Until today, the Port Harcourt Zoological Garden is the only place tourists in Rivers and Bayelsa States could visit to see a collection of animals, not necessarily endangered species. Of interest are the crocodiles that lay in the water, a particular type was seen with its head put out of the water to enjoy the heat of the sun when I visited, and this one had lived forty-five years. She is interestingly the first set of animals keeper of the zoo would quickly show to a visitor. But it is difficult for a visitor to confidently transverse the entire eight hectares of land on which the zoo is built. It is not too big to trek, or boring, it is rather not safe and of no attraction to take the chance to go beyond the two point five hectares of land presently in use. The section that is not attractive has overgrown plants.
Dangerous reptiles breed in this seeming forest, including small sized snakes, though not consciously stocked by the keepers. They had become uncontrollable intruders that pose threat to the health of the rightly stocked animals in their different cages. One of the monkeys shown to me had its right eyes badly destroyed when a snake attacked it. Ordinarily, the few animals seen in the cages are a delightful sight to a first time visitor. It will still not stop you from asking what had happened to animals in the empty cages. At which time, the keeper will come to the rescue and begins to tell the long and winding story of the several efforts taken to attract the government attention to provide fund, and supervision in the purchase and stock piling of animals in the zoo. That is the level of monitoring required to improve the status off the zoo.
It means if the sitting governor was overwhelmed by the duty of office, and did not look keenly into what happens at the zoo, the yearly budgetary allocations allegedly could become pocket money for personal upkeep of those into whose hands the upkeep of the zoo is assigned. If they did not share the money among themselves, they could channel it to other areas under the ministry of culture and tourism for projects more visible and quick to catch public attention. Nobody really knew exactly at what point in time in the course of the several administrations this neglect sets in. it definitely did not start in 1974 when the Port Harcourt Zoological garden was built by the Alfred Diete-Spiff military administration.
But the neglect would have started when successive governments started to divest interest from the general heath of the people and genuinely focus on the need to improve the status of the city or the entire state. The resultant decay caused a disrepair facility at the zoo with most of the stock dying, a situation that is not easily told to a third party. In fact, the experience is an ugly part of the zoo hard to break away, with the zoo still a shadow of itself, only that the present management had embarked on a wholesome sanitation. It is touted that the internally generated money of one hundred naira ticket fees per person entrant and rents from privates individuals who pay to park their cars. Sometimes, Associations or clubs rent a space to host their meetings.
Largely, it was during the period of neglect that the Azuabie Community as narrated by the community youth president, Abel Okujaku woke to feel that it had to re-establish its presence so that they would not be over ran or think that they were docile. They started to engage traders to who spaces on the perimeter fences and along the road were allocated to them. Operators of commercial vehicles and mechanics workshops also pay rates to the community. This gives them the effrontery to confront neighbouring communities that dare challenge the ownership of the precinct of the zoo. The heavy noises from occupants of shanties and the mechanical workshops affected negatively on the zoo.
But at the time, the Azuabie community did not grasp the enormity of nuisance their action could cause, now the illegal traders and motorists feel wounded like the several times in the past by the removal of what they said is their source of livelihoods despite the long time of warning issued to them to vacate the area. The warning seemed true and intended to be sustained at improving the aesthetics of both the internal and external environment of the Port Harcourt Zoo and to keep the traders, mechanic shop and commercial vehicle operators keep away from the perimeter fence of the zoo. But the commercial vehicle operators may not go, they seemed to have got a better bargain to conduct themselves in descent manner and remain in the area until n alternative commercial motor park was provided.
The guiding policy thrust of the external environment clean-up exercise is ‘recover and utilize’ the area that has become an extension of the Slaughter and Woji markets and also a commercial park. This exercise is undertaken by the Urban development and Physical planning control ministry. The nuisance created by activities of traders and commercial motorists operating these illegal market and park around the perimeter fence of the Port Harcourt Zoo takes away the beauty and serenity benefiting a zoo. And for many years, on-lookers and indeed previous government had articulated well intended demolition exercise that would recover the serenity expected of the area. But most of such exercises had been a hyped razzmatazz, never seen to have achieved the intended purpose as the illegal operators return so soon because the place was left fallow and the enforcing officers allegedly receive gratification to allow the activities.
Now the government is burning up the debris, grinding the land and poised to use part of it a private motor park and the larger section including the frontage of the zoo as garden of green as a first attraction to members of the public. Commissioner for Urban development and physical planning control, Mr. Tammy Danagogo asserted that the culture of impunity of traders who abandon spaces in the slaughter and woji markets to display their wares around the perimeter fence of the Port Harcourt Zoo must stop, insisting that any defaulter would be prosecuted.
He said the ministry is also working with the Port Harcourt Local government to ensure that it does it’s statutory duties of protecting the Zoo environment, ensure free flow of traffic so that vehicular cluster around the area is controlled.
Mr. Godwin Otikor, is the principal of the Foundation Nursary and Secondary School, Bundu Ama, Port Harcourt, brought his pupils to the zoo, and allowed them to ride on camels, and enjoyed the sight of the few available animals. They pupils affirmed some of the things he had taught them about wild animals. While adjudging the time spent with the children worthwhile, he said it was difficult to answer questions from curious pupil who wanted to know why some cages were empty, appealed for the upgrading of the Zoo, and increase the stocks.
The manager of the Port Harcourt Zoo, Mrs. Victoria Ovunda expressed excitement ffor the clean-up exercise that is intended to recover the external environment of the Zoo and make it a first attraction to lure prospective visitors to the area. She agreed that the zoo currently operates below it capacity with most cages without stocks and only two point five hectares of land put to use out of the eight hectares of land. She however assured of the determination of the ministry of culture and tourism working with the state government to improve the stock of animals at the Port Harcourt zoo. She said there were plans to build a new zoo in the Greater Port Harcourt, giving the impression that when the land was located, the Port Harcourt zoo would be transferred wholesomely.
This should not be the case. The growing population of Rivers State is ever growing. There is also an uncontrollable expanding nature of Port Harcourt. This requires that more than one zoo to offer variety of sights and entertainment to the diverse residents in the state. It would be like the case of the increasing number of tertiary institutions in the state. There are about two polytechnics, one university of education, a college of health science, one school of nursing and Midwifery, a university of Science and Technology. This number added to the Federal University of Port Harcourt, and the Federal College of Education. If the zoo is a place of conversion and education, then these schools including the lower level of education would depend on the zoo to affirm what they had learnt of animals and have the opportunity of seeing wild animals, and the endangered ones, importantly.