World Wildlife Day: Our Obligation To Protect The Endangered Species – By Matthew Ma

By Matthew Ma
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Matthew Ma

“A drive-through of these parks a few years ago left me amazed at the wonders of nature and the brilliant concept of this park. Asides from the excitement presented by the park, the state of the Parks is nothing to write home. The bushes are overgrown and poorly maintained. The facilities are in varying states of disrepair, while the administrative blocks need renovation. Years after their establishment, some of these parks have retained the only thing they started with, enormous expanses of virgin land.”

The world is full of amazing creatures from every possible medium. From the birds of the sky to the majestic whales of the sea, animals continue to exist in the most unusual and unexpected places. Wild animals have benefited us in many ways, but we have long forgotten. So, what is World Wildlife Day? Why should we take care of wildlife? Are animals worthy of our celebration? World Wildlife Day (WWD) is a day to remind us of our collective responsibilities to our world and the life we share with other species. Although we might like to think otherwise, humans are not the only living things on earth. We are far outnumbered by other living things, from animals and plants to fungi and bacteria. World Wildlife Day (WWD) is an opportunity to celebrate the many beautiful and various forms of wild fauna and flora and to raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that their conservation provides to people. The day reminds us of the urgent need to fight against wildlife crime and the human-induced reduction of species, which have wide-ranging economic, environmental, and social impacts. On March 3rd, 2023, the universal world celebrated World Wildlife Day (WWD). On that day, we acknowledged the significant contribution the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) made to wildlife and biodiversity and how this contribution has enhanced the bridge-building and partnership within the CITES framework. During the celebration, we recognize how CITES has partnered and cooperated with other conventions, UN agencies, and other organizations to serve the broader UN goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2020 Framework on Biodiversity. This year, the theme for WWD was Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation. It helps us to celebrate all conservation efforts, from intergovernmental to local scale. It allows us to appreciate all wildlife, from the smallest insect to blue whales. No matter what we love about wild animals, we can spend the day taking action to help protect them. Whether we love animals, passionate about plants, or are concerned about climate change, it was a day to educate ourselves about the need to change our relationship with nature.

From the mighty tiger to the humble bee, animals contribute to our lives and well-being in more ways than we think. From offering a wealth of natural medicines to safeguarding us from the climate crisis and improving soil fertility, we need wildlife to survive, to get enough food to eat, and to make a living. However, how we live and relate to animals – from the food we eat to how we build our infrastructure – is causing a steep decline in their numbers. In the past 40 years alone, we have seen, on average, a decrease of 60 percent in populations of species. This decline caused the United Nations General Assembly to take a stand on how to protect endangered species worldwide. Hence, on December 20th, 2013, the UN took a bold step to initiate a campaign against the fragility of endangered species worldwide. At its 68th session, the UN declared that we should dedicate every year to keeping people abreast of the changing nature of our world and the treasures we stand to lose from the animals and plants if we fail to take care of them. This year's event is the most significant in raising awareness about threatened and endangered plants and animals. As a planet, we now face the issue of overexploiting our marine species. Through global mass consumption, human impact has not only generated pollution and destroyed coastal habitats but caused irreversible damage. World Wildlife Day creates opportunities to highlight the solutions we have built for a more sustainable future. It is also our chance to focus on the accomplishments of countless people who devote their lives to bringing our vision of a healthy planet to fruition.

When we discuss countries with good environmental conservation strategies, East Africa has the world's most memorable and celebrated hotspots. If there's one thing East Africa is known for, it's its exotic natural landscape stretching from rivers to lakes across the Great Rift Valley. Hence, without a doubt, tourism is one of East Africa's forex earners and contributors to the economy. Tourism is also one of the major employers in East Africa, holding nearly 7 percent of employment in the region according to information from the East African Community consisting of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. Arguably, East Africa has some of the most iconic and the world celebrated attractions. From the dense forests in Volcanoes National Park to the magical and outstanding work of nature in the Ngorongoro Conservation area in Tanzania, the region is endowed with scenic and exotic wonders of nature - wildlife and waterfalls, lakes, and mountains. Wildlife conservation strategies and efforts to improve the community's livelihood have been on a collision course in Kenya and Tanzania for many decades. In the mid-20th century, Kenya and Tanzania reorganized their National Parks to protect and prohibit all human use of animals for consumption except for research and tourism. The move stifles access to natural resources making communities hostile or indifferent to wildlife conservation. While the decision affected many communities in different ways, the pastoralists such as the Maasai bore the brunt of the consequences to natural resources and the disruption of seasonal migration – a long-established adaptive mechanism that deals with changing weather patterns. It will interest us to note that the Kenyan and Tanzanian borderlands region supports some of the wealthiest wildlife populations on earth through a network of national parks and reserves and the pastoral lands that connect them. For example, about 65% of the wildlife lives inside Kenya National Parks and Reserves. The wild animals of Kenya refer to its fauna. The diversity of Kenya's wildlife has garnered international fame, especially for its populations of large mammals. Mammal species include lion, cheetah, hippopotamus, African buffalo, wildebeest, African bush elephant, zebra, giraffe, and rhinoceros. Kenya has a very diverse population of birds, including flamingos and common ostrich.

