In this exclusive interview with Esther Salami of The News Chronicle, veterinarian and conservationist, Dr. Mark Ofua, the West Africa Representative, for the Wild Africa Fund, shares the evolving journey of the wildlife organization in Africa and Nigeria. He discusses the challenges facing Nigeria’s wildlife tourism and gives a peek into future plans to save Nigeria’s rich biodiversity. The efforts of the organization in raising awareness, promoting sustainable practices, and empowering communities are exceptional.
TNC: What are the challenges facing wildlife tourism in Nigeria?
Dr Mark: Wildlife tourism in Nigeria is currently bedeviled by so many challenges. The government over the years has seen very little reason to develop wildlife tourism. Facilities and structures are not in place to encourage the growth of this sector. Even the Ministry of Tourism has all but abandoned the wildlife aspect. A fallout of this noncommitment by the government is that our wildlife is also not protected. Daily wanton destruction of our forests and their animals is carried up with impunity and what animals we have that are of interest to tourism are lost in their numbers. Insecurity levels in the country are growing per day and this has made certain areas rich in biodiversity inaccessible to tourists. Host communities where this wildlife originates are highly ignorant of tourism potentials and view visitors as hostiles who want to stop them from harvesting bushmeat. Existing national parks and game reserves are very poorly publicised and as such even locals travel out of the country for wildlife tourism.
TNC: How would you compare wildlife in Nigeria to wildlife in other African countries, particularly in East Africa where they have thrived?
Dr. Mark: Nigeria’s approach to preserving her wildlife and selling its tourism potential to the work is a far cry from what its true potentials are. Other East and Southern African countries have maximized their wildlife tourism to such an extent that it is now a major foreign exchange earner for them, providing jobs for the populace and greatly boosting their GDP. You see the wildlife in these countries blossoming because strongly enforced extant laws protecting them exist.
TNC: You have been running a campaign urging Nigerians to say “No to Illegal Bushmeat.” Why is this campaign particularly relevant?
Dr. Mark: Saying ‘NO’ to illegal bushmeat is one major way to reverse the trend of the alarming and steady decline in our wildlife resources. The high consumption rate of illegal bushmeat, the meat of animals protected by law, is what’s responsible for driving our precious and beautiful biodiversity towards extinction. We strongly believe that when the buying stops, the killing can too.
TNC: How has the campaign impacted local communities and wildlife preservation efforts, and what specific strategies have been effective in reducing this practice?
Dr. Mark: The Wild Africa Fund campaign to reduce bushmeat consumption in Nigeria and thus preserve what’s left of her biodiversity is a fundamentally important one. We follow a holistic approach that covers public enlightenment on the dangers of destroying our wildlife to directly educate the bushmeat sellers and hunters responsible for this destruction while at the same time supporting them with alternate lifestyles that earn them income so they can quit destroying the environment. We also work with the government to increase its role in preserving the environment by encouraging and aiding enforce the of extant laws while reviewing obsolete ones and educating the masses. The effect of these efforts has been a steady and definite improvement and awakening in the country of the need to protect our wildlife and ways to achieve same. Environmental protecting agencies are revamped and new ones are created to better protect biodiversity. We very recently witnessed the incineration of seized wildlife products which is a first in this country. We are a far cry from where we need to be but we have definitely moved from the former points and the future is looking bright for conservation in Nigeria if we all do what’s expected of us.
TNC: How does the Wild Africa Fund approach the challenge of providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for individuals in the low-income class whose only source of income is tied to illegal bush meat activities?
Dr. Mark: It is interesting to know that from surveys carried out, these hunters all have an alternate source of livelihood. They only hunt to boost what they make. We partner with these people as well as bushmeat sellers to educate them properly. Other bushmeat not protected by law are still free for them to hunt and sell. We just direct them from the illegal ones now as a first step with the aim of controlling and then eradicating hunting and bushmeat selling pointing to what they are to lose if they run afoul of the law. On the other hand in some markets, we have set up a reward system where they can get Noiler chickens, a locally bred high-yield chicken with a gamy taste and high costs in the market from us as a reward for not hunting, killing, or selling protected wildlife and this so far has yielded good results. We also partner with and direct other poverty alleviation-related NGOs to these communities so that they have alternate sources of income.
TNC: Can you share some notable success stories from the Wild Africa Fund’s work in West Africa and their impact?
