Interview

Why I’m saving rare animal species in Nigeria, Mark Ofua, “Snake Man of Lagos” and Africa’s hero of wildlife conservation speaks in rare interview

Expresses deep worry about indigenous animals and plants that face extinction

Introduction: Dr Mark Ofua has dedicated his life to saving rare animal species and wild life conservation. He also rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured and orphaned wild animals

Part of his mission is fuelled by the need for justice, he often ventures into bushmeat markets to rescue wonded animals destined for a gruesome end in the soup pot.
Dr. Mark which is also popularly know as “Snake man of Lagos” runs SaintMarks Animal Hospital and a pangolin orphanage*

The Interview

In this interview with Irohinodua’s Samuel Ogunsona and Deborah Oiza, the veterinarian and Wild Africa Fund ambassador, Dr Mark Ofua, explains his passion for wildlife conservation and the current threats to environmental sustainability.

He also speaks on what to expect from the “Dr. Mark’s Animal Show” an African-made conservation awareness TV show which is currently airing on Showmax.

Irohinoodua: So we’re going to have a conversation about the animal show that you host for children, can you talk to us about the show. What is it about? And why exactly did you decide to embark on such a project?

Ofua: Thank you very much. I am a host to the show. Doctor Marks Kids TV show. And it’s about animals, about wildlife, and we bring the conservation to children in Nigeria, in West Africa and in Africa as a whole. So two things that I have passion for, I have passion for Wildlife Conservation and I also have passion for kids and also working with kids, I found out that when you talk to them about animals, our kids are very smart. kids in Africa and in Nigeria, when you talk to them about wildlife, they know they’re savvy. They know so much about wildlife. They can tell you so much. They can tell you so much about the polar bear, they can tell you so much and you find out that these are not animals that we have in Africa. Then when you bring them home to Africa and you ask them about animals we have in Africa, they really don’t know so much here in Nigeria.When you talk about pangolins, they are lost and then I started thinking and I realised that ohh, it’s because most of their education come from television, and they see programming for Western videos talking about the ice region, for example, the Arctic and the Antarctic region and all that and this is what they learn. They really do not have any programme. Telling them of what they have right in their backyards right in the forest around them. So this drove me to, you know, develop this need, this desire to want to domesticate the Wildlife Conservation, to meet the African challenge. Now that is on one hand, so the “Doctor Marks TV Show” brings wildlife that we have around us, Nigeria, West Africa, Africa brings it to our domain, brings it to our television and discusses with the kids so that by the time we’re through with the series and all that, our kids are knowledgeable about wildlife that we have here in Nigeria, here in Africa.

On the other hand I realize that children have a certain strength that we do not openly recognise and pay attention to. I took myself as an example when I’m driving in the streets of Lagos and the street light l goes from green to amber, we all know what that means. Its stop because it’s going to be red. But what do we do in Lagos? You slam on the accelerator to beat the traffic light, even though you know there might be punishment or the police would apprehend you. But I found out something.

Whenever I was driving and I had my kids in the car, when the traffic light goes from green to amber, my leg goes directly to the brakes. I stop before it goes to red because even the kids would have started shouting.

Dad is going to red and because you want to set a good example you would stop. So even beyond the fear of punishment, beyond the fear of consequences, you want to listen more to the kids because you want to be able to tell them stop tomorrow and expect them to stop. So you listen to them now. So, I realise that the kids have this power to talk to their parents and to listen to instructions and obey the laws. So with this, we hope that by bringing the conversation to the kids, teaching them what the law says, which animal is protected, which is not tomorrow. If Dad who says oh, I cannot do without Bush Meat comes and brings a prohibited Bush meat to the house. Ohh that parent is struggling to get some lecture from the child and say “no Daddy” I’m not going to eat this meat because you are breaking the law. You are a criminal and that parent wants to correct the child tomorrow and expect the child to listen and you find out that over time, the parent would listen and be able to have a better response. With the parents stopping that act of Illegal bushmeat consumption. These children also are going to grow to be the leaders of tomorrow, to be the policymakers of tomorrow, to be the conservationist of tomorrow.
Now one of the problems we’re having with conservation here in Nigeria is the people at the helm of affairs, the people in authority, the people that are supposed to be safeguarding the wildlife of Nigeria, the Forest of Nigeria are not very knowledgeable about the key issues affecting our wildlife.

