Citizen science in Nigeria: BDI interviews the founder of the South West Atlas Team

Adewale Awoyemi is a young citizen scientist, who lives with birds in the Sunbird Bush, about 7 km north of the city of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria. He is currently the manager of the AG Leventis-funded Forest Center at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria.

The campus of the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI), University of Jos, is one of Africa’s most important ornithological treasures. APLORI runs an MSc course, each year training a cohort of Nigerians in conservation biology (Photo credit: Sam Ivande)

BDI: How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

I must confess that my one-year MSc course at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI), University of Jos, Nigeria, provided the turnaround in my life! Although I studied forestry and wildlife at the undergraduate level and had basic information about biodiversity conservation, my knowledge in applied conservation biology, especially citizen science was at the barest minimum, so APLORI was the eye-opener. Immediately after completing my MSc course in September 2015, I was employed at the IITA Forest Center, Ibadan in October 2015, to supervise the AG Leventis-funded bird and forest conservation projects – one of my main duties was to raise awareness about bird and forest conservation through the Ibadan Bird Club (IBC). After the club was re-launched in February 2016, I created a Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/ibadanbirdclub/) for the club in order to reach a wider audience. Between then and April 2018, over 300 people registered as members and an average of 30 members attend the club’s monthly meeting – the IBC is one of the best bird clubs in Africa and the initiative is now being replicated across Nigeria, to enhance citizen science – that’s just the catalyst!

The IITA Forest Center, Ibadan, invites you to the next meeting of the Ibadan Bird Club on Saturday 28 April at 4 pm. We will meet at the Botanical Nursery before proceeding for bird walk in the IITA Forest Reserve, Ibadan (see attached). New members, including children and beginners are always welcome. We lend binoculars and membership is free!

Dr Ulf Ottosson (APLORI) came to visit me at IITA, Ibadan, to introduce the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (NiBAP). This was immediately after the project started in January 2016. Ulf told me he wanted me to be the Ambassador of NiBAP in southwestern Nigeria. I started introducing the atlas protocol to others. After developing an understanding of the atlas protocol and carrying out some trials, I thought we could set up a small group to support NiBAP in the area. I mentioned this thought first to Dr Jacob Orimaye of the Ekiti State University, as he really supported my conservation ideals, and Dr Taiye Adeyanju of the University of Ibadan, and we named the group South West Atlas Team (SWAT). This idea has produced remarkable results (check how shaded Nigeria map is around the south west region; laugh!), which is being replicated across Nigeria and some other African countries. The group now has over 50 volunteers and goes for monthly atlasing across different states in the area. Thanks to all members as I can’t keep mentioning individual names.

The red circle shows the SWAT area in southwestern Nigeria. Considering the difficulties of transport and access, this is remarkable coverage in little more than two years.

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

Seeing the degree of turn-out and the dedication of members of IBC and SWAT is impressive. I led SWAT for about two years as the Team Leader and handed over to another person, Ademola Ajayi, who with the support of others has sustained this initiative. This is not always easy in this kind of setting and I am still a loyal member of the team – leaders should also try to be followers – I think this is another highlight!

This team atlased in Osun State in February 2017 (Photo credit: Babajide Agboola)

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

Being a citizen science crusader has enabled me to understand how diverse the world is, especially understanding some aspects of the ecology of other taxa apart from birds, ecosystem inter-dependence, and of course knowing places of scenic values.

… and now for some landscapes in southern Nigeria
This is part of the forest reserve at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) (Photo credit: Adewale Awoyemi)

BDI: What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

A citizen scientist is a member of the general public (specialist or non-specialist), who collect ecological data as part of scientific projects. So you can refer to all IBC and SWAT members as citizen scientists.

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

Seeing the whole of south west Nigeria atlased by SWAT members, and shaded on the coverage map is one of my strongest desires. I test hypotheses and investigate bird ecology and behaviour, but to be honest with you, I love to see or hear birds – it is so interesting, especially when done in a group. Doing science while having fun such as going for atlasing and camping in remote places or in the field, is what I refer to as “not doing boring science”. Let me give you a brief statistics: I have recorded (seen/heard) over 400 species of birds out of the over 900 species reported for Nigeria. My teacher would give me 50% of the total mark but I would rather want something better as you would also want. As the day passes, I train my ears and eyes to hear and see more birds respectively!

Part of the town of Akure, capital of Ondo State in southwestern Nigeria (Photo credit: Sam Ivande)

BDI: What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

From personal experience, I think social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp are a good hook on which to hang conservation messages among the youth of this generation. The BirdLasser App has been an incredible aid for me; it would be great if it covered not only birds but also other taxa, including plants.

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Citizen scientists are always curious about their environment, implying that they will exercise their body by moving from one place to the other, searching for information, which is good for their health – at least the fat ones will burn some calories but I don’t know what someone like me, who is very skinny, will burn – I still jump up and down, searching for birds (laugh). After observing incredible things in nature, citizen scientists will still get home and search literature to expand their understanding about what they observed in the field. This is good for their mental development.

… and finally, a bird or two. Yellow-mantled Weaver is an uncommon species in the forest at IITA. This one was recorded during a SWAT expedition (Photo credit: Bibitayo Owolabi)

BDI: What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

If well verified, citizen science data are important for formulating conservation strategies. The IBC, for example, has contributed immense and constant data for bird and habitat monitoring within the IITA-Ibadan campus, which holds a 360-ha secondary rainforest which is designated an Important Bird Area.

BDI: What are the challenges you experience doing citizen science and being a citizen scientist?

Safety issues in the field, verification of data collected and lack of essential equipment are some of the challenges facing citizen science in Nigeria. We advise our citizen scientists that they should go to the field with proper identification card and at least a bird buddy. It is also better if a group contains at least one ornithologist, which is always the case with SWAT. The equipment challenge is being addressed by organizations such as the AG Leventis Foundation and NiBAP, which now provide equipment and guidebooks for members and organize how-to-get-started workshops.

Yellow-throated Longclaws are common in grassland and cultivated open areas, relishing grasshoppers and beetles (Photo credit: Olufemi Olubodun)

8 Comments

    1. Thank you, Wale, for allowing us to impose this on you! My vision is that, in a century’s time, when people are writing up the history of biodiversity in Africa, they will trace the start of the revolution in how people view biodiversity to the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project. I hope that they will write: “NiBAP was the catalyst which started the ‘citizen science movement’ in Africa, and changed the way people think.” Keep up the good work, and encourage everyone else to do so too — Les

  1. You are great my boy!in fact,you have become my boss nowmore good days ahead congratulations

  2. Great job darling! This is definitely a stepping stone to greater heights. Thanks to Prof Underhill for the opportunity.

  3. Great job big brother….
    I will like the organizations involved to see to creating a lasser app that covers not only birds but other taxa, including plants as requested above

  4. Great job brother..
    It will be of a great help if the Birdlasser app does not only cover birds but other taxa, including plants. Seeing to this will ne so much appreciated

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