Once, while travelling as a passenger in an inter-state taxi, a wild animal had the misfortune of running unto the highway. Without thinking, our driver swerved – not to avoid, but to kill the animal, which he did, though at the price of a shattered headlamp and dented fender.
That a driver could spontaneously elect to use his car to bludgeon an animal to death, knowing that it could result in an accident or damage to the vehicle, was not as surprising to the passengers as was his next move; he opened the engine compartment of the Peugeot 504 station wagon and somehow squeezed the dead animal inside for the rest of the journey.
He was apparently unbothered by the damage to the taxi, didn’t care about the dangers of the toxic oven he’d improvised and certainly had no apologies to the passengers, though he clearly put our lives in danger by using the vehicle as a hunting weapon. The satisfied smile on his face for the rest of the journey was that of a man looking forward to a huge feast of bush meat.
The driver’s attitude is not much different from that of many Nigerians to wildlife; meat. It doesn’t matter if it is a deer, rabbit, monkey, grass cutter, rat, antelope, snake, gazelle, elephant, rhino, bat, hippo or vulture. The sight of wildlife instantly conjures images of steamed, fried or roasted meat. It is not an accident the bush meat industry is a billion naira business in Nigeria.
In many African societies, hunters were (and still are) seen as brave and adventurous. In some cultures, a significant rite of passage to manhood was the ability of a young man to single-handedly hunt down a dangerous animal. Thousands of people hunt for a living because the bush meat industry requires daily supplies of freshly killed or captured wildlife.
That instinct to hunt and kill every wild animal has had very adverse consequences on Nigeria’s wildlife, such as the disappearance of some species which used to be plentiful. For instance, as recently as the 1960s, travelers along Nigeria’s border with Niger Republic sometimes had to give way for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and other wild animals to pass because of the rich vegetation and wildlife.
Today however, one can travel along the same stretch for many miles without seeing a blade of grass or animal. The vegetation is gone, the water vanished, and the animals, extinct. Empirical studies are scarce, but it is self-evident that several species have disappeared, primarily due to unregulated hunting.
Nigeria’s fast vanishing biodiversity due to drought, deforestation, over-grazing, soil erosion and land degradation, have all led to severe depletion of our wild life. Current estimates suggest that there are less than 100 lions left in the wild in Nigeria. The rest have been killed by hunters or driven out by loss of habitat.
Similarly, the Pygmy hippo which used to be found only in the Niger Delta is now practically extinct, thanks to hunters and environmental pollution. Our elephant population has been reduced to a few hundred and our giraffes, extinct. Indeed, Nigeria now imports animals for its zoos.
And then came Ebola.
Since the revelation that the Ebola virus is harbored by primates and other animals, hunters and bush meat sellers have seen a sharp drop in their businesses from falling patronage. It seems that the only way Nigerians will stop eating bush meat is when their lives are in danger.
The appetite of Nigerians for bush meat has fuelled demand for, and led to a systematic obliteration of our wildlife not just in Nigeria, but in neighboring countries because we also import bush meat. The array of wild animals once common have disappeared due to commercial poaching, lack of wild life protection policies and man-made and natural causes.
As tragic as the loss of human lives from Ebola is, for wildlife, the epidemic deliberately brought into Nigeria by Liberian-American bioterrorist Patrick Sawyer has been a respite. Government has tried to discourage the hunting and consumption of wildlife for decades, to no avail, but Ebola has succeeded in a few weeks.
While the argument that not everyone can afford to buy meat may be tenable, the fact is that bush meat is often more expensive than mutton, especially in urban areas, so the issue is more about palates than principles.
As long as the attitude of Nigerians to wild animals is that of something to be killed, and if edible, eaten, then more species of wildlife will disappear from the country. The notion of an animal being rare and endangered is almost totally alien – as if any talk of preserving them.
In the end though, while the Ebola tragedy may have provided a respite for our wild animals, it is almost a certainty that the moment the threat of the disease evaporates, Nigerians will return to the hunting and eating of bush meat as usual. Old habits die hard.