Tanzania has 20 percent of the species of African mammal population, found across its reserves, conservation areas, marine parks, and 17 national parks, spread over more than 42,000 square kilometers (16,000 sq mi) and forming about 38 percent of its territory. Tanzania's wildlife resources are major wildlife-viewing sites. Serengeti National Park, the second-largest National Park area at 14,763 square kilometers (5,700 sq mi), is located in northern Tanzania and is famous for its extensive migratory herds of wildebeests and zebra while also having the reputation as one of the great natural wonders of the world. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, established in 1959, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site inhabited by the Maasai people. Its Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact caldera in the world. The National Parks are also a part of the wetlands of Tanzania. The wild animals tend to be closer to the wetlands, particularly the water-loving species such as the hippopotamus, waterbuck, common warthog, elephant, crocodile, sitatunga, and water birds such as flamingos and ducks. Community lands across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania are rich in biodiversity and provide vital movement routes known as wildlife corridors that allow animals to travel long distances between protected areas. These community areas contain unique forests, savannahs, and freshwater systems, where nature provides vital services like drinking water, pasture for livestock, and forest products like timber and medicine. The environment in these communities is also a habitat for the most endangered and threatened wildlife species, such as big cats and African lions. Similarly, omnivores such as elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and primates face critical danger. Several conservation models have been adopted over decades to preserve wildlife and their communities.

In 2010, while studying theology in Kenya, I visited some Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania for an East African adventure. While on the trip, I experienced the Great Migration from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. During migration season in Tanzania, the massive herds tend to position themselves in the southern plains, where the grasses are tastier, more nutritious, and plentiful. Because these grasses are short, the animals can be easier to see. In Kenya, meanwhile, the draw is the Mara River. While the river flows through both Tanzania and Kenya, the wildebeest tend to cross it in Kenya in the summertime to escape the dusty plains in search of grasses. Watching them cross is a breathtaking spectacle – the hesitancy to enter the water, unsure whether crocodiles or hippos are waiting under the surface, unable to judge how deep the water is. But once a few bold zebras head across, hundreds of zebras and wildebeest will join, often following one another with a torrent of splashes, barks, and calls. In both countries, there is no shortage of The Big Five—lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, black rhinos—and dozens of other species. Travelers get more than their fill of scintillating wildlife sightings on safaris in either country. It was a delightful moment to see young Maasai leaders from the Kenya and Tanzania Wildlife Service passionate about the natural resources surrounding them. The Maasai people have lived alongside wildlife in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania for centuries. But the surrounding land is changing - under pressure from privatization, expanding agriculture, poorly planned development, and habitat loss. This notion threatens their source of livelihood, culture, and nature in this unique landscape. While in these communities, I noticed that the dedicated efforts by these local communities have seen poaching levels reduce and wildlife populations recover. Poachers and wildlife traffickers who camouflage as pastoralists to prey on wildlife have often exploited the critical route for animal migration, placing wildlife and communities living adjacent to the area at the risk of instability stemming from wildlife crime. Wildlife criminals are now using more advanced technology and equipment to commit illegal hunting and poaching of animals, pushing many of the most iconic species to the brink of extinction. Tanzania has experienced upsurges of poaching in different periods with detrimental consequences on its charismatic species, such as elephants and rhinos. The most recent rise in criminality was noted in 2009 when the elephant population declined from 130,000 in 2002 to 109,000 in 2009. The 2015 elephant census revealed a further drop in the elephant population to 43,521 (about 60% in five years). This massive killing of elephants made Tanzania one of the worst offenders in the ivory trade. Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and China, were singled out as The GANG OF EIGHT for failing to tackle the illegal ivory trade. In many community conservation areas, including those I visited, I noticed that although the prospects are dire, some progressive community partners were successful in slowing and stopping the slaughter of wild animals in parts of Kenya and Tanzania. In collaboration with NGOs and government anti-poaching forces, they work to increase community conservation capacity, train new scouts, build new scout stations, identify emerging crises, and develop rapid response units to activate game scouts and Kenya Wildlife Service staff. These collaborative efforts have resulted in a significant reduction in elephant poaching. Meanwhile, lions have reappeared in areas where they were not in the last ten years.

