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I got crowned as a child as the 'King of the Forest' and I am now a snake scientist and wildlife university teacher

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05 June 2022
23 minutes read
I got crowned as a child as the 'King of the Forest' and I am now a snake scientist and wildlife university teacher

Edem Archibong Eniang is my name.

I share birth date with Nigeria, having been born on 1st October, but in 1969, not 1960 like Nigeria.

My mum was the second of my dad's three wives and I am the twelfth child in a family of fifteen.

She had been attracted to my father because of his prowess as a local wrestler, and took canoes to go and fight in places such as Cameroon and Gabon and returned as a hero. It was on one of his wins that folk in our village, Itam Itu, in Akwa Ibom State, had an all-night ceremony where he met my mother and love won.

I was born, and grew up in the village, which is by the Cross River.

I was born in the forest in the thick of the Nigerian Civil War. My mother had been pregnant with me before Biafran soldiers invaded the village and my people were living in the jungle. The war was serious in my place because the river gave both (opposing troops) easy access. coming from the ocean.

My mother lived with me from 2001, when my father died, till 2018, and told me the stories of my life.

She told me that she had been asked to throw me away because when I was hungry, and there was no food to give me, I would cry out loudly enough to attract the enemy to discover where we hiding. So, they told her to dump me, while they were running from one forest camp to another, and that, after the war, she would have another child rather than exposing the villagers to danger. She refused, because she said she had lost up to three children earlier in her marriage. So, instead of the five children she had for my dad - and I am the second to the last - she would have had eight of us. The first three died.

I was named Edem, literarily "the last born" because of the war. But, after the war, there was peace, and dad and mum tried for another one, and, had her, and I stopped being the last one.

Because Nigerian soldiers had taken over the village, and some camped in my father's compound, which was quite big, we were now able to return home. So, as a toddler, I had contact with soldiers. I watched their parades and all that they did.

When the soldiers left - after the war - the children in the village began to do what they saw the soldiers do. We organised ourselves. We used long green leaves to make berets and we marched like the soldiers. I was always the commander of the children's army, to the extent that my eldest brother, Archibong, now a retired Nigerian major, named me Major Tomoye, after a popular Yoruba soldier, as a child. I always told him of victorious encounters in places I had never been. I did same with my dad's older brother who was a school principal in Calabar, and this endeared me to him and when he was around in the village I always told those imaginary stories of my war escapades.

I was quite a character as a child. One of my preoccupations then was hunting (and) I killed many animals. My mother used to sell these animals to make money for the family. Of course, I did not know anything about conservation then.

One day, when I was about nine years old, I went into the forest and there was this huge python which had been caught by a trap that my brother had set. I used the method my father had taught me on how to, from a distance, cut a snake from the trap stick. From my assessment, this snake was up to nine metres and bigger than the fatness of a mature banana tree. It was swollen in the centre.

I dragged it up the hilly slope…until I got to the village.

The first house when you are coming from that axis of the village was the home of Chief Bassey Isaha, who was the village's chief hunter. He was trimming his Ixora flower when he saw me with the snake and told me to come over.

He asked me where I got it from. I told him. He asked whose trap it was. I told him. By this time, I did not know that the snake was not yet dead. I made to go but the man stopped me, saying that he wanted to do something. He dropped his machete, dashed into his house, tied a wrapper over the shorts he wore. In our tradition, you do not pour libation wearing shorts or something like that. He returned with a bottle of ogogoro drink, poured it into a drinking glass, went to a corner of his house and poured the libation. After that, he came back to me, drank some of the liquor, told me to open my palms, and he spat the drink into them and said that, from that day, I had become the king of the forest. He did not give me any of the drink. He corked the bottle and told me to take the snake to my parents.

As I kept dragging it, midway to my father's compound, in the larger Eniang family's section of the village, in front of the first compound, the late Ekpo Okon Eniang, a stepbrother of my father, was making thatched roof sheets. He saw me and shouted on me to bring the snake. He rushed at me, asking questions. His shout attracted the people nearby. Immediately, he picked his machete and started cutting banana leaves. He cut six of them. He arranged them, in twos, to form a mat on the floor, dragged the snake over the leaves.

Everyone had gathered and seen me and asked what kind of child I was.

The man's son, Daniel, who is also late, may his soul rest in peace, came, and like every other curious child, he started pressing the fattest place with his hands. The snake woke up, with bullet speed, to catch Daniel by the hand. As a child, Daniel removed his hand, and the thing jammed itself, locked there. I did not know what was happening then, but today, as a snake scientist, I can explain it.

