Conservationist and development communication specialist, Paddy Ezeala was a press officer in the Nigeria National Park Service and a Senior Manager, Media and Public Affairs of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). He was also Africa Communication Officer of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He discusses the state of Nigeria National Parks and the way forward, in this interview with Bennett Oghifo
As a conservationist, what, in your opinion, is the state of National Parks in the country?
Nigeria’s National Parks today are nothing to write home about. Both the Federal Government and the management of the National Parks are culpable in the continued degradation of the National Parks in the country and the evident and steady loss of biological diversity. Our National Parks have not in any way fulfilled or served the purpose for which they were established, if at all they have been of any use. This is so because nature is intolerant of corruption and mismanagement. If you embezzle the money meant for feeding animals in a zoo, the animals will die. If you don’t protect the plants and animals in a National park, poachers and illegal timber extractors will finish them. It is as simple as that. National Parks are those special areas where a sovereign state considers very important and deserving of conservation for posterity. It also includes important monuments. National Parks are very serious establishments and are held sacrosanct. They are not places to go and play or perturb the environment. Nigeria’s National Parks were established on these same foundations. Firstly, Decree No 36 of 1991 that originally set up the National Parks was born out of the wave of environmentalism that swept across the world in the 1980s and the early part of 1990s. So Nigeria was acting in response to that. You remember that the Earth Summit was held in Brazil in 1992. It was during the same period that we had the Endangered Species Decree 11 of 1985, the Establishment of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 under Decree No 58 and the promulgation of Environmental Impact Assessment Decree No 86 of 1992. National Parks should be central in our thinking, socio-cultural orientation and our quest towards the diversification of the economy.
How many National Parks are there in the country?
There are seven National Parks, namely, the Cross River National Park, Kainji Lake National Park, Old Oyo National Park, Gashaka Gumti National Park, Kamuku National Park, Chad Basin National Park and Okomu National Park. The former Yankari National Park was taken over by the Bauchi State Government. These National Parks are characterised by rich biodiversity and places of scenic importance. That’s why they qualify as National Parks in the first place. These Parks are witnessing various forms of degradation, or should I say abandonment. The management of the National Park Service, as constituted over the years, has proved incapable of protecting the natural resources within the confines of the National Parks. They have also failed abysmally to present the true position of things to the Federal Government and thereby deny the institution the serious attention it deserves. Park management and protection is a serious matter. Those who cannot rise to the occasion should give way. You should also note that there are no serious linkages and collaborations between educational and research institutions that we have in the country and our National Parks. How do we then interrogate our environment and instigate development-inducing findings. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) previously supported the National Parks in this regard, but nothing serious is happening anymore. We have rare species of plants and animals with some of them endemic to Nigeria. We neither make effort to understand what we have nor protect them. We even help other countries destroy theirs by constituting a traffic route for wildlife and its products. Nigeria is a traffic route for ivory but we don’t even have sizeable populations of elephants anymore.
What is the way forward?