So what you have more or less is lip service being paid to Wildlife Conservation in Nigeria because they’re not very knowledgeable, I mean it’s animals.

So why bother? They do not see the link between our livelihood, our survival and the survival of the Forest of wildlife around us.

So if we’re able to teach these children early, you find that by the time they get to the position of power to make policies, these children are well grounded.

They understand the need for us to conserve our wildlife and it won’t be the same struggle. As we’re having now, so these are the things that informed the kids TV show on wildlife.

We have it on different channels and on different stations and we hope to bring it more to our screens to educate our children and even the adults as well.

Irohinoodua: Now having established and given the reasons why you know you have the TV show and it is for kids, does that mean we should forsake the adults who are probably ignorant of this knowledge as well, and if not, how do you think we can incorporate them into the process of bridging the knowledge gap?

Ofua: So like I said, I inferred earlier we named it the kids TV show because our primary target and audience is the children. But I tell you the contents are very, very rich and very, very educative for adults as well. Adults would watch it and learn, but we want it basically for the children. So what we do is we encourage the parents, the adults, to learn to watch alongside the kids. So it’s more like a family programme really. And with time after the success, we’re recording with the children now.

We would also do the adult programmes, but for now we are using the kids and most of our airing are usually in the morning on weekends so that it will be the family sitting together in front of the screen and learning together. That’s the aim.

Irohinoodua: Earlier, you talked about how we have people at the helm of affairs that do not exactly understand. You know the whole concept of conservation, that’s if they, even if they are able to identify the species and animals that we have in this part of the world, So what can we do about that? What do you think the government can do to change that?

Ofua: Oh it’s education, education, education. We just have to keep talking and keep looking for different ways to say the same thing, such that everybody would hear, and that is what we’re doing. If you had asked me this same question three years ago, I would have told you there was no point and that it was hopeless. You see, but while Africa came into the picture CEO Peter Knight, he is a man full of passion, full of knowledge and experience and he told me it was possible, well, I’m a believer.

So I said yes, you think it’s possible? Let’s give it a try and I can tell you for free that what we have achieved in the last three years is astronomical.

The strides we have taken, the changes that are on ground are mind blowing.

The authorities are listening more, not only that they are listening, they are also learning. And they’re waking up to speak, laws are being pushed to better protect our wildlife. You think better, more arrests are being made. Nigeria customs is up to his game, the law enforcement officers are all waking up to their game, the Nigerian packs. It’s waking up to its game. Things are changing . So we are not where we hope to be yet, but I can tell you we’re not where we were five years ago. We have made astronomical changes. Right now, there are some things that they use to put on social media before that can not be done now. The other time somebody killed an elephant about 5 years ago and stood proudly on it and he was being hailed as an hero, you cannot do that now. You will be arrested. But so the progress we have made in this short while makes me feel there is hope if we continue to speak.

So we are on radio, we’re on television while on international TV as well, we’re on the print media.

We are on the pulpit. We are talking, we are pushing, we are educating and my dream is that one day conservation biology will be taught in our schools.

We are taught about King Jaja of Opobo and including things that are in history and all that you know thinks that yes, it’s good to be connected to your past. But right now we should also begin to infuse things that would save our present in order to save our future, because if we designate this wildlife, if we clear everything, we are the ones that would pay for it. We are the ones that would suffer it. So, these are the reasons why we cannot relent. We can only recruit more people into this fight for our wildlife, into this fight for conservation, because the truth is we are conserving humanity.

Irohinoodua: Now I know you would agree with me that if for a project like yours to move extensively and to achieve its purpose beyond the borders of the immediate environments, then you need government support. What ways do you suggest or think that the government can help or what can the government do to facilitate children learning early about these conservation in particular?
And I know you earlier mentioned inculcating it in Curriculums, but what else do you think?

