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Bolaji: Unsung hero of marine mammals in Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that is blessed with many water bodies and economic developments associated with it. Despite these blessings, marine mammals in the country are facing extinction with increased hunting and danger in the coming years. To many hunters, hunting for mammals like the African manatees, sea turtles and other marine mammals are a source of income and a means of livelihood.

But the Chief Research Officer for the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, Dr Dunsin Bolaji, has demonstrated himself as one of the unsung heroes of marine mammals in the country. Bolaji has dedicated the last 15 years of his professional career to the preservation of African manatees, sea turtles and other marine mammals. He is determined to preserve and end the hunting of marine mammals in the country, especially in the Lagos coastal region. His work in research, conservation and education has left a significant impact on the marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows and the people who live and work around their populations. Though his research has been pivotal for understanding and protecting manatee populations across West Africa and the globe, his work goes far beyond the scientific.

Education

He is involved in educating and empowering communities across the waters on alternative livelihoods to end the hunting of manatees. These manatee hunters build cages along the water into which manatees unsuspectingly swim into and get stuck. The hunters then kill them. But Bolaji is concerned that manatees are not a fast-growing mammal. He said that the gestation period for a manatee is around two years and with the rate at which they are hunted, it is impossible for the mammals to bolster their population fast enough to fight extinction. By educating hunters about this, they understand that if their work continues at this rate, future generations may not have the privilege of knowing manatees. Apart from educating hunters, Bolaji gives the hunters an opportunity for alternative livelihoods. He teaches them how to build effective and sustainable fish cages so they can easily and successfully transition out of hunting while still earning a viable income.

He said: “We started in Owode and over the years the work has expanded to other communities where we also have progress in those places as well. We’ve worked at Ilagbo and other communities across the waters. We educate and empower them on alternative means of livelihood. There are still several communities that are interested but the shortage of funds is the main hindrance to providing an alternative source of livelihood. We try as much as possible, with the little funds we have to do outreach. “The training that started in 2008 helped us to understand the species. Manatees are gentle and harmless and they are beautiful so to speak and they are reduced with a lot of hunting. They are harmless species but they are not a fast-growing one, it is a slow one. It takes about two years before they can have a calf and it takes a while for them to grow. If the pressure to hunt is too much the population will go into extinction. “Those concerns were part of the things that drove me to study them. I can’t save all the population and the government can put a strict law against it. I can communicate with the people and reduce their urge to hunt and the government can use the data that I’m gathering to be able to come up with policies around this particular species.

“The African Aquatic Conservation Fund has been so supportive and they helped us to carry out a fresh research three years ago. It’s still painful that there is still high pressure on manatees because that particular survey done around West Africa and some other areas, unfortunately, showed that the highest hunting of the species comes from Nigeria. It tells me there is still more work to be done.

Income

“Sometimes I have to part with my income to be able to reach out to a few people. I taught them to build cages, though cage culture is not new, it’s an alternative measure to conserve manatees. So I was the first person that used that as a means of income successfully and I was successful when I used it the first time and it was replicated.” As a result of the successful usage of cage culture by Bolaji, other conservationists are beginning to take this method of presenting alternative livelihoods into more hunting areas across West Africa. But Bolaji continues educating not only hunters and fishers but all community members on the importance of manatees and respecting the balance of delicate ecosystems.

“I have conducted a number of outreaches in secondary schools targeting the children of these hunters, or communities that have been identified to engage in the killing of manatees. We see that these young ones get back home, educate their parents, and let them know that it is not right to hunt, their hunting is protected by law and they can be jailed for hunting manatees.” Bolaji believes that educating the children in these communities in addition to the adults hammers home the importance of the manatees and it increases awareness and discourages the children of hunters and their communities from doing the same. Although hunting manatees is illegal in Nigeria, enforcement of the law falls short. The culture of silence and secrecy around hunting in certain communities makes it difficult for the police or the National Environment Standards and Enforcement Agency to make successful arrests. But punitive results are not the most important. Although a hunter may not be fined or jailed for their impact, the manatees that they capture can sometimes be rehabilitated or released.

Funding

He said: “The basic one is funding. It is the priority. Once there is a fine we can move out and do a large number of outreaches. There are outreaches, depending on what the funder is interested in. Then there is the alternative section, the outreach is not as costly as the alternative income section because it involves outreach and training on the technology you want to introduce. “You provide the materials or seed for the alternative livelihood and you fund them for one, two, or three development sessions. It’s like developing a business and it’s more expensive. Funding is one major thing. The other one that is also challenging is the enforcement of laws.

There is no way of detecting these issues in Nigeria however enforcement can help. We rescued a manatee last year at Epe Lagoon and we had the cooperation of law enforcement. “The police were present with us and we had the body that was established to help with this conservation. We were able to get there and the hunter and the rest of the people ran away but we were able to rescue the manatee. Enforcement is a big challenge. It’s not that the law or body is not there, funding is a challenge. To mobilise, you need funds and different bodies are working together to achieve and organise workshops, discuss together and come up with something. There is also no funding for that. It is a big challenge but I’m sure one way or the other we will get a few things done at the level that we can.”

In addition to his work in conservation and outreach, Bolaji conducts research on manatees’ habits and populations. With the donation of a single acoustic monitor, Bolaji and his team are able to get the inside scoop on manatee sounds; this allows them to understand more about the population and habits in a given area.

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