Originally published in Arcadia,

19 December 2017

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Once Upon a Game Reserve: Sambisa and the Tragedy of a Forested Landscape


Photograph of soldiers and a car.

The Sambisa Forest, located in Borno State in northeast Nigeria, has become synonymous with Boko Haram terrorism. Boko Haram has waged a bloody war against the Nigerian state in a bid to foist its own brand of religious order on the secular state. Few people ever knew that an integral part of the forest was once a flourishing game reserve that attracted tourists from far and near. The British colonial administration had gazetted the Sambisa Forest as a reserve in 1958, making it one of the conservation legacies bequeathed to the Nigerian state by the colonial power. In 1977, the area was re-gazetted as a National Game Reserve for the preservation of rare animals and also as a way of generating funds from tourism.

Covering about 518 km² of landscape on a flatland and drained by the Ngadda and Yedseram Rivers, Sambisa’s lush greenery could rightfully be called a pearl in the semi-desert environment that characterizes most parts of the upper region of northern Nigeria.  For a long time, it was home to a variety of wild animals such as bush elephants, leopards, lions, hyenas, baboons, monkeys of various species, and gazelle, as well as about 62 different species of birds. It was also rich in flora such as acacia, baobab, rubber, tamarind, terminalia, and date palm, to mention a few. As late as the 1970s, Sambisa attracted tourists for safaris. Today, however, the story has changed. The once-thriving game reserve is dead. The animals are gone. What remains in abundance in the green landscape is a battalion of Nigerian troops battling a motley of brutal terrorists that specialize in killings, bombings, beheadings, and the abduction of girls and women for sex slavery. The forest has lost its serenity and sanctity. It has transformed from a game reserve for human and animal pleasure into a human abattoir of unimaginable proportions.

The story of the transformation started even before the Boko Haram insurgency. It began during the military era when a combination of corruption and poor leadership led to abandonment and neglect. As was the case with several sectors of Nigerian life, corruption reared its head in park management to the extent that funds budgeted for the game reserve were mismanaged. The number of forest guards and range managers was not only inadequate, but they were also poorly trained and funded. The neglect resulted in an invasion of the reserve by hunters and poachers without many restraints. This was to have effects on the wildlife in the space. Then General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime nursed the idea of a national guard. The general cleared the inner areas of the reserve and built a training camp fitted with military facilities. The facility was codenamed “Camp Zairo” (Zero). The national guard was a special security force designed to protect his military regime, separate from the police and the military. Eventually, public outcry prevented the national guard from taking off. The idea of an uncontrolled special security outfit in the hands of a dictatorial military regime was something the people could not accept.  The facilities were left in the bush. It was these facilities that Boko Haram would convert into training camps several years later.

Nigerian soldiers moving equipment, food, and troops towards the Sambisa forest. Photo by Iniabasi Udosen, 2017. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The journey of Boko Haram into the game reserve started about five years ago, when they were dislodged from Maiduguri town by military forces. Finding nowhere else to launch their deadly attacks from, they invaded the forest. The security guards staffing the gate were killed and the remaining staff scampered away for their lives. The terrorists then set up various camps in the forest and made Camp Zairo (Zero) their headquarters. It was from the various camps that deadly plans of attack were made. These include: launching deadly raids on towns and villages for the purpose of killing and pillaging; abduction of women and children for rape, forced marriage, sex slavery, and suicide bombing missions; keeping kidnap victims for ransom or execution; building a factory to make materials for suicide attacks, as well as armories for looted weapons.

The Nigerian army has no other option than to invade the forest to take out the terrorists from their fortresses. Thus, for the past three years, the forest has been subjected to aerial and ground bombardments, aimed at the various camps and locations therein. The army has had appreciable successes in recent times. But as the necessary bombings and military actions intensify and succeed in degrading the terrorists, so also do the animals and the Sambisa landscape get destroyed. The images coming out of Sambisa Forest are no longer of animals of various species, beautiful flora, or pleasure-seeking tourists. Rather, the images that come out these days are of fierce-looking terrorists showing live beheading sessions of captured security operatives; of their leader making incoherent speeches justifying horrendous killings; of soldiers and military tanks cutting through the forest; of forlorn-looking abducted girls and women in the terrorists’ camps; of destroyed trees and dead bodies. Now, after the last of the terrorists must have been wiped out, the army has announced plans to occupy the landscape and turn it into a training ground. The army already staged its 2017 annual sports competition in the reserve. It has also started construction in the area. This is intended to totally dominate the landscape and deny the terrorists a haven, but it invariably signals the tragic end of the Sambisa Game Reserve. 

Further Readings:

  • Ayeni, J. S. O., T. A. Afoloyan, and S. S. Ajayi. Introductory Handbook on Nigerian Wildlife. Ilorin: SAOLOG Productions, 1982.
  • Ladan, Suleiman Iguda. “Forests and Forest Reserves as Security Threats in Northern Nigeria.” European Scientific Journal 10, no. 35 (2014): 120–42.
  • Mbaya, Y. P., and H. Malgwi. “Species List and Status of Mammals and Birds in Sambisa Game Reserve, Borno State, Nigeria.” Journal of Research in Forestry, Wildlife and Environment 2, no. 1 (2010): 135.
Originally published as:
Olaniyan, Azeez. “Once Upon a Game Reserve: Sambisa and the Tragedy of a Forested Landscape.” Arcadia, no. 2 (2017). View it here.

Azeez Olaniyan is professor of political science at the Federal University Oye Ekiti, Nigeria. He is currently the vice chair of the African Politics Conference Group (APCG) and an affiliate of the American Political Science Association (APSA). He earned his degrees in political science from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests revolve around peace and conflict, political ecology, governance, and ethnic movement. As a Carson Fellow in 2017, he completed a project on forests and insecurity in Nigeria.

Creative Commons License CC BY 4.0

2018 Azeez Olaniyan
This refers only to the text and does not include any image rights.

This article is peer reviewed

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