By Sola Adeyemo
Zoological gardens and theme parks as well as wildlife sanctuaries are part of ecotourism offering with rich attractions and activities ranging from variety of flora, birdlife, safari to different species of fauna. Though the fauna are in captive but yet they offer rich insight and excitement to the visitors who enjoy the liberty of viewing them or interacting with them in close proximity, which is something you are not likely to encounter when you visit wildlife parks. It is not uncommon for countries which don’t have the luxury of wildlife parks to place more emphasis on the development and promotion of zoological gardens and theme parks. This is because they are money spinners and also are conservation enclaves which not only lend themselves to tourism activities but to educational, research and scientific activities given their rich and vast ecosystem and natural resources. Nigeria as a destination boasts a wide and rich selection of zoos and parks scattered across the country with many of them owned by the government while a few are owned by private organisations. Besides, there are a few by institutions of learning like the University of Ibadan, which zoological garden is very popular with the people. But on the flipside not much attention has been paid to these enclaves by the government and even the people as many of them have been left to rot with the facilities and habitats begging for attention.
The example of the Jos Wildlife Park where last year a lion escaped and was eventually killed but replaced with another early this year by the state government is a pointer to the neglect and obsolete facilities inherent in many of the zoos and parks. While for others, they have been pillaged by land and animal poachers. The Ogba Zoological Garden and Park in Benin City, Edo State, is one of such natural enclaves, which have persistently suffered from the activities of land poachers. But despite the cries of the management of the park, the practice has continued with the Edo State government turning blind eyes and even the public who should protect these resources fringe ignorance and pretend not see the need not only to preserve them but also to patronise them. However, it is not all the zoos and parks that portray a sorry tale as there is something of joy and excitement in a few of them and the one that stands out clearly in this regard is that of the University of Ibadan where the institute’s authority over the years has invested heavily in preserving and conserving the zoo making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ibadan. To this end, SOLA ADEYEMO met with the director of the zoo and a lecturer at the Zoological Department of the university, Dr. Olajumoke Morenikeji (Zoologist and Parasitologist), who is also the president of the Nigeria Association of Zoological Gardens (NAZG), a body, which is responsible for coordinating the operations and activities of zoos, parks and gardens across the country, and engages her on a wide ranging issues.
On her appointment as director of University of Ibadan Zoological Garden and how she has been piloting the affairs
I was appointed in September 2010, meaning that I have been the director of the zoo for about five years. I was in office during the 2011 devastating flood that swept some animals away in this zoo, but we thank God that it was curtailed. It was not just about the zoo, but that of the whole university and the whole of Ibadan that was affected. Some cages were touched; some animals were affected but in the long run we did not record too much mortality, and we were able to overcome the situation at our zoo.
Rehabilitation of the zoo
Immediately that flood happened the university management swung into action and tried to see what could be done about it. During the course of upgrading this place, we took into consideration very many things. We did a very wide channelisation of the stream that ran across the garden from the Barth Road to Awba Dam, and that had curtailed any water gathering anywhere in the garden. So, we now have dry ground again. That will also prevent any flooding if such happens again in the future. That is not just in the zoo but in the university as a whole.
Pitching for a new look zoological garden
It has been very interesting because I have enjoyed the tremendous grace of God while in office. So, many things that had never happened before have happened. The UI Zoo is now a new place. Everywhere in the zoo has been touched. And this is a drive towards meeting up with the international standard. When I resumed here I inherited a very small place, but as time went on, I went to several places because I had the vision and I had a mission. I was interested in making sure there was a dramatic turn around. In fact, I went out to some companies; I met with individuals; I spoke with everybody who cared to listen. I made a power point presentation to the university management by showing them reports about all the zoos I had been to all over the world. I showed them the way zoos are managed there; the way cages and enclosures look like; and I also made them understand that zoos are no more places you just put animals in one round cage and just forget them there. It is a place of conservation; a place of education; a place of research; it is a place of entertainment. So, it is a whole lot more than just putting animals in one small enclosure and just feeding them.
Captivated the vice chancellor
I met with the management, the former vice chancellor, Professor Isaac Adewole, and other individuals. I spoke to companies. All of them were able to buy into the vision. They were able to see what I was trying to explain and bring out. So, I had so much support. When I made the presentation I was to spend 10 minutes like every other director, but I just kept on and on, and when they were to stop my presentation, the vice chancellor said ‘no, just leave her. I think this is an evangelical presentation’. And they all listened through. So, that gave me the momentum to keep on talking and drive my point home. Since I already had a proposal and things I wanted implemented in the zoo and to the glory of God, most of them were approved.
A new look zoo
They provided new cages, new enclosures. The Animal Clinic was approved. A Toyota Hilux was approved; the channelisation of the zoo, which I talked of, was approved; the fantastic and magnificent building in front of the zoo with decent gate house, was also approved; and there was also acquisition of more animals that was approved. So, many things were approved on that floor and I was very grateful to God. We swung into action by getting everything restructured, re-engineered, and reworked. Before now, there was no fencing of the zoo. It was just a small place, but now we have a decent fence round the zoo. We now also have wild life clinic, laboratory clinic and new enclosures. Our serpentorium, that is our reptile house, was totally upgraded and it can now compete favourably with any reptile house anywhere in the world. Our ape enclosure is now also a Mecca itself. It is now a beautiful place and people now use it for photo shoot. The whole place is now totally transformed, totally changed. It is now a whole new zoo.
