Nigeria: How Illegal Wildlife Trade Decimated Nigeria's Vultures

30 January 2018

Loss of habitat

"They reside on top of the Rimi trees that line the whole length of the road which starts from the Emir's palace, passes through Zaria city right through Tudun Wada up to Samaru. The whole length of the road from the old city up to Tudun Wada, was lined on both sides by these Rimi trees," Dr. Aminu Musa, of the department of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, ABU Zaria, is drawing attention to the loss of habitat of the vulture in Zaria. He shows how Zaria finally lost all its Rimi trees, which were originally planted by Aliyu Dan Sidi, a former Emir "During the IBB regime, when the road was dualised it used to be a single lane road, so all the trees were cut down. The dualization started from the Kubani bridge into the old city. Just a few of the Rimi or Silk Cotton trees survived, but in the past when you come in to Zaria, it was a sight to behold. On both sides of the road you would see big Rimi trees lining the entire length of the road and vultures on top of them, but with road construction they ceased to be. I don't think we have a single Rimi tree now in Zaria." Dr. Dauda Tanko is with the department of Biological Sciences, Federal University, Lokoja. According to him "These birds need tall trees with thick vegetation to raise their young ones, and when those trees are not there, they are cut down by humans, or they have been removed. So, they go out in search of where they will raise their young ones."

'Reverse what is wrong'

Joseph suggests "The thing to do is for us to reverse what we have been doing wrong. For instance, if we have been hunting vultures, if we have been persecuting them, it is for us to stop hunting and persecuting them, and then to create awareness, so that people will see the link between their livelihood, their survival, and that of vultures. It is very important to create that link, and the link is in the sense that we live in a world where humans think that we are the only one who should enjoy life, not knowing that some of those other biodiversity around us, are there to create the natural balance that the world has created. For instance, vultures are known as environmental sanitisers, natures clean-up crew. If they are not there, carcases and other refuse will be left untreated. The vulture finishes the carcass before it decomposes and starts forming bacteria, and other microbes, and these things don't affect them because they have an immune system that tolerates such. They kind of lock up all the microbes and all the diseases inside them."

'It's sacred in Yorubaland'

Professor Wande Abimbola, former Vice Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun state, refers to Yoruba tradition, when commenting on the vulture "Vultures are very visible in Yoruba religion and thought systems. The vulture is a sacred bird and it is a taboo to kill it .People don't eat the vulture and they don't kill vultures deliberately. Vultures loom large in history, beliefs and in Ifa, the holy book, most of it unwritten of Yoruba religion and thought. The vulture is a totem for some royal families like that of Ila Orangun, where it is a totem of the King." Daily Trust also discovered that the vulture is a totem at the palace of the traditional ruler at Idanre, Ondo state.

Abimbola, who is also the global Spokesperson for Ifa, explains "The vulture features a lot in Ifa texts where it is urged to 'come and consume sacrifice so that the sacrifice may work, may reach its destination'. The vulture is a symbol of longevity in our religion. We do sacrifices, perform sacrifices which we put outside, maybe at the crossroads or in the forest. If you go there the next day, it should have disappeared."

Adamu Malumfashi of the department of Nigerian and African Languages, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria sheds light on the vulture in Hausa folklore "Ironically, I have known a lot of Hausa tales, because I grew up in a village where the culture during our pre-primary period, was that we listened to a lot of tales. But I cannot recollect a single tale where the vulture is mentioned. I am not saying you won't find one, but I don't know of any."

On the decline in the population of the vulture, Abimbola states "When I was growing up at a place seven miles east of Oyo town in Oyo state where we are, you will walk like a mile in the forest, and you will hardly see the sun. Trees and climbing stems will cover the area above your head. Very quickly Cocoa was introduced from Ghana. In the 1930s, the people of Ibadan were noted for planting cocoa. Later in the 1940s,1950s, it spread to Oyo, Ekiti, Ijebu, all those areas. Within one generation, we had cut down all the trees. But if we didn't plant cocoa, all those trees will still be there .The second reason is the large scale lumbering, felling of trees for lumber, and taking them to places in Europe. These are the two main reasons that led to the disappearance of our forests."

Suleiman provides a perspective "Rimi trees were among the prominent emergent vegetations that were preferred by Vultures for roosting and nest construction in late 1960s through to mid-1970s, around Kano City. However, this tree species disappeared from Kano vegetation cover as a result of urbanisation. The construction of road networks in Kano city and increase in human population, resulted in clearance of virgin land to service the need for shelter. These were possibly among the factors that lowered the population of vultures in Kano city."

