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MY CONSERVATION STORY
“A TALE OF ‘A CALLING’ FAITH AND ‘FATE TO SELF DISCOVERY”
It all started with an Owl that fell on my laps in my University days at Olabisi Onabanjo University and came to maturity and fruition with a Master’s course at Universidad Internacional de Andalucía.
As a young man at age 17, 1994/1995, I felt ‘a calling’ to humanity. A sense of a higher purpose to my life. So, I began a journey to self-discovery by enrolling in a Catholic Major Seminary. At this same time, I got an admission to one of the foremost universities in Nigeria to study medicine, but I declined the admission. Mid-way into a 7-year study of Philosophy and Theology I was convinced I needed a change. An unexamined life they say, it not worth living. I had to make a change. By February 1999; I left the seminary.
December 1999 I sought and gained admission to the Olabisi Onabanjo University and though I applied to study Pharmacy, I was offered Zoology. I simply resigned to FAITH and FATE. I just needed to enter a university at this stage in my life and was prepared to accept any course. FATE decided for me because when I had the opportunity to even switch back to the pharmacy, I decided NO, because, at the time, I sincerely believed that I have a date with destiny about Animals. I felt herein lies my CALLING. I felt I had a purpose to fulfil studying animals but it was still hazy. So, I trudged on in FAITH.
It was about this time, on an early morning walk within the university premises that I found an injured Owl on my path. Against the social instinct and superstitious believes we learnt as kids of the evil manifestations or meaning an Owl can have, I decided to provide this Owl with a home, food, care and nurtured it back to health. I was particularly fascinated when I saw it because as children, we only hear their sounds and pictures on TV and would not even switch the lights off in the room to go to sleep. And there lies an Owl in my presence for the very first time. I must say here that, I have never seen an Owl again till date except in Zoos. I took care of it, travel back and forth 100km journey to get White Rats to feed it and after some time I started breeding the white rats myself.
This started the journey for me in the field of Wildlife Domestication or Captive breeding and what I did not know could be part of conservation. I started breeding Rabbits, Grasscutters, Snails, Giant Rats and even had my Undergraduate thesis in the field of Ethnozoology with special focus on the uses of animals; their parts and derivatives for traditional, cultural, religious, medicine and superstitious purposes. On graduation, in 2004, I had to release the Owl back to the Wild and sold off the white rats for practical’s because none of the zoology students behind me was willing to continue with the care.
2005, as a fresh graduate, the question was ‘What Next’? Most of my colleagues were willing to practice as a Zoologist, so we all decided to apply for jobs to work in banks and other sectors of the economy, but I had this burning desire to practice as a Zoologist, so much so that, I basically accepted to work for free at a Botanical Garden and Zoo – Shodex Gardens in Lagos. I used that platform to launch what I call ‘Emerald Animals’.
At this point , t not clear cut for me what exactly I wanted to do. I ventured into Wildlife Education, which involved School outreach programmes, online education via Yahoo groups, setting pet zoos for schools and inviting them and the public to a guided tour at the Shodex Gardens. I called it ‘Wildlife Saturdays’ at the time. I combined this with Farm animals rearing – Rabbit, Chicken, Turkey and Catfish Farming. I even ventured into animal Welfare issues. I wrote to all kinds of organization I could think of including, the Jane Goodall institute, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Human Society and the likes but I could not accept Veganism. I could not accept don’t kill or don’t kill though I agreed with some of the fundamental principles of Animal Welfare but then animal farming was the one paying the bills and I had to stick to it.
By 2007, I completely focused on Animal Farming. I had no support for the Wildlife Education, so I stopped. I sought employment in the private sector. From working as a Farm managers with different privately owned farms, to managing Hotels, to working as an Agricultural Extension officer with a government agricultural development agency to work as a Depot representation to station manager for a privately-owned oil company and by 2011, I had my own Farm. I was basically into the Catfish and Poultry farming – Chicken and Turkey. I also do Consultancy services.
