Interview with Dr. Deni Bown on her Work on Endangered Tree Species in Nigeria


Picture: (c) Deni Bown

By Paul Ademujimi Babatunde and Samuel Adeyanju

Deni Bown is a freelance writer, photographer, and consultant. She specializes in botany, gardening, herbs, trees and natural history; her work covers many different aspects of the plant world. Her first book, Ariods, was originally published in 1988 and was followed by two others: Alba: The book of White Flowers and Fine Herbs. She was BBC Wildlife Photographer prize winner in 1989. Currently, she is the head of the Forest Unit at International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria.

What informed your decision of starting the project, why did you consider Nigeria and how were you able to convince your institution to fund this project being that the institution was established to research in tropical agriculture?

What happened was in 2009; Dr. John Peacock came to live with his wife who was the Head of Research in in the institution at that time. He is also scientist but he is a desert ecologist, he knows nothing about rainforest at all. When he came to the campus he thought wao! This is interesting; we should have a forest project here. You know, everybody now knows about forest because of deforestation so we are in a real big conservation era. But he does not know anything about forest management. Then, I was coming to live in Nigeria, so that’s how he met me and said you are the person we need since you know about trees, plants and forest, and I just came here to volunteer part time and I ended up been here full time. After two years, he left and handed it over to me. It wasn’t on the institution plan or strategy but now natural resource management is bigger on their agenda. I’m not involved in any mainstream research of the institution, we have station in every Africa country but really my work in the forest unit is confined here, so I’m still operating on the periphery with a burden. I’m just trying to do what I can on the campus based on what I’m allowed to do remembering this belongs to the government of Nigeria and Nigerian people. Everything we try to do here is to protect the forest because it is seriously threatened by poachers.

As the head of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) forest unit, can you highlight research studies that have been carried out by the forest unit?

My number one job is to protect this small piece of forest and other important trees on the campus. And to also make the campus community aware of the importance of preserving the trees and forest land. After two years when Dr. John Peacock left then I started managing and supervising the project. It was originally three year project, after he left, I had only one year left to manage the project theoretically but then I got funding for year four and five. It was from Leventis Foundation who funds a lot of agriculture and conservation projects in Nigeria. So, after five years they said we normally only fund project for three years and you’ve had two extra years but now you need to close the forest project and you need to submit new proposals and I did. So, I got funding for those. That’s what we are doing; one of the projects was to restore the arboretum as tree Heritage Park. When we were thinking of what trees to put in there, I became aware through contacts I got with my university colleagues that some trees are becoming hard to find.

It took me three years to get the project funded again. A donor called Mohammed Bin Zayad Species Conservation Fund, they only fund endangered species. The project started in November, 2015 and it will end March, 2017. So the first task I had to do is to come up with a list of endangered species for Nigeria. I then contacted colleagues in various institution and organizations. I told them it doesn’t have to be an official but what in their own estimation and judgment are trees that have been over exploited and hard to find. So I got emails from people sometimes even a list and started to put together my own list for this project.

We’ve also done reforestation and forest restoration within the forest here. We’ve also done reforestation on the degraded farmland and now we are restoring our arboretum and planting trees.

How do you get information on the newest endangered or rare species in Nigeria?  And how do you get information on the location of the remaining particular endangered species?

My colleagues who are botanist and foresters from universities give me information on newest endangered species. And we’d a workshop for this project, we’d Former Director of Cross River National Park, foresters, Ekiti State Tree Growers Association, we brought in many people from different levels and communication not just top officials, and a ranger from Okomu National Park who has been a forester right from the colonial era. I get a lot of information from a lot of people. We collect mainly in Omo-Shasha forest reserve, Okomu national park, Quens plot in Akure and any area around here. We go to Ogbomoso also.

What have been your findings?

We got a call on Cola nigerica. It is on critical status. We know there is more population in Omo-Shasha forest reserve but what is happening there is really serious at the moment, there’s more encroachment. The areas have been cleared. We have propagated it and fortunately it is not difficult to propagate, nobody has ever tried propagating it. Cola nigerica is going into extinction, we can’t allow that. Now, we have it in tree Heritage Park. Diospyros crassiflora, Mansonia altissima, Okoubaka aubrevillei and Pericopsis elata are on endangered status while others are on vulnerable status. We have over 50 species on our list and we have tried to propagate some of them. In the last six months, we’ve added two or three species including Senegal rosewood which 80 percent of the species have been exported to Asia.

