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. Hitherto, I had been stung by a bee at age 10, which made me developed a deep respect for nature and its wildlife.
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 fulfill 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 learned 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 a 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 not 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, it was 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 Humane Society and the likes but I could not accept Veganism. I could not accept at the time ‘don’t kill and eat animal’ though I agreed with some of the fundamental principles of Animal Welfare, then animal farming was the one paying the bills and I had to stick to it. Now, I accept it but to the extent of ‘don’t kill and eat wild animals’.
By 2007, I completely focused on Animal Farming. I had no support for the Wildlife Education, so I stopped (Situation has not changed locally). I sought employment in the private sector. From working as a Farm manager 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 down 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 of 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 challenges of funding and acceptance by the status quo come between me and fulfilling a lifelong calling to save Wildlife Species from the 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 of Africa Conservation 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 got some close friends to come on this journey with me and I have about 60 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 Signpost. 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.
Our Flagship initiative is the Sea Turtle Exhibition launched in Lagos on 5th November 2015. Others include advocacies, training, and conservation work around Vulture, Wildlife Rescue, Elephants, Pangolins, Lagos Lagoon and Environment days (Details Below).
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 coloring book describing the adventures of a Sea Turtle. The children’s coloring book has aroused the interest of the children in these fascinating marine reptiles. We began to organize school visits, 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, however, happened to me while we were preparing to Launch the Sea Turtle Exhibition Conservation Education in Lagos, Nigeria. I was confronted with a Live Sea turtle in trouble. It was being hawked for sale on the streets, as is the usual practice these days and it was injured. I just could not let it go. I have never seen a Sea turtle before, but I was already working to protect them based on a Video footage I saw on YouTube where Sea Turtle was being hawked on the streets of Lagos during the master’s course. That Master’s turned out to be the turning point in my life.
Coming face to face with a Sea Turtle for the very first time is the most profound encounter with Nature for me. This is the first time I was seeing a Sea Turtle in my over 40 years of life. With the benefit of hindsight, I would say the Sea Turtle found me. 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. 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 me to research more on the 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 have extended the environmental education designed for schools to Communities, to engage with them and started a sea turtle monitoring, conservation, rescue, rehabilitation and release work.
I named that Sea Turtle I rescued ‘Ariyike’, meaning ‘See me and Care me’, in my Yoruba tribe Language of South West Nigeria. I saw it and cared for it. I have extended this meaning and adopted this creed to my environmental work. I believe people cannot love what they do not know. Knowing comes from seeing and experience.
This encounter led me to explore parts of the world where I could learn more about them in a different light. I travelled to several Sea Turtle Rehabilitation, hospital and conservation centres in the United States such as the Riverhead Foundation, Sea Turtle Hospital, Georgia’s Sea Turtle Centre in Jekyll’s Island, the South Carolina Sea Turtle Aquarium and Hospital and I went on to volunteer for 3 months at a Sea Turtle Project in Barbados. Now, in a Sea turtle project in Nigeria that we have called ‘Project Ariyike’.
It appears to me that coming face to face with rare and endangered species gives me the impetus to do something about them. The 1st time I set my eyes on a Black Rhino and Elephant too was in Spain during my master’s Study. Oh, mine. Seeing these animals is different from seeing them on Television. Tigers are Bigger than they appear on TV and Cheetahs are Longer and taller than they appear too. Growing up I have the opportunity of seeing some animals in the zoo. Need to mention here that I never had an opportunity to view Wildlife in the wild in Nigeria. It is not something we were socialized with by our parents. The only places they take us to grow up are the Zoo and to the Beachfront. As a Student of Zoology, we never had the opportunity too. The one time we were to visit Yankari game reserve in Northern Nigeria, security concerns did not allow us to go.
After the Spanish experience and coming face to face with Sea Turtle Ariyike that I rescued and with an opportunity to visit the United States, I decided to embark on an amazing journey to visit various Conservation Centres as much as I can in the United States. I called it Ariyike Tours. I went from visiting Various zoos to Aquariums and Natural Wildlife Preserves. It was an amazing experience.