My CALLING and FATE never left me. A combination of events – bad decisions, no access to funds and loans, failed loans where I got, led to the collapse of my company. With pressures from the family, with a Wife and 3 kids, I had to go look for Job again. I had to close down the farm in 2015, to be able to accept another Job Offer. This time around, it was a civil servant under the Federal Government of Nigeria. I applied and sought employment as a Fisheries officer to work in the ministry of Agriculture but as FATE will have it, I was employed as a Senior Scientific Officer into the Federal Ministry of Environment, Forestry Department, Wildlife and CITES Management division. I accept in FAITH and decided to refocus my energy.
I settled down and started my work. Looking back, I said to myself, I am right back where I began 10 years ago in 2005. I started my Career life in a Conservation Organisation and ten years up the line, I am in another Conservation Organisation. It simply felt right and perfect for me. I resolved within myself that I had it long coming. I have the basic requirement as a Zoologist to function well and I have an Archive or Conservation actions I had worked on in the past.
I was excited about my new position, and felt this was an opportunity to reintroduce the Wildlife Education I was doing before. I tried to put together a workable arrangement that can be pursued through my new position in government but it proved impossible. The question thus arises. Would I be fully able to put in practice these conservation actions not as a private individual or in a private conservation agency but in government as a Civil Servant with its attendant rules and regulations? The answer was NO. I was at a loss. I was at the point and verge of blending with the status quo and I started working on other things that are not of relevant concern. The conditions were not right and the motivation was not so strong to push me beyond the bounds.
Yet, FATE had a surprise package for me. I got so lucky and got selected to represent Nigeria in a Masters course in Wildlife Management and Conservation of Species in Trade at the Prestigious Universidad Internacional De Andalusia, Baeza, Spain. It was at this place the desire, the CALLING that had been in me since 1994 was fanned into Flame. I literally got ‘Whip-lashed’ into taking conservation action and I was not going to let any status quo or civil service rules and regulations come between me and fulfilling a lifelong calling to save Wildlife Species from edge of Extinction.
A twist of a CALLING and FATE. A journey transiting from the Seminary to Baeza. A sign of Love and care for an Owl to what I now call ‘Wildlife Africa Initiative’ – A Conservation, Research, Education and Wildlife Rescue Initiative with a Vision to create “A Growing generation, knowledgeable and motivated to take positive actions on behalf of the ‘Wildlife’– Plants and animals that share our land and sea with us and the environment”.
I seriously doubt if I would not be giving the space and time within the Civil Service to pursue this dream, what I know is that I have started something that even if I were to wish it to stop, it cannot any more. I have chosen to follow the path of a Not for Profit or NGO to do something for the Wildlife and Animals that we love. I have significant challenges especially of funding and setting up and Administrative Structure but I rely on FAITH and FATE to shine on me yet again soon.
I got some close friends to come on this journey with me and I have about 20 other Wildlife professionals and enthusiast with me now and still counting. The idea is to create a platform where Wildlife enthusiast and professionals most especially can find a voice for wildlife and act. Many of us upon graduation have no clue as to what to do with our degrees, and there are few conservation organizations in the country and they can only employ so much. I don’t think our Wildlife has so much time left and I don’t think with my knowledge and exposure, I have the luxury to focus on a species.
I see myself as a Sign post. A link between the Conservation community out there to Young Conservationist back home who wants to help the wildlife species of plants and animals of our world, and not only to protect them but to help them thrive.
We started with the Sea Turtle Exhibition On 5th November 2015 Nigeria with a kick-off event on the beach of Lagos. The Aktionsgemeinschaft Artenschutz (AGA) e.V. (AGA), Germany supports me in the development of an environmental education program, by sponsoring for me a Nigerian version of their Sea Turtle education exhibition, as well as a children’s colouring book describing the adventures of a Sea Turtle. Many interested children and adults have attended the first day of action of our colleagues at Wildlife Africa Initiative. All were enthusiastic and fascinated by the life of the sea turtles. The children’s colouring book of the AGA has conjured up laughter on many faces and is even more important, it has aroused the interest of the children in these fascinating marine reptiles. We began to organize school visits with the exhibition. Teachers have shown great interest, and many, many children have been enthusiastic about the protection of sea turtles in various schools in the last few months and we hope to extend this environmental education in schools to Communities, engage with them and start a sea turtle monitoring, conservation, rescue, rehabilitation and release work.