Ofua: So that’s a very great question. The government is the authority in charge with the preservation of our biodiversity. But the government itself is overwhelmed with myriads of challenges. Yes, they have offices and officials that are dedicated for this, but it’s not enough. It is never enough. So the first step in bolstering the effort of the government getting more people involved in this fight you are already doing a wonderful aspect. The media, I mean there is so much role the media has to play for every little thing the government does in the right direction in conservation we would shout it, we would say, this is the way to go. Well done and anything they’re not doing right, we would say no, this is wrong because sometimes they do policies that are wrong and they think it’s for the greater good. For example in Lagos because of the trend of development, property development and estates everywhere, there is this desire to clear the water fronts and sand, fill them and put estates. But it is what we call wetlands. Those wetlands play a very crucial role, and the more we deplete our wetlands, the more we see incidents like flooding and species extinction. In Nigeria, in Lagos you can rest assured, people are beginning to panic because flooding is becoming an annual thing and it’s happening because we are decimating our wetlands. So when the government wants to.concession the wetlands, we say no, no, no, no, don’t do that. You’re doing the wrong thing. And then we teach them that. So I think it’s more of a give and take thing.

More NGO’s come up, we try to support the government, educate them on what is right, educate them on what is wrong and ensure there was a time when in your state, the government wanted to clear a forest that has been there for over 1000 years for housing estate and you had people mobilise to say no, you can’t do this because if you clear this your state will be flood-prone, that entire area will be flood-prone. The forest has been the ones stopping the floods and everything you know, so we must all come together and stand with the government in ensuring that they keep doing the right thing and the more they do the right thing, the more we give them the thumbs up. We let them know that yes, you will be getting better viewership, better respect in the international community, when you do what is right.

And let me tell you, politicians, they want to do what is right and as long as the people are talking, they would listen. So we cannot stop talking. We cannot stop educating. We must continue what we’re doing and the results that we’re already seeing will astronomical, multiply them and get better results.

Irohinoodua: Beyond images and visuals that you know you show to the children or you present to them, are there ways through which you help them to identify these species physically. Maybe taking them to the zoo or something.

Ofua: Ohh yes, so first of all the show itself. We’ll talk about the biology of the animal. We’ll describe the animals. They already have a visual and the mental perception of the animal. We talk about the usefulness of the animal and why we must keep them alive.

So, that already gives a mental perception. But yes, we also have programmes where we take them to parks. Both in Lagos, we have beautiful parks in Lagos we have Lucasi Park, we have the NCF park, you see, and then we would even encourage the government to create more parks. There’s this dream I have, you know, these islands that. Uh, in the outskirts of Lagos. You know, we can turn one to a nature park, a very beautiful one where children can come to learn about biodiversity and what they have around them. But also we have programmes where we introduce the kids and even adults to national parks. It’s painful. Like if you go out there and you stop any adult and you say I will give you whatever if you can name 10 national parks and they will not be able to name the parks we have in this country and we have so many beautiful parks. So we take these children to these parks. We have programmes where we take them out, you know, for them to experience nature, for them to experience that nature is a beautiful thing. It’s beyond just seeing trees, but you are in it. You’re one with it. You see these animals and you see that these animals are not there to harm you, but they play a crucial role.

For example, you do not know what bees mean, nobody. I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody that has a meal of bees, a plate full of bees, bears for dinner. You see, we don’t eat bees, but bees play a crucial role in the food we have on our table every day. You see, by the time these children are able to understand and draw a straight line between these animals out there, these trees out there, these plants out there and our livelihood and survival, they get a more robust understanding and they’re able to teach their friends, teach their parents, teach their siblings why we must protect our wildlife.

Irohinoodua: What is the role of parents in in this?

Ofoa: Let me first answer your question on the broader perspective, the role of the parents in children learning about our biodiversity. What I tell parents is please leave them let them grow, Let them be because our parents, we have this very misinformed knowledge of the wildlife and biodiversity about us. 99% I say up to over 95 to 99% of the things we know about snakes are false. Over 90% of the things we know about owls false, cats are false, you see. So we have already as adults in lived ij this falsehood about our biodiversity.

Somebody was telling me that gorillas were the cooks in the world of witches that where they do go for their meetings as a cook because it’s what she believed, you know, so we have this wrong notion. My prayer is do not transfer them to these children. Let the children seek for the truth with an open mind, with an open heart, let them seek the truth. Let them not relearn the falsehood that the parents have learned, so please let them go. Let them be. That’s on the general note. Then, on the particularly for the show, how we recruit the kids, really, it’s a matter of chance and opportunity.

