The Port Harcourt Zoo is on the verge of losing its status as a major tourist attraction in Rivers State, writes CHUKWUDI AKASIKE
The Port Harcourt Historical Zoo, also known as the Zoological Garden, is located in the Trans Amadi area of Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State. It was founded in 1974 and opened on Oct. 1, 1975 by the then Alfred Diete-Spiff military government in the state.
The zoo is still one of the major tourist attractions in the Garden City. Every year, hundreds of visitors from the neighbouring Bayelsa, Imo and Abia states, who wish to view its collection of wild animals in their makeshift habitats, visit the facility.
A few years ago, the zoo sheltered a wide variety of reptiles, including man-eating crocodiles, chimpanzees, elephants, tigers, lions and leopards, as well various species of monkeys believed to be going into extinction.
Today, the story is different. Only a few animals are left in the zoo. Apart from this, the facility is fast losing its beauty. The environment is no longer as attractive as it used to be.
As a visitor enters the premises, he immediately notices that the zoo is almost derelict. Guided by the Craftsman and Animal Keeper, Mr. Best Ekeke, he arrives at the spot where the carcasses of two lions, which were killed and preserved for posterity, are kept.
SSN learnt that both beasts had fatally mauled their former keeper, a European that helped to raise them when they were cubs. The man, whose name was not mentioned, was said to have neglected the standard rules often observed by zoo keepers when dealing with wild and dangerous animals.
“The whiteman failed to take the food to the lions on time. He failed to wear his uniform by the time he went into the cage occupied by the lions. And unfortunately, he did not call the lions by their nicknames. What happened was that when he brought in their food, they pounced on him and killed him,” Ekeke recalls.
Consequent upon that incident, both animals were immediately killed and preserved with chemicals about 20 years ago.
At present, two lions can be found in the same cage, but Ekeke says they are by far smaller than the erstwhile occupants whose embalmed carcasses have become objects of interest to visitors.
A visitor to the zoo, the Head Teacher of Primegate School in Port Harcourt, Mr. Phillip Fobi, says he brought his pupils to the zoo to see some of the animals they watch on television and read about in their books.
He says that though the children had plenty of fun, they complained of the absence of wild animals, such as the elephant, tiger, hyena, giraffe and leopard.
Urging the state government to re-introduce such animals to the zoo, he says “We learnt that some of them died and have not been replaced. Our pupils wanted to see elephant, tiger and leopard, but they could not. Such animals are no longer available in this zoo. The government should do something about it because this is the only zoo we have within this area.”
Also, an Islamic cleric in Port Harcourt, Alhaji Babatunde Omotayo, joined the call to the government to replenish the zoo and upgrade its decaying facilities.
However, the zoo lacks water supply. Whenever there is the need to feed the remaining animals, the keeper and some of his colleagues often go out of the premises to buy water from hawkers passing by.
The zoo also lacks a restaurant where fun seekers could retire for refreshments after moving round the facility. Tourists patronised petty traders within the confines of the zoo. Again the wild life centre appeared to be understaffed as only a few employees were seen as at 11 am when SSN visited the place.
Addressing the issue, the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in the state, Dr. Nnabuihe Imegwu, says that work aimed at revitalising the zoo will commence in August 2012.
Imegwu says that the government would address the issue of animal stock, landscaping and animal replacement in order to bring the zoo back to its best.
“We have begun the process of revitalising the Port Harcourt Zoo and work will start in mid-August this year as we are far gone into July. We are bringing in consultants that will give us a master plan. We want to outsource the project to experts and the issue of accommodation, staffing, landscaping, animal stock and replacement will all be addressed,” he says.
Meanwhile, residents of Port Harcourt expect the government to restore the wildlife in the zoo, if only to boost tourism in the Garden City.