Places I visited includes:
- New York, (New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Bronx Zoo, Riverhead Foundation Sea Turtle Hospital, Fireshore Island National Park and gave lectures to High School Students of Westport High School);
- Philadephia (Philadephia Zoo). This was where I saw Cheetahs for the first time;
- Florida (Wakiwa springs where they do Turtle Sampling, Dr. Peter Pritchard’s Chelonia Institute, meet with some renowned Hepatologists and members of the Turtle Survival Alliance);
- Georgia (Georgia Sea Turtle Centre, Jekyll’s Island, Charlie Elliot Wildlife Centre, Rum park Wildlife Resource Centre, Piedmont Park, Atlanta Zoo, Atlanta Aquarium and gave lectures to Elementary and High School students at the Jasper County);
- South Carolina (South Carolina Sea turtle hospital and the Aquarium and attended a plastic conference here).
- Las Vagas (Here I presented my accepted Abstract on Hunters to Conservationist, based on my work so far on Sea Turtles Education and Rescue in Nigeria and plans to begin a Sea turtle Nesting beach monitoring and protection); and
- Texas (I participated in March for Science here and attended a Conservation Expo).
I am about now embarking on another phase of Ariyike Tours. ‘Ariyike’ in the ‘Yoruba’ culture of ‘Nigeria’ means – See me and Care for me. This is a Travel and Tour initiative that brings the best of Conservation Centres in Nigeria to the rest of the World and vice versa infused with the Culture – food, art, music, stories, traditional and cultural places and experiences and the history of the peoples.
Ariyike Tour was inspired by the 1st Sea Turtle Rescued (See Featured Image) by our Founder, Felix Olusola Abayomi, as he set out on to answer the call of the Wild in Wildlife Conservation and building a Wildlife Friendly Generation. Ariyike Tours aim to build #WildlifeFriendly humanity and cultural interactions while showcasing our natural resources and biodiversity both here in Nigeria and in the United States.
We are using Sea Turtles as our Flagship Conservation action initiative being a Charismatic and Keystone species but working for all species in terms of either species based or ecosystem-based conservation approaches. We have now begun a Sea Turtle Monitoring and Conservation Project in Lagos, where we monitor various sea turtles’ activities along the beaches, conduct Community education and engagement. We are hoping to move the project to the next level of using Sea Turtle protection as a means of sustainable livelihoods, creating educational, health, agricultural and other opportunities to these community members that live closest to the wildlife and for other species.
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 organized the 1st march in Nigeria in 2006 and we have organizing marches every year since then;
- Advocacy with the World Animal Day; where we organized two events in 2016 by taking kids from an orphanage to a Children’s Park and zoo and encourage people to visit Lufasi Park, a privately-owned Nature park. In 2017 we had similar events at our WildlifeAID Centre in Ijebu-ode education children about the awesome life of Elephants, Rhinos and Sea turtles through short Videos.
- Vulture Conservation with the partnership of Vulpro, a leading Vulture Conservation organization in South Africa, where we have trained 2 Nigerian for a proposed conservation project in conjunction with Lufasi Park in Lagos.
- Wildlife Rescue training, to private rescue centers 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 10 Nigerian Conservation centers. That has been done and we are starting the phase where we would begin to populate with pictures and videos
- Conservation excursions to various conservation centers;
- 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 celebrating all environment days.
We have also used Wildlife of Africa Conservation to join WaterKeeper Alliance® as Lagos Lagoon Waterkeeper, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change and saddled with the responsibility of ensuring the society has right to swimmable, fishable and drinkable water by also preventing waste from getting to the water body especially plastics which affect both humans and Marine Animals such as Sea Turtles, which we are also working to Protect and Conserve in Lagos. Currently working on a Clean Lagos Lagoon Initiative.
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world. The Waterkeeper movement patrols and protects over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes, and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa.
We basically work to help attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15. Thank you hope you enjoy my our Wildlife of Africa Conservation Initiative Conservation story so far. Please leave your comments and contact us for any questions.
- Felix Olusola Abayomi is the Founder, Wildlife of Africa Conservation Initiative (WACI). A Zoologist, Wildlife Management, and Conservation of Species Professional. A USAID – WABiCC Trained CITES Expert. Member, Society for Conservation Biology and the International Sea Turtle Society. Alumni, of Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, Nigeria and Universidad De Internacional, Andalusia, Baeza, Spain, where he holds a Master’s Degree in
Wildlife Management and Conservation of Species in Trade. He is looking forward to taking a Ph.D. Studies soon. He writes from Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria.
- In the Profile Picture, he was at the Atlanta Zoological Garden, sitting in a Big Bird Nest, where he reminisced how the journey started for him