In this interview, an excerpt from a Tweetchart organised by Africa4Nature Health Initiative in commemoration of the International Day For Biodiversity 2020, Dr. Joseph Onoja, Director, Technical Programmes, Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) reveals the interaction among business, people and nature. Among sundry issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said recovery plans must have huge consideration for the environment in order to be impactful. Excerpts:
NCF has been at the vanguard of nature conservation and biodiversity in Nigeria over the last 40years. What are some of the milestones and challenges of nature conservation and biodiversity in Nigeria?
One major milestone the NCF has achieved is the Development of the National Conservation Strategy – 1984. NCF has also led the advocacy for the Domestication of the Endangered Species Act (Decree No. 11 of 1985), which was recently reviewed in 2016. NCF also played a lead role in the establishment of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) which is the precursor of the Federal Ministry of Environment. In terms of challenges of nature conservation in Nigeria, lack of awareness of the importance of biodiversity is at the fore. Another challenge is the fact that areas of high biodiversity coincide with areas of high poor rural population. This has led to over-exploitation of nature, both by the rural population and by external more organised cartel, who capitalise on the socioeconomic situation of these rural people to exploit biodiversity at a larger scale.
The lockdown imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 affected the operations of many organisations across Africa. How has it affected NCF’s work and how has NCF been able to adapt its operations?
No doubt, the lockdown has affected NCF’s activities especially in the area of field work. However, this challenge is being managed by our work approach. Our work approach ensures that community members living around the field sites and Protected Areas. NCF manages make up the larger part of the workforce. This made it easier to continue work despite the lockdown.
NCF is an advocate to ensure illegal trade of wildlife is stopped. Considering that wildlife is undomesticated, why and how are they crucial to humanity and livelihood?
Nature has created a delicate balance where these wildlife play critical role for the overall conducive living of mankind in the world. For instance, a Pangolin consumes over 70 million ants and termites in one year saving a forest as large as 31 soccer fields. Imagine what will happen to mankind if 70 million ants and termites are unleashed on us! Another example is the critical role vultures play in ensuring that diseases don’t spread, by them cleaning up carcasses before they develop spores that will transmit infections such as Cholera, Botulism, etc. Or imagine how we will get our food if the incredible pollinators, Bees, disappear from nature. These are few examples to illustrate the importance of wildlife to our survival and livelihood.
What are roles the government, corporate organisations, communities and individuals can play in wildlife conservation?
Everyone has a role to play in the conservation of biodiversity because it concerns all of us. The government at all levels has to ensure policies that will promote nature conservation are put in place. “NewDealForNature” COVID-19 Africa4Nature. Corporate organisations have to support nature conservation because the environment is the number one factor of production, without which they will not be able to produce or offer whatever service they have to offer. Communities and individuals also play vital roles as direct custodians of these wildlife by ensuring that their activities and actions do not impact wildlife negatively.
Considering the negative impact of illegal wildlife trade, what policies and strategies could be implemented by African leaders? Are there countries, in or out of Africa, from whose approach we could draw lessons?
Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is a transnational crime and can to a large extent, be combated successfully by international cooperation with local input. There are some policy instruments which the governments of various national and regional levels are employing. However, a major gap is proper enforcement of these instruments and the capacity of Law Enforcement Agents. There are different countries doing their bits especially in Eastern and Southern African countries where enforcement of wildlife laws is at the same level with other crimes like armed robbery.
Still about wildlife, are there relationships between illegal wildlife trade and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other health emergencies such as Ebola in Africa in the recent years?
Absolutely! Naturally, some animals harbour some diseases which are not harmful to them and it will remain docile as long as it remains in their population. However, IWT disrupts that balance and such diseases become zoonotic and cross over to the human population with devastating consequences. Most of these infections are passed through fluid and by handling (or manhandling) these animals, humans get infected. When animals are transported packed in cages, infected and non-infected ones, they become all infected and increases the likelihood of the infection crossing over to the human population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all the sectors on the African economy, what’s your perspective of COVID-19 and the various strategies deployed towards curbing the spread of the virus on nature conservation and biodiversity?
So far there have been few visible strategies one can confidently comment on such governments banning the handling of wildlife and closing down illegal wildlife markets, which are positive steps in the right direction. Also, the lockdown has had tremendous impact on the environment as the level of air pollution has drastically reduced and the restricted movements is making wildlife reclaim areas where they were absent for a long time.
There has been an ongoing campaign “NewDealForNature” and People. What is the “NewDealForNature” and People? And what is NCF doing as contribution to the campaign?
The year 2020 has been termed the ‘Super Year for Nature’. It gives us an opportunity to pause and have a rethink of how we have been relating with nature, which invariably has impact on people.
The “NewDealForNature” and People is an opportunity to make ambitious global commitment to Nature because it is our life-support system – and therefore the component of people. In terms of NCF’s contribution, as early as November 2019, we hosted the first ever “NewDealForNature” and #People campaign focused on Businesses, where we tried to win them over to be on the side of Nature and People in their Business practices. This was made possible by the collaboration between Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and NCF (the only WWF Affiliate or country office in West Africa). Working with Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), we hope to roll out programmes to ensure businesses are sustainability compliant.
Given that the central focus of the “NewDealForNature” and People is to recalibrate human interaction with nature, what are your suggestions on the contributions of various stakeholders towards ensuring this is achieved?
I think the first thing is that there must be a paradigm shift, where instead of humans looking at ourselves as apart from nature, we will see ourselves as a part of nature. This will help us know that whatever happens to nature our life support system, we will be the first to be impacted and heavily. Humans, anatomically and physiologically, are the least equipped to live on earth and the earlier we realise that the safer it will be for us. We don’t have furs to cover our bare skin, no claws and no tails. So, if we don’t protect nature to protect us, nature will protect itself but at our detriment. This is the message humans need to hear to recalibrate our thinking.
Do you have some advice on the post COVID-19 recovery plans and strategies in Africa?
Any post COVID-19 recovery plans that do not factor environmental consideration may likely not have much impact. The environment serves as a shock absorber to many especially the rural poor who were already the most vulnerable to climate change. So, the post COVID-19 recovery plans and strategies should be seen as an opportunity to tackle not only the immediate effect of the pandemic, but the impact of climate change that has been hanging over them before the COVID-19 era.