Ogba Zoo land grab: Why Obaseki should act fast
Andy Osa Ehanire is the Chief Executive Officer of Ogba Zoo & Nature Park, Benin City, Edo State, as well as the National Secretary of the Nigerian Association of Zoos and Parks (NAZAP). I this interview, he spoke on the ongoing efforts to bring back the lost glory of the zoo and the frustrations caused by land grabbers and poachers.
Ogba Zoo and Nature Park is one of the foremost conservation and tourism enclaves in the country, could you give us a background of the zoo?
The Ogba Zoo, which we manage, was designed and developed in the early seventies by then military administrator of former Bendel State, late Brig. General Samuel O. Ogbemudia. The concept was an extensive biological garden, with potentials for resort development, in tandem with the ambitious and iconic scale of Ogbemudia’s drive and vision for the then Midwest Region. But soon after Ogbemudia’s regime, the zoo suffered a long era of decline and eventual collapse, spanning the late 80s and 90s. By the time of our private sector - led intervention in the year 2000, the zoo was already dead and written off the books.
What was your mandate?
Our mandate was to reverse the rot or what was left of the decayed zoo, in order to revitalise its essential functions as an urban recreational park and field laboratory in the biological sciences, where schools and colleges in the entire sub-region derived conservation education and awareness. It must be understood that the decline and neglect of any zoo is always horrible. Without a proper winding-down procedure, the animals suffer neglect and deprivations akin to torture. It’s instructive that the treatment of wildlife in any society can be likened to the barometer for measuring the level of its humanity.
What efforts have you made so far to revive the zoo?
The extent of its abandonment and decay, notwithstanding, Ogba Zoo experienced a painful rebirth through our rescue mission, which was purely self-financing, with no support from government. On the contrary, it is the nature of the lease agreement we hold that our private sector led eco-tourism outfit pays rents to the government. But as challenging as reviving a moribund zoo was, there were other hidden challenges that can hardly be imagined in a sane society.
Could you list some of these challenges?
Well, it started as a minor incursion by community land grabbers into the zoo land until official of government, in the form of a gazette, aided it. Even with government claiming it committed an error in issuing such gazette, which was attested to by two administrative panels set up to look into the problems at the initial stage, unfortunately, the errant instrument has not been repealed for more than 10 years running. This legal instrument has unwittingly served as a license for unlimited plundering of a foremost tourism heritage of the State. All these years of battling the encroachment on the zoo, our private sector led management was as good as left to solely tackle the growing menace unaided.
How much of the zoo land has been taken over?
The land area encroached upon grew from about 10% of the zoo land that was purportedly ceded by the gazette, to more than 60% of the entire zoo. It was like a horror movie seeing bulldozers leveling priceless forestry in this pristine conservation heritage that had been a classic urban forest rarely found anywhere in the world. It is a sad commentary that these last three years (2014 to 2016) have seen the greatest devastation of the zoo, even when the then Comrade Governor Adams Oshiomhole, would be making pronouncements as to immediate government intervention. While not tolerating any nonsense in other areas, all the administrative machineries of his government were appearing helpless in the face of the onslaught on Ogba Zoo.
It was in the public domain that at a point, you opted for arbitration?
We eventually had recourse to this arbitration process in order to encapsulate the issues in proper legal perspectives. Our reliefs were substantially granted with compensatory considerations. The arbitration award was forwarded to the Government for it implementation since January this year and we are anxiously awaiting compliance, as there was no appeal against the ruling. The bottom-line is that government is to protect this heritage and grant us peaceful possession for all our eco-tourism operations. Immediate delineation and survey of the zoo land is paramount, as well as fulltime security protection.
It’s, however, disheartening that even while the arbitration was ongoing and up till the award was published, various levels of devastations are still being unleashed on the zoo and its assets without government response. Even after the arbitrating ruling, a six block staff quarters meant to keep critical personnel of the zoo resident in close proximity to the zoo was bulldozed and the land taken over by some well connected individuals.
A purpose-built lion enclosure in the middle of the encroached land was also bulldozed. The case of the zoo staff quarters that have now been demolished is of particular interest since it was part of the specific provisions in the arbitration award requiring it to be dedicated for the use of the zoo.
Have you made any effort to reach Godwin Obaseki on the plight of the zoo?
We have sent letters to Governor Obaseki on the extant matters and maintained contacts with the Solicitor General and the SSG of the State. We equally sought and have been promised audience with the Governor, but it is on record that he recently told a visiting FRIN delegation that he would move swiftly to deal with the encroachment issues concerning the Zoo. We are, therefore, hopeful that the new governor will take a decisive approach to save the zoo from the grips of brigandage and looters. We are also anxious as to when specific government interventions would commence to save the zoo, before all that needs to be saved are totally destroyed.