest. These same routes that follow water sources are used by insurgents to escape military bombardment. The heavy exchange of artillery fire between the military and the insurgents drove most of the big game away from the reserve.
There has also been intense fighting and aerial bombardments on the shores of Lake Chad for much of the past decade. Elephants had formerly been frequent visitors to the lake.
'Peace slowly re-emerging'
Up until now, it had been unclear what happened to the elephants that once roamed the Sambisa Forest and savannahs in Borno and Yobe states.
"It shows that peace is slowly re-emerging," Kabiru Wanori, Borno State's environment commissioner, tells RFI.
Nicknamed "home of peace" back in the 1960s, Borno State has been engulfed by a decade-long conflict that has killed over 20,000 people and forced two million from their homes.
President Muhammadu Buhari swept to victory in 2015 on the promise of winning the war against Boko Haram. The situation has improved in Borno compared to 2014 when the insurgents controlled large swathes of land while kidnapping and killing civilians at will.
But the war is by no means over with Boko Haram regularly carrying out raids on villages and kidnapping aid workers.
The new herd of elephants was spotted a few kilometres from Rann during a humanitarian mission carried out by helicopter.
The town has become a place synonymous with the horrors of the insurgency. In July 2017, the air force accidently bombed a camp for internally displaced people.
Elephants in Borno State? If this is real it is a very exciting discovery indeed. https://t.co/2AdTCiLLTO
WCS Nigeria Program (@WCS_Nigeria) December 21, 2019
Eight months later, two aid workers, Hauwa Mohammed Liman and Saifura Khorsa were kidnapped during a Boko Haram raid on the town. They were both killed by Boko Haram.
"We have dispatched our director of forests Peter Ayuba, to confirm the sighting and to carry out an impact assessment," Wanori confirmed.
It is a risky mission for a Christian to undertake in an area where Islamic insurgents roam, especially on Christmas Day, but it indicates that the Borno State government is committed to protecting the elephants.
On Tuesday authorities in Vietnam seized over two tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales hidden inside wooden boxes shipped from Nigeria.
The UN estimates that over one million people are malnourished in northeast Nigeria due to insecurity. Elephant meat was traditionally part of people's diets so the race is on to save the recently sighted herd from a hungry population.
Beef is now more sought after than elephant meat by those who can afford it. But cattle rearing has a detrimental effect on elephant habitats that has contributed to elephants moving across the border to Cameroon, which is far less populated than Nigeria.
"Gashaka Gumti National Park used to have elephants and lions but because of the grazing pressures they have fled across the border to Cameroon," explains Marokinyo, whose NGO Africa Nature Investors hopes to train Fulani cattle herders as rangers to protect the Gashaka Gumti from overgrazing in an attempt to attract elephants and lions back to the park.