GEF-UNDP Project Targets Conservation of W/African Dwarf Crocodiles in Delta Community

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In Emu, a community in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State, the West African Dwarf Crocodile is held sacred by the indigenous people, who refer to the rare reptile as ‘Oni-Emu’, meaning the Mother of Emu. The UNDP, with support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), undertook a unique conservation project to save these reptiles from extinction. Bennett Oghifo reports

West African Dwarf Crocodiles mingle with the people of Emu in Delta State. They do not harm the people and the locals leave them alone. The community is bounded by rivers and these serve as the habitat and breeding ground of these rare reptiles.
Regardless of this peace and quiet between the reptiles and the community, there have been cases of third party incursions from neighbouring communities that have led to near-communal hostilities.

This is one of the endangered species of animals the Niger Delta Biodiversity Conservation Project (NDBP) seeks to protect.
The Niger Delta Biodiversity Conservation Project (NDBP) is a five-year biodiversity conservation programme within the Niger Delta. The programme is being implemented by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the support of Ministries of Environment within the implementing States, non-Governmental Organisations and the participating communities.

The main aim of the project is to enhance cooperation between the Government, the Oil and Gas industry and local communities within the Niger Delta in building and piloting new biodiversity action planning tools for proactive biodiversity management in the Niger Delta region.
In order to meet this objective, a set of activities were carried out, and among them is the implementation of Community Biodiversity Action Plan (CBAP) which started in 2014 within the participating Niger Delta States – Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers State.

Last December, a group of journalists, led by the project’s team leader, Dr. Mathew Dore visited communities where the UNDP has various demonstration projects in the participating states in the Niger Delta.

Conservation of Crocodiles in Emu…
Crocodiles are revered in Emu in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State and the people in the community call the Crocodile ‘our mother’. It is for good reason, said the King of Emu, when asked about the legend behind the relationship.

Speaking through one of his chiefs, the king said, “It is important to tell you how an animal became ‘our mother.’ Like stories have it, no community developed without inter-tribal war. During our own inter-tribal wars, two animals, a bird and the (West African Dwarf) crocodile, known locally as Oni Emu, assisted us. During our wars and after our fight with the community that wanted to over-run our kingdom, Oni Emu will block the road and for the fear of the colony of crocodiles the enemy will be unable to get to our community. As for the beautiful bird, when we leave the battle field, they would erase our foot prints from the sand so that those after use cannot track us. The Crocodiles also act as bridges for us to cross the river in times of war by arranging themselves head to tail for us to step on their backs to safety. They have protected us day and night and made it possible for us to have a big kingdom in Emu.”

Emu, he said has common boundaries with Ashaka, Kwale, Ogume and Abbi, explaining that it was because of the wars they were able to win with the support of Oni Emu and the beautiful bird.
The community, he said is surrounded by rivers, which have large population of Crocodiles. Unfortunately, when the team visited the community was about to perform burial rites for two of the sacred animals killed by someone from another community. They sent a delegation to the community’s king, demanding compensation and funding of the burial, which they said was conducted like that of any human in the community. The issue was resolved amicably. However, the community was advised to work towards making the area a conservancy, and that if this was achieved, there would be signs that would point to the existence of these rare reptiles in the area, as was done in developed countries.

Ikot Ondo conservation project…
Prior to the journey to Emu, the team got to the fringes of the Ikot Ondo forest in Akwa Ibom State, early afternoon, where a demonstration project on forest regeneration is being undertaken by Georgie Environmental Conservation Services (GECS), whose Chief Executive Officer is Mrs. Emem Umoh.

Ikot Ondo diversity project is community-based, she said and it is funded by the UNDP. “The sole objective of the project is to restore the degraded area of the forest. We did reconnaissance of the place, as well as detailed community consultation work and based on that we got the consent of the community to go ahead. We planted a total of a thousand trees covering two hectares of land.”

Umoh said her group still needs to plant another two hectares of land, but would first of all maintain the ones they had planted. Trees planted include Kolanut; sour sop, starapple, pepper fruit. “We have a good record of survival but in the next two years we will go and check on the progress of the seedlings and where needed we replant. We will also aggressively sensitise the community members on conservation; that is the first project given to that community, because they have never seen anything like this before.”

She said the community’s sensitisation would include identification of user-groups in the forest like hunters, those who collect food items, those doing illegal felling of trees. We will group them and see what we can do to give them an alternative, possibly give them an alternative livelihood source. We give them seedlings free of charge and encourage them to have their own private plantations.”

Akwa Ibom Government…
The team, led by Dr. Dore was accompanied on a courtesy call on the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Environment, Mr. Enobong Essien by Mr. Etido Okon Eyo; Mrs. Emem Umoh; and a representative of Tropical Research Centre, Mr. Idongesit Okon Eyo.
Dore briefed the commissioner on the scope and the importance of the Niger Delta Biodiversity projects and the importance of getting the Sclater’s Guenon specie of monkey on the nation’s tourism map.

“All we do in this project is to point the light, and we expect the states to take it from there,” he explained, adding that the rest was left to the community and the government.
He said it was the responsibility of the government to provide basic infrastructure leading to the sites where conservation projects existed in the communities to encourage tourism.
The Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Environment, Mr. Enobong Essien promised to call the attention of the government to the importance of building on what the UNDP had done in the community.

The commissioner said he would ensure its inclusion in future appropriation in the state.