Recently, a workshop was organised for media practitioners by the management of the National Parks Service. OLAOLU OLADIPO, in this interview with the Conservator-General, Alhaji Haruna Tanko Abubakar, probes into the activities of the service, its challenges and prospects.
Can you state the core mandate of your organisation?
The activities of the National Parks Service began in 1979 with the establishment of the Kainji Lake National Park. Our core mandate, as stipulated by the law establishing the service, is conservation and preservation of resources which can be termed as constituting our national heritage.
These assets could be biotic or abiotic in nature, which are, or could be, found within the nation's ecological system that we call national parks. In order to carry this out, we need to give the service a proper attention that it deserves.
How many parks are under the control of the National Parks Service?
At the moment, we have seven national parks. These seven parks are located across the nation. They are all in the various ecological zones of the country, with the exception of the coastal marine eco-system. In 1991, the government promulgated a decree that brought all the parks together and, by then, six others had been established, namely Chad Basin, Cross Rivers, Gashaka-Gumti, Old-Oyo, Okomu and Kamuku along with that of Kainji Lake National Park.
In your opinion, do you think that the country has met the standard requirements for conservation?
I don't think so. Based on the statistics at our disposal, the combined reserved areas across the country is merely 12%, a far cry from the International Conservation Union (ICU) requirements 22 percent of the landmass for the purpose of conservation.
Out of the 12 percent that had been set aside for conservation purposes, about 2.2 percent, amounting to a mere 22, 185 sq kilometres is for wildlife conservation out of 923,768sq kilometres total land mass. So, for us, government should make efforts to meet up with the requirements in line with global standards.
Can you share the story of the service's journey since inception?
Like any other organisation, you know there will always be numerous challenges in the way we manage our parks and assets.
You can imagine that the various parks will have their own peculiarities that make them so distinct and unique. Also, imagine a park with about 7,000 square metres, equivalent of about two states in some instance. We are expected to have proper control over such facility by managing the resources there. You will agree with me that to be able to do this is no small job at all.
To do well, we have to provide a means of access roads both within and outside the parks, so that we have adequate ability for effective patrol. In the process of this, we do corporate social responsibility initiatives, since the national parks are mostly located in many local communities. The livelihood of the people in these communities depends largely on the resources that abound in these parks, so we have to devise ways and means of how we can forge mutual collaborative synergy.
This is needed so that we don't allow them to come in and destroy these resources. If we are to stop them from destroying these assets, we have to empower them to do something else. Conservations is all about human beings. You know, no society is completely perfect; there will always be mischief-makers, who will always be deviant in nature, I mean, people who encroach illegally into the various parks to destroy the assets.
They poach on animals, and on some of these plants under the guise that they want to use some of the leaves and bark for medicinal use. You see, one has to be careful in the way one deals with this class of people; when you go for them, there will always be retaliation from them. For instance, rangers who are employed as guards have been victims of attacks from poachers who kill them in the course of patrolling the parks.
From the way you've spoken, it seems the only set of people that encroach are poachers
No, they are not the only set of people that we contend with; we also have people who come into the various parks to log wood to get firewood. We have a closed-door management. That is to say that we do not allow people to come to the various parks to cut trees without express approval from the service or management of the parks.
That means that if you must come to the parks, you must be permitted, and there are some regulations guiding such visitations. When you are coming in, for instance, we won't allow you to come with firearms, because we might not know your motive, which could be to kill the animals.
What are the major requirements for effective service delivery?
Like I said, the need to have full and effective control of these parks means that there must be proper and well laid out jeep routes, fit and combat-ready personnel who must be mobile at all times. We must have adequate patrol vehicles to move personnel around. In a nutshell, these are some of the challenges that we have.
What about funding?
The Federal Government is doing it best through several interventions. The government, through the Ministry of Environment, has been helping us, but we feel that the government should do more, especially in the area of funding and provision of adequate infrastructure in terms of accessibility to the parks.
They can help in tarring the roads from the various towns leading to the parks, so that there will be total and complete surveillance to provide adequate security to both the tourists and the resources, particularly the animals.
