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 Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.