• Friday, September 29, 2023
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Nigeria’s endangered species bill is game-changer in wildlife conservation – Knights


Wild Africa Fund, a leading environmental conservation group, is partnering with media organisations across Africa to get the public and policy makers engaged in environmental concerns. In this interview, Peter Knights, Founder, shares with BusinessDay’s ISAAC ANYAOGU, why Nigeria’s proposed Endangered Species Conservation and Protection Bill of 2023, is a game-changer in improving conservation efforts.

Give us an insight into the conservation landscape in Nigeria in terms of trends,opportunities,challenges?

There are many challenges. As you know, Nigeria is a very highly populated country and with people comes all kinds of issues. The biggest challenge is deforestation and the loss of wildlife habitat, which is going on across the country. To combat this we need better laws and even better enforcement of those laws as well as public education.

There are other things like the illegal wildlife trade, as you know, Nigeria has become a major hub or center for illegal wildlife trafficking for things like ivory and pangolin. Not necessarily originating in Nigeria, but coming into Nigeria through illegal trade and that’s a major challenge. On top of these, are things like pollution from plastics which also threaten wildlife.

So how do you think these challenges can be combated?What needs to be done by the government and the people?

It will take every sector working together. So from the government side, as we mentioned, we need some better laws. In fact, this week, the Honorable Chairman of the Environment Committee, Johnson Oghuma, has introduced a new bill, which does really improve the legal situation with regards to illegal wildlife trafficking and illegal deforestation.

This is a new state of the art legislation, which would really help Nigeria get away from this role of being this hub of trafficking, to really being a regional leader in encountering wildlife trafficking.

So laws are one of the first things and obviously for laws, you need the government, you need the legislature, you also need the public to support it. And so this is the first step on the journey of addressing these issues.

Once you have the laws, then of course you have to have enforcement of those laws. And as I think you know, this has been somewhat of a weak area.

The Customs have been doing some big seizures recently, which is very encouraging. This new law would help them actually follow the seizures with actual prosecutions.

So we’re hopeful that this could be a major part of improvement here and of course, we need the public support through the media. With the public supporting the actions of the government, contacting the authorities when they witness a wildlife crime, the media providing information on wildlife crime non-government agencies and conservation organizations supporting law enforcement authorities, we will see positive outcomes.

The main thrust of our activities at Wild Africa Fund, is working with the media to educate the public on what’s going on and hopefully, through that education also, encourage the authorities to take more actions and to be more aggressive in fighting wildlife crime.

In addition, the Wild Africa Fund will also train and support other conservation organizations on the ground locally, with some small financial support to help their activities.

This new legislation, how does it help to improve enforcement?

It was prepared by the Ministry of Environment so it does have the administration’s backing. Some new reforms include that it will bring Nigeria into compliance with international conventions like the United Nations with the right laws to implement them.

It will also increase the investigative powers including financial inquiries and intelligence led operations which will really assist the Customs Service, NESREA and the police in conducting investigations.

They will be able to use undercover techniques, look into financial records of people involved in wildlife trafficking, and this could really help to disrupt the organized crime which wildlife trafficking has become.

It will also increase penalties to reflect the seriousness of the crime. Penalties in the past were very low. The new penalties would be a big disincentive for people who want to commit wildlife crime

The law will also expand the court’s ability to expedite seizure of assets used in the commission of wildlife crime. So, if people are using their vehicle to transport wildlife, they could lose that vehicle. This is very standard penalties that people have used all over the world in combating organized crime.

Wild life crime is very organized and often involves foreign nationals, not just Nigerians, so the new law will increase the ability to have international cooperation and even extradition.

It will also address habitat destruction, permit violations and invasive species, which is another threat to biodiversity as invasive species that come from another continent perhaps, dislodge local wildlife. So, it will be an offence to conspire or to perpetrate such commit illegal acts.

It really clarifies definitions, the roles of key agencies that were not clear in the legislation and their powers. The name of the bill is the Endangered Species Conservation and Protection Bill of 2023.

Does this new legislation also provide mechanisms to strengthen current enforcement?

Absolutely. For example, it enables Customs Service to do undercover investigations. There are a number of provisions in this bill, which would make it easier for the enforcement agencies because the penalties have increased. Obviously, they don’t want to spend a lot of resources and time if at the end of the day, it’s a very minor penalty, this doesn’t make any sense. But now with the ability to seize assets, law enforcement agencies have been incentivised. It elevates wild life crime into a significant crime.

There are new techniques like undercover investigations, ability to extradite and pursue criminals from other countries, which makes this bill effective in fighting wildlife crime.

Give us an idea into the kind of work that went into preparing this bill?

There’s a national strategy on wildlife, which was launched by the Ministry of Environment last year. And part of that strategy was to improve the legislation.

So the Ministry of Environment has been working on this for I think, at least 18 months. The officials reviewed legislation from all over the world and took some of the best aspects of these legislation to make this really a state of the art piece of legislation.

It has passed the first reading, we are hopeful the second reading will happen in March when they return from their recess. And we’re hopeful that this can be passed, because it shouldn’t really be controversial. It’s really updating the existing law and it does have the administration support so we would hope this would pass in this session before under this administration.

I think in recent times, the media here has done a good job on reporting these issues. And it would be great if the media got behind this piece of legislation.

Another challenge is getting the public to change their attitudes towards wildlife, how can this be addressed?

The major requirement to do this, and it does take time, but education and awareness are the only path to achieve that. Whether it’s basic information like people understanding that pangolins will produce very, very slowly one baby every 18 months.

So clearly, if you take them, they will disappear very quickly because they can’t reproduce easily. That kind of information is essential for the public to change that attitude and not see bushmeat as inexhaustible, understanding that we are depleting many species through it. There is also the risk of zoonotic disease from bushmeat which is significant. COVID has obviously taught us that zoonotic diseases may be a rare occurrence but when it happens, it can be absolutely disastrous for all of humanity.

So you’ve been in the conservation field for at least 20 years, how have attitudes about wildlife changed since then?

When I started working on the African elephant issue, half of the African elephants had disappeared in the 15 years prior to that, and nobody knew that anywhere, not even in America or Europe. So, that started, I think to dawn on people over there that there were problems and issues there.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career in Asia raising awareness and education about things like Ivory trade and Rhino horn and penguins and things like that. There has been a massive change in attitudes and opinions. The price of ivory is down by two thirds, the price of rhino horn is down by two thirds. Now, it is not cool to consume these products, before it was prestigious to consume them. Now it is seen as anti-social.

A big factor in that is the COVID epidemic. The Chinese government began to crack down on all bushmeat sold in the country. There is massive public information and education after SARS and now COVID.

So we’ve seen a massive sea change there and I think in Africa, many people have not felt connected or interested in conservation despite having the most amazing wildlife on the planet. I think the challenge now is to encourage and engage particularly young people to see this as part of their heritage, to see it as part of their future, to see it potentially as part of their career in tourism or conservation.

This is something that is essential for the nation and essential for individuals and part of the quality of human life is to have a healthy environment. So my hope is that more and more Africans feel engaged with the environment and take pride in what is the greatest wildlife on the planet.