BY CHIDI NKWOPARA, Owerri
Residents of Owerri metropolis cannot forget in a hurry, May 11, 2014. It was the day they were thrown into panic as news of the alleged escape of a hungry, deadly lion from the Nekede Zoological Garden swept across the state. It was not very clear how it all started or what made the whistle blower to raise the alarm, but all the same the confusion that followed was palpable.
Some of the inhabitants of Nekede and the adjoining communities, are yet to come to terms with the trauma and apprehension engendered by the unfounded rumour. The false alarm has, however, continued to dominate discussions in and around the state. The panic caused by this incorrect alarm equally raised serious concern about the ability or inability of the state government to handle any such serious situation, if it ever occurs in the future.
On the fateful day, while most residents of Nekede, Owerri West local council area of Imo State quickly closed shop and ran into the safety of their homes, some parents in Owerri, Nekede, Obinze and Umuguma, were seen racing to schools to pick their children.
Vanguard Metro, VM, recalls that not long ago, the State House of Assembly set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate an allegation that a lion in the same zoo was said to have killed and consumed its kind.
It was not clear at press time if the House Committee had finished their investigation and given a report on their findings about the story before the current alarm rented the air.
Imo people, however, heaved a deep sigh of relief when it was later discovered that the rumour was a hoax. Every respondent who spoke to VM expressed shock over the alleged incident.
“When I heard the news, I was scared stiff. Lion is a wild animal and a hungry lion that has been incarcerated for a long while is definitely a more dangerous animal,” Pastor Ejike Emereonye said.
A lady, Mrs. Tina Iwuala, said: “I was afraid of what would have happened to anybody within the deadly animal’s roaming range. I thank God that the story turned out to be false as many precious lives would have been lost”.
The traditional ruler of Nekede, Eze Stephen Agumanu, opined that if there was floodlight in and around the Zoological Garden, to provide clear vision at night, the case of mistaken identity could have been averted. Apart from the absence of floodlight, VM gathered that the Zoological Garden is lacking most vital equipment to contain any unforeseen ugly incident.
The Manager of the Zoological Garden, Nekede, Mr. Francis Adeoye, explained that although the state government has released fund, which was yet to be accessed, the amount would be grossly inadequate to realise the full potential of the zoo.
The man, who is a wildlife expert, doused people’s fear, adding that all the animals in the Garden were under proper management. He, however, added that the zoo should have necessary equipment that would enable the workers trap dangerous animals when they break loose.
According to him, the zoo ought to have a close circuit television to know the movement of animals. He also apologised to the citizenry for the false alarm. “I must apologise to the entire people of Imo State, the nation and especially the host community, who were thrown into anxiety because of the false news”, the Zoo Manager said.
In his reaction, which was aired on Heartland FM, Owerri, the Deputy Director, Forestry Department, in the state Ministry of Petroleum and Environment, Mr. Chukwuma Iheanacho, said he received the false alarm with mixed feelings.
He noted that the garden should have basic equipment to effectively handle dangerous animals in captivity, in the event of an escape.
Commenting also, the Commissioner for Petroleum and Environment, Professor Okey Okorocha, regretted the situation.
“Managers of any zoo should expect that there may be the escape of dangerous animals once in a while, but what we should aim at is to make sure that dangerous animals, like the lion, do not escape at all,” Okorocha said.
The Commissioner called for development partners for the zoo to operate optimally, adding that it is necessary to turn the zoo around as it is a tourist destination in the state.
When contacted on his mobile line, the Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Mr. Andrew Enwerem, confirmed that the Police Command got wind of the alarm and quickly reacted appropriately.
“The Command received this distress call and quickly reacted appropriately by putting the citizens on notice. However, after proper investigation, it was discovered that it was a false alarm,” Enwerem said.
Continuing, the PPRO said that the alarmist was arrested and was telling the police why he decided to create the confusion and anxiety among the people.
“The alarmist has been arrested by the police. He is cooling his heels in our custody. He must tell us why he decided to raise the false alarm that created anxiety and confusion among the people,” the PPRO said.
He appealed to Imo people to go about their normal business and discountenance the false alarm, “especially as there was no need for the alarm in the first place”.
But while thanking God that the alarm over the escape of the lion was a hoax, many are of the view that the state government should immediately take precautionary measures to forestall any emergency in the Nekede Zoological Garden.