When an African rock python - what we call python sebae in science - bites, its jaws involuntarily locks unto the object and it cannot unlock until sometimes up to fifteen minutes on the average. This is a killing mechanism. Like the crocodiles have the death roll, pythons have the lock as their weapon. So that when it strikes at the prey, once it is locked, the prey cannot escape. Thus, it has sufficient time to drag the victim. So, if a python should bite you, and lock unto you, please do not struggle because forcing it to unlock will tear you like a saw. Often, if the python does not see you as a prey, it would push you down with a punch. It slices into your flesh, not with the intention to grip, open its jaw wide and cut deeply because it does not want to hold you as you are not its prey. It knows that if it holds you, you might have time to cut its head off. So, the python would grip and until the relaxation of its muscle after about fifteen minutes, it would let you go.

Many wild animals, once they do not see the enemy, they would not bite. So, I always move with a handkerchief in my pocket, so that, when the need arises, I can blindfold a snake, wrap its head and tie it, it would remain calm. I lived in Ethiopia for three years doing this snake work and I met new (species of) snakes. They have more snakes there than we do. By the way, snakes are easier to keep than other animals. Some can stay hungry for up to three months.

So, when the snake locked its mouth, in the case of Daniel, they could not remove its mouth from its own body. Blood was dripping from that point of its own body. There was panic and trembling all over the compound. People ran for dear lives. I did too. The next thing, we had a loud booming noise. Daniel's father had gone to his house, brought his Dane gun and fired the snake to death. People butchered it and found nineteen matured eggs. They said no wonder it was swollen at the centre. It was pregnant. Next thing, Daniel's father said that my father did not eat snakes but he deserved the python oil and he gave him five bottles of the oil. Today, that oil is quite expensive. They use it in the villages for bone mending, and as antidote for ingested poison. My own "trophy" was a special belt he made for me with one of the snake's jaw bones which he wrapped into the dry skin of the snake and sewed into a belt. According to him, whenever I wore it into a bush, no snake would harm me. I actually wore it confidently and it got to a stage that when they had community harvest of palm fruits, when men had to climb up, some of them would come to demand for the belt so that they would not meet any snake on top of the tree and I gladly gave them.

When I came back to the village from the Command Secondary School ,Jos, where my eldest brother took me by himself in September 1979, accompanied by my late cousin, Effiong, for my post-primary education, probably so that I could become the Major Tomoye of his dream, the belt was gone.

My time in the Command Secondary School was an amazing, life-shaping experience, right from the first day. I was stubborn and mischievous and served all the deadly punishments from seniors.

I had memorable experiences with a Ghanaian named Prosper Kofi Bonsi. He is now a dentist in New York, United States of America. He was a fighter with a black belt in karate before coming to Command. He used his bare legs to kick double bunk beds. He trained me in judoka, karate and how to pound stones with bare knuckles in an enamel bucket until they turned to sand. My target was the one who would later become Rear Admiral Tariworio Dick (rtd), my senior by two years. No one pestered my life as he did at Command. So my training  by Bonsi was to fight him to a point where he would leave me alone. Another senior, Murtala Mustapha, who sadly died in a car accident during the Covid-19 lockdown, protected me like his own child. He would take me to the mosque and make me wait for him while he went to pray, instead of leaving me behind to be dealt with by the likes of Dick.

One of the problems I had with Dick was that I used to buy pornographic magazines at Oshodi, Lagos when I lived with my brother (Major Archibong Eniang) in the Ikeja Cantonment. He was then the PA to Gen Domkat Bali, the GOC of 4th Infantry Division, Nigerian Army. Dick always caught me while looking at the magazine under my blanket with a torchlight in my mouth. He would seize and destroy it. But I had many. After destroying like five of them, he decided to become friendly with me but I was sceptical because I did not know his motive. One day he called me and said, with a serious countenance, that his father told him that those who looked at women's private parts, even on paper, would go blind. That it was why he was worried about my habit and that he wanted me to stop.

The next day, I felt like my eyes were scratching me, and that was how I dropped the magazines and also ended my plan to fight Dick. At one point I even joined others to help fight a group which ganged up to fight Dick after he beat up one of the boys that was popularly known as Singer Lolo.

There was also a Joseph Ikot Assam, from Akwa Ibom, a genius with electric power, and now a certified ship inspector in the United Kingdom, Dubai and Brazil. He it was who constructed an electric gadget which I put in my metal locker in the dormitory to prevent anyone from breaking into it as it was often loaded with provisions, courtesy of the regular ten naira notes sent to me by my eldest sister, my mother's first child who survived, Mary Essien, of blessed memory.

Dick joined the Army: he went to the Nigerian Defence Academy soon after passing out of Command. He came back to visit me after his graduation in his cadet uniform.

