By Emeka Anokwuru
Andy Osa Ehanire is the Chief Executive Officer of Ogba Zoo and Nature Park, Benin City, Edo State, and also the National Secretary of the Nigerian Association of Zoos and Parks (NAZAP). In this interview, he speaks on efforts at resuscitating this foremost eco-tourism enclave in a bid to bring back its lost glory, and how all that is now being frustrated by the activities of land grabbers and poachers, with the Edo State government appearing helpless, despite outcries by the zoo management.
Ogba Zoo and Nature Park is Edo State’s foremost conservation and tourism enclave. Tell us about the historical background and what it was meant to achieve.
The Ogba Zoo, which we manage, was designed and developed in the early 1970s by then military administrator of former Bendel State, the late Brig. Gen. Samuel Ogbemudia. Its concept was an extensive biological garden, with potential for resort development. In tandem with the ambitious and iconic scale of Ogbemudia’s drive and vision for the then Midwest Region, later Bendel State and now Edo/Delta states, Ogba Zoo was at par or even surpassed most of its kind, both far and near.
Soon after Ogbemudia’s regime, Ogba Zoo suffered a long era of decline and eventual collapse, spanning the late ’80s and ’90s. By the time of our private sector-led intervention in the year 2000, the zoo was already in the ‘mortuary’ and was ready to be written off, which was a far cry from the laudable vision of its founder.
What was the mandate given to your firm by the state government at the time of taking over the management of the zoo?
Our mandate was to reverse the rot or what was left of the decayed zoo, in order to revitalise its essential functions as an urban recreational park and field laboratory in the biological sciences, where schools and colleges in the entire sub-region derived conservation education and awareness. It must be understood that the decline and neglect of any zoo is always horrible, since without a proper winding-down procedure, the animals suffer neglect and deprivations akin to torture.
It is instructive that the treatment of wildlife in any society can be likened to the barometer for measuring the level of its humanity, hence the circumstances of the collapse of Ogba Zoo, or any of such, would amount to criminal neglect in humane or civilised societies.
Given the chequered history of the zoo, how would you describe the efforts of your company in bringing it back from the brink?
The extent of its abandonment and decay notwithstanding, Ogba Zoo experienced a painful rebirth through our rescue mission, which was purely self-financing, with no support from government. On the contrary, it is the nature of the lease agreement we hold that our private sector-led eco-tourism outfit pays rents to the government. But as challenging as reviving a moribund zoo was, there were other hidden challenges that would hardly be imagined in a sane society.
What were some of these challenges?
It started as a minor incursion by community land grabbers into the zoo’s land until it was aided by official government instruments in the form of a gazette. Even with government claiming, soon after, that it committed an error in issuing such gazette, which was attested to by two administrative panels set up to look into the problems at the initial stage, unfortunately, the errant instrument has not been repealed for more than 10 years running. This legal instrument has unwittingly served as a license for unlimited plundering of a foremost tourism heritage of the state.
All these years of battling the encroachment on the zoo, our management was as good as left to solely tackle the growing menace unaided. With little or no response to the dozens of memos from us crying for speedy deployment of government machinery to dislodge and prosecute offenders.
Can you state exactly the size of the zoo’s land that has been taken by land grabbers?
The land area encroached upon grew from about 10 per cent of the zoo land that was purportedly ceded by the gazette, to more than 60 per cent of the entire zoo. It was like a horror movie seeing bulldozers levelling priceless forestry in this pristine conservation heritage that had been a classic urban forest rarely found anywhere in the world.
It is a sad commentary that these last three years (2014 to 2016) have seen the greatest devastation of the zoo, even when the then Comrade Governor Adams Oshiomhole would be making pronouncements as to immediate government intervention. While not tolerating any nonsense in other areas, all the administrative machinery of his government appeared helpless in the face of the onslaught on Ogba Zoo. With all the forest guards and other security agencies providing escorts for revenue drive and the protection of politicians/private businessmen, none could be spared for the patrol of the encroached sections of Ogba Zoo.
