July 20, 2009 10:31 pm

Logging: Rearguard action to save vanishing jewel

It is dusk on the Qua River and Peter

Jenkins, a no-nonsense American conservationist, is leading his task force on just the kind of mission he loves: a speedboat reconnoitre in search of illegal loggers.

After an hour of zooming upstream, the team is about to head home when his right-hand man – a hulking Nigerian named Sam Ubi – spots a figure flitting through the tangle of serrated palm fronds engulfing the bank.

Breaking out his Italian-made pump action shotgun, Mr Ubi chambers a round and pulls the trigger. The warning shot booms across the water.

“I saw him, he was here,” says Mr Jenkins, as the pair hop on to the shore. Odigha Odigha – a veteran Nigerian anti-logging campaigner and the other member of the trio – keeps watch from their boat.

Two more shots are fired skywards. “My friend, come out,” Mr Jenkins orders, but he is speaking to empty undergrowth.

The team retrieve a shirt, a pair of pink flip-flops and a piece of rather more damning evidence: a dugout canoe laden with planks of precious hardwood.

The timber was almost certainly cut illicitly from one of the shrinking bastions of Nigeria’s once-mighty tropical forest, one of the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on earth. It is this vanishing jewel that the trio have launched a desperate – almost Quixotic – rearguard action to save.

Led by Mr Jenkins, a straight-talking native of Oregon who has devoted the past 20 years to saving endangered drills – primates with beautifully-contoured faces unique to the area – the team is rewriting the rules about how environmentalists work.

Using tip-offs from informants to seize lumber caches with back-up from the police and army, the triumvirate appears – for now at least – to have put the dons of the timber mafia on the defensive.

Since starting their crackdown in January, the team estimates that illegal logging in Cross River State in south-east Nigeria has fallen by 40 per cent.

Yet their success is fragile: dependent on the three friends’ mix of camaraderie and derring-do.

Ranged against them are gangster-businessmen keen to protect their multi-million dollar industry, and a generation of disaffected rural youth. It is hard to tell if Mr Jenkins is joking when he says: “There’s a price on our heads.”

At a primate sanctuary he runs in Calabar, Mr Jenkins relishes explaining his strategy – but only after barking orders into his mobile phone to officers to detain another suspect.

“Put the son-of-a-bitch in a cell at CID,” he yells, referring to the police Criminal Investigation Department. “I want this guy severely interrogated.”

Ringing off, the 58-year-old brims with energy in spite of many sleepless nights spent on operations. “I’m known as ‘the spirit’, because I can be found anywhere, at any time,” he says. “We show up anywhere in force and we don’t joke.”

Mr Jenkins explains that 97 per cent of Nigeria’s high tropical forest has already been felled.

Much of the remainder lies in the Cross River National Park, which at 4,227 sq km is among the largest reserves in west Africa. It lies adjacent to the Korup National Park in Cameroon. Both are under siege.

Cross River State imposed a two-year ban on all logging in November.

Mr Jenkins says that it was only when Liyel Imoke, the state governor, gave the task force his personal blessing that they could mobilise the backing from the security and intelligence services needed to make an impact.

“The task force has no constraints,” Mr Jenkins says. “We are outrageous.”

The team says it has impounded beween N100m ($.67m) and N150m worth of timber in the past six months and paid at least N40m to the state after selling some of the wood.

In one two-week period alone, they seized 60 trucks of lumber. Nine suspects have been arrested. Mr Jenkins says without regret that one illicit trader hanged himself after the task force impounded planks he had taken huge loans to buy.

Mr Imoke has appealed for international support for the crackdown and pledged that nobody – no matter how senior – will be immune from prosecution. “It’s like a mafia,” he says. “Until you get to the top you are not going to be able to deal with the problem. Nobody will be spared.”

Slash-and-burn farmers have long encroached on reserves set up in the 1920s by British colonialists.

In the 10 years since Nigeria’s transition from military rule, the devastation has spun out of control.

Senior figures in the state forestry commission connived with the loggers to sell the timber across Nigeria.

Cross River State has also become a transit hub for exporting illegally-felled timber from Cameroon. Mr Jenkins is negotiating to mount a similar operation there.

Yet even in Nigeria, the task force is desperately short of manpower to patrol channels where loggers rope planks together to form barges so big that their porters sometimes use them for floating football matches.

The state government has approved N5m of funding per month, but Mr Jenkins wants more donors.

Turning locals into allies may prove even tougher than securing funds. Mr Odigha, 52, led a team of army and police to the village of Ojor this month after receiving a tip that a cartel was using a school field as a depot.

The five pick-up convoy arrived to find more than 800 planks of illicit timber and a crowd of about 100 sullen young men.

“If the government wants to stop us logging, make them give us gun, we go for robbing,” shouted one.

A scuffle broke out and a policeman fired two bursts from his AK-47 rifle into the ground, making one of the men dance and causing the crowd to flee.

Mr Imoke aims to boost farming to provide jobs and the task force plans to reform the state’s 470-strong forestry commission – both massive tasks.

For now, the fate of one of the world’s most valuable forests rests in the hands of three men.

“If we can’t get this thing working then the last gem of biodiversity is gone,” says Mr Jenkins. “If we lose this one, then it’s going to be Nigeria the wasteland.”

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