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Nigeria needs stronger laws to protect endangered species

By Chinedum Uwaegbulam
27 February 2023   |   3:27 am
Deforestation goes beyond protecting endangered species; there are also trade in wildlife and hunting. Importation and exportation and consumption of bush meat are some of the big issues for Nigeria.

Peter Knights

Peter Knights is the co- founder and Chief Executive Officer, Wild Africa Fund. He spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on how the organisation promotes wildlife tourism, carbon offset as sources of conservation and sustainable development funding, as well as reduce demand for wildlife products.

In Nigeria, the rate of deforestation has continued to increase and putting to risk endangered species. What are the other challenges observed in the country and the remedy?
Deforestation goes beyond protecting endangered species; there are also trade in wildlife and hunting. Importation and exportation and consumption of bush meat are some of the big issues for Nigeria.

One of the things that need to happen is to have stronger laws. An Endangered Species Conservation and Protection Bill to combat wildlife trafficking and protect highly endangered species is before the Federal House of Representatives.

Prepared by the Federal Ministry of Environment and jointly sponsored by Chair of the House Environment Committee, Hon. Johnson Oghuma and Hon. Sam Onuigbo, the legislation would make Nigeria compliant with international conventions on endangered species, tackle organised crime and corruption, while increasing investigative powers to include financial enquiries and intelligence-led operations.

In addition to creating offences for damaging critical habitats, prevent violations and introduction of invasive species, obstruct and prevent the committing of an illegal act, the Bill, which has passed the first reading recently would increase penalties to reflect the seriousness of the crimes and their impact on endangered species; expand courts’ ability to expedite wildlife cases and recover assets, create corporate liability and support international cooperation.

Currently, most of Nigeria’s legislation are obsolete, while the penalties are not commensurate with the crime committed and not in tune with modern times. The bill would help them to draft proper and stronger laws. If we can assist them to pass this in Nigeria, it would be state of the art legislation. When you have the law, off course you have to enforce them.

Enforcement is a major element and part of that law gives increased prosecutorial powers to National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), the agency in charge with prosecution of offenders and more of that can take place.

This intervention needs more of public awareness for people to understand what the laws are; penalties and that government are cracking down on these illegal activities. As you know, we have been working with government and media to increase the awareness.

In some cases, we need to look at alternatives, for instance, in the bush meat trade; we need to look at alternative livelihoods for the people, that are very sustainable like organic chicken rearing or fish farming as a pilot to the unsustainable illegal trafficking. So, it is a combination of laws, enforcement and public awareness.

The United States Department says corruption in Nigeria fuels illegal wildlife trade, especially pangolins scales and ivory. How do we tackle this?
It is a huge challenge. In checking corruption, one of things you can do is to shine the light on corrupt officials. Media attention on these areas helps to reduce corruption. Obviously, the government can prosecute officials and follow up on such officials.

Corruption likes to hide in the dark, it doesn’t want to be brought to the light. It is also about awareness and publicity, while government should follow up these cases and be transparent in prosecutorial activities. This comes back to priorisation and profile as WildAid has got a little bit profile in this aspect.

We have to give credit to Nigerian Customs Service as they have made large seizures that clearly show that within Nigeria Customs on this aspect, there is no corruption. People are doing their jobs very well. But the system has fallen down in prosecuting these individuals and largely because of the weaknesses in the law. So, there are so many fine civil servants in Nigeria that are not corrupt.

In your own country, how do you ensure checks and balances in the system; in that regard?
It is very straight in America and Britain, as officials are not allowed to accept even a cup of coffee. Everyone is conscious of it even when people get involved; they’re prosecuted, but it is very rare for government officials to be involved in corruption.

Probably, because they are well paid than their counterpart in Nigeria. The problem is when government officials are paid very low amount; it encourages corruption in the system. The government should ensure that officials are paid fair salaries, so that they don’t try to subsidise it with corrupt activities.

How are you prevailing on government to implement its obligations under international and national laws to deter, detect, disrupt and prosecute wildlife tracking and associated corruption?
Absolutely, first of all, we have been working with the Federal Ministry of Environment and other agencies such as Nigerian Customs to increase public awareness and ensure the public is aware of what is going on, as well as ensure the public supports the goods works they’re doing.

We are also providing where we can, technical support. For instance, in the case of Customs, we are starting a significant programme with them, where we would be providing dogs to be trained to detect ivory, pangolin scales and other wildlife products, as well as training the handlers.

Another thing we have piloted and hoping the government would take it up on the long run is providing people involved in bush meat trade with alternative income. We have a small project we piloted, where hunters and sellers of wildlife are provided with some organic chicken to rear as alternative income.

So far, the result is quite encouraging and it may be very early to assess the programme. But, if people have alternatives in some cases, they’re prepared to stop illegal activities. We expect the government to take up the programme on a bigger scale and make them legal meat suppliers.

The global biodiversity conference ended in December and the target is to reduce to near zero loss of areas of high biodiversity. How can Nigeria achieve this?
It is a challenging task for Nigeria. Obviously, reducing deforestation is a major way to start law enforcement and ensure illegal disforestation does not continue, as well as cracking down on illegal wildlife trafficking and undertaking public education. That’s what we are trying to do through the media and make people aware of the impact of loss of biodiversity.

What is your assessment of WildAid programme one year after it was launched in Nigeria? Conservationists say, so little has been achieved. Is that true?
We have done the largest possible ever public awareness campaign in Nigeria. Other people will tell you that these issues got very little coverage but now there are a lot of media attention and interest. We have seen the legislature sponsoring bills, which is another great step of progress.

Recently, we were at the wildlife market. When we started three years ago, there where several pangolins on sale. Now, the people are telling us they no longer sell pangolin meat because of the education and awareness. We are happy with the media coverage and personalities that joined in the campaign.

There has also been significant progress in conservation and our goal has been to prop up Nigeria to go from the relegation zone ,in football terms, to playing in the global league in wildlife conservation. Right now, they’re on their way to doing that.

You recently launched Wild Africa Fund in Nigeria. Why did you leave Wild Aid?
My wife and I decided to focus exclusively on working in Africa and supporting African conservation. WildAid is a global organisation. We wanted to focus exclusively on wildlife in Africa. That’s why we set up the Wild Africa Fund (WAF). We are still working closely with WildAid. We are continuing with WildAid programme here in Nigeria. For us, it is more of focus than change of mission. The mission is the same, we are focusing on Africa.