SPECIAL FEATURE: It’s the world’s cheapest zoo in the world’s poorest country

SPECIAL FEATURE: It’s the world’s cheapest zoo in the world’s poorest country

The skeletal remains of an 11 meter (36-feet)-long crocodile scientifically known as Sarcosuchus imperator—the Niger zoo’s pride and joy.

By Tracy Cabrera 

NIAMEY, NIGER — We’re pretty sure no museum in the world could rival the Musée National Boubou Hama, or the National Museum of Niger, as it is known to house the world’s cheapest zoo in the world’s poorest country.

Despite this description, though, the museum boasts several displays covering art, history, dinosaurs, nuclear energy, craftwork and music as well as live animals, for it also has a zoo.

Its clientele is similarly diverse, encompassing visitors who have trekked to the capital Niamey from across the country—school groups, well-heeled foreign tourists and street urchins.

Considered the cultural gem of a country known to be the least developed in the world and with chronic high levels of malnutrition and poverty, Niger’s 24-hectare (59-acre) museum survives on a budget that for rich counterparts is the equivalent to money found hidden behind the sofa or coins saved in a rusting can beneath the sink.

Yet it charges a rock-bottom entrance fee—around 10 US cents—so that even the most impoverished can walk in and have access to exceptional things, including wild animals—“fauna and culture” as the museum claims.

“It’s Niger’s mirror, its social and cultural reflection,” enthused the museum’s director Haladou Mamane while proudly ticking off its strengths in culture, history, archaeology, paleontology and not forgetting the zoo section which is “part of a multi-disciplinary tradition.”

“Here, every Nigerien, regardless of their background, can gain insights about the country,” Mamane pointed out as he noted that many people in Niger have never been to school nor had any basic education

Hot and arid, located in the heart of the Sahel—the eco-climatic and bio-geographic realm of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south—Niger ranks the lowest among 189 countries on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. According to the World Bank (WB), per capita income here is just US$1,040 (855 euros) per year—just over US$2.5 per day.

Adding to the burden is a crippling jihadist insurgency. Two, in fact—one coming from the southeast, from Nigeria, and one from the southwest, from Mali.

The state provides the museum with an annual subsidy of 327 million CFA francs (US$610,000 or 500,000 euros) and income from the meager entrance fee of 50 CFA francs covers just about a third of the costs.

Before the pandemic, Musée National Boubou Hama received more than 100,000 visitors per year, many of them so-called ‘talibe; children. These are children who are unique to West Africa—their parents hand them to a type of Islamic school, where they are supposed to learn the Qu-ran. But they typically spend their days begging in the dusty streets with a metal receptacle strung around their neck, and many find the museum is a wonderful escape.

Mamane said he was especially proud of the museum’s craftwork area, a place that provides a shop window for sculptors, painters, potters and leatherworkers, who can sell what they produce. The artisans come from all over this ethnically diverse country, a sign of ‘national unity’, he said Mamane.

Meanwhile, leatherworker Ali Abdoulaye shared what the museum was for most Nigeriens.

“It’s a bit hard with the coronavirus, but the museum is a good thing for us,” Abdoulaye enthused.

“These days, artisans are losing out to cheaper Chinese products — but you buy a (Chinese) handbag, and it falls apart after a couple of days,” he added.

A few meters (yards) from the museum’s main hall is a star attraction—the skeletal remains of three monsters from the Age of the Dinosaurs.

They include Sarcosuchus imperator, an 11m (36-feet) -long crocodile, whose fossil was discovered in the Agadez region by French paleontologist Philippe Taquet.

To date, the Niger National Museum, which was founded just before Niger gained independence from France in 1960, is planning on a refurbishment and an expansion next year with the help of international donations. And as in many museums around the world, it looks to sponsors for exhibitions.

A show on uranium, Niger’s outstanding mineral wealth, is funded by the French company Orano, previously Areva, whose subsidiaries operate two mines in the south of the country.

Next to it is an exhibition on oil, which has recently been discovered in Niger. The display, which includes an enormous model of a refinery in Zinder, southern Niger, has been funded by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

The museum promises that once the building work is complete, the 111 species in the zoo will enjoy “improved living conditions.” (AI/MTVN)

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