2 January 2016

Nigeria: Jos Lion - How Killing of Leo Stole the Glamour From a 43-Year-Old Zoo

Jos — In what could pass for the Part IV of the Disney animation, Lion King, it took the tribe of hyenas at the Jos Wildlife Park only a few hours to end the sight of the carcass of the lion tossed at their feet. They crushed the bones in a feast that almost tripled their daily ration.

The 3-year-old wildcat which was born and raised in that park located at the Federal Low Cost area of the Plateau State capital of Jos in the North-central area of Nigeria, was part of the big dream of a founding father and first governor of the old Benue-Plateau State, Joseph Dechi Gomwalk.

The Jos Wildlife Park is among the foremost tourist destinations established by Gomwalk in 1972, the others being Pandam Wildlife Park and Wase Rock Game Reserve.

A graduate of zoology from the University of Ibadan, Gomwalk, who was a police commissioner, hired the services of a British, who was his former university professor, Mrs. Sylvia Sykes, to establish these parks.

Several years after the death of Professor Sylvia Sykes, a lion was to be born on this park as one of the fruits of that great vision.

Leo, as the lion was named by the park management, would also not live long. John Doy, the general manager of the Plateau State Tourism Corporation, the body responsible for the management of the park, was severally quoted in the media complaining that funding shortfall was killing Gomwalk's vision.

Feeding of the few animals at the zoo became a problem due to poor funding, Trust on Sunday learnt during a visit there.

Twenty AK-47 bullets

On the morning of Wednesday, December 2, 2015, the lion left his mother-the only mate in that rusty cage-and jumped unto a platform that provides access to the rooftop of the lions' cage located at the end of the Park Bar.

"The lion hit his head on the roof, tore off effortlessly and jumped out of the confinement," Stanley Kumnang, the park manager, said while conducting this reporter round the cage.

Christopher Gyang, a keeper who feeds the lion, on that fateful day, around 8am, captured vividly the escape of Leo from its confinement. "I was close to the cage, when I spotted the lion on the raised platform in the cage," he said. "It took the lion just seconds to make it to the rooftop of the cage where it began to hit its head against it.

"The lion jumped down. So I dropped the goat and ran off. The lion quickly seized the goat and began to eat it, while I watched from a distance, shouting."

Gyang's alarm attracted the attention of the management staffers who placed calls to some of the retired lion handlers.

Nyam said: "Only two were available to answer to our distress call. They came and were handed guns in the attempt to handle the lion and return it to the cage, not to kill it.

One of the park keepers who witnessed the shooting said: "The first shot was fired at about 8am. The lion was hit on the right thigh, close to the waist. The lion ran back and was not seen again, until at around 2pm."

The police heard the news of the escape of the lion, and without contacting the management of the park for information, went on live radio broadcast, warning the residents of Jos to stay indoors.

The situation caused panic and led to making of calls by residents, including from official quarters, putting the tourism corporation under pressures, said the management.

The management later invited troops from the Special Task Force (STF) to assist the two ex-lion hunters in arresting the lion.

Kumnang called workers, stopping them from taking the eastern route of the porous park, where the lion disappeared to after it was shot on the hind leg.

Sati Goyang, who mans the bar at the park, however, said that he was not warned off that route, which links Angulu Jos through Tudun Wada, adding: "I took that route and I saw blood along the road. I heard some unusual sound and something like footsteps in a distance. But I walked on, until I spotted soldiers in a large number at the eastern gate. I asked, and they told me a lion bolted out of the cage."

Hours later, the lion was making its way back to the cage.

Doy added: "The animal was actually returning to its cage. You know it was born there, so that cage has become its habitat. So it was actually heading back to the cage, maybe to drink water, or meet the lioness. Maybe the soldier, you know, from fear, decided to shoot at the animal, we can't say."

He declined to state how many shots took down the lion, but a witness said: "The lion was shot severally. The soldiers came with loaded guns, and they were excited. They shot the lion over 20 times."

Doy confirmed that the lion had gun wounds on the chest.

Spokesman of the STF, Ikedichi Iweha, an Army captain, told Daily Trust on Sunday on phone that the operation acted to save the people, adding: "Our men would have loved to handle the situation differently."

No tranquilizers, only bullets

Sniffing the life out of young Leo sparked a worldwide outrage. "The right thing for the management to do was simply for a veterinary-if the park had a good vet department-to dart this animal and took it back to the enclosure," Giel De Kock, an animal rights activist told Daily Trust on Sunday in a mail.

De Kock, an expert at the South Africcan Park Planning and Development, recalled: "When I had a lion that broke out on a regular basis, then, we first look at an opportunity to Trans-locate it to another park.

"The last resort was to shoot it if everything else fails, but every effort was to keep such a prime lion alive. "Shooting is really the last option on the list. The only time a lion will be shot immediately is when it kills a human being."

Other animal rights activists have reacted, according to Dr. Shase-et Spak, who is also the chairman of the Nigerian Veterinary Medical Association (NVMA), in the state.

Shase-et said that he is consulting to take up the matter with the park.

The vet said: "I have received many calls from my colleagues, who are animal rights activists. They are not happy."

But he was not specific if the consultation he talked about will lead to taking legal actions against the park's management.

An activist said: "Lions are endangered species of wildlife, and their bones are as scarce and hard to find as the animals themselves... To so feed the carcass to hyenas when the bones would have been preserved for studies in a tertiary institution is unforgiving."

But Doy said: "We don't have tranquilisers and dart guns. We have not had any experience to require them."

He corrected an earlier statement he made that the park was not licensed by NAFDAC to get the controlled drug.

He acknowledged that his directive for the park personnel to feed the body of Leo to the hyenas was informed by his ignorance of the fact that the bones are needed for studies in tertiary institutions.


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