Long before it became the hideout of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, Sambisa Forest, southwest of Lake Chad and 60 km from the Borno State capital Maidugri, was a flourishing game reserve and a draw for tourists. In the hot, semi-desert region of northeastern Nigeria, the forest’s 518 km area, watered by the Ngadda and Yedseram Rivers, was home to species of animals, including bush elephants, leopards, lions, hyenas, baboons, monkeys, and gazelles.
Named after Sambisa, a village near the Gwoza Hills, the forest is located on the edge of the west Sudanian Savanna and the south Sahel Savanna, and has areas of open woodland and dense vegetation. Its lush flora—with date palm, tallow, acacia, red bushwillow, wild black plum, baobab, monkey bread, terminalia, mesquite, rubber, jackalberry, and tamarind trees—aided an initial surge in interest and it became a safari spot.
According to BirdLife International, it has been home to 62 bird species, including Sudan golden sparrows, Abyssinian ground hornbills, guinea fowls, Savile’s bastards, Arabian bustards, African collared doves, village weavers, francolins, chestnut-bellied starlings, black and scrub-robins. It is further reported to be Nigeria’s last remaining home for ostriches.
The forest was first gazetted as a reserve in 1958 by the British colonial administration. Over 20 years later, in 1977, the military government re-gazetted it as a national game reserve. By the 1980s, however, corruption and mismanagement had combined to pull it into decline. Understaffed with poorly trained guards and range managers, it was run over by poachers, causing a depletion of the animal population.
Between 1985 and 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida’s government began a renovation of the reserve for his proposed national guard. They cleared the inner areas and built a training camp with military facilities called Camp Zairo. Public criticism led to the abandonment of the project. Years later, those facilities would be used by Boko Haram as training camps.
In 1991, the Borno State government incorporated the reserve into the Lake Chad Basin National Park.
The Sambisa Forest Reserve extends into Yobe, Gombe, and Bauchi states.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and curator. As Editor of Folio Nigeria, he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has extensive experience working in the African literary scene. He is currently the chair of judges for The Gerald Kraak Prize, for African storytellers exploring social justice, sexuality, and gender, and he was a judge for The Morland Scholarship. He was an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. From late 2016 to early 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper to a standard platform, creating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer visibility advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. He has an MA in African studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From 2017 to 2018, he taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.