The animals in Imo State zoo have demanded for their rights to be protected. The demand for the protection of the animals rights came after the invasion of the zoo by suspected members of the host community, Nekede in Owerri West local government area of Imo State. The suspects were also arrested by the security agents.
Francis Abioye, who is the National President of Nigeria Association of Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Parks, raised some arguments that favoured the existence of animals in the zoo as well as the virgin forest which has been there for over for decades. He said that the zoo was protected by International and National Law as well as the Eastern Nigeria and Imo State Law and therefore, that the animals in the zoo are under the protection of the law.
The shocking part of the story of invasion as narrated to Southeast Voice by Abioye, was that the invaders moved into the protected areas of the zoo with a bulldozer and pulled down the fence of the zoo.
He lamented that the larger part of the area of the zoo bulldozed was where it has over 20,000 species of plants used for research.
The General Manager of the zoo said that the members of the community could have valid agitations but not to invade a place protected by the law and destroy some of their facilities.
The drama of the invasion annoyed Abioye, who said that it was counter productive especially now that the present government of Imo State had released funds for the upgrade of the zoo. He said the ongoing transformation of the zoo was to bring rare species of animals like tiger, zebra, elephant and many others into the zoo. He also said that the zoo will now have a CCTV camera to monitor activities of the animals in the cage as well as human activities.
According to him, part of the plan was to have a safari park for the animals, among other recreational centers.
Abioye further said that the equipment to tackle the problem of animals that escaped from their cage have been purchased but that there was delay to get what he called "end user certificate" from the National Security Adviser, in order to allow the shipping of the equipment by the customs.
On the invasion of the Imo State zoo by suspected members of the host community, he said: "The invasion should not have happened for whatever reason! This is because, Imo State Zoo and Wildlife Park is fully protected by International law, National Law, the Eastern Nigeria and Imo State Law. The invasion is a serious offence against the Law that guide protected areas. It was just few days ago I was served a copy of a Federal High Court Judgment that some land under the possession of Imo State Government be returned back to the Nekede community. The judgment of the court is the basis for the invasion.
"The recent agitation of the community was triggered by the demolitions of the adjoining land where the staff quarters used to be. I remember that the staff quarters were demolished by the past government. What I am not sure of is the process of demolition, if it was resolved to be demolished and converted for another purposes.
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"It was at this point that the community requested that the then government should return the land back to the community since the intended lease agreement has been compromised. I think, the community was not given proper attention and that necessitated the suit against the then government and unfortunately, none of the respondents of the government responded to court proceedings which warranted the judgment.
"I also noticed that the present government is interested in obeying the rule of law. Considering the community's agitation, it is understandable. If the government should change the intended purpose of the land, the community should be carried along as stakeholders. Nevertheless, it is not certain if government has approved the demolitions that raised the agitation of the community.
"Secondly, obeying the Court order by releasing the zoo or any parts of its forest to the community will violate the Law that established the zoo and the Forest Reserve as contained in Eastern Nigeria Law of No. 1350, Cho 55, section 7 sub section 2. The government can not obey a court order by violating an existing and long-standing law of the State. Imo State zoo situated at Nekede is fully protected by Law.
"That was the major reason the past administration was resisted from continuing the demolitions that would have marged the demolished staff quarters with the zoo. Imo State Zoo and Wildlife Park is the only surviving zoo and wildlife facility in the whole South East of Nigeria and there are many stakeholders who own the wildlife facility apart from the stake of community and Imo State. "Any action that destroys this natural heritage will further blacklist Nigeria as one of the worst offender of the International Climate Change Agreement."
He pointed out that when one looks at the life expectancy of people who live in Nekede old road, you will notice that they live and die at good old age.
"Many Northern States have more forests than us now. They spend billions to fight desertification. Why do we need to turn our forests to desert after which we live in big houses with short life span. Let us think posterity.
"No matter how small any living organism, either plants or animals, once it is removed from its natural home, the world changes a little. The change is always negative to man. Once this Wildlife facility is destroyed, life expectancy will reduce in Imo and beyond. By my duty, I am an expert to manage and oversee the State Zoo facility. I am not the spokes person for His Excellency, so, I am not in the best position to tell the public what Imo State Government is doing over the community invasion into the Zoo and the acclaimed court judgment."
On the neglect of the zoo and the ongoing effort to bring it to an acceptable standard, he said: "It is more than a magic. I must confess! Imo state Zoo has suffered so much neglect like many other government Zoos in Nigeria.
"Most of our Zoos and Wildlife facilities were established in the 50s to 70s unfortunately, most of these Wildlife edifice of our founding fathers have been neglected by successive governments. Hence, we have been operating many obsolete Zoos and Wildlife Parks in Nigeria.