Dr. Mark: Wild Africa Fund is a conservation-focused NGO that originated in Africa by Africans and its major is conservation conversation and education. We are spreading rapidly across the continent and recording good success. In West Africa, we have gained good ground in Nigeria and Ghana with dedicated staff on the ground doing the work. The success we have recorded in our collaborations with the governments of these countries is resounding. New stronger and better laws protecting wildlife are being processed in these countries and government agencies are now more awake to their duties. Collaboration with Customs has seen more seizures coming in with arrests and prosecutions. Local communities and NGOs have seen a partnership that enhances their work. We have partnered with different news media and print media organizations to get the message out there more. Local celebrities and ambassadors have joined in the fight and race to protect our environment. Our Television program, Dr. Mark’s Animal TV show for kids, the first of its kind in Africa focused on teaching kids about indigenous animals and the need to save is a huge success and is rapidly gaining viewership across Africa currently showing in several countries across the continent.
TNC: Are there carbon offset projects that the Wild Africa Fund has supported? How have these initiatives contributed to the protection of forests and wildlife?
Dr. Mark: Carbon offset projects are still in the teething stages here in Nigeria and indeed Africa. So many challenges arise in the implementation of these in a continent of developing countries. The high level of corruption makes the execution of such even more challenging. Wild Africa Fund is in consultation with different agencies, NGOs, and governments on how best to execute these projects and to what level of commitment by the different stakeholders. We hope to see good results and outcomes in the near future. When fully implemented the goal is to see a drastically reduced need to further deplete our forest resources as healthy alternatives will be running. The indiscriminate use of forest resources as a livelihood source will then be a thing of the past.
TNC: How does the Wild Africa Fund plan to engage and educate children about wildlife conservation through the upcoming Dr. Mark animal show?
Dr. Mark: I have noticed over the years that our kids know so much about animals in the far West and would readily answer questions on the arctic fox, the narwhal, or the seal but are not found in Nigeria or even Africa but know nothing about Pangolins which occur in Nigeria and are severely threatened with extinction. This picture becomes more dismal when you realize these kids will take over the leadership of the country someday without a single passion for the environment. We find this is because the programs they watch on TV are all foreign documentaries. The Dr Marks Animal TV show for kids therefore seeks to strongly correct this anomaly by bringing to their screens a television series that will teach them about the rich biodiversity they have, their ecological role, and the need need to protect and preserve them so these kids will grow into individuals passionate about their immediate environment. They can then influence their parents and thus the government and when they grow will be more interested and better informed about their environment than their parents were. The dream is for this to also be in book form and ultimately be taught as environmental or conservation biology for kids in schools.
TNC: What can individuals do to help habitat and wildlife conservation in Nigeria?
Dr. Mark: Everyone indeed has a role to play in wildlife conservation in Nigeria. The first in our armoury therefore is to equip ourselves with the requisite knowledge of the environment and the animals in it why we need them and how we can help them. Education is key. This knowledge will drive us to better protect our wildlife. Also, we must lend our voices to speak out and condemn wildlife crimes and report to the relevant authorities when we witness such. We must pressure the government to further do its task in protecting our biodiversity. And importantly we must stop buying or eating illegal bushmeat and its byproducts because indeed, when the buying stops, the killing will stop too. Support NGOs like ours in our work and identify with what we do. The message will be stronger if we speak loudly with one voice.
TNC: How does the Wild Africa Fund plan to expand its conservation efforts in Nigeria in the coming years?
Dr. Mark: Wild Africa Fund came into Nigeria and hit the ground running. Our aim is to remove Nigeria from the relegation zone it formerly occupied in the ranking of nations and their willingness to protect their biodiversity to the top of the league. With the recent incineration of seized illegal wildlife products thus sending a strong message to the international community that it’s no longer business as usual and Nigeria will no longer stand to be used as a transit hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, I dare say we are out of that relaxation zone! We are however not relenting on our tasks, rather we are fired up more to expand the drive to make Nigeria an illegal wildlife-free zone and then from Nigeria secure the West African belt and thus protect the region. We are looking to increase our team while at the same time exploring how we can further partner with existing and new NGOs to this end. Our programs like celebrating our Unsung Heroes, ordinary and local people who have gone over and above board in their personal fight to save the environment give a huge boost to these individuals and encourage more people to do the same. We realize poaching steals from us all and we are determined to reverse the trend.