Up ahead, two patas monkeys held hands hopping at the side of the narrow walkway. As the sound of the incoming motorcycles reached them, they froze. But only for a few minutes just enough time to give the visitors a good view before they scampered off in a hurry.
“That’s how they behave. Sometimes, they wait till you get close before running off, other times they just run off at the slightest noise,” the park ranger, Kamaldeen Mustapha explained the animals’ behaviour.
The Old Oyo National Park is home to different animals. It is a free-range vast space with trees, food, water and all the supplies they’ll ever need. Visitors, whose permanent habitat is not the park, irrespective of species or size are the strange ones.
” Our job is to make sure that as much as possible, the natural state of their home is maintained and not tainted by external factors”, the ranger further explained.
A short man fully suited in a ranger’s uniform, with a dane gun hanging off his shoulder, Mustapha’s job description includes guiding people around the park and preventing likely threats from entering the park. While he enjoyed the former, the latter was becoming more difficult to do. Every other week, he and his colleagues have to deal with poachers and herders who roam around the park, ready to take advantage of its resources— cut down the trees, and graze their cattle.
The Old Oyo National Park (OONP) is one of the seven national parks in Nigeria. It is located in South-West Nigeria, in Oyo State with a vast land of 2512Km2. It got its name from the Oyo Ile, the capital of the Old Oyo Empire.
Today, the park is divided into six ranges: Oyo Ile, Sepeteri, Tede, Maguba, Yemoso and Tessi. While the Oyo Ile range is known for holding the archeological ruins and historical landmarks from the Old Oyo empire, the other five are known for being the home of flora and fauna. There, plants and animals are kept safe to meet one of the park’s objectives — to protect, preserve, conserve and manage representative samples of indigenous flora and fauna of the Southwest geographical region of Nigeria.
The park’s major fauna resources are the roan antelope, western hartebeest, kob, patas monkey, and waterbuck. However, as a result of uncontrolled human activities in the past, including hunting, the animal species have been greatly depleted in the park and some are considered locally extinct, like the West African wild dog. The park’s flora resources consist of four sub-vegetation complexes: dense woodland and forest outliers in the southern part, mixed open and dense savanna woodland in the central part, outcrop vegetation in the northeast and Riparian grassland and fringing woodland occupying the forest plains and valleys along the River Ogun.
PROTECTED BY THE LAW
The OONP is one of the five national parks established under Decree No.36 of 1991. This act was later consolidated and replaced to become part of the Nigerian laws in 1999, due to the emergence of democratic administration. Then in 2006, the legislative arm passed the National Park Service (Amendment) Act which established the National Park Service, a federal institution responsible for the preservation, enhancement and protection of wild animals and plants and other vegetation in National Parks.
Entry and activities in the OONP are regulated by the National Park Service Act. According to section 29 of this act, a person who resides or erects a building in a National Park is guilty of an offence.
“A person who, unless authorised to do so under this Act or the regulations made under this Act’, (a) hunts or captures an animal; or (b) destroys or collects an animal;” says section 30 of the act.
“Or (c) uproots, burns, strips off the bark or leaves from or otherwise damages a tree or plant;(j) is in possession of a wild animal, bird or reptile, dead or alive; or (I) drives, stampedes or in any way disturbs unnecessarily any animal; or (m) carries out an undertaking connected with forestry, agriculture, grazing or excavation; or (0) does an act likely to harm or disturb the fauna or flora; or (q) uses any bait, decoy, hide, blind or any calling device whatsoever to bring animals closer for the purpose of hunting them; is guilty of an offence under this Act.”
Section 31 of this act puts a restriction on weapons in the National parks.
DEALING WITH POACHERS: MUSEUMS OF WEAPONS
Inside the OONP headquarters in Oyo town stands a museum that houses Oyo’s history, the beautiful skins and skeletons of some of the park’s major animal resources, pictures and weapons. These weapons range from cutlasses to dane guns, bullets, traps and fishing calabash. Many of them, were seized years ago when poacher’s activities at the national park were high.
A museum also stands not too far away from the lodging area at the Akoto Base camp, Sepeteri. It houses skins, skulls, horns and weapons that tell a history of the long war against poaching.
Although poachers’ activities are not as high at the park as in previous years, the two guides acknowledge that it has not completely disappeared. Once in a while, they arrive at some parts of the park, to see trees cut down.
GUILTY AND FLEEING: THE INTRUDING HERDERS
The activities of poachers who come to hunt animals, fish and cut down trees have reduced greatly in recent years but the Fulani herders are still a threat. A 2018 study that studied the trends of poachers’ activities and arrests in the park noted that grazing in the park had the highest number of offenders being arrested (682), followed by hunting, mining and logging with 441, 101 and 85 arrests respectively.
This reporter travelled over an hour from the lodge at the Akoto base camp to the OONP, Sepeteri range to the park. The journey was made alongside park rangers and guests in the early hours of the day. This is the best time to spot animals as they would wander around in search of food, before resting when the sun rises and the temperature becomes too high.
During the visit, this reporter came across some of the major fauna resources in the area. The rangers guided the reporter to spot patas monkeys, kobs, baboons, tartas monkeys, antelope, eagles and some other types of birds. Shy and fast, these animals often move away with a speed unmatched by the reporter’s camera.
The park ranger also showed some plants and trees to the reporter and stated their uses.
“These trees protect the environment, especially now that we are tackling climate change and greenhouse effects. If we have few trees, we are likely to have high temperatures and increased heat. Trees often cushion these effects. Additionally, these trees produce the oxygen we breathe and cleanse the air of CO2,” Mustapha explained.
He expatiates on how the plants also support the park’s animals by serving as a centre for activities, a place to hide, and a source of food, for animals that feed on leaves.