National Park management is a serious business. Nigeria National Park Service needs help. They need help from technical partners and international donor agencies. I would not recommend the wholesale importation of models from other countries. Park management strategy must take into cognisance the peculiarities of the country. We have peculiar issues bothering us as a country. For instance, in developed countries, they do not eat bush meat nor roam in the forests looking for subsistence or even timber. In the United States, The National Monuments and Icons Sector is established under the Homeland Security and Presidential Directive. The US Park Police trains Park officials on awareness of suspicious activities. In South Africa, The South African National Defence Force is involved in the protection of rhinos in Kruger National Park. You can understand that tourism is an integral part of South African economy. Rhino poaching has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. All I am saying is that management and protection of our National Parks must be brought under the security architecture of the country. You cannot militarise a National Park but you must strike a balance. It is ludicrous when you see Nigerian National Parks have 10 old double barrell guns and machetes to guard thousands of square kilometres of forests. Even illegal loggers now carry guns while cutting timber in Cross River state. Many Park rangers have died in Nigerian National Parks in the hands of poachers and bandits. If we have the Niger Delta Development Commission to take care of oil producing communities why can’t we have a development programme for communities in and around our National Parks across the country since they are forbidden from living off the Parks? The people have survived for centuries through their interaction with the forests. Our mind-set towards park management must change. You also have to make sure that you have the research component of the National Parks well-organised and linked to different educational and research institutions. There should be some measure of collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and knowledge-seeking natural healthcare providers. National Parks must encourage and support research. Tourism must be promoted in a way that it will not impact negatively on the park even if it means privatising the tourism aspect of the park to those who can run it very well and generate revenue. It is only in Nigeria that some government establishments do not even know that they are supposed to be generating revenue. Collaboration with existing tour operators and the hospitality industry would not be out of place. Conservation and/national Park management must be an integral part of our story with regard to socio-economic development. National parks can contribute in many ways to economic development. Tourism is big business that raises huge funds, especially when there is peace and political stability. Tourism is better promoted and run by professionals. You must have people who are knowledgeable enough within the parks, and who will link up with others that are also knowledgeable in and outside the country. We cannot privatise National Parks. They are national heritage. You cannot give thousands of plant and animal species in National Parks, including forested landmass approximating 1% of Nigeria’s territory to individuals in the name of privatisation or economic development. But you can privatise the tourism aspect of it, promote it and generate revenue.
You stated that National Parks could constitute serious threat to national security, please explain.
If you have National Parks you must know what is inside. Where we have less than 100 park rangers with a few Den guns and 20 machetes to guard a National Park, we are not serious. Let’s accept that. It poses grave danger because four out of our seven National Parks are contiguous with equally rich and diverse forests and Parks in neighbouring countries. The military will tell you the difficulty inherent in handling situations in such areas; even the United States of America with all their fire power, suffered a lot in Vietnam. Our National Parks today are harbouring all kinds of people and security agencies are finding it difficult to track them down. We must make sure that National Parks are under constant surveillance. We must have adequate number of well-trained park rangers mixed with professional security men. There is a nexus between hard-to-handle insurgency or rebellion and very large thick forests. The experience of Angola, Colombia, Congo DR and Uganda readily comes to mind. Should I mention Sambisa forest, which used to be part of Chad Basin National Park? How can people equipped with outdated guns be made to confront bandits with AK 47 riffles and they continue to keep quiet while being killed. Where have the National Parks featured in the story of the insurgency in the North-east? We are not telling our story accurately. There have been pockets of what we call insurgency today in and around the parks for years and park rangers have been sighting them, sacking villages and police stations and running back into the forest. If we protect every part of the parks and know what is happening everywhere, this kind of things won’t be happening.
You said Nigeria’s National parks are a huge joke and mere corridors for possible invasion of the country anytime, how best can this be addressed?
They are a huge joke. There is no aspect of the Park management that you can score up to 20%. In all the departments, they have failed. But what people should be concerned about now is that it is not a joke for you to laugh at. It is a joke that has very terrible consequences. We never knew that the military would find it difficult to handle insurgency and all that because forest topography is different. In forest topography, anything can happen so they are not the only ones that find it difficult. Americans found it difficult in Vietnam; in Colombia, rebellion has been intractable. Anywhere there are large forests, it requires different approaches for military manoeuvres to yield results. So, we should know the seriousness of bringing our forests into the country’s security dragnet. We are losing revenue by mismanaging a place that should be an employer of labour. We are not contributing to knowledge as we should. Some people don’t know their environment; they don’t know the names of their plants, they don’t know the animals that they have; they don’t know anything. Not even the size of the country; the size of the National Parks they don’t know. And the National Park Service doesn’t provide the information they should provide. The total land area within the National Parks is more than 22, 000 square kilometres – more than 2% of the total size of Nigeria that is inadequately protected. Battalions of soldiers can come into the country, move into the National Parks and you will not know until maybe after a month or two. So that is where I come in and relevant authorities must act accordingly and fortify our National Parks; update and upgrade the management and engage more manpower and equipment.