By JIMOH BABATUNDE
OKOMU National Park “The pride of our natural heritage” is the smallest of the seven National Parks in Nigeria. The Park is a rainforest ecosystem gazetted from the former Okomu Forest reserve in 1935.
The Park which is a good habitat for numerous endangered flora and fauna species is today threatened by illegal logging and flora and fauna scavengers. Our correspondent spoke to OLADIPO OJO CORNELIUS, the Conservator of the Park of this nature wonder on various conservation issues.
ON general overview of conservation
UNFORTUNATELY, we all seemed to forget easily where we are coming from. In the old days of our fathers, it is a taboo to invade forests either for farming or hunting. Things were organized and done in a sustainable manner.
We grew up to see and know that certain type of fish are not to be harvested at their young age and when mistakenly done, they are thrown back to the river and this formed path of conservation even though we may claim that our old people are not educated.
It has even been proved that the earth national resources received more protection during those periods than now and this is what gave birth to an organisation such as National Parks Service (NPS) which today effectively promotes within all the six geo-political zones in Nigeria, the preservation and protection of the country’s forests and animal resources.
Indeed, with the obvious effect of climate change, increase in population and its attendant urbanisation and industrialisation, Nigeria needs to wake up to protect our resources from extinction.
On changing the perception of Nigerians to protected areas
We design message deliberately targeted at Okomu National Park stakeholders. To our local communities, there is the continuous need to explain why we occupy their lands and hold it in trust for them.
Process of engagement
We need to explain why trees cannot be harvested and why elephants need not be hunted. This process of engagement has reduced conflict between the people and our forest rangers.
On our own part, we dedicate our resources to assist in grading their farm roads, health centres, schools, give seed money to farmers and hunters to engage in business that will keep them away from invading the forest and depleting the resources therein.
It should also be noted that the communities around us take up about 80% of the job openings in Okomu National Park. To your question, we have for sometime given the availability of funding, tried to engage the media to see what we are doing towards explaining the benefit to stake holders which includes policy makers and our host, the state government.
I will want to itemize them because of their impacts. The first and most important is lack of understanding of what we are doing here. Though the concept of protected areas management is not too recent with us, we however still grapple to explain to majority of the policy makers why certain acres of our land mass need to be set aside for protection and conservation.
To change their perception, we need a huge publicity fund to which we don’t have and to which corporate organisations can help us endorse and assist.
Our location in the south-south region also provide challenges, particularly at the height of militancy in the region which has gone down now and we pray for total elimination so that visitors within and outside Nigeria can find it a worthy experience to visit and behold Mother Nature.
Also, population increase begets logging and over exploitation of forest resources. Within and around Edo State, the growth saw – millers are on the increase and with massive industrialization; illegal logging definitely threatens this frontier. However, through aggressive conservation enlightenment and prosecution, we drive the process of mitigating the danger. Other challenges are poaching, infrastructural needs and communication.
As you may be aware, the demand for bush meat is on the increase despite the growth of animal farming. Within our park, we have elephants, white throated monkey and these cannot be seen anywhere else except within our ranges, so hunters tends to target us for attacks and poaching.
Remember that we are in a rain forest ambit, therefore the roads here posses a great challenge to us and our communities. And to share boundaries with Okomu Oil Plantation creates issues as we are sometimes mistaken for our millionaire Palm Oil producing neighbours.