According to Mustapha, cattle herders often cross the buffer zone to bring their animals into the park to graze, because of the park’s rich resources — fresh grasses, a thick forest, and an ever-flowing river.
The buffer zone is the area surrounding a National Park as a multiple-use area to protect the boundaries of the National Park from disturbance. Communities near the park are allowed controlled access to the buffer zone to access water, and firewood only. Beyond the buffer zone of about 2 kilometres lies the boundary of the National park.
“The park is huge, so when we (the park rangers) want to patrol, we divide ourselves into teams and go round the parks to ensure everything is in order. When these herders see us, they flee, because they know they will be arrested and prosecuted. They leave their cattle behind knowing we cannot arrest the animals,” Mustapha lamented.
At different times, they have been lucky enough to catch some of these herders, and charge them to the local court. The penalty for bringing animals into the park attracts a fine of up to N50,000. A 2013 paper pointed out the fact that these offenders [herders] usually leave behind a “lead or trace” in the form of footprints of their herds as well as pasture deformation makes apprehending them easy.
“In years past when the park faced a lot of challenges from human activities. The park rangers have their work cut out for them. They have to guide against poaching, fishing, and grazing of animals. Now, the animals are quite safe. We counted about 117 in the monthly census held last month (February), and that’s one of the good numbers we have gotten in months. ” another ranger, simply identified as Pope, chipped in.
“Currently, we don’t have issues with hunting poachers, the only issue is these herders who have made this place home for their animals. You arrest one today, and prosecute him, only to catch him again next week,” he lamented.
The rangers’ greatest fear for the park is that the cattle brought in from farms beyond the park will contaminate the food and water, exposing the park animals to dangerous diseases. Also that the vegetation will be destroyed.
“Cattle are known for their size, therefore they tend to destroy vegetation on their path when not guided rightly. The park’s flora is at risk of overgrazing and trampling when cattle are brought in,” he explained.
When asked if the park animals have ever contracted diseases from these cows often brought in illegally to graze, Mustapha again explained how they have no way of finding out.
“We are not caging the animals, so we can’t tell. We try to make this as natural as possible. Therefore, if an epidemic should strike, it will take a while before we notice.”
Also, bringing in cattle from beyond to the park to feed in the park increases greatly the competition for all resources. With the unwanted addition, the park animals are forced to share resources in their protected areas.
True to the guides’ words, while exploring some parts of the park, this reporter was shown cow dungs at various places. There were also recent cattle hooves signs near the Ibuya pool, a river body that passes through the park. Being the early hour of the day, the herders are yet to arrive with their cattle or are in some other parts of the range.
IGNORANCE, ILLITERACY, LACK OF GRAZING AREA & THE WAY FORWARD
To understand why prosecution and fining are not working in correcting the herder’s persistent habit of bringing animals into the National Park, this reporter reached out to Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria ( MACBAN), a loose partisan advocacy group centred on promoting the welfare of Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria.
Baba Othman Ngelzarma, the organisation’s National secretary explained that many of these herdsmen are not educated, and are therefore ignorant of how important the park is and the laws that prohibit them from grazing cattle there.
“Any designated reserve, like the game reserve or the park, prohibits farming and grazing. However, many of these herders are not educated. They are likely not able to differentiate between a forest and a game reserve. Ignorance is what is making them repeat offenders. The only thing left for us is to sensitize them, and draw the attention of their community leaders to the fact that the areas are designated for specific purposes,” he said.
Otman advised that after sensitisation, erring people should be punished heavily.
Alhaji Ibrahim Abubakar, Chairman, MACBAN, Oyo State told this reporter that he is well aware of the ongoing issue at the National Park. He mentioned that he had visited some parts of the park in previous years and tried to talk to herders in the community.
” I know the problem occurring at the reserve due to the presence of our people there. But, if these Fulani herders leave the park and allow their cattle to graze in the farmlands surrounding the park, we’ll have a bigger issue on our hands. We’ll likely be looking at a farmer-herder issue. The cattle that graze in the National Park are numerous.” he explained.
As a solution to this issue, Ibrahim suggested that a committee be set up by the government to see to it that the herders leave the park, by providing an alternative grazing site of up to 15 acres for them. On his part, he promised this reporter that he will reach out to herders in the community and try to convince them to find alternative grazing sites.
“They don’t have where to take their cattle to, and therefore resort to using the National Park, despite it being an area reserved by the government. I’ll visit them very soon for a meeting and invite you. That way you will know I took a step to talk to them to find alternative means,” Abubakar promised.
When consulted, an environmentalist, Eme Okang, of We The People, a centre for social studies and development explained how the consistent intrusion into the park is an indirect result of climate change. She said that water bodies are receding, and forest covers, disappearing, therefore, forcing herders to move.
“We may try to politicise it, but climate change is the reason why cattle herders are moving to zones with good feed. It has nothing to do with the Islamization of Nigeria. It is a survival measure. They need their cattle to survive and therefore always tend to return to wherever they see good resources. They often don’t care about the other effects or if it will lead to conflict, the survival of the cattle is important to them, at any expense.
“We have laws and acts protecting these places, they should be implemented and looked into,” she said.
She also asked that the Miyetti Allah Breeders Association get involved because Fulani herders are known to respect authorities. They respect their leaders and follow instructions from them.
According to Ema, these challenges are not specific to the OONP, even the Crossriver National park is facing issues of its own. People go into the park to cut down trees indiscriminately, and logging is the major problem in the park.
As a solution to this, Ema proposed that the government sit tight and bring up measures to bar the cattle from accessing the territory. She recommended that the government looks into ranching for these herders, as it might be the only way to curb the menace.