How connected are you to indigenous researchers working on endangered tree species of Nigeria?

We have some PhD students who come along to our workshop but in terms of being involved with our research? Not really. I think the role of the forest unit is to raise awareness so that more people can start to work on this problem. Although we do need the scientific research but most of all what we seriously need urgently is people who are on ground. Now the emphasis here very much is for academic research and publication of papers but meanwhile our natural heritage is just been lost. We also need activists, environmentalists, we need people who will be hands-on and that’s what am trying to do. I’m trying to do both. I honestly don’t know how many PhD and Post Doc are working on tree species, from what I hear they may be interested in commercially important group such as Mahoganies which are possibly facing commercial extinction in Nigeria. But meanwhile, somebody has to do something on ground. So, we want to build capacity whether with national park, why don’t you have a nursery and encourage people? Why don’t we do some buffer zone reforestation? This has to be hands-on because we have minimum of three years for a research project, what is the amount of forest and trees you are losing in that time? You know your gain but the research needs to be done at the same time you have to balance that gain with what you are losing on ground. I see the loss on ground getting worse year by year. I see not only with my own eyes, I hear what is happening. Gambari Forest Reserve has gone. You look on the map, Gambari Forest Reserve with nice green space, it’s gone! Go there, it is finished! Sapogba Forest Reserve, you go there it is finished. There is nothing left.

What are the challenges you have encountered on this project and how have you been able to surmount them?

Clearing the arboretum is been a huge job. When you get invasive species like Caliandra, Leacena leucocephala, the damage they can do in forest environment is just frightening, they are so dominant over the indigenous species. So, the clearing is a massive and difficult job. Physically, it is quite hard work. We still have problems with poachers because they are very clever. They know where you are looking and where you are not looking. But it’s still very well protected forest.

What measures have you put in place to enhance the sustainability of the project?

That is a very good point. The management of the institution has assured me that what we are setting up now, both the tree heritage park and school forest for school kids (kids come from all over the country and they can camp and see forest for themselves), will be maintained and continued as campus assets which will be used by all people not only campus residents nor the institution’s staff. We have a lot of interest in that tree school and I have to tell you that we take groups into the forest, even visitors that come here. People are keen to go into the forest, the international visitors and also Nigerian people. We want to set up here where families and schools can come and camp or they can stay in the accommodation we have here if they don’t want our camping facility. And then we have things setup, they can go into the forest, learn a lot of things within a short time and they can enjoy the beauty of the environment, just have fun and some contact with nature, medicinal plants and all this useful things. I’ve had the imagination of what they can enjoy that is not something on the city or something on the screen, so real, what they can feel hands-on.

What is your expert advice to the Nigerian authorities and forestry stakeholders on the need to improve in their conservation efforts?

I think the number one thing is to realize how urgent it is, forest cover in Nigeria is down to four percent. We know from satellite, you can see it. There’s almost no area now you can go into that is not degraded, over exploited in one way or the other, either for bush meat or medicinal plant. People are going further and further because things are hard to find. Bush meat is now commercial rather than to support family and village. It is very urgent now with the downturn in the economy, more and more people are going into the forest to get almost everything. You can grow your yam, cassava but vegetable, medicinal plants, bush meat, everything comes from the forest. It is a very good system when your population is not too much, now there is population pressure and the resources are not enough. Most of these plants can be cultivated and if you save your forest reserve, you can restore it and then look at sustainable harvesting. How can we make this sustainable? How can we learn to grow these plants? How can we even set up plantation? How can we set up new forest? But of course, we need to scale up, do it on every community basis. What do you really value? You lose far more than you realize if you lose your forest, you are losing your culture, the beauty of a landscape, sustainability of your agriculture because of fertility, protection of watershed, your climate also changes and it’s getting worse. I think you need to realize the urgency of this. Yes, we need research but far more than a person doing research, you need a thousand people on ground doing something about it, starting to propagate, protect, replant. There is an army of people out there, just think of unemployed youths. We just need to realize the urgency and mobilize the people. You also need people with information; you need to give some directions. For example, in this community, what do we prioritize? What do we want most? And see if you can organize everything.

Ademujimi Babatunde Paul is from Ondo state, Nigeria. He is a recent graduate of Forestry and Wood Technology from the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria. He is currently waiting to start his national youth service year and plans to pursue a career in forest genetics or GIS and other computer application to Forestry.


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