Abuja, Nigeria: The African continent is regarded by many as the cradle of wildlife, and rightly so. From the most beautiful sunsets to powerful rainstorms, the continent is surrounded by the perfect meld of bushvelds, rivers, unspoilt beaches, wet coastlands and an amazing array of forests and animal safaris. In fact, the most popular images of Africa to date are ones of prancing wildebeests, roaring lions and galloping hyenas.
Africa has the most arable uncultivated land in the world. Nigeria, as the “giant” of Africa with a population of over 190 million, has its fair share of these resources. Elders in my local community still recount stories of their youthful adventures in their villages, living next-door to the wild. Unfortunately, with the advancement in urbanization and development has come increased disruptions in their ways of life forcing most of them out of natural environments and into the cities.
Many Africans today now live in towns and cities, laboring away for survival, oblivious to the wildlife reserve all around them. Sighting wild animals these days sometimes requires an uncomfortable degree of personal effort, so that in many parts of the continent, it is possible to live your entire life without visiting a forest or seeing majestic creatures of which our lands are known for. For instance, regardless of my African heritage, the first time I saw a lion was actually at a zoo in Dubai.
Governments across Africa occasionally take steps to preserve the natural reserve in their polities and to this end, the Nigerian government created national wildlife parks and reserves with a mission:
“To manage and regulate the use of these unique ecosystems designated as National Parks by such means and measures to preserve and conserve Nigeria’s heritage, particularly the fauna and flora, the habitats they live in, and the unique sceneries they afford. Its mission is to also provide human benefits and enjoyment in such manner and by such means so that these reserves are left unspoiled for generations to come”.
A very noble gesture, these parks are scattered across the country to conserve wildlife and preserve the diverse nature of the forests (grassland and savannah in the north; rainforests in the south) and late last year, I visited one such park on assignment for EWP.
The Kainji Lake National Park occupies a whopping 5,341 km² in the area surrounding the lake from which it derives its name and a drive-through left me amazed at the wonders of nature, and the brilliance of the animals I saw. Asides from the thrill presented by the wildlife, the state of the Park was nothing to write home about. The bushes were overgrown and the ponds poorly maintained. Parachutes for sightings were torn and patched, new ones ordered since forever and yet to arrive. The facilities were in varying states of disrepair and the administrative block needed a make-over. Nigeria is not alone in this, a good number of such facilities across the continent has been long overrun by the wild. Years after their establishment, some of these parks have pretty much retained the only thing they started out with; huge expanses of virgin land.
Now I think the staff are largely to be blamed for this because civil servants in third world countries are seldom the epitome of productivity. Suspecting also that poaching by the natives was bound to worsen an already bad managerial situation, I inquired from a park ranger what the most challenging aspect of his work was. To my surprise, he assured me that poaching was almost non-existent because the locals were very much interested in the conservation and preservation of nature and animal life in the park.
Their major challenge, he said, was the lack of desire by the government to actually manage the parks effectively, whether by hiring more dedicated staff, or by firing the non-challant ones. The consequence of this lack of corrective action is that members of the public are reluctant to visit ensuring that the parks generate little or no revenue – more justification for the government and politicians to further ignore these places. Thus, the locals and park employees remain trapped in the loop; caught up in a system created by governments who have grown too indifferent to actively chart progressive courses for their conservation parks.
To further add insult to this injury, these governments from time to time push for economic development at the detriment of these conservation centers and all they represent. In 2016, the state government of Nigeria’s Cross River State, proposed to build a super highway project which the state governor swore would be the solution to all of the region’s economic problems. Today, the impact of that decision is borne by large swathes of the Cross River National Park; home to the world’s rarest and now critically endangered ape, the Cross River gorilla.
This trend is hardly restricted to Nigeria nor to Africa. In the US, the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Geographic lists adjacent development, poor funding and infrastructures as just some of the top challenges facing its national parks. In North Carolina, Epic Games and Fortnite Studio founder Tim Sweeney has bought 40,000 acres of land to prevent it from being cut down. It seems politicians and the governments across the globe go from not really caring about these parks to not being able to keep their eyes off “empty forests”. Never mind that those forests harbour some of the most precious natural treasures of man.
In the sustainability movement, it is often easy to get trapped in the ‘eco’ chamber. Here, the extent of our activism often reaches only to what we see online. When we go farther, we only harp on the personal habits of individuals and buying habits. In all these, we sometimes forget that there is actually a world beyond our “virtual reality”, waiting to be explored and depending on us to be protected.
My trip to Kainji brought home two things in this regard: by direct contact with the animals and nature in the national park, I was shown once again the multi-facets of our world that is worth fighting for; and by keeping up the fight for conservation, regardless of what might have already been destroyed, there is a lot more that can still be saved.
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Images via Unsplash.