The African continent is considered by many to be the cradle of wildlife. From the most beautiful sunsets to the fiercest storms, this continent is a perfect combination of jungles, rivers, beaches, wet coasts, and a series of forest and animal tours. The popular images of Africa are the ones of prancing wildebeests, roaring lions, and galloping hyenas. Africa has some of the most fertile uncultivated lands in the world, yet, Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is short of wildlife conservation. The reason behind this is official apathy during the colonial times, the low priority rating of wildlife as reflected in inadequate funding and administrative arrangements, weak enforcement of, and inadequacies in, existing wildlife laws, excessive demand for land, bushmeat, and firewood by a rapidly expanding human population, and a traditional lack of concern for the welfare of wild animals. Various animals, including endangered apes and pangolins, are hunted to feed the household and visitors as bushmeat. With the pressure on the country’s biodiversity so high, easing up on conservation measures can be costly. While growing up in Benue state, elders in my local community still recount stories of their youthful adventures in their villages, living next door to the wild. Unfortunately, the advancement in urbanization and development has increased disruptions in their ways of life, forcing most animals out of natural environments and into other countries. Many Nigerians today live in towns and cities, laboring away for survival, unaware of the wildlife reserve around them. Watching wildlife these days can sometimes require an uncomfortable personal effort. So, in many parts of Nigeria, it is possible to live entirely without visiting a forest or seeing majestic creatures for which our lands were known. For instance, I saw a lion at a zoo for the first time in Kenya.

The Nigerian government now and then took steps to reorganize the natural reserve. They updated national wildlife parks and game reserves with a mission: To manage and regulate the use of these unique ecosystems designated as National Parks by people. To preserve Nigeria’s heritage, particularly the fauna, flora, and habitats they live. Its mission is also to provide human benefits and satisfaction so that these reserves are left undamaged for generations yet unborn. The Kainji Lake National Park, established by Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979, occupies a whopping 5,341 km² in the area surrounding the lake from which it derives its name. The Yankari Game Reserve used to be one of the best wildlife reserves and habitats. Yankari game reserve covers 2,058 sq km of dense rainforests and savannah woodlands. Some of the wildlife in this reserve used to include hippos, bushbuck, buffalo, crocodiles, lions, elephants, and more than 200 different species of birds. The Game Reserve was upgraded to a National Park in 1992, though the federal government later handed it over to the Bauchi State government in 2006. The Cross River National Park, erected from two existing forests of Bashi-Okwango and Oban Forest Reserves, is widely known for its rainforest vegetation. It was home to a herd of forest elephants, the white-faced monkey (found only in Nigeria), buffalo, leopards, and lowland gorillas. This wildlife park is in the southeastern part of the country in the Cross River State. Cross River National Park shares its ecosystem and biodiversity with neighboring Korup National Park in Cameroon. Today, these parks are not serving the same purpose they created as we continue to see a dilapidating National Park over the years. Elsewhere, the Kamuku National Park, located in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State, the north-central part of Nigeria, is the closest Nigeria National Park to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The Native Authority Forest Reserve created the national park under the defunct Northern Nigerian government. It boasts a land area of about 1,120 sq km of typical Savannah Woodland vegetation. Yet, a drive-through of these parks a few years ago left me amazed at the wonders of nature and the brilliant concept of this park. Asides from the excitement presented by the park, the state of the Parks is nothing to write home. The bushes are overgrown and poorly maintained. The facilities are in varying states of disrepair, while the administration building needs refurbishment. Years after their establishment, some of these parks retain their original and only purpose, the vast expanses of virgin land. Some people have blamed the staff for the dilapidated state of the parks bearing in mind that civil servants should have the responsibility to be the epitome of productivity. Suspecting that this notion was bound to worsen an already bad managerial situation, I questioned a park ranger about the cause of the dilapidation. He blamed poaching and locals for their lack of interest in conserving and preserving nature and animal life in the park. According to him, the illegal slaughter of wildlife has caused the dilapidation of National Parks. Although wildlife protection agencies have responded to this threat in many areas, most of the community lands in this region have little or no protection. As a result, poachers continue to kill animals because of the high value of bush meat in Nigeria – bringing wildlife closer to extinction. Another major factor, he said, was the lack of desire by the government to manage the parks effectively, whether by hiring more dedicated staff or by firing nonchalant ones. The consequence of this lack of corrective action is that the public became reluctant to visit because the parks generate little or no revenue, and more justification for the government and the public to ignore these places.