We have several children’s club and association around us and whenever we want to shoot, so you apply to any of them.

So because of this, we usually have to shoot around the weekends or around the holidays when the children will not be in school and be able to shoot. But as time goes on, my dream is we are more cosmopolitan and then we can shoot, which is already what we’re doing. We can shoot from region to region, not just in Lekki, not just in Lagos. We shoot in different states, we shoot in different countries of Africa because this show currently is airing in over nine countries in Africa, both West and South also in Eastern Africa, you see, we aim to take off every country in Africa and then be able to shoot so that the children in these regions are also participatory organs of this shoot so that it’s rich, it’s wholesome and everybody’s part of it.

Irohinoodua: I’m glad you mentioned that it is airing, you know, not just in Nigeria but in other countries in African.

Irohinoodua: So let’s talk about how you would describe the level of acceptance of the show and its content in Nigeria in comparison with other African countries.

Ofua: Actually it has been amazing and I must tell you the truth. Even in Nigeria, the reception has been more than I expected it to be. There is no TV station or media that we have partnered with that would seek clips from this programme and say “I won’t hear this.” Everybody is interested in hearing it. Everybody wants it to be on their station, everybody wants their kids to learn about this.

We met the CEO of a particular station and when we made a clip for him and he saw the programme, he was like, whoa, I want this to be airing every day on this station. I want my station to be known as a conservation station. You know, he was so emotional about it. The reception has been beautiful, but in other countries where there is a better understanding for the need for conservation, the reception has been awesome. A particular station in South Africa aired it and they got in the first day they aired it, they got like four times their normal viewership, their highest viewership, they got over four times of it that week.

You know, and they said, look, we want to keep airing it. We want this. So the reception outside the country has been awesome. They can’t wait to have more episodes right now. Pressure is actually on producing more episodes for them to keep airing Nigerian stations are picking it up. We hope it will be better and my dream is when this thing starts airing on NTA, you know NTA has a wide reach and when it starts airing there, it will be beautiful.

You don’t have to be on the Internet. You don’t have to be, you know, on smart TV, it would be so beautiful. I believe by then the process of having kids appear on the show would have been easier. You know, I’m just really thinking about kids who probably want to be a part of the show but do not belong to a children or a kids club, for example.

Ofua: Yeah, absolutely. And if I will tell you a secret, I grew up on this programme “tails by moonlight” You remember it.

You know every Sunday evening we were always by the television to hear these tales. So this is the same thing I hope to replicate by. But at the end of the day I want this programme, this show, to be a household name, a household show such that at the time of the show, The kids are leaving their bicycles outside. They are leaving their phone screens. They are leaving the game. They are playing to come to the television screen to watch because they know. This is a programme, a time to connect with the with nature, with wildlife and with doctor Marks TV show, so that’s my dream.

Irohinodua : Speaking of episodes, how many episodes have been produced so far and How has it been like? What has the experience been like with the children? You know, if you can share with us, an experience that has stood out for you since you began production.

Ofua: So, currently we are on 13th episode, first season, we’ll start working on the second season very soon. There is a script and there is what this party is supposed to say. That’s what this party is supposed to say but every show, you know when the shoot begins, we start with the script. it’s usually amazing to me when I realised at the point in the shoot that we have left the script. The children have forgotten that they are in front of a camera and we are locked in communication because the child is naturally inquisitive, and they would say. “Ohh Doctor! Why is this so? And so?”Dr. Mark, I have heard that my parents said thats owl is a witch or something, What do you think”? And then we begin to engage and you see at that time it is actual learning. It’s usually a very beautiful period for me. At times, we would have overshot the timing and the producer, he will keep quiet to get the real intensity of the questions and then they’ll say OK, let’s go back, let’s go back to the script and you think these children will be tired? No way. Because of the excitement, because of what they’re learning and because of the contribution they themselves are making, we go on and on and on and it is usually a beautiful time.

I personally look forward to the very next episode because even though I will be the one teaching, I will also be learning from the children. It’s usually a very beautiful time.

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