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Nigeria bets on elephants and warm springs to lure tourists

A luxury safari is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when potential tourists think of Nigeria but that's exactly what Yankari Game Reserve is hoping to change.

In Africa's largest economy, suffering from the collapse in global oil prices, tourism is being touted as a panacea to slow growth and a depreciating naira.

Leading the charge is the governor of northeast Bauchi State, an area targeted by Boko Haram insurgents, which is also home to Yankari — one of the last wildlife reserves in Nigeria with elephants, lions and buffalo.

"It is now too expensive to go to London, Dubai and America. Come and holiday in Yankari!" Governor Mohammed Abdullahi Abubakar, the self-described "chief marketing officer" of the state, said on Twitter series of upbeat posts coaxing Nigerians to visit.

"We need to diversify the state revenue base and tourism is a low hanging fruit," Abubakar told AFP.

"Bauchi is Africa's best kept secret. With due respect to other tourist destinations, I see Yankari as a fragment of Jannah — or Eden — beautifully designed by God to be tendered by man."

With some 300 elephants, countless birds and crystal-clear warm springs 31°C all year round, Yankari should be raking in cash.

Wildlife watching constitutes 80 percent of trips to Africa, where visits by international tourists generate US$36 billion (RM145.19 billion), according to a October 2015 report published by the African Development Bank Group.

Yet years of mismanagement by previous administrations have left the reserve in desperate need of an upgrade — and visitors.

Archaeological mystery

A poor road network limiting animal sightings and sputtering electricity in the main camp are the most basic of Yankari's problems.

But the sole administrator of the reserve says he can already see progress in Yankari since Abubakar, who worked at Yankari as a legal advisor in the 1980s, came into power last year.

"The governor knows that Yankari, if done right, can make a lot of revenue," Engineer Habu Mamman said over a dinner of chicken and rice on a patio overlooking the park, empty except for the occasional curious warthog.

"Most people in previous administrations were much more interested in lining their pockets. But he's looking for a way to seriously put Yankari on the world map," he added.

There is no denying the draw of the warm springs, which are shaded by leafy trees and perfect for swimming, or the archaeological mystery of over 50 human-sized caves carved out of sandstone in a swampy forest patrolled by baboons.

The animals, however, prove elusive in Yankari, where uncontrolled poachers and herdsmen have made the game shy.

Taking one of the reserve's handful of safari vehicles out for a spin, guide Haruna Dandango headed into the dry bush, pointing out a herd of waterbuck by the river and white-whiskered tantalus monkeys sitting in the scrub.

But when asked to see the elephants and lions, Dandango gave a cryptic answer: "Safari is a game of luck, safari is a game of chance."

'Totally different world'

In some ways, Yankari is subject to forces beyond its control.

The Boko Haram insurgency, which has raged throughout northeast Nigeria since 2009, leaving at least 17,000 dead, is not a direct threat to the park.

Nevertheless it has frightened visitors from making the journey north. The Ebola outbreak in west Africa in recent years also resulted in cancelled trips across the whole continent.

But it wasn't so long ago that Yankari was on the world map.

Phil Marshall worked at the park for just under a decade from 1972, when 20,000 visitors — mostly expatriates — visited the reserve yearly.

Along with the expats there were also the "overlanders", groups of 20-something men and women travelling from London to Cape Town realising their dream of following in David Livingstone's footsteps in the twilight of the colonial empire.

"There were no serious security problems about driving across the Sahara desert, no terrorism, and the road was much travelled," 66-year-old Marshall said.

"You could drive all the way across, hear about Yankari's Wikki warm springs, before heading to Cameroon, Bangui in the Central African Republic was always on the route, then across to East Africa and down."

After a pause, Marshall reflected that back then, it was a "totally different world."

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