Founder and Director of the SW Niger Delta Forest Project Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh has centered her conservation career around preserving both species and the landscape they live in. Having held her position since 2012, she has continued to take strides in conserving the environment while working in one of the most insecure regions in the world.
Here, she tells us about building strong community relations, establishing a conservancy, and how her efforts contributed towards saving a Critically Endangered primate.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa?
I consider it a great honour! There are many conservationists in Africa doing amazing work, so to be shortlisted for the Tusk Award is recognition that I do not take lightly.
Can you tell us about some of the key milestones on your project so far?
The major key milestones of my project are the establishment and management of two protected areas in southern Nigeria. One is an IUCN category II protected area in southwest Nigeria in partnership with Ekiti State government. The second is a community conservancy in Bayelsa State in close collaboration with an Indigenous community of the Niger Delta.
Other milestones are:
- In 2017, we had a major breakthrough in our research efforts to determine the genetic linkage and variability of chimpanzee populations in southwest and Niger Delta Nigeria which confirmed that populations in southwestern Nigeria form a unique group. A discovery sought for over 20 years by other international renowned researchers.
- In 2016, I was one of the IUCN/SSC red-list assessors for the Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzee, Olive colobus monkey, Red-capped mangabey and Benin potto. I am the lead IUCN red-list assessor (2016) for the Niger Delta red colobus monkey, Nigerian white-throated monkey and Nigerian putty-nosed monkey, all of which are endangered primates.
- In 2013, I embarked on a range-wide study of the Niger Delta Red Colobus monkey in the conflict-ridden Niger Delta region. This study was the first range-wide effort in almost 20 years since the species was first discovered and intensively studied in the mid-1990s.
From a young age to present day, what did it take to reach this point in your career?
A WHOLE LOT of hard work, passion and a NEVER-SAY-NEVER mindset. I think there was also some divine orchestration too, what some people will call good coincidences or serendipity. I didn’t have the background or academic discipline that would have prepared me for a career in conservation – I had a degree in Public Administration and zero work experience/knowledge prior to commencing my career in conservation. It appeared I stumbled upon it all because I was dogged in my approach in searching for employment as a fresh graduate.
As a result, I had to work terribly hard and paid the ultimate sacrifice of not having what some will term a "normal" life in this part of the world. But it has been absolutely worth it! I had to learn everything on the job, even to this day. When a need arises, I have to rise to the occasion because there is just no alternative. I couldn’t pass on the responsibility, I always had to learn it, do it and make it work otherwise there are several other things (and people) that could fall apart – relying on me not to fail. But this aligns well with my personality. From a young age I knew I wanted to make an impact by fighting for just causes. I was dogged, different and very passionate about anything I set my heart upon.
Any funny stories from life in the field?
In 2006, having just completed a year’s internship program and seeking further work experience in conservation, I approached a zoo/nature park in my home state. On my first day as the conservation education officer, I was going on a self-learning tour around the zoo when I saw a small group of visitors running away from two chimpanzees that had broken out of their enclosures unknown to the zoo-keeping staff (by the way, zoo facilities were so poor).
With the zeal of my first day at work, and I must admit I also wanted to show off to the visitors that I was a wildlife expert, I told them there was no reason to be scared and then walked confidently to the young chimpanzees (one male and a female). I’m not sure what my intention was but perhaps I thought I could communicate to them in a language only I and the chimpanzees understand (foolish thought!). Anyways, I got to the chimpanzees and said hello with a big smile, before I could say "so what are you doing outside your enclosures", the female climbed up to my head while the male attacked me viciously. I tore myself away from their grip and ran quickly to get the zookeepers. I didn’t suffer any injury from the encounter but my clothes were torn exposing my chest.
Any challenging moments on the job?
Of course! There are too numerous to mention here. First of all, I work in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation. My project sites overlap areas with one of the highest human population densities in the world. Reconciling conservation needs with ever increasing human pressure is already challenging by itself, not to mention that our project sites are located in regions of high insecurity either from clashes over oil, militancy, banditry, kidnapping and so on, in which case, the perpetrators use the forests as a hideout for their operations.
We are constantly besieged by these threats to life and have to navigate the politics that created these situations in the first place in order to carry out our jobs.
What do you never leave the house without?
My camera! If I weren’t a full-time conservationist, I would have been a photographer/filmmaker – telling stories with creative visuals is probably my first love.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
This isn’t just a career, it’s a commitment! Don’t embark on this journey if you know you cannot commit yourself to it because it will require so much from you. However, it’s an adventure you won’t regret taking. The only limit you will ever know is the one you set for yourself, so never give up.
Sometimes your goals would seem impossible to achieve or even life-threatening, but every project has a gestation period before it births results, so hang in there and see it through.