Challenges in wildlife

Aminu Mohammed, Manager, National Childrens Park & Zoo, Abuja examines some of the problems deep within the wildlife sector, which also threaten the entire structure "Hunting licences are supposed to be given so that hunting can be controlled. The hunting licence is normally given for abundant wildlife species, and the licence normally specifies the number of animals one is permitted to hunt within the period. But it's not being given again. People just go and hunt without a permit." He suggests "The federal government is supposed to have in place wildlife personnel who are knowledgeable about all these animals. They can be at the international airports and at all borders, so that they can control and ensure that these animals are not taken out of the country anyhow." According to him "The wildlife terrain is not well policed, and there will be a crises in the future. The Crowned Crane used to be available everywhere, but because of overhunting of these birds, they are getting to the level of extinction. Even the vulture, you can't see vultures today, except in just a few places. But before when you go to market places all over the north, people will see them in large numbers and hunt and kill them. The trouble is that the way they are killing them is much higher than the way they are produced. You can see that all these birds are going, and this will have serious ecological impact on the environment."

Professor E.C Okolocha, Veterinary Epidemiologist, with the department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, ABU Zaria, says "When an animal is absent from an ecosystem, the function it normally carries out will be lost. If the animal is beneficial to man, then man suffers the loss." On a related point, he argues "As environmental sanitation increases, personal hygiene increases. The tendency is that what makes a vulture to inhabit an area may no longer be there. Naturally, it will vacate the area. They will have to vacate the area since it is clean and serene. When an environment is kept clean, the tendency is that birds and animals keep moving to where they can find forests which serve as their own habitat. As far as human development continues that's how they move until they are no longer able to move again."

The future

Joseph opens up on what can be done to revive the numbers "NCF has drawn up what we call a national vulture advocacy plan, which we have started implementing. We have recognised that vultures are being traded for food, and for fetish things. What we have decided to do now is to go out there to do a market survey. We went out and did the survey which shows that this is true. We saw vulture parts in different markets." Then he speaks on other interventions by the NCF "We did a stakeholder workshop in three states, where we called together traditional healers, market women, police and customs officers .Illicit things move together. It's a ring of what we call the illegal wildlife trade, and the vulture is part of it. But the vulture has been listed as completely banned under the law that was recently signed into law by the president. It was first signed into law in 1985.It has now been reviewed and reenacted on December 31st 2016 as the endangered species act. Under the act when you have someone trading in vultures, the person must be jailed between 5 and 21 years. That is why we had the police involved in what we did. We asked them to be involved, so that they will also know that there is the law that protects these birds and animals. We also want to train the prosecutors, the judges and those in the judiciary, so that they will know that these birds are supposed to be protected, and anyone who violates the law has some time to spend in prison, or some money to pay. We are also talking with actors to help us disseminate the ideas."

An uphill task

'It is possible to revive the population of vultures in Nigeria, but it is an uphill task, and we have to completely and practically stop the use of diclofenac", adds Manu. "India was the first country that was first hit by diclofenac, but they are beginning to recover, but they are still far from what they used to be. The most difficult challenge is getting people that are involved in the Juju trade to stop their practices which are very difficult to stop, because this is what they believe in. To change that belief is what the NCF has been working on. I think that some of them know that what they are putting across is really not true. One thing we have thought about is setting up vulture restaurants, and other countries have done that. The vulture restaurant is just like an abbatoir, a place to kill animals. Vultures will come and clean the carcases in a few hours and leave the bones. The vultures will keep coming back as long as there is a supply. Then there is Captive breeding, and if you are a vulture juju trader, why don't you set up a breeding programme for vultures, instead of going to the ones in the wild. You can take from your farm, knowing that you are harvesting sustainably. But they say that the one bred in captivity, is not the same as the one in the wild, that that one is more experienced. I would rather that people kill birds for food, because if they kill and eat, and go back to kill, and they don't find, when eventually they find, they may want to preserve, so they can come back and harvest .But if you kill for juju ,you don't get any solutions. You just kill and you destroy the environment, and that's what we are very concerned about."

'A rebirth may occur'

Goni states "Government has recognised the fact that the vulture is threatened, and because of that it is collaborating with individuals and organisations that are working on this bird. Vultures have been overhunted, and today their absence is haunting us. The public is being sensitized. The level of awareness has increased about these birds, and there are campaigns drawing people's attention to the fact that the felling of trees like the silk cotton tree should be minimized, so as to provide the necessary habitat for the vultures. People are being made to understand that these vultures should be allowed to live. A small population of vultures exists in the south. It is our hope that if we are able to revive their habitat, and reduce our rate of taking carcases, the birds may move to the north and start living again, and a rebirth may occur." On the idea of breeding vultures in captivity, he opines "I haven't seen any good case where vultures are bred in captivity. They can be kept in captivity, but not for breeding. But what they have found with the vulture is that it can acclimatize, but it won't be able to adapt fully to the environment."

Tanko adds "I have never seen Vultures reproduce in captivity. If they must breed in captivity, research needs to be done to identify what are those stimuli that attract the male to a female. Except vultures are raised in captivity, the population bouncing back will take a long time, because anything that's going down in nature, and you want it to bounce back naturally, always takes a long time. This is not just for animals, but also for plants. For instance, a forest destroyed in a week, will take over a hundred years to recover."


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