What kind of relationship exists between you various parks and their host communities?
Our philosophy is that, when you are carrying out your conservation efforts, at least you must empower the citizens of host communities to keep them busy, so that they will not be tempted to want to turn to the parks for means of livelihood. We can work in isolation of the host communities; in fact, in order to be more effective in discharging our responsibilities; we have to carry the communities along in all our activities. We do that through an initiative that we termed 'Support Zone Programmes'.
It is a kind of intervention in line with government policy that stipulates that all parks at given areas must ensure that 60 per cent of personnel to be employed come from the catchment areas where the parks are sited. Secondly, we make sure that whatever comes out in terms of service, we engage the locals. Besides, we try to run a non-governmental organisation who source for money and come out with numerous intervention programmes.
How is that done?
Some of the communities are given a kind of revolving loans to the people. We also train the people on some skills, so that they can engage themselves in productive activities. The aim is to keep them busy and useful not only to their communities but also to the parks as relevant stakeholders. These schemes have been helping and they have come to properly cement the relationship between us and the communities, who now see us as partners in progress.
The National Assembly is considering a Bill that would regulate the activities of nomadic farmers and one of the key ingredients of the Bill is to provide for designated grazing facilities in various states for them to feed their animals. What is your view on this?
To us, we believe it is a good step in the right direction. You know that the various tiers of government have these grazing reserves; it is just that they are not functional owing to what I can call poor management. The reserve is supposed to serve as an area where the livestocks are collected for grazing and for securing drinking water.
When you go to the grazing areas, the pastures I mean, the grasses are no longer there. Again, most of the grazing parks have been encroached upon by people who have built homes on them. In the alternative, because these people want to nourish their livestocks, so they have no choice than to channel their herds towards the national parks for grazing. Of course, you know that in the national parks, you have resources in which the animals would feed but by our laws, such practices are not allowed.
Apart from the law, there are chances of communicating some of the diseases known to afflict livestocks on the animals at the parks. The problem is that if you can control and treat that of the livestock, it is very difficult to do same with the animals at the parks.
For instance, when you look at the buffalo and the cow, the cow can communicate rinder pest disease to the buffalo, if you control it in the livestock, can you do the same thing for the buffalo? The problem if left unchecked can lead to the death of many of the wild animal species.
It is usually easy for birds to migrate; how do you check migration of animals in the various parks?
This position must be stressed, whether it is birds or animals, they are all wild life. The reality is that we can't stop animals from migration. That is why there are no borders in our operations. Under normal circumstances, a game reserve is supposed to be an open range. The wild animals are retained in the parks because they have everything at their disposal for survival.
That is why, if you are managing such resources, there is the need to have some kind of inventory of your animal stock so that you know the carrying capacity. If you have overshot the carrying capacity, there is a tendency that a certain given area will be overgrazed.
So, because of that, there will be shortages of the canopy that the animal will require and that will prompt the animals to move away to somewhere else. In our Chad Basin area, in the dry season because - there is no reliable water catchment area - the animals tend to move to Cameroon.
You have been canvassing for upgrading the service to a paramilitary force;can you tell us what you aim to achieve with such?
Yes! It is something we have been working towards it for some time and we are enjoying the support of the Minister for the Environment who has been championing our cause at the cabinet level. It will interest you to know that the Hajia Hadiza Mailafia, the minister, has made moves that had reached an advanced stage to bring the quest to reality. The operations of our personnel in the service are even more daunting than some of these paramilitary organisations.
Apart from the issue of parity, there is the need to safeguard the welfare of our men, whose salary structure and condition of service we want to improve upon. This can only be taken care of when the upgrade is completed. That's the reason why we are want parity with similar other outfits such as the Customs, the Immigrations and the Civil Defence Corps.
Recently, the service organised a workshop for travel journalists on conservation; what do you hope to achieve with such initiative?
There are so many benefits that were achieved through the workshop as participants were equipped with the right knowledge on the issue of conservation, what we do, how we do them as well as our locations and contacts. It was a veritable means of forging a synergy with the media.