Aside the supportive efforts of the former vice chancellor, Prof. Adewole, another strong donor was our Baba, Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) who not too long ago gave us N45m for the maintenance of this zoo when we did the commissioning. Just recently, he gave another donation because we were trying to acquire hippopotamus. We thank God for his life because he has done massive things for us in this university. I must also appreciate Sweetco Foods. When I approached the manager for assistance in the renovation of our lion enclosure, the management gave us N1m and the company promised to always maintain the place yearly. Now, we have a library in the zoo. It was never in existence before. We now have an educational unit. But I must mention that we needed just 10 desktops with UPS in the library. I am grateful to engineer Oladeinde (Ladson), who gave over N1m worth of desktops and UPS with other accessories to stock the library. These are fantastic people, and I keep on telling people that this is the time of open heavens for the zoo. If you enter the garden you will see one lion we have there called Arnold. It was given by the late Alhaji Azeez Arisekola. There is also another one called Rocky, given by Tony Daboh. I have a giant tortoise now that was given by Justice Oguntoye. I have one massive Nile crocodile that was given by someone from Western Hotel in Lagos. For the first time we now have a giraffe. Since 1948 when the zoo started, we never had a giraffe. We have acquired one now.
A spot for the children
We now have the children zoo where we have little animals for the children.These include grass cutters, guinea fowls and all such small animals that children can appreciate and just walk through. There are so much to view and talk about our newly reformed zoo, I must say. The whole place is safe for the children. For recreational activities we have playground for the children. There are swings and other relaxing provisions within the zoo.
Professionalised work force
This is another area of improvement. When I got here, we had about 20 staff members. Now we have over 40. They are not just zoo keepers, but now we have graduate curators. With this, we can service and take care of any group of people coming here, even from outside the country. We have tour guides who work not only as cage keepers. So, I must say that it has been an interesting time for me, and I am very grateful to God and those that have assisted me.
I am in love with animals
Well, I am somebody who is really at home with animals. I love animals so much, and one of the things that I do anytime I travel to any part of the world is to visit zoos. I remember when I was in Australia and I just wanted to see the penguins. I stayed at the beach from morning till night, just to check them out. Of course, I have seen penguins elsewhere after that. I have seen it in South Africa; I have seen it in Canada, but that was my first time when I just wanted to see the penguins.
Animals bring you closer to God’s nature
Animals are good; they are beautiful and they bring one close to the magnificent nature of God. For example, when I watched the dolphins in South Africa, I did not know when I started crying. It was because the demonstration was so touching, so moving that I was moved to tears. So, when you come to the zoo or to a park or a wild life sanctuary, you move closer to nature and you are able to appreciate God the more. Those things make zoo interesting.
Well, I love challenges because I know that without any challenge, there is no moving forward. The main challenge at the beginning was trying to let people see the picture of what I had in my head to achieve, and I thank God it was not too difficult to make people key into it. Regarding the workers too, you know everybody have their mentality. My mentality is to strive to make sure I leave a legacy for the future, and the workers have been able to key into that. Nevertheless, I must say that it has been a very tall task changing what had been in existence since 1948. But I thank God that many things have been changed for the better since 2010. In a bit to further surmount our challenges, there is a project we now have on ground. It is called ‘Adopt an Animal’. It is amazing that somebody just walked into my office this week and said the oba of their village is interested in adopting the peacock and will be paying some amount of money every year. Within the next five years, he is going to be paying. That is amazing to me. It is a new scheme and it is working.
Feeding the animals is costly
Feeding of these animals is a big deal I must confess. To feed a lion alone costs about a million naira a year. That is considering the fact that we have six of them, and there are various other animals. We feed our lions thrice in a week because they are carnivores: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A lion consumes two goats at ago. We slaughter the goats before giving it to the lions. The purpose of this is to prevent them from getting unduly wild. So, you can imagine the cost of feeding the whole animals in that manner.
Essence of conservation
When we talk about conservation it is to make sure that all these animals do not go extinct. We need to let them continue to exist. This is because we have so much hunted most of them for our personal use that they are going into extinction. You can see that West African lions are now endangered because they are just about 400 left in the wild. This calls for concern greatly. And zoo is the place that you can do a real work to reclaim some of these animals that are getting extinct. For example, there was a kind of bird that was gradually going extinct and when it was brought here, it breeds and has continued to populate the wild. Zoo is of importance in that it is like leaving a legacy for our children. It is not just about reading books, but making them appreciate the work of nature and learn how to live with them.
The tourism angle
You know when people see good things and they buy into it; they love to key into it. That is what we are experiencing now because people continue to visit the zoo for recreation and tourism purposes. That is why we are having more research students. At the moment we have about 96 research students coming to the zoo. So, many research works are going on. I think this is quite exciting and encouraging. I am happy about it. In the area of profitability through tourism, I must say that it has been very profitable. If you run a zoo well, you make money because people will come to see the animals. Many more people come in now, so we are making more money to maintain and take care of the animals and staff. More animals are now on ground and so it is just right to have more money to maintain what we have on ground.