A different kind of pandemic.
I made a friend on my street a few weeks ago; he’s a horse. A constant at my junction every morning until last week, he would find the best patch of green to feed on for most of the day and then move on to find somewhere to spend his night. This is a common occurrence for most people living a few minutes away from any beach in Lagos; the horses are an attraction many beach hustlers have engaged in to make a few bucks. More often than not, the animals are malnourished, underweight, and overworked, putting the attraction and its purveyors under scrutiny. But whenever concerns are raised about what could be done to improve the lives of these working creatures, the general paraphrasable response is: “This is Nigeria; nobody cares about a horse.” And this is true, but also not. Contrasting the fetishization of imported purebred horses in the stables of some of Nigeria’s most prestigious horse and polo clubs with the pay-for-ride economics of the beach hustlers in the city begs the question: is wealth or the lack of it truly the denominator for caring about creatures outside ourselves?
To their handlers, the animals represent nothing more than a stream of income amongst others; my new friend is the perfect evidence. He is possibly allowed to spend his weekdays off, roaming the neighbourhoods in the vicinity and then forced into action for the weekend frenzy. Until then, he is vulnerable to any sort of disease: the whims of passersby and the indifference of the elements. In a country where 70% of the population lives under the poverty line, for most people, it is difficult to make a case for a starving, homeless animal when there are also starving, homeless people. Yet, the fact remains that as a function of Nigeria’s dysfunction, people do care about animals – specifically when there is profit to be made.
Horses are not endangered animals, at least not in Nigeria. Yet, the treatment of these regal creatures predicts a worse fate for more fragile and endangered creatures. The wet markets in the city teem with all forms of exotic wildlife, relegating run-of-the-mill sources of protein nourishment to the confines of supermarket freezers. All members of the value chain, starting from the hunters and trickling down to the end consumer, maintain complicity in destroying entire biomes. Still, with poverty, economic constraints, and illiteracy, where do we begin to take collective cognisance of our problems?
A person who has been able to begin this process is Chinedu Mogbu, an educational administrator and the Greenfingers Wildlife Conservation Initiative founder. Succumbing to the allure of nature versus the rudiments of his medical science background, Chinedu Mogbu established the Greenfingers Institute in 2011 to fill a need he decided had been overlooked for too long – care for wildlife. While he has earned a great deal of acclaim specifically for his work with pangolins, setting up a rehabilitation centre for the vulnerable mammals, and raising awareness for their plight, the thankless aid he provides to all animals in need is nothing short of exemplary. Deputising the Nigerian Ministry of Environment and the Parks Service with a nanoscopic amount of their budget, he has managed to keep not just endangered animals alive, but also animals who remain heavily prejudiced (for anything from traditional to religious reasons) in this part of the world for their identity and features. Next door to the Greenfingers Institute is a school where Chinedu teaches biology, educating the next generation of Nigerians on the importance of maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship between themselves and the environment. The sanctuary is decorated with mosaics made with plastic, a joint effort with the kids. The garden is a busy affair, a reflection of its benefactor's intentions. Different breeds of animals share accommodations in the sanctuary, almost as if they are aware of the economic situation of their carers and have adapted beyond their basic biological instincts.
Due to the effects of human-wildlife conflict and other forms of wildlife displacement, interactions between both sides are more widespread than ever, meaning that rescues are quickly becoming an essential function to carry out. Nigeria’s notorious history with a lack of records (and an obsession with not keeping any) serves as an anaesthetic for many citizens to avoid accountability through ignorance. This has led us down a dangerous – perhaps irreversible – road. Creatures like the pangolin and the blue duiker share opposing levels of concern on the RED list for endangered species, with the pangolin coming in at “critically endangered” while the duiker comes in at “least concern”. Chinedu believes this could be misleading at the very least. “The RED list considers animals on a global scale, rarely regionally. These animals exist natively in our regions, and since our numbers from Nigeria are already skewed, it doesn’t provide a clear picture of what we have lost; they could both be critically endangered animals,” he shares. Perhaps the biggest indicator that he might be right is an occurrence common in duikers; when placed in captivity as adults, these animals do not survive up to 48 hours, suffering cardiomyopathy regularly. Even when they appear relaxed, their tiny hearts quietly enlarge and contract fast, eventually giving out and shrivelling after all that effort. The only living duikers at the conservation centre are the young, rescued from certain death in the wild or at wet markets. It is difficult to imagine such a fragile/vulnerable creature who barely survives the stress and shock of being captured remaining on the “least concern” list when we consider such factors.
