Saving Nigeria’s last urban rainforest in Edo
Unless the Edo State government makes good its pledge to
finally halt the incessant encroachments on the Benin/Ogba Zoo and Nature Park
(BENZOPA), the priceless centre could descend into oblivion, like a great deal
of the once pristine forest estate of the state as a result of excessive human
BENZOPA, although lucky to retain part of its naturalness, is
treasured as the last vestige of the Guinea lowland rainforest habitat found in
the Nigerian urban setting (if not West Africa). Herein exists diverse plant
and fauna, some of which are endangered or going extinct.
Situated at about 7km distance of the Benin City suburb of
Ogba, with about 27 hectares land area that is divided into the Wilderness and
Zoo sections, BENZOPA has assorted natural and artificial trees, animals and
birds in its free wild and semi-free-range enclosures. It serves as
environmental education and a recreational centre, where many visitors throng
to, all year round.
In a last ditch effort to wrestle the park’s land at all cost,
land scrambling overlords in the state, after sustained futile efforts, have
been promoting a campaign to discredit the park as a project that has failed to
meet the need for which it was established. They probably have sensed the moves
by state governor, Adams Oshiomhole, to restore the original master plan of the
park and chase out all illegal land acquirers in the former Ogba Forest
Incidentally, work on the rescue of BENZOPA, led by Andy
Ehanire and his Evernal Services Company, has been successful so far. Mr.
Ehanire, a keen environmentalist and national vice president of the Federation
of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN), has demonstrated a respectable
proclivity for conservation.
To effectively manage BENZOPA requires a lot of courage.
Firstly, it meant calling the bluff or stepping on the toes of the same
powerful land speculators that had unduly acquired and converted part of the
park’s land area, with the once rustic neighbourhood or its green zone fast
giving way to structures like the Ogba Housing Estate, located directly
Obviously, providing additional features to the centre has been
a capital intensive venture which the management consultants have had to meet.
Among the park’s major visitors are school-age children, who frequent the park
for environmental education and recreational purposes.
Before its takeover, the centre was a heartbreaking wreck –
beset with illegal logging of its old growth trees and poaching of its animals,
sometimes with the connivance of forestry officers.
Moved by the urgent need to bring back the park, BENZOPA has
been supported by the zeal of volunteer assistants, which include this writer,
Tony Oregbeme, and the late Samuel Shokpekhai. The last two are forestry and
wildlife experts of the state’s Forestry Department, who pioneered the
establishment of the centre. Mr. Shokpekhai, a naturalist and snake nurturer,
passed on recently.
Since it was taken over about a decade ago, the zoo section of
the park has been painstainkingly cleaned up, with the enclosures more reinforced.
The wild life part has also been partly provided with manicure ‘nature trails,
as most of its enclosures are restocked with appreciable presence of the cats,
primates, birds, reptiles etc.
Although the practice of ‘fauna species in the enclosures’ has
often been condemned by animal rights activists worldwide, as they would prefer
‘animals and birds in a free range system’, the zoo practice is still
relatively popular. With fauna in the enclosures, sight viewers, particularly
the younger ones, easily have a first contact with the species, rather than in
dicey protected areas or in pictures.
Besides, the ‘enclosure system’ or ‘captivity’ offers the ideal
opportunity for animal/bird breeding, especially to guarantee the continuous
survival of those species that are endangered or going extinct, which could be
bred and re-injected into the free wild.
By the way, BENZOPA is warming up to start a special breeding
programme, although the existing enclosures encourage breeding. Its playground
is constantly landscaped, re-grassed, and provided with some facilities.
Although the Edo State government has often showed its
readiness to address the problem of the conservation enclave, especially with
the recent fence-mending official visits to the protected site by the
environment commissioner, Clem Agba, the state has to redouble its effort to
give BENZOPA the desired respite by finally wading off its violators.
Being the first urban zoo and park to be given statutory
recognition in the country, Edo residents and mankind cannot afford to lose
this nature’s masterpiece to those insistent violators.