Damian Duruiheoma, Owerri
Scores of wild animals kept in the Imo State Zoo and Wildlife Park, located along Nekede Old Road, Owerri, Imo State capital, escaped death by whiskers last Saturday as hoodlums suspected to be arsonists burnt a section of the zoo.
However, hundreds of endangered plant species were not spared as the fire burnt them and attempted entering the conservative area before the men of the Imo State Fire Service and staff of the complex fought to stop the raging fire.
The fire came barely two months after members of the Nekede Community invaded the zoo and laid claim to a forest in the facility and insisting that the state government ceded the forest to them for their expansion.
A resident of the area said the incident occurred early in the morning starting from the reserved forest.
Speaking with journalists about the incident, the principal conservative officer/General Manager of Imo Zoo and Wildlife Park, Francis Abioye said the extent of damage caused and number of animals affected by the fire could not be ascertained immediately because the animals were still in shock.
He said however that the prompt response of the men of the Imo State Fire Service saved the situation for the animals and the reserve forests.
“What we lost so much were the endangered plant species. We lost hundreds of them. But for the animals, we cannot ascertain the number of casualties for now since the fire did not cover everywhere. If it had covered everywhere, by now, most of the animals would not have escaped and we would have seen their carcasses.
“But now, those animals who ran away from the scene of the fire may not survive the shock and heat of the fire. It’s after some days or week that you begin to see them dropping dead. So, it may be too early now to begin to access the level of damage in terms of the number of animals”.
Abioye said, “Just on Saturday in the morning around 9.30 am, I got a call from my staff that the zoo is on fire. I quickly called the fire servicemen who promptly arrived coupled with our staff who were on ground in our staff quarters. That helped us to curtail the fire.
“We thank God that the fire had not gone inside the deep conversation area before the men of the Fire Service arrived. If it had entered deep into the deep and thick reserve area where nobody could have been able to fight the fire, it could have been collateral destruction for the zoo because nobody would have been able to navigate through the forest to fight and quench the fire. It was only within the buffer zone that the fire burnt before the men of the fire service quickly came in”.
He said the management of the zoo suspected sabotage, “but we cannot trace it to anybody now until after investigation by the state government.
On the possibility of the community invaders being responsible for the arson, Abioye said “It may be wrong to begin to point accusing fingers to people who had invaded the zoo in the past few months. The reason is that the invaders did not hide themselves. They came out openly to admit they invaded the zoo. But since this incident happened, nobody has taken responsibility. So, we cannot accuse anyone of being responsible until after investigation”.