From Stanley Uzoaru, Owerri

Former President of the Nigerian Association of Zoological Gardens and Wildlife, Francis Abioye has blamed the carelessness of the Federal Government for the death of the late manager of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Zoo, Olawuyi Olabode, who died after being mauled by a lion at the OAU zoo.

In an interview with Saturday Sun, the former Manager, Imo State Zoological Gardens noted that things that should be in place in many zoological gardens are not there because the authorities are

A lion attacked and killed a zoo keeper at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife recently. What are the necessary safety protocols to be put in place to avoid such incidents?

One of the major safety protocols to prevent such disaster is the housing enclosure of such animals. This is fundamental because, once the housing design is wrong, everything will be, no matter the good care given to the animals. An ideal lion enclosure must have at least three partition rooms with interlinking trap doors, the height must be up to 4 metres and minimum space to allow an adult lion have free playing ground is 50sqm.

The enclosure in OAU is one of the best among zoos in Nigeria which has over 400 square metres which can conveniently accommodate a pride of lions.

Other necessary safely guidelines are; need for safety equipment, staff training and re-training. This should start from induction/recruitment, adequate staff welfare and provision of safety clothing and tools such as Taser etc.

Can you tell us what actually happened that led to the horrific death of the late OAU zoo keeper? Why were the other staff unable to prevent the death?

The man who died in the unfortunate incident, late Mr Olawuyi Olabode, cannot just skip my mind easily. I kept thinking about his courageous thoughts during his last moments. He was not the original target of the lion. Everything started from a human error from a female zoo keeper in the facility during feeding. She entered the cage to clean the animal house and serve them their food as usual, but forgot to trap the lion in another safe apartment while she left the door to the open field opened with assumption that the lion was no more in the open field. That was how the lion rushed at her.

Then the supervisor, that is the deceased, decided to rescue the woman as she started shouting for help. It was at the point where he was struggling with the lion to rescue the woman from the lion that he got killed in the process.

What was the major limitation that caused the incident? Was it lack of safety equipment, lack of training or lack of what? Would you say all safety guidelines were in place?

The obvious answer is No. All safety guidelines were not in place. The late Olabode did what very few men can do to rescue even their own wives in such dangerous circumstance not to talk of a female subordinate in the absence of necessary safety equipment. Such uncommon virtue needs to be honoured and celebrated by any responsible nation.

It is important for me to be affirmative about the erroneous view that it was the lion that killed the veteran zoo keeper. The lion was only doing what it is expected to do.

If you say it was not the lion that killed the late zookeeper, what then killed him?

The case is like blaming a lorry which ran into a crowd of innocent people to cause heavy casualties without considering the recklessness of the driver. There are many drivers behind the scene that are directly responsible for the unfortunate incident. Such ugly occurrence cannot stop if we fail to address the source(s) of the problem.

We have lost at least three zoo keepers to lion attacks in the last four years. Yet, government is doing nothing to end recurrence of such unjust harrowing deaths of our colleagues and friends.

There is a misconception among the public that the university management was responsible for the tragic incidence of the lion attack. So, I need to make it sufficiently clear that the problem is beyond the university management, which has been stripped of major financial autonomy, which cannot employ workers to sensitive departments and units due to embargo placed on employment by our policy makers, the politicians. The lion will always be a lion especially when such is not trained. We can all predict what a lion will do if it comes in contact with humans by any slim chance, just like we all know what a lorry will do if it runs into a crowd by human error.

Late Olabode Olawuyi only happened to be one of the direct victims of reckless drivers of our nation, I mean the policy makers and politicians.

The unjust death of the dedicated veterinary staff of the zoo would not have happened if the government had put the following in place; Firstly the COVID-19 palliative that ought to be released to the Zoos and Wildlife Parks. I was the National President of the Zoos and Wildlife Parks in 2020 and we pursued the COVID-19 palliative but, we were not given because, we could not give bribe and arrange secret sharing formula. This fund would have repositioned all already distressed Zoos in Nigeria like it was done in many nations of the world. Most nations of the world did not delay to release huge palliative to the Zoos and Wildlife sector during the COVID-19because, they know the socio economic importance of the sector to their national economy.

The United Kingdom has over 350 Zoos, and the sector contributes £645m to the UK economy annually. This figure is equivalent to N1.322Tr which is about the entire budget of Nigeria Education Sector. The little money (N200m to N500m) would have changed the narrative of the zoos if it has been released to reposition all our zoos in Nigeria and put necessary safety protocols and required working environment in place. Unfortunately, the fund was looted with impunity and the left over is still being looted by politicians till today. Instead, the then CBN Governor was approving COVID-19 palliative to himself and his political allies instead of allocating such palliative to the critically affected sector like; zoos and tourism industry, aviation, health etc.

We knew that some billions were given to the aviation industry, but nothing was released to the zoos and the tourism industry till today. Since then, the industry has not recovered.

The Nigerian Zoos and Wildlife Parks, as one of the affected industries, would have taken many thousands of youth out of joblessness and contribute significantly to our national economic growth through tourism and indirect employment of the trading locals.

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We need the civil society to speak for the Nigerian Zoos and Wildlife Sectors. Because, the looters of this fund need to be brought to justice and the fund must be appropriated to the Zoos and Wildlife Parks facilities in Nigeria (either private own or government-owned).

