The authorities could do more to protect wildlife

The conservation community is gravely outraged by a recent gory video of an African Manatee being dragged through the street of a coastal community in Bayelsa State. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) is also concerned by this ugly development, particularly because the African Manatee is an endangered species, with a population put at 10,000. We hope the authorities will move beyond rhetoric to ensure such never happens again.

There are three species of Manatee in the Nigerian waters, and in some West African countries: The Amazonian, the West Indian and the West African. Researchers say they live between 40 and 60 years in the wild. The mammal is protected by international law to save it from extinction. On Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), for instance, the African manatee is listed as endangered. While laws exist to protect the African manatee in every country in which it lives, these laws are not well enforced, especially in Nigeria. Due to this lack of enforcement and minimal education, the African manatee population is being steadily depleted.

Several new studies of Manatees in Nigeria have begun in the last five years, including at the University of Uyo, Cross River State. Named African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) for the reason that it is found in this region only, the species is mostly herbivorous. But it is believed to be endangered in Nigeria due to hunting and incidental capture during fishing operations, including the use of explosives in rivers. Another substantial threat is habitat destruction due to oil pollution. Conservationists believe the manatee is a vulnerable species because of its meat, oil, bones, and skin, which can bring great wealth to poachers. It is also hunted for organs used in traditional medicine, particularly the male reproductive organ which scientists say is used as aphrodisiac. In Nigeria and Cameroon, they are sold to zoos, aquariums, online as pets, and are sometimes shipped internationally. These poachers are gradually depleting the very small population of African Manatees to the utter distress of conservationists, despite the campaigns across local populations.

The unprovoked attack of that African Manatee in Bayelsa State is a clear indication that more education needs to be done in addition to strict enforcement of protection laws. However, it is also encouraging that the federal government has promised to take up and treat the case of this particular distressed manatee and other conservation issues with the firmness they deserve. More importantly, the government must take the lead in educating people in coastal communities, as well as those on the banks of rivers and lakes on the imperative of protecting the African Manatee and other endangered wildlife.

In doing so, the government should empower local community fishing groups on safe methods and educate school children through well-planned mentorship and training programmes on the conservation of the Manatee and protection of the marine ecosystem. They should be educated on the vital role Manatees play in helping to control the vegetation that can obstruct waterways. They also provide a benefit by processing the vegetation they eat and passing it back into the environment as a form of fertiliser. Interestingly, there have been efforts by some non-state actors in Nigeria to provide alternative livelihoods in catfish aquaculture to Manatee hunters. They were given incentives like training and equipment to enable them stop the killing of Manatees. This programme should be sustained.