Besides writing memos to the governor and other concerned interests, what other actions were taken by your firm to secure the zoo from further encroachment?
It eventually dawned on me that I had been encircled by a mammoth conspiracy and, therefore, published a series of open letters to the Governor Adams Oshiomhole, calling for an administrative or judicial inquiry, but all to no avail. It also became evident that a cabal was bent on sharing most of the zoo land without any official government process but using the diabolical ploy of community youths and thugs as decoy.
The sum effect was to create the widespread but dangerous impression in the area that government had acquiesced to sharing the zoo land, but that we were the only ones standing in the way. It was also painfully obvious that the security situation had long degenerated, with threats and suspicions of ecological terrorism becoming a constant nightmare, yet our pleas for police protection went unheeded. We expended huge resources on frequent police patrols, but in spite of all the Forestry Laws criminalising all manner of trespass in the reserve, the police authorities insisted that it was a civil matter and their role was only to ensure “peace.”
It was rather intended to intimidate than merely to inform, when some government officials declared that an infamous government political appointee and other cultists were among those carrying on with illegal development on the zoo, but did not take any action to stem the tide of incursions.
Fingers also pointed at the Edo State House of Assembly committee members, who were assigned to look into the issues, but spent over three years purporting to be engaging community agents without any new position on the matter. This was after an initial committee had declared that the encroachment was illegal and unacceptable, as far back as 2011. Meanwhile, all these were happening at the time of the worst incursions and impunity, making it all an uncanny coincidence. Experts have even recommended that the area be declared a non-development zone, as it is prone to erosion and landslide once the vegetation cover is removed, but this warning was unheeded.
It was in the public domain that at a point you opted for arbitration, tell us about the outcome of this arbitration.
We eventually had recourse to this arbitration process in order to encapsulate the issues in proper legal perspective. Our reliefs were substantially granted with compensatory considerations. The arbitration award was forwarded to the government for implementation since January this year and we are anxiously awaiting compliance, as there was no appeal against the ruling. The bottom-line is that government is to protect this heritage and grant us peaceful possession for all our eco-tourism operations. Immediate delineation and survey of the Zoo land is paramount, as well as full-time security protection.
It is, however, disheartening that even while the arbitration was ongoing and up till the award was published, various levels of devastation were still being unleashed on the zoo and its assets without government’s response. For example, even after the arbitration ruling, a six block staff quarters meant to keep critical personnel of the zoo resident in close proximity to the zoo was bulldozed and the land taken over by some well-connected individuals.
A purpose-built lion enclosure in the middle of the encroached land was also bulldozed only last month (April) and the foundation of a mansion is coming up on the site. The case of the zoo staff quarters that have now been demolished is of particular interest since it was part of the specific provisions in the arbitration award requiring it to be dedicated for the use of the zoo.
Have you made any effort to draw the attention of Governor Godwin Obaseki to the plight of the zoo?
We have sent letters to Governor Obaseki on the extant matters and maintained contact with the Solicitor-General and the Secretary to the State Government. We equally sought and have been promised audience with the governor, but it is on record that he recently told a visiting FRIN delegation that he would move swiftly to deal with the encroachment issues concerning the zoo. We are, therefore, hopeful that the new governor will take a decisive approach to save the zoo from the grips of brigands and looters. We are also anxious as to when specific government interventions would commence to save the zoo, before all that needs to be saved is totally destroyed.
However, to be compelled to resort to a costly arbitration process as a last resort in demanding appropriate interventions to save the Zoo is perhaps a callous burden to be imposed on a struggling zoo seeking a second lease of life. We pray that the forces of light will prevail over those of darkness in this nascent and very promising administration of Governor Obaseki. My role in the rescue and resuscitation of Ogba Zoo has evolved from just its management, to that of an activist, since NAZAP, of which I am the national secretary, is aimed at the pioneering mission of bringing sanity to all the zoos across Nigeria.