Ramsar is the international organization that protects important wetlands. There are 2,434 Ramsar sites worldwide; 420 are in Africa. The continent represents the highest percentage of the total area of Ramsar sites worldwide. Most of Africa’s protected wetlands are in the north: Algeria has 50 sites, Tunisia 42 and Morocco 38. 11 Ramsar sites in Nigeria, including eight in the north of the country.
The uneven conservation of wetlands is partly the result of gaps in knowledge about threatened species. If you don’t know where the species are, they can’t be protected.
To qualify as a Ramsar site, a wetland must meet at least one of nine Criteria. These include the presence of threatened species (i.e. critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable). The rarity of wetland types, as well as waterfowl and fish, is also among the criteria.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature also includes “natural monuments” in the category of protected area, where biological diversity can be maintained. Waterfalls, craters and dunes are among the natural features of the landscape that can constitute natural monuments.
In order to explore the possibility of increasing the number of Ramsar sites in Nigeria, my research group conducted a freshwater ecological study study in a remote area, the Ekor waterfalls, near the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. We were surprised to find specimens of a vulnerable species of damselfish, never before reported in Nigeria. This insect is considered an “umbrella species” – it is essential for the conservation of other species in the tropical stream and its riparian forest.
The discovery suggests that the area could be home to other rare or endangered species. It meets the conditions for protection according to the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Ramsar Convention. And it should be protected quickly, before it is disturbed by human activity.
A potential Ramsar site
Our study area was the Ekor Waterfalls, not designated as a state or federal protected area. The nearest village, about 2 km away, is Abia in Etung Local Government Area of Cross River State in the southern part of the country.
The creek at the waterfall is lined with trees and there is no evidence of human activity such as agriculture or water use. As for the waste deposit, we only saw a few plastic containers in the area.
A startling finding from our study was the presence of the newly molted larva and adult (teneral) of a vulnerable lady, Pentaphlebia stahli. Until now, the presence of the species in Nigeria was only speculative as the specimens had not yet been collected. An adult specimen of the same species was recently checked in in Cross River National Park, Nigeria, but it has not been described and details of its ecological requirements have not been provided.
Damselflies and adult dragonflies can fly great distances and the park is close to the Cameroonian border. Larval damselflies are best used for indicate the local occurrence of the species since the larvae are sedentary and more amenable to site-specific studies. The presence of larvae shows that the ecological conditions are suitable over a period of time.
Our study recorded the presence of the insect larva in Nigeria for the first time.
It also provided information on the habitat requirements of the species, which are essential for its continued existence at Ekor Waterfalls. The creek was shady, perennial, and free flowing, with many cascading waterfalls. It was surrounded by about 85% forest cover. The bottom was rocky, with plant debris from the trees. We also measured conditions such as water temperature and oxygen levels and found that the stream has high ecological integrity. It is the capacity of an ecological system to support and maintain a community of organisms whose species composition, diversity and functional organization are comparable to those of the natural habitats of a region.
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Umbrella species are those that to require a wide range of habitat and specific habitat needs. The species could confer protection to the animal and plant life of the watercourse and the forest. Good water quality is essential for the survival of the species in the larval stage. This implies that many other pollution-sensitive species could thrive in the watercourse. In addition, adult damselflies need the forest as habitat (they return to the stream to lay their eggs). Protecting the forest means that other species could be preserved.
Immediate conservation action is required
The presence of a vulnerable species in the Ekor waterfalls is a signal that the area could harbor other rare or endangered species. Based on International Union for Conservation of Nature and Ramsar Convention criteria, the Ekor waterfalls are eligible for protection. The presence of plastic waste indicates the possibility that the site could become polluted, like many Nigerian freshwater systems, if not protected.
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Government authorities in Nigeria must act quickly to make Ekor waterfalls a natural monument and apply for Ramsar. It is the task of the national focal point in each country to initiate the process and draw the attention of the global body to the site. In Nigeria it is domiciled at the Federal Ministry of the Environment.
Our study revealed that it is possible to under-report the number of potential Ramsar sites in a region or country, especially in places where biodiversity conservation is not valued. Conservation biologists need support to explore Nigeria’s natural heritage while there is still something left to protect.