"This was exactly the scenario of Imo State Zoo until when the Governor of Imo State, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha visited the Zoo barely few days after he assumed office on the 5th of June 2019 during the World Environment Day celebration. He recognised the Zoo and Wildlife Park as one of the critical environmental facility in the State.
"The Governor who could not hide his feelings explained that what he saw on ground is contrary to the earlier information he received about the Zoo facility. He was told that the Zoo was a dead place and it is already in it's graveyard but when he went round, he was impressed with our passion for the conservation and protection of the endangered plants and animals and that was how he made the promise to support our dream of improving the Zoo to international standard.
"He further asked me what it would take to transform the Zoo to acceptable standard as described by me during our tour round the Wildlife facility of the State and he said he was going to fund it.
"At first, I thought it was the usual political joke that characterizes our political leaders because, I have met politicians who have made many promises which turned out to be empty promises without any intention to fulfill the promises.
"I was surprised that the Governor proved me wrong .He invited me for a meeting after his visit and requested for my proposal which was submitted the following day because, the proposal have been repeatedly presented for previous Government. My proposal for transformation of Imo State Zoo and Wildlife Park was submitted 17th of June and was approved on 3rd July, 2019 following all necessary processes.
"As I speak with you today, His Excellency has marched his words with actions by releasing all needed fund for the first phase of the transformation of Imo State Zoo. If this project should fail, it is no more the problem of lack of political will of the Governor. I have an unshakeable faith that with God on our side, the people of Imo State will be completely satisfied and they will be fully proud of having one of the best Zoos and Wildlife Park in West Africa. By the grace of God, Imo State Zoo will be one of the success story of REBUILD IMO Administration."
He continued: "You have seen the new administrative building, as I speak with you today, that Administrative building is one of the best in Nigeria history. The administrative facility has total of 14 office rooms including; conference room, control room for viewing CCTV cameras for monitoring of all Zoo animals in cages and in the natural environment (forest) including visitors activities.
"Within the conservation area, 24/7 electricity supply with Biogas facility and solar energy, 9 toilet rooms and 2 stores. Our staff attendants is computerized with finger print for time in and time out.
"In addition to all these, the Administrative building has an attached security post and reception office. From the standard of administrative building, you can imagine what is expected in the on going Transformation Project.
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"In terms of animals, we have started with acquisition of lower vertebrates while large crowd pulling animals are underway. We have completed the renovation of all old animals' houses and we have brought in mature fake lion, varieties of birds, Chitatunga, gazelles and e.t.c. We are bringing in some economic wildlife species such as; Zebra, Giraffe, Buffalo, Elephant e.t.c. The construction for the housing of these animals is on going with creation of safari drive within the natural environment to enable game viewing within the Park.
"The second phase of the Project will include acquisition of some very rare species with their houses such animals include; elephant, tiger and so on. Lots of amusement facilities will be introduced with perfect land scape of the entire area, we shall pull down this old tickets house and replace it with a storey building which will contain; modern ticket office, eatery, gift shop, shawama shop and event center will be at the upper floor to host wedding reception, birthday party and other event.
"There will be Elephant pool with Lazy river for the children. The Elephant will shower water on children as they enter to the pool before swimming. That alone will be a fascinating attraction for the children. We are going to give lots of fun to people of the State and beyond. More amusement facilities will be distributed in various locations within the Zoo. The other old building will be pulled down to build a modern animal gantry, wildlife clinic and the upper floor shall be for Education Centre. The education center will be fully developed in to skill acquisition center for youth empowerment.
"I nearly forget to mention the grasscutter multiplication project and the modern fish hatchery and fish processor. These are already fully developed project in the Zoo for the purpose of training youth accross the 27 Local Government Areas of Imo State.
"All training will be empowered with required foundation breeding stock for grasscutters and fish to become become meaningfully engaged and also become job creators."
On wildlife escaping of the zoo
The issue of Lion and other animals escape is not strange to wildlife conservation. Although, all Zoo and Wildlife facilities should maintain efficient safety precautions.
"It is possible to record escape of animals in Zoo occasionally. This is not just because of carelessness, it is part of natural instinct for every captive animals to seek for freedom at any slightest opportunity.
"Look at the human prison, when there is a loophole, a prisoner will think of escaping. In a case when there is a collapse of a tree on an animal's enclosure and a loop-hole is created, the animal will definately escape. That is the major reasons all Zoos are required to have necessary capture equipment to recapture escaped animals and return them back to their enclosures.
"In the case of the lion found in a Lagos residence, it was immobized and taken to one of our facilities in Lagos, Oomu Resort after Lekki. The Oomu Resort is managed by the National Vice President South of Nigeria, Mr Oladipo Bali.The rescued Lion is already in an apartment with one of its brothers."