By Kelechukwu Iruoma, WildAid Nigeria representative.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Nigeria.
As a kid, I read a lot of books with pictures of lions, cheetahs, elephants, and giraffes. One thing that stood out in nearly all the books I read was this: the lion is the “king of the jungle”. Sometimes it was obviously stated, but endings that amplify the majesty and dominance of lions in the animal kingdom often left me with that feeling. Lions have always held a fascination for me and I just couldn’t wait to see them in the wild someday.
I never visited a national park until November 2021 when I visited the Yankari Game Reserve in northern Nigeria. We trekked for about 8 hours in the game reserve and we could not find a single lion. I only saw waterbucks, monkeys and I was devastated and disappointed. What have we done to our lions?
Yankari used to be a popular destination for wildlife tourism. The sight of the numerous housing units in the reserve showed how important the wildlife was to people who usually visited. But Yankari is losing its status.
In the past, lions roamed northern Nigeria in large numbers. I was told that tourists could easily sight lions when they visited the park some four decades ago because lions are number one on their must-see list. The sound of the roar of a lion is majestic, but due to the decline in population, it’s rare to see lions nowadays. In fact, they’ve become extinct in some areas in the north.
In the past five decades, the lion population has continued to decline in Africa. An estimate of 20,000 lions are said to be left in the wild from 200,000. In Nigeria, lions are now on the verge of extinction. Scientists estimate that there may be fewer than 50 adult lions left in the wild in Nigeria. It is sad to see Nigeria lose its most iconic species.
Due to human-lion conflict, loss of habitat, poaching, and the illegal bushmeat trade, lions are disappearing in Nigeria. As the country’s population is growing, more lands are established for agriculture, which encroach on the lion’s natural habitat. As livestock also encroach into lion habitat, this results in the death of the livestock, making herders usually retaliate by killing the lions.
Illegal wildlife trade and the commercial trade in bushmeat are seriously endangering our lions. Traps and snares are set to catch other animals used for illegal bushmeat. This illegal activity does not only make lions lose their prey but lions are also caught and killed by the traps and snares. The bushmeat market in Epe, Lagos depicts how our wildlife is destroyed due to financial benefits. The Nigerian government must do everything to close down the market to protect our lions.
These illegal activities have destroyed the country’s wildlife and its potential for tourism that could generate millions of dollars for the government annually. But Nigeria can still restore its status as a foreign destination for wildlife tourism. The lack of effective anti-poaching and protection programmes in Nigeria’s forests and national parks has put Nigeria’s remaining lions in danger.
Lions are now classified as Critically Endangered on The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Nigerian government and critical stakeholders must all come together to combat wildlife crime to increase the lion population in Nigeria and restore its wildlife tourism.
Countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania are making millions of dollars through wildlife tourism. These countries have strict laws that protect their wildlife and any offender caught in illegal wildlife trade or poaching is seriously punished. Tanzania is said to have the largest population of lions in Africa with about 8,000. Lions are an important component of its tourism, which generates 17 percent of its Gross Domestic Products (GDP).
Nigeria can do the same. The federal government should, as a matter of urgency, update its wildlife laws and promote effective law enforcement in ensuring that defaulters engaged in various wildlife crimes are punished.
There should be a massive sensitization of the people, especially those in the communities around the national parks on the need to protect the forests and wildlife from going into extinction. This can be done by providing jobs for them and providing incentives as they protect the lions and other animals from extinction.