As reported cases of animals facing the threat of extinction daily make the rounds, a contrary scenario is however emerging in certain parts of Nigeria, where wildlife still has a fighting chance of survival.
Conservation of fauna, spurred by socio-cultural beliefs, has become the hallmark of some indigenous communities in the biological diversity-rich Niger Delta region, where animals are revered.
The monkey, tortoise and the even the crocodile are among a few “lucky” animal species that the Niger Delta Biodiversity Conservation Project is assisting local communities to preserve, in the face of increasing threat to their survival.
The initiative is being supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
For example, a scheme domiciled in the community forest of Ikot Uso Akpan Itam, Itu in Akwa Ibom State specialises in the conservation of a monkey species endemic to Nigeria, known as Sclater’s Guenon (Cercopithecus sclateri).
It is an Old World monkey that was first described by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1904 and named after Philip Sclater.
The council of elders, led by the village head, Chief Asuquo Simon, told EnviroNews that the Ikot Uso Akpan community has high regard for the primates, which he stated can only be found in the community forest and no where else.
According to him, hunting of the animals is prohibited because they are sacred to the community.
He said: “We call the monkeys the ‘First Daughter’ of Itam – Awa Itam. The monkeys give us pride; they make us bold to tell people in the world that we are the only community that owns everything because our monkeys stay on top of every animal on the ground. Monkeys that are seen in surrounding communities are from our community and, at the end of the day, they usually return to their home in our forest where they are safe.
“This is the only community that conserves the plants – the trees, fruits that these monkeys eat. We thank the UNDP that gave us money to plant these trees- we have done it and the fruit trees grow very well and very soon the monkeys will start eating the fruits.”
Chief Simon stressed that monkeys have made the community popular, and that there is a cordial relationship between them and members of the community. According to him, the primates mimic the women when they knead ropes.
The women leader confirmed the village head’s assertion, stating that the monkeys are friendly and do not cause them any harm. “We see the Monkeys as our sisters and brothers. They chase away other animals, particularly grasscutters from destroying our crops. The monkeys are a special gift from God. We don’t harm them, and we don’t eat them” she disclosed.
The project’s team leader, Dr. Matthew Dore, advised the community leaders to take the monkey conservation initiative a step further by, with the support of the state government, putting their mascot an image of the monkey) at the airport in Uyo.
“This community should declare a Sclater’s Guenon Conservation Day, a day set aside to mark the conservation efforts of this community; when lovers of the primates and those who want to associate with them would come and celebrate them. It should be called the Sclater’s Guenon Day,” the conservationist suggested.
The Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Environment and Mineral Resources, Dr. Iniobong Ene Essien, spoke in a similar vein with Dore.
His words: “We will give political exposure to that community. If we do a proper package, we should be able to do something close to what has been suggested. We will work closely with the director, take a closer look at the community and see what we can do. This is commendable, considering the fact that, at a time like this, many species are endangered.”
In the Emu Kingdom in Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State, the West African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) is cherished by indigenes. According to the king, Johnson Ekpechiulu, the reptile is regarded as “the mother of the land.”
He said: “The crocodile is revered in this society. The reason for this dates back to history. The story is that they protected us very well both day and night, and made it possible for us to have such a big kingdom like this.
“It is a sacred and forbidden animal. They do not harm us; they eat our left-over food and sleep in the neighbourhood. We bury the crocodile as we bury the living dead amomgst us.”
At the Onura Forest in Alesa, Eleme in River State, the community is protecting the tortoise as well as the forest, which villagers are concerned is fast being depleted.
In fact, under the Community Biodiversity Action Plan (CEBAP), a section of the forest will be fenced, essentially to keep the animals from wandering beyond the confines of the jungle onto the highway where they get crushed by vehicles.
Emperor J. D. Nkpe, Paramount Ruler of Alesa-Eleme, said: “The tortoise is sacred to us, and people are not allowed to hunt them. In fact, it is forbidden to kill a tortoise in this community. And we are concerned that some get killed accidentaly by motorists plying the highway; these are usually those that left their abode in the forest.
“So we intend to fence the forest to, among other reasons, prevent further deaths of the cherished animals. Indeed, whenever I see them on the road, either wandering or being offered for sale, I buy them and return them back to the forest.”
The Niger Delta Biodiversity Conservation Project (NDBP) is a five-year biological diversity conservation programme within the Niger Delta region. The programme is being implemented by GEF and UNDP with the support of Ministries of Environment within the implementing states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the participating communities.
The main aim of the project is to enhance cooperation between the government, the oil & gas industry and local communities within the Niger Delta in building and piloting new biodiversity action planning tools for proactive biodiversity management in the region.
In order to meet this objective, a set of activities were carried out, and among them is the implementation of CBAP, which commenced in 2014 within the participating states – Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers.
By Michael Simire