Our Friend of the Month is Laila Johnson-Salami, a journalist from Nigeria who has made a series of films about environmental issues in her country, including the crisis in elephant conservation.
From left to right: Laila Johnson-Salami at Cross River State, south east Nigeria; Laila at Iyake Mountain in south west Nigeria.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood, and specifically how you became interested in conservation and the environment?
I grew up in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. It is a lot calmer and greener than Lagos - weekends were spent in green spaces, with birds and trees. My parents always encouraged my brother and I to spend time outdoors. I loved animals - we grew up with dogs, but wildlife fascinated me. Especially primates. However, I became more interested in conservation and the environment as I got older - seeing less green spaces, widespread pollution and high rates of deforestation in Nigeria really concerned me. I live in Lagos and experiencing the intense annual floods that continue to worsen with climate change, breathing in polluted air and having very few green spaces in the city has fired my passion for conservation. It is hard to ignore the fact that the environment is degrading when you are living through the effects of it.
You’ve made TV reports in Nigeria on the illegal wildlife trade, deforestation and the plight of Nigeria’s elephants. How have they been received by your compatriots?
They’ve been received very well! Arise News and WildAid partnered on a wildlife conservation series in 2021 which I’ve been producing and presenting. There’s often this perception that Nigerians don’t care about wildlife and the environment, but I don’t think it's true at all. From the rangers protecting our forests, to the conservationists who work around the clock to protect our wildlife, to our researchers - Nigerians care. I’ve noticed that with most of our 'Go Wild' episodes, many viewers were unaware of a lot of the issues we’ve covered. Whether it’s not knowing that we have Drill Monkeys in Nigeria or not knowing about the millions of dollars that criminals have generated off our forests. It’s not that Nigerians don't care, it’s simply that some people don’t know. But once they do - they’re on board!
Your recent film about the precarious situation of Nigeria’s elephants - did it leave you feeling discouraged or hopeful about their future?
A bit of both. Hopeful because we have great conservationists doing their very best to protect Nigeria’s last elephants. Discouraged because we have very few elephants left in Nigeria and they could possibly go extinct. In the forests in Ogun State where we have Forest Elephants, we need to develop elephant sanctuaries to end human-elephant conflict and to protect the forests. Illegal logging is prevalent which is destroying the elephants’ habitat and making them more vulnerable. In our national parks and game reserves, we need more investment and political will to better protect the elephants and other wildlife. We need stronger enforcement of wildlife laws too, as it would be heartbreaking to see elephants disappear from Nigeria.
Nigeria is perhaps not famous for its wildlife and national parks. Can you tell us about some of your favourite, unspoilt places in the country? I would say the last surviving forest plots on the Mambilla Plateau in the north east state of Taraba. The Mambilla Plateau is breathtaking. Firstly, because it's very beautiful, but secondly severe deforestation has turned the region into a semi-desert - so you literally struggle to breathe. There’s hardly any arable land left and the forests have been completely ruined. If restored and protected, I believe that the Mambilla Plateau will be one of the most beautiful places in the world, as I’m told it was about half a century ago. Iyake Lake in Oyo State is also a beautiful location - a suspended lake at the top of a mountain. There are reportedly turtles in the lake, although I didn’t see any when I visited a few months ago (the lake was in very bad condition). There are also monkeys up on the mountain, but they aren’t protected and are unfortunately hunted regularly. It’s a beautiful location with great views of Oyo State. Like the Mambilla Plateau, it holds a lot of potential. Nigeria is such a beautiful country, we need to restore our environment. Do you feel young Nigerians - your contemporaries - share your passion for conservation, or do they worry more about other issues? I think most young people today are concerned about survival and conservation is a part of that. Yes, we need more voices to advocate for wildlife conservation in Nigeria, but we all have our battles. I’ve met several young conservationists doing phenomenal work that really inspires me. Young people are also living through the effects of climate change all over the world, so I do feel there's a lot of passion for conservation. Finally Laila, where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Probably doing my PhD research - no idea what about just yet. At least that’s what I feel for now, things may change. I guess as a journalist a lot of my career already revolves around research, it gives me a lot of purpose - research continues to develop and save our world.
To see Laila’s recent film about Nigerian elephants for Arise News, click here.