‘Why governments, Nigerians must pay attention to wildlife’
Dr. Olajumoke Morenikeji is an Associate Professor of Parasitology/Ecology and Environmental Biology in the department of Zoology, University of Ibadan (UI). She is also the president of Nigerian Association of Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Parks (NAZAP); director, Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library Wildlife Park and the coordinator of Pangolin Conservation Group in Nigeria. She spoke to TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA on why government and Nigerians must preserve Nigeria’s rich wildlife.
What is Nigerians’ appreciation of the wildlife resources?
We have a long way to go as Nigerians in the taking care of and being conscious of our wildlife.
As a country, we are not dedicated to wildlife, its management and conservation. We are more bogged down with some other issues.
The federal and state governments are not really interested in wildlife matters and as individuals, most people are less concerned; they have other things bogging their lives.
We are like a country that does not really take notice of our environment. And this is something we have to repent from.
What is your assessment of visits to wildlife parks?
I have handled a few parks and zoos and I have also been part of the maintenance of some across the country.
I was a former director of the UI Zoo and during those years when I was a director, there were so many things put in place to attract more visitors.
We had more school pupils visiting. And that means a lot because we are not the kind of people that naturally go out of our way to go and relax.
There are too many issues that we are trying to deal with so it leaves little time for such educative relaxation.
People work 24/7, seven days a week though at festive periods we have more people slow down by coming in to the parks.
I am also involved with the Olusegun Obasanjo Wildlife Park, which was opened to the public last year.
On the day we were doing the opening, people could not believe the number of visitors that we recorded. And it is really thriving right now.
When we have more parks like that springing up for research and conservation, the appreciation of Nigerians towards the environment will improve.
Our life and existence depends on the environment and there is a need for us to take care of the environment, which includes the wildlife.
This is why we have been talking to some state governments that their zoos and parks do not die and the national parks need a lot of attention from the federal government.
Our attitude to wildlife is not too good enough. I have been to some countries where they don’t touch their wildlife.
They are very protective of their wildlife and pushing for clean environment. We are still not there though our existence depends on the environment.
What are the potential of national parks?
When I was the director of the Zoological Garden at UI, we hosted national and international workshops.
NAZAP was an offshoot of those workshops, because all the zoo workers and practitioners came for those workshops.
So, we agreed to do something about the sector because nobody was doing anything about zoos in Nigeria.
When we talk about zoos and parks, it is not just about entertainment and relaxation. It is good education for kids because what children see is better than what they read because they grasp it better.
It can also be used for research and conservation, which is making sure that these animals continue to thrive and exist without going extinct.
These days, there are so many plants and animals are endangered.
I am very interested in the endangered animals, which means there are very few left in the world. If we don’t take care, we will just wake up one day and find out that they are no more.
Why is it important to preserve wildlife?
The whole world is an ecosystem. There is need for a balancing. The moment you remove one, you are actually destabilizing everything.
Just like removing one leg of a four-leg table. That is why I have decided to take over one of the very endangered animals.
It is not only an endangered animal, it is also the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world, which is the pangolin.
It is a very small mammal that is trafficked more than the elephant tusks. In the olden days, they were all over the place but now, you can hardly see them.
They are used by humans as a delicacy, the meat is very sweet and then it is used in traditional medicine and it is not just used in Africa, it is used in Asia as well and they are only found in those two continents – Africa and Asia.
The Asians use theirs for traditional medicine. Every part of the animal is useful for them, even the fetus.
In fact, if you are a rich man in China, you could order pangolin just to show affluence. Off course, it will be over hunted and over exploited.
Their attention is now on Africa. If you go to remote villages where there is pangolin, you will find Chinese men there. They buy it at an exorbitant price, one small one can be N5000 or more.
Then there is the illegal shipping of pangolin scales, which are just like your fingernails. It is used in traditional medicine.
Some members of my group went to a place in Ikire in Osun State and saw Chinese men in that remote village who came there to buy these things.
After sometime, you might be shocked if those animals go extinct if nobody is doing anything.
So, we came together as a group to sensitize the public on its preservation. For three years now, we have celebrated the pangolin on every world pangolin day, which is the third Saturday in February. Our gospel is to educate the children to love the environment.
We bring the hunters together, go on expedition with them and what we do is whenever they see pangolins, we get it from them and transfer to government protected forest areas.
We have quite a number of them in the east and the west to return them to their natural habitat so that they can breed.
Apart from the unsustainable killings of pangolins, what can they do for the ecosystem?
A lot. One pangolin would eat like 70 million insects in one year. These insects include crop pests.
If you remove all the pangolins on earth, there will be total imbalance because you can’t just leave crop pest to flourish.
There is nothing you remove from the earth that you won’t feel it because they are all serving as buffers for our existence as humans. They are like checks and balances.
Also, they are animals that are very disadvantaged, they are defenseless. Forget about the scales, they are just like finger nails, it doesn’t hurt anybody.
A small child can pick up a pangolin. Once you touch it, it curls up into a ball like millipedes do.
They are also solitary animals, they are not social animals. One pangolin can be here and another one far away in the bush and when two pangolins meet and there is breeding, they only give birth to one at a time.
I got so interested because when I was a director of UI Zoo, every time they brought a pangolin, it died a few days later.
Until we discovered that it needed to be in its natural environment to survive. It is difficult to keep in captivity.
That is why in some countries, you have places like sanctuaries and what our association is trying to preach to the government is that let us have an animal rescue centre with special needs where endangered and wildlife are kept.
In the Nairobi animal park, there are some animals left to roam and visitors don’t disturb them. There should also be at least one zoo park in every state.
What should government do to preserve our wildlife?
Nigeria should diversify, we can’t just sit on oil alone that is even fading. Let us take charge of our God-given resources. These are the challenges.
The association is also planning for a wildlife advocacy group in every state. We have spoken with several state governments.
Federal and state governments should upgrade their zoos, make them functional, make them meet international standards, and operate with best practices, so that our wildlife can do well.
There was this Benin episode where they wanted to convert the land for building purpose. We went to the state government and said no.
The land they wanted to take was one of the richest forest areas in Nigeria. You should preserve what you have and not unsustainably destroy them.
In Port Harcourt, they wanted to relocate the zoo because they felt it was not useful.
Meanwhile, zoos are educational hubs where children can come face to face with animals for the first time in their lives because most of them will never enter the forests and they are able to learn, understand and appreciate nature, which will translate to them loving the environment.
Zoos are also research hubs. So, we were able to convince them not to relocate the zoos to some lace nobody will go.
These are the things we are doing as an association and I think we are getting some success.