Yobe’s ecological sanctuary dies as climate change chases birds away

It is late October 2008, in the remote, rusty and rural Dagona, in Bade local government area of Yobe State, north-east Nigeria. The Dagona waterfowl’s sanctuary is luxuriant. The sky is clear, and the clouds float mapping some enchanting artistic imprints on the celestial canvas. Nature is loudly expressive as seen in the vast ecological splendor. It is a season of visitation by large colonies of colorful, beautiful amazing birds.

The presence of the birds spreads a unique pull on this wetland, further enriching the already beautiful scenery and elegantly underlining the rare tourist attraction to this incredible location.It is exactly four years now and the elements have dramatically changed. Yobe state is troubled and held captive by visceral violence and terror. So also is Yobe’s only ecological sanctuary.In the last few years, the villagers have been concerned about the drought that has turned water and wetlands into sand and dust. The drought is drying up the wetland vegetation with incredible speed. The local birds have become scarce.

“We observed the migrant have stopped coming in greater numbers,”  Musa Dagona, a local farmer in the area, said.

This year, the inhabitants prayed for rainfall, but the rain came with floods and destroyed houses, farmlands and killed many people. The flood also washed away most of the rich ecosystem on its part, including bird nest, eggs and small animals.

“When what the habitats migratory birds depend on are disappearing, they will look for other options where the ecosystem is rich,” said Mohammed Abba, a professor of climatology at the University of Maiduguri.

The village head of Dagona, Abubakar Gambo, recounted the rich environment where he grew up during the colonial era. Mr. Dagona said it was after a hunter caught a large bird with his hunting gear, which had an inscription, Queen of England, that the villagers began to appreciate the eco-spectacular values of their environment.

A flip at the visitor’s book to the wetlands illustrated the potentials of the Chad Basin National Park as a world class ecological splendor that can attract revenue for growth and development.

The book bore the names of Prince Bernhard of Netherlands who was at Dagona in 1987, to Prince Philips, in 1989, and Prince Charles and late Princes Diana in 1990 and many other prominent visitors, tourists and researchers.

The migratory birds are as diverse as the guests and tourists to the wetlands. Birds leave the winters in Israel, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, England,  and North America to spend months in the primitive village of Dagona.

One of the fastest migrant birds mostly found in the Yobe wetlands and was in great numbers in the past is the Golden Plover. It is now scarcely sighted. A golden plover makes 150 – 200 kilometres per hour in flight

The grim reality of climate change…

The ecosystem in Dagona and many Fadamas in Yobe state is said to play host to a large variety of food for birds. These foods include insects, fish and other aquatic creatures. And each year, between October/November to March, the environment receives these visitors.

“But now I am worried, even a child knows that all is not well with our environment,” Mr. Gambo said. “The land is sterile and most of the vegetation have gone.”

The Director General of the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, Muhammad Sani-Sidi, during a visit to the wetland districts said, “We are now living witnesses to the reality of climate change and global warming where areas considered as dry savannah are daily witnessing excessive torrential rainfall.”

This year, heavy rainfalls have caused havoc across  Nigeria. “The inevitability of changes occurring due to climate change is now a well-established reality,” Mr. Muhammed says.

For these migrant birds, increasing temperatures disrupt their annual migration rhythm. A lot of the birds change their routes, shorten or completely cancel their journey as a result of changing temperatures.

Even the villagers that are not scientists observe that the local and migrant birds that always formed an incalculable horde at the last quarter of the year and the first quarter of each year, have been reduced to sets of thin clusters.

During this trip, PREMIUM TIMES reporter found that many parts of the Bade-Nguru wetlands are submerged by flood waters. The few places with low volume of water have been overgrown with grass. Therefore, it is likely that when the visiting birds come, they will not find food.

“Only the few local birds that are familiar with the environment can feed,” said a consultant to the National Park Service, Maiduguri, George Stopfords.

Two traditional rulers, the Emir of Nguru, Mustafha Jari, and the Emir of Gashua, Abubakar Suleiman, while welcoming officials of NEMA to their respective palaces in the wetlands during a recent duty tour, stated that the torrential rain in the areas is unprecedented. Mr. Jari said over 4000 households were affected in two towns as they recorded several deaths.

Many expert accounts predict that with the floods in many parts of the world and unpredictable weather patterns, interruption of bird migration is imminent. A flight of hundreds or thousands of miles from Israel to the north-east of Nigeria is already hazardous, and storms that require detours can exhaust birds and create much higher migration mortality, experts say.

What is worse, with the destruction of nest, eggs and chicks by floods, the future population of birds are threatened.

Human activities to blame…

Interestingly, the reasons tourists give for not being able to make it to the Yobe wetlands anymore are the same reasons given for the disappearance of the migrant birds. Tourists say that climatic change and terrorism have resulted to them staying back.

“Today, the fear of terrorism attack has engulfed the whole world and Africa cannot be left behind. The governments and the people of West Africa have been attacked in the recent past, particularly in Nigeria, Guinea, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire,” a tourism expert in Nigeria, Donald Akwara, said.

Yobe State and indeed all of Northern Nigeria is embroiled in violence. This has robbed the poor people of Dagona the benefits that every community that play host to tourists get. When the tourists and researchers stopped coming to the park, the revenues also stopped. The park can no longer provide the social amenities it once provided for the host communities of these precious migrants.

The wetlands play a vital role in the economy of the semi-nomadic Fulani pastoralists, who graze their livestock during the dry season. Evidently, the blend of crop farming, fishing, grazing and bird-watching tourists in the wetlands brings a serious ecological conflict especially between livestock grazing and conservation of migratory birds.

The prominent feature in this conflict is in the area of common water use between water-related migrant birds and the cattle. At Dagona waterfowls sanctuary for example, all the open water bodies have been covered by Echnochloa stignina grass brought in by cattle. The pastoralists themselves also lop vegetation to feed their livestock.

Several studies carried out by scientist from the University of Maiduguri highlighted the devastating effects of fertilizers and pesticides use by farmers in the wetlands as they end up in the water, destroying the aquatic life in it. This in turn, poisons the birds and sometimes man that is on top of the food chain.

For many observers interviewed for this report, governments and conservationists must braze up by constantly educating people on the best approach to manage the environment. Also, many lovers of the environment in Yobe said, the punishment for poachers and those trading in endangered species must be harsh like the one for the terrorists that have taken away their freedom.

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