Unfortunately, I did everything in my life to join the Nigerian Army, it never worked. Even as my brother was a PA to several generals, he never thought of recommending me for admission into the NDA. Today, I am like a general in my field of wildlife science. Apart from being a professor, I am always advising the military in different capacities in Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Later, I reluctantly took the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Education of the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board (JAMB) and was given admission to read agriculture in the University of Maiduguri but my cousin, Bassey Eniang, advised that I needed to be nearer home to be with my people and study our culture as an adult, and so I switched to my second choice which was then the University of Cross River, now University of Uyo. It was the girlfriend of my older brother, Elder Etim Eniang, who also chose agriculture for me. I was living with him on Victoria Island in Lagos. The lady was working in JAMB. One day she came to the house and found my school certificate result on the table where I had left it. She saw that the result was good and asked where I was schooling. My brother said I wanted to join the Army but I had not succeeded after several attempts. She bought the JAMB form with her own money, selected agriculture based on the combination of the subjects I passed in the school certificate examination and only came to tell me the date of the examination and the centre. I took the examination reluctantly. I scored 287. It was the second best result in the state. I am still looking for that woman to pay my homage. She and my brother did not marry but I think he knows where she is.

At the university then, agriculture was just a department in the Faculty of Science.

In our second year, the Faculty of Agriculture was created and it was still the old Cross River State, and they moved us to Ogoja, in the present-day Yala Local Government Area of the State, to form a campus of the university.

As a new faculty, new departments were created. The Department of Forestry and Wildlife was created in 1989. No student joined. I became the first student to subscribe. I was alone for some months before others joined.

So, how did I become obsessed about wildlife?

When I became older, my father used to hunt and took me to his hunting ground, instead of my older brothers. He always said I gave him luck to see animals. When my mother challenged him asking what about my older brother, Etim, who set the traps, my father would respond that Etim coughed when he saw animals and he would shoot and the animals would escape whereas I never coughed.

This replayed in my life as a Master's student in the University of Ibadan (UI).

One year into my master's programme in wildlife management, Prof Seth Sunday Ajayi, the first black professor of wildlife in Africa, asked me to follow him into the bush. When his other colleagues said the vehicle, a 504 station wagon donated by First Bank, would not be spacious enough, he said I should sit beside him in the front seat. One professor then asked him why he was taking "this boy" he said "Eniang gives me luck to see animals." Is that not the same thing my father said?

So, Ajayi proved that I wanted to be like him.

My PhD was also in wildlife with specialisation on snakes.

I became the first student to focus attention on snakes at PhD level. It was Professor Ibukun Ayodele, a one-time president of Wildlife Society of Nigeria, who insisted I must study snakes. He refused to let me continue with my research on gorillas which I had gone deep into for my PhD. When the person who was interested in gorillas, Prof Fidelis Amubode, died, I was assigned to be supervised by Prof Ayodele. He said there was no new scientific knowledge I was likely to bring on gorillas adding that if I went to UI's Kenneth Dike Library, everything on one whole floor was on primatology. Whereas nobody was doing anything on snakes and that the last studies on snakes were done by white, colonial researchers. "Go to that your Calabar," he said,  "and study the snakes of Southern Nigeria and their conservation." In frustration,  I withdrew from the PhD, and left the school for nearly two years to start a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Biodiversity Preservation Centre (BPC) in Calabar.

I was expecting a grant of twelve thousand dollars from a Foundation to use and study gorillas' population.

But, guess what? One lovely afternoon, one white man came to the Centre in search of Edem Eniang. I told him he was the one who had just driven out. Then I asked him why he wanted to see him. He said he was a snake scientist from the University of Rome interested in African snakes and had been told that this Edem Eniang had the skin of the longest viper snake that the person who told him had ever seen in her life. And, that he came to measure it by himself. Perhaps it was stretched or whatever. I then told him I was Edem Eniang. He punched me. I had the viper skin which I had got during a research work with my team on top of a mountain in Boki Local Government Area of Cross River State when I was studying gorillas.

The man I am talking about is Prof Luca Luiselli, a foremost prolific international scientist on Nigerian snakes. The lady who had told him about the viper was Zeena Tooze, who was the founder of CERCOPAN Calabar.

Prof Luiselli asked me why I was not studying snakes. He said snakes are the easiest animals to study. He said that in snake science, the dead snake was as important as the live one. He said: "Edem you can take a cruise from Uyo to Lagos and pick every snake killed by a car and you can make a scientific discovery on the snakes." He added: "Go to Badagry and you will see a market with live snakes."

He left and began to write me letters. From there he linked me with someone in South Africa. And my life changed. From there, I went to Australia in 1999 where I did a short course in Flinders University in Adelaide. Of course, the grant I was waiting for did not come.

Long story short, I returned to UI for my PhD and, to Prof Ayodele. I later presented my seminar on Ecology and Conservation of Snakes in Southern Nigeria where I discovered that we have as many as 63 types of snakes in Southern Nigeria. There are three new ones which I have yet to identify. I spent five years on my PhD.

Snake science has taken me to many places in Nigeria and around the world.

I am a professor of Wildlife Resources Management, Herpetology and Protected Areas at the University of Uyo where I started teaching on 5 April 1995. 

My wife and children are all into snakes in one way or another.

Many thanks to XL FM 106.9 Uyo for local support in Akwa Ibom State. Please visit https://xl1069.fm for an enriching radio experience.

Pic: Prof Edem Archibong Eniang's library

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