One of the pioneers who helped establish Gashaka-Gumti is Richard Barnwell, who worked for many years with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK). Here he tells us how it all started, including the many ups and downs.
"I first arrived to work at Gashaka-Gumti in 1972, which in those early days was still only a game reserve. We lived at the original base camp in the small town of Serti, some twelve kilometres from the boundary of the reserve.
I was soon busy with a variety of construction projects including roads, offices houses, stores and workshops. Later my role expanded to include project management, public relations, anti-poaching work, crop rotation and boundary demarcation. In 1974 we moved our headquarters to the small village of Gashaka, nearer the reserve boundary. Gashaka soon became a viable base from which to manage the furthest corners of the reserve.
To travel around in the rainy season we stationed vehicles on both sides of the two local rivers and used canoes to ferry people and supplies across the raging torrents. We put great efforts into anti-poaching and by 1978 there were 80 fully trained and equipped game guards in and around the reserve. Many were local hunters who could pass on their invaluable knowledge to the trainees. These game guards were also responsible for enforcing hunting regulations outside the reserve in an area several times greater than the reserve itself.
By 1975 wildlife populations had increased to such levels that they were damaging crops both inside and outside the reserve. To satisfy public opinion game guards were given the task of shooting some of these problem animals, which included Tantalus monkey, baboon and Red river hog.
When I left Gashaka-Gumti in 1979 the reserve was on course to become a first-class conservation area. But in just five years, after several senior staff changes and as a result of dwindling government funding, the reserve was in serious decline. In 1980 the reserve headquarters were moved back to Serti and during the next few years most of the game guards slowly drifted out of the bush and gravitated back towards the town. Roads quickly became impassable, bridges were washed away, forests were illegally felled and poachers began pushing in from all sides. In 1986 Gongola State Government commissioned the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), an associate member of WWF, to produce a management plan for the reserve. A draft was produced but never finalised and so the decline continued.
In 1991, just after I had started work with WWF, I was asked by NCF to return to Gashaka-Gumti in order to make recommendations for its recovery and development. Things were not quite so bad as I had feared. The forests and rivers were still intact. Wildlife populations, though clearly reduced, were still at a level from which they could recover rapidly. The infrastructure, though tired and neglected, could be rebuilt. Thankfully the federal government intervened and declared Gashaka-Gumti a national park that same year. NCF and WWF are still involved at Gashaka-Gumti providing support for the development of the national park with financial assistance from the British Government's Department for International Development.
Great progress has clearly been made since 1992. Management of the national park is co-ordinated from a magnificent head-office that has recently been constructed at Bodel. More than 100 hundred well-equipped and highly trained rangers are helping to protect the park's wildlife and forests. Growing numbers of tourists are discovering for themselves the many joys and beauties that Gashaka-Gumti has to offer. And a revitalised and extended road network is providing improved access for park rangers, tourists and local people alike. The transformation of Gashaka-Gumti into on of the foremost conservation areas in West Africa is almost complete.
Come and see for yourself."