“I hope you know that Nigeria has no elephants.” That was a response from a Nigerian to a tweet The Elephant Project sent out discussing some of our efforts in the country to help protect their elephant population. This was just one of many responses that made the same claim. Even as I walked around Lagos and Abuja I asked random people on the street if they knew that Nigeria had elephants and I would conservatively say that 80% said no.
Nigeria is a country facing many challenges. Although it is one of the largest oil-producers in the world, it is estimated that there is almost 50% unemployment not to mention limited access to quality health care and education. There are really two economic classes – the wealthy, and those living in poverty. There is a middle-class, but just a small percentage when compared to Nigeria’s busting at the seams population of 165 million. Safety and security threats both in the heavily Muslim north and predominantly Christian south - are more prevalent than ever, and the list of challenges goes on and on. But Nigeria is a country rich in beauty and history and filled with amazing hardworking and proud people who have the fortitude and desire to make Nigeria a better place to live and prosper given the right opportunities.
But let’s go back to the question – does Nigeria have elephants?
Although Paul Allen’s great elephant census (which is truly an amazing effort) doesn't list Nigeria as a country with elephants, it is estimated that there are 250 in the country with the largest concentration (100-150) being in Bauchi State in the Yankari Game Reserve. Yankari, under the management of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its amazing Country Director Andrew Dunn, has been able save these elephants even while faced with what many believe is a very challenging political, economic, and security environment. Their success is a true testament to their dedication to elephant and wildlife conservation.
And, there are many others in both the public and private sectors working in Nigeria to protect this forgotten herd - which if not given continued protection and care will reach a point where their survival is certainly in doubt.
While I was in Nigeria I was fortunate to meet with officials from the Federal Department of Forestry – the key agency responsible for the protection of elephants. Director Michael Osakude and Deputy Director Elizabeth E. Ehi-Ebewele were generous with their time explaining to me not only the challenges they face in protecting these animals but also their ideas on how to address some of the fundamental problems facing wildlife in the country. They are making amazing progress to ensure Nigeria doesn’t lose some of the few remaining elephants in West Africa. I enjoyed tremendously our discussions and can say without doubt they are truly dedicated to doing all they can to protect and defend these defenseless animals.
Then there is our Advisory Board member Nigerian Senator Ben Murray-Bruce who is an amazing advocate for the protection of wildlife and especially elephants. We are hopeful that his efforts will help build a consensus within the National Assembly to secure greater protections for elephants – including instituting one of the toughest bans on the import and sale of ivory anywhere in the world.
But the younger generation of Nigerians are also joining the fight to save these animals. Their support, given their growing influence in the country, is critical to any successful effort. Abba Abubakar, a very prominent young businessman and the son of former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, has joined The Elephant Project's Advisory Board and is working with companies to help in the fight by raising funds and awareness that will support elephant protection efforts. He is an amazing advocate and his support will help energize the youth and young entrepreneurs around the world to engage in this critical fight.
But there is more to be done in Nigeria than just saving their own elephant population. Lagos has become one of Africa’s largest exporters of illegal elephant trophies and other endangered wildlife. Shutting down the Lagos port’s role in feeding the seemingly insatiable appetite for ivory and other elephant parts will go a long way in helping save these animals.
But the key to solving these issues, both in Nigeria and around the world, is to prove that a live elephant is much more valuable that a dead elephant. Sadly, not everyone is convinced this is the case, and many view killing elephants and selling them for parts as a way to survive financially. Given the widespread poverty in Nigeria, it is understandable that people will prioritize feeding their families over protecting elephants. But there is a solution. Once governments in elephant range countries, like Nigeria, embrace the benefits of establishing a humane economy – which is simply an economy that thrives on saving and protecting wildlife and not destroying it - people will see the value of saving elephants and the senseless killing will be greatly diminished. The results of building a humane economy will include growth in jobs, eco-tourism, tax revenue, international recognition and support, and greater safety and security within their borders and the continent as a whole. Not only is saving elephants a moral imperative, the facts are clear that saving an elephant has a greater positive fiscal impact to a country than allowing for their senseless killing.
This is the mission of The Elephant Project – to ensure the long-term survival of elephants by developing humane and socially responsible economies through the creation of sustainable free and fair market solutions. There is no doubt that there are immense challenges to implementing this solution in Nigeria, but it is achievable. I have seen with my own eyes the passion and dedication in the country from those who truly want to save these animals. The potential of what can be accomplished by all those I mentioned above is great - and their success could be transformational for the country and certainly the elephants. But their ability to succeed lies in getting support from all those who are committed to protecting this imperiled species - they cannot do it alone. The international elephant protection and conservation groups must commit more critical resources to Nigeria before this forgotten herd becomes yet another entry in academic journals and in news articles noting WHERE elephants once existed.
The Elephant Project is committed to doing what we can, because we believe that no elephant should be forgotten - no matter the challenge. If we all join forces and work together, the next time we tweet out about elephants in Nigeria, we will read – “I am glad we have elephants in Nigeria – saving them saved my life.”