Another tragic complacency that killed the late zoo veteran is lack of approval to issue licence to zoo to acquire necessary safety equipment. Many of our zoos are still unsafe. I am a friend of the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife (as the wildlife consultant to the University). I am proud to identify with the noble institution and moreover, that’s my state of origin.

I am aware that the first thing we did two years after the university embarked on rehabilitation of the distressed animals of the zoo after COVID-19 impact was that we purchased two dart guns and necessary accessories for the purpose of safe handling of the dangerous animals like lion in the case of any emergency situation like what happened in the university’s zoo recently. The animals were so weak after COVID-19 and could not kill their prey. One of them collapsed and was carried by hand by late Olabode and his team before it was revived with meat and water.

It is believed that the then weak lions will become dangerous after they are rehabilitated with improved feeding regime, environmental hygiene and medication.

The late Olabode is trained to use such equipment and he would have used such to save the woman that was originally at risk, save himself and also save the lion by preventing it to display its natural instinct.

However, the office of National Security Adviser to the President included dart guns among Firearms and dangerous weapons that require licence for importation which is not necessary in many other nations.

Therefore, the two dart guns and accessories we purchased for the university zoo had remained at the port waiting for licence before it could be shipped to Nigeria. ONSA has failed to respond to our letters and the omission of dart gun among equipment listed on their portal. This has taken over two year of trying the online application for the licence without success. Many of our Zoos do not have the dart gun that is required to tranquilize such dangerous animals in an emergency situation. If the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Security had issued the required licence since 2022 when it was acquired, such horrific disasters would have been averted.

The last driving factor that led to that fatality of the attack is lack of justifiable hazard allowances to our zoo keepers.

I personally interacted with the woman who was originally attacked by the lion to ask her few questions. She sounded like someone who was absent-minded before entering the lion’s cage to perform her duty. The poverty effect was obvious. When a government staff who has worked for over 25 years is paid less than £70 per month, how will such a person not be absent-minded on such dangerous duty? The possibility of the woman thinking of what she would eat with her family after feeding the lions, pay rent, transport, school fees are enough to distract her to forget to lock the lion out of her reach.

While I was the National President of NAZAP, I led the struggle for payment of hazard allowance for the zoo staff in Imo State as the Head of the Imo Conservation Agency before the ugly story that led to the fierce attack against me and my family by the Imo State Government. The hazard allowance was paid to all zoo staff then, but, it was removed after few years because, the government felt it is too much for the staff who are exposed to such high risk to earn such allowances.

Our zoo keepers across the nation are still taking unjust risk while working with dangerous wild animals without commensurable hazard allowances till date. While the legislature are earning undeserved millions of naira as hazard allowances for sitting at their convenient days in our conducive legislative chamber that is well protected and secured without any risk, even they are protected against the common protest by the angry and hungry youths. However, our colleagues are allowed to face such professional hazard without minimum hazard allowances.

Is there any compensation for him for taking such risks that led to his death?

We have recorded casualties of many zoo keepers in Nigeria. The unfortunate thing is that the wives and children of all these heroes that died unjustly in the line of their professional duty in our zoos are often abandoned and allowed to suffer endlessly.

The victims are often not compensated when such things happen. That is the reason I have written to our dear President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Bola Ahmed Tinubu to

please investigate what happened to the COVID-19 palliatives funds meant to strengthen the critically affected zoo and wildlife sector. The Nigerian Zoos industry has been languishing in various crisis and since been begging for urgent government intervention after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since this COVID-19 thing happened, many of the zoos in Nigeria have been in the news for bad and ugly stories. We seek justice for our colleagues who have died in active duty and we seek the prosecution of all those who were involved in the looting of the COVID-19 palliative.

What are your recommendations to the President and the National  Security Adviser?

I have written an open letter to the two Chambers of the National Assembly, Office of the National Security Adviser to the President, Federal Ministry of Environment and the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

I would have also written to the foremost regulatory Agency NESREA also, but the agency has failed to respond to my several letters on various violations of conservation law and I believe, that NESREA is either a toothless bull dog or it is sleeping on duty.

Also, there is a need for an urgent re-awakening for the National Assembly to make a law to allow the ONSA issue express license to all zoos in Nigeria to acquire necessary safety equipment like; dart guns, immobilisers and all necessary accessories. Let me also state here that the National Assembly, Presidency and relevant authorities should honour the late zoo veteran Olabode Olawuyi with post humour award as a national hero and give scholarship to all his children to University level. Our wildlife organization might take legal action against relevant authorities if nothing is done.

Enough is enough of unjust killings of Nigerians by the recklessness of our political drivers. It is so sad; we lost another hero. It is painful that Mr Olawuyi Olabode has gone just like that.

What else can move the oppressors of our nation? When will our nation value its faithful heroes like late Mr Olawuyi Olabode? I would have been killed unjustly in line of my conservation duty too if not for God’s mercy on my side that rescued me. We are losing many good men and women as consequences of corruption and government failure.

This sacrificial and heroic death of our friend, colleague and brother should not go unrewarded by our nation. His family must not be abandoned. We will stand by his family he left behind, and to his family I pray God gives them the fortitude to bear his loss.

Are you still the GM of the Imo State Zoo and Wildlife Park at Nekede Owerri? There has been a report that the current governor removed all the animals and converted the conservation land to a housing estate.

I also heard all that, but I have not been officially informed since I was intimidated out of office and threatened out of Imo State by political assassins. The government has still not communicated any information to me officially. It is believed that I am still on an indefinite leave granted to me by the governor. To me, the status quo still remains until otherwise stated.