The Benue National Park is rich in biodiversity, which is crucial for ecotourism in the region. The region reflects a landscape favorable to the development of the activity through the many facets it offers to the visitor (sandbank on the Benue River, crocodile pond). However, the park continues to beg for survival. Transhumance, illegal wood cutting, and poaching are the main activities affecting the park. Extreme poverty and the desire to eat meat are the reasons for human activities (transhumance and poaching) undermining the ecotourism potential of the park. Poverty has become so severe that the Benue person could kill an adult animal and its mammalian babies, such as calves, cubs, puppies, chicks, or cubs, leaving nothing for the future. For them, baby animals taste better than mature ones. These have hindered the efforts of the state to develop ecotourism in the state. Despite the socio-economic benefits of the park through ecotourism, conservation efforts remain insignificant due to insufficient surveillance staff, the lack of mobility means to carry out patrols, and the low level of community awareness of the threats to the park. This damage, however, has prompted advocacy and community action against distorting the ecosystem. Inspired by the idea of saving endangered animals from extinction, the Ayatutu Unity and Ecological Forum (AUEF) has devoted its time to discouraging hunting and promoting love for wildlife. AUEF is a conservation NGO focused on the conservation of the environment, community engagement, outreach and partnership, policy advocacy, stakeholder engagement, and paramilitary at the grassroots. One of their wishes for the Nigerian conservation sector is the creation of more protected areas. The organization believes that people should secure and protect continental ecosystems, or else many species will cease to exist in the forests.

We all know that forests play a vital role in tackling climate change by storing carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. But did you know that the wild animals in these forests also have a crucial role in the environment? Protecting wildlife could significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of destructive forest wildfires. Plant-eating animals minimize the amount of grass that can fuel fires through grazing. Scholars have argued that the white rhinoceros has reduced the spread and intensity of the fire in some countries. Besides, large wild grass-eaters such as elephants, zebras, rhinos, and camels do not produce so much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as domestic livestock. The idea is that they digest grass in various ways compared to livestock using a single stomach to regurgitate food. But that is not all. Wildlife has also helped forest store carbon more efficiently. Many tree species in tropical rainforests rely on animals like elephants and toucans to eat their fleshy fruits – and help disperse their seeds. Studies have shown that the loss of such trees results in as much as a 10 percent drop in the carbon storage potential of tropical forests.

Increasing human populations pose a threat to wildlife as precious resources dwindle. Whether it is science, food, or greed, humans endanger animals, sometimes without considering the enormous impact wildlife can have on the posterity of our planet. What can we do? AUEF invites us to stay informed on the issues, to know our impact on the ecosystem, and take our part in protecting wildlife. Creating wildlife-friendly environments can start right in our backyard and our community. Plant native species of trees, bushes, and plants, especially those that flower and provide food sources for wild animals. Get involved in an organization that supports community trees like AUEF or learn how to plant your own. In addition to planting native trees for wildlife in your area, you can also help by installing bird feeders to create a friendly environment for them. In addition to giving birds needed shelter and sustenance, watching the birds that visit can be very entertaining. Picking up trash protects the environment and keeps our surroundings clean. It also saves wildlife. Plastic bags and twine can easily trap birds and smaller animals, hurting or killing them or making them easy prey. So put on your gloves, grab some trash bags, and pick up litter to protect wildlife—and keep your neighborhood clean. What animal rights issue troubles you the most? Is it poaching or abuse? Whether it is poaching or animal cruelty, you can act. The transformative changes we urgently need require a collaborative approach on a national scale if we are to halt and reverse the decline in wild animals and the natural world – before it is too late.