Of all the animals in Chinedu’s charge, many are actively endangered, but the list varies across multiple territories, and all have a story. Some of the baboons in his care reportedly belong to one of Nigeria’s ex-presidents, Olusegun Obasanjo, who brought them into the country and then passed them on after several years until they ended up in Chinedu’s possession – another example of the wildlife fetishization practised by the ruling class in the country. One of the oldest residents is a Bateleur Eagle from Zimbabwe, present within the first year of the conservation’s inception. Rescuing one of these endangered animals in Nigeria highlights other issues in bird migration as related to larger overlying problems such as climate change and habitat eradication. Trapped for their elaborate plumage, which is believed to grant divinatory powers, these animals have especially seen a steady decline through the effect of poison applied by farmers and hunters in their native regions. One of his most recent and polarizing finds was a Nile crocodile in Lagos, found by fishermen in a lagoon a few thousand miles from its natural habitat. This is an animal once threatened to near extinction and key reforms in some of its native habitats have helped restore the population from the brink of eradication. The Lappet-Faced Vulture, an animal found exclusively in Northern Nigeria that has been hunted to near extinction for its feathers and beaks, is also represented in Greenfingers by a pair of the species.
Ignorance, hunger, and traditional beliefs create a dangerous cocktail of insensitivity and a lack of regard for creatures we deem outside our spectrum of importance. With the poor relegated to a sustenance-first approach to conservation and the rich obsessed with a fetishization of exotic creatures primarily as a show of opulence, the only individuals interested in making a dent and stemming the tide of further species extinction are often ridiculed in Nigeria. Whenever people champion causes such as this one, there’s a general perception of misplaced priorities. Chinedu does not think this should be the case: “In working countries, there are departments of states dedicated to the preservation of the environment and wildlife, just the way there are departments dedicated to women’s rights and telecommunications. If everyone did the jobs they were hired for, then it wouldn’t matter what anyone’s priorities are; there would be people responsible for taking actions to preserve wildlife. It’s that simple.” The lack of data and regulatory government bodies pose large barriers in this fight. Without the necessary information to track animal population numbers and entities meant to enforce reform, there are no clear indicators of improvements in this sector. A lack of progress indicates one thing: retrogression.
The unfortunate crown jewel of the endangered creatures in his care is the pangolin, an animal popularised by their fight for their lives and the continued propagation of their species. Native to Africa and Asia, the Chinese variant of the animal has been hunted to near extinction due to the proximity of the trade’s biggest markets putting the African Pangolin firmly in the sights of poachers.
These curious animals can not be bred in captivity, hence the desperate demand for the creature in the wild, stemming from several demands such as Chinese traditional medicine techniques requiring pangolin scales and blood and the creature itself a delicacy. Victims of their own discretion, the elusive creatures are considered the most trafficked mammals globally and are at the centre of a multi-million dollar illegal animal trade – and nobody seems to know why.
In Nigeria, primarily led by a belly-first approach, most of the individuals who catch the animals do so in hopes of selling them on the black markets, with more exotic creatures earning greater rewards, but a lot of the time they end up being nothing more than sustenance. “If you know something could be the last of its kind, you probably wouldn't want to kill it for dinner. On the other hand, hunger drives a lot of our curiosity; people encounter rare animals and decide they might taste good. Case in point, an albino python was found in this community a couple of months ago – a once in a lifetime find – and it was butchered for food,” Chinedu explains.
The sanctuary is a colourful, densely packed habitat, housing everything from amphibians and birds to domestic and farm animals meaning it doubles as a petting zoo for the more tame critters. As with most things Nigerian, expecting the government to swoop in and offer a helping hand will get you nowhere; being proactive will. For this reason, Chinedu is a bonafide hero.