The most incredible thing happened to me while we were preparing to Launch the Sea Turtle Exhibition Conservation Education. I was confronted with a Live Sea turtle in trouble. It was being hawked for sale on the streets in Lagos as is the usual practice these days and it was injured. I just could not let it go. I had to purchase her from them against my belief that we shouldn’t be paying to rescue animals but I had no other option at that point. I had to wake people I know up in the Night at about 11pm Nigeria time to help me what I can. It was my very first sighting of a sea turtle in my 40 years of age. I call Anna Stamatiou in Greece, to Dr Daniela Freggi in Italy, to Birgit Braun in Germany and so many others commented via Facebook. We had to become creative made a makeshift holding tank, nursed it back to reasonable health and released back to the ocean when Dr Daniela said, she was good go.
The fact that sea turtles are offered for slaughter in the markets of the city of Lagos and the turtles’ eggs are plundered from the nests, has necessitated the need for us to extend this environmental education in schools to Communities, engage with them and start a sea turtle monitoring, conservation, rescue, rehabilitation and release work. This detrimental threat of humans who intentionally harvests the eggs and adults from nesting beaches and juveniles and adults from foraging grounds for trade, food and tourist amusement. We plan intervention strategy is to gather data that can then be used to determining which areas of the Nigerian beaches, Protection of nests and populations of sea turtles will be focused on and to rescue and rehabilitate vulnerable and threatened ones within the period of study.
Let me highlight other things we have done too. Even though I started with Sea Turtles education, and that has gained traction and momentum because of the support I got from AGA, we are using Sea Turtles as our Flagship Conservation action initiative being a Charismatic and Keystone species but I am working for all species in terms of either species based or ecosystem based conservation approaches. Highlighted below are some of the initiatives we are working on as well –
- Advocacy for Elephants, Rhinos, and Lions by Joining the Global March for Elephants and Rhino Movement and organised 1st march in Nigeria and will be organizing another one this year;
- Advocacy with the World Animal Day; Organized two events last year by taking kids from an orphanage to a Children’s Park and zoo and encourage people to vist a privately-owned park;
- Vulture Conservation with a promised support of Vulpro, a leading Vulture Conservation organization in South Africa,
- Wildlife Rescue training, to private rescue centres in Nigeria, Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release of Sea Turtles (Ongoing) and we are trying to rescue 5 Lions and one lonely Elephant from a government owned institution in Nigeria.
- Wildlife Sightings initiatives from our various Conservation Centres in Nigeria. We have signed an agreement with a South African based Mobile App, Latest Sightings to list 8 Nigerian Conservation centres.
- Conservation excursions to various conservation centres;
- Private land Conservation for Sanctuaries, sustainable utilization and tourism;
- We have Research works in the offing – Pangolins survey, mammalian inventory, Freshwater Turtles Survey, Sea turtles nesting survey and monitoring;
- Capacity building, attending symposiums, Conferences, networking and learning about various conservation works and models in other parts of the world; and
- Advocacy by joining the March for Science Movement.
My Conservation Story has led me to the United States. I submitted an abstract of my work on Sea Turtles so far, what I am doing and what I plan to do, christened ‘Hunters to Conservationists’ seeking to change the ways in which rural communities in Nigeria can self-identify to the International Sea Turtle Society Symposium to be held in Las Vegas, April 16 – 21. My abstract was accepted and I am on my way to Las Vegas.
I arrived early and travelling by road to Vegas, visiting various conservation centres in various states along the east coast, learning about various wildlife conservation programs and attending various conferences along the way. I have been to New York, Philadelphia, Florida, South Carolina and now Georgia. I hope to get to Texas and California after my symposium in Vegas before I head back home from this my 1st trip to the US. I’ll be back.
A sequel, “Road to Vegas” is currently being written.