With more than 30 years of experience in conserving Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone, BirdLife partners are deploying a whole suite of different methods to protect this unique and bird-rich hotspot – from carbon credits and chocolate production to training rangers and youth volunteers. And it’s paying off for the local people too.
When stepping into Gola Rainforest, you feel you’ve travelled a long way from the hot, dusty farmland surrounding it. As you journey to this forest in south-eastern Sierra Leone, rolling farms crowd around small villages, bordered by narrow dirt roads busy with motorbikes. The country can be intense, with daily temperatures soaring above 30C, during both a long, hot dry season and a heavy rainy season.
That’s what makes Gola Rainforest such a vital place – not just for Sierra Leone but the entire world. Its staggering, 30-metre trees perform an essential cooling effect across West Africa, while also storing vast amounts of carbon. Alongside this, its incredible diversity of more than 300 bird species – and a stellar cast of charismatic mammals – has led to the forest being designated a Key Biodiversity Area and BirdLife Forest of Hope.
White-necked Picathartes, copyright Nik Borrow, from the surfbirds galleries
Gola is part of West Africa’s Upper Guinea forests that used to stretch from Guinea in the east, through Sierra Leone, to Togo in the west.
Now, however, it is one of the most fragmented forests in the world. At over 700km2, the Gola Rainforest is the largest remnant of Upper Guinea forests in Sierra Leone. Despite being declared a national park in 2011, it still faces a range of threats, including poaching, logging and mining.
Gola Rainforest Conservation (GRC) was formed more than 10 years ago to look after the new park, beginning as a collaboration between the government of Sierra Leone, Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL, BirdLife partner) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). Today, GRC works on a vast conservation programme with the triple aims of protecting the park, supporting its wildlife, and improving the lives and opportunities of the people living around the forest.
This work is vital. White-breasted Guineafowl, Rufous Fishing-owl and Nimba Flycatcher are among the forest’s 14 bird species threatened with extinction, while it’s also home to significant populations of several Endangered mammals, including Pygmy Hippo and Chimpanzee.
“There are so many species of conservation concern in Gola, and many of them are endemic to the Upper Guinea forests,” says Lahai Keifala, superintendent of the research and monitoring department at GRC. “Maintaining this biodiversity is so important. It is the richness of our ‘Green Diamond’ [a nickname for the Gola Rainforest], providing us with vital natural resources and helping to mitigate climate change.”
The RSPB’s long-term commitment to Sierra Leone is paying off, both for research and conservation. Beginning in the 1980s, the RSPB undertook several biodiversity surveys, so there are now more than 30 years of data to use when comparing populations of crucial species. Through these surveys, the RSPB and GRC have identified 44 large mammal species, eight of which are threatened, Near Threatened and endemic. Sadly, comparisons with surveys from the 1980s show that African Forest Elephant is under significant threat and only a handful of elephants remain in in the national park.
These surveys have also recorded 313 bird species, including Gola Malimbe, Yellow-footed Honeyguide and Green-tailed Bristlebill (all Near Threatened). They have revealed good news for one of Gola’s most charismatic birds, White-necked Rockfowl (or Picathartes) – a shy, curious species that nests on imposing rock faces dotted throughout the forest. There are now over 40 colonies of this Vulnerable species in Gola, and its population has been stable since the 1980s, a welcome respite from the relatively rapid declines seen across most other sites in its range.
CARBON TO FUND CONSERVATION
Protecting these species – and the thousands that live alongside them – is a difficult job. Most of GRC’s work is supported by a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) project – part of the global UN-founded REDD+ programme – an ambitious 30-year conservation project launched in 2013.
REDD+ projects use the sale of carbon credits to generate income for the conservation of forests. A carbon credit is created when forests are protected and trees are not cut down, leaving critical habitat for the array of species dependent on the forest. REDD+ therefore not only supports the forest’s wildlife but also slows climate change, by providing a financial incentive to protect forest. This is a vital step to limit global heating, as a mature tree left standing stores far more carbon than a newly planted one.
In Gola, the funds generated from REDD+ are split between immediate conservation priorities, community work and building up a fund for future conservation projects. GRC has worked closely with local communities to plan and discuss how the money raised from carbon credits will be used, with education, agriculture and community projects identified as priorities.
CHOCOLATE THAT SAVES RAINFOREST
More than 100 communities live within a few kilometres of Gola and for centuries they have used the forest for their livelihoods and community practices. Collaborating with them to protect the forest and its wildlife is therefore essential, especially as conservation can mean losing out on certain livelihood opportunities. The REDD+ project is therefore designed to help community members find alternative livelihoods, as well as providing other essential services – such as education, clean water and improved healthcare facilities – so they actively benefit from conservation.
Cocoa, the plant whose beans are used to make chocolate, is a key cash crop in the area. Through the project, the RSPB is teaching farmers better agricultural practices, helping to improve both the yield and quality of crop. To improve profits, they’ve also established a Farmers’ Association to buy cocoa at a fair price and sell it internationally.
It may seem counterintuitive to encourage agriculture – recognised as the greatest threat to the world’s birds – within such a haven for biodiversity. However, unlike the monoculture plantations of crops such as oil palm, cocoa can be grown under the forest canopy, and studies have shown that low-intensity cocoa farming can be compatible with rainforest conservation. With this in mind, as GRC encourages communities in Gola to expand cocoa production and rehabilitate old plantations, it keeps a close eye on its potential impacts by monitoring bird populations on the edge of the forest, with a particular focus on species that require large tracts of healthy forest, such as hornbills.
Over 40% of all Sierra Leoneans live in extreme poverty, so for many children, accessing quality education is difficult. Through funds from REDD+, GRC pays for uniforms, books and supplies for more than 100 children each year, helping to enhance their future opportunities. Alongside their normal schooling, GRC also aims to inspire a love for the environment by running nature clubs, which teach children about the forest and its animals, promote conservation and explain how people and wildlife can co-exist.
Through its community youth volunteer programme, GRC is also helping the next generation to actively participate in conservation by becoming ambassadors for some of Gola’s flagship species, such as Pygmy Hippopotamus and White-necked Rockfowl. As part of the programme, GRC trains young people living alongside the national park to monitor species in their community forests, and they actively look for signs of Pygmy Hippos along streams as well as protecting White-necked Rockfowl colonies during their breeding season. This is vital to ensuring a healthy population of species in the forests surrounding those within the official protected area.
GRC has also boosted the park’s law enforcement. Collaborating with local authorities – including the police – park rangers patrol the forest to identify and prevent illegal activity. Sierra Leone has long been associated with its rich supply of precious minerals, including diamonds, gold and rutile, and there are two mining areas within Gola, both constantly patrolled by the rangers. Poaching is another threat, with species such as Timneh Parrot and Chimpanzee often being targeted by hunters for the lucrative wildlife trade.
During patrols, teams of six rangers spend 10 days in the forest monitoring key biodiversity, and hotspots of logging and mining. However, patrolling is a difficult and at times dangerous job, with risks including armed poachers and the natural hazards of working in challenging, rainforest environments. “We don’t have guns; poachers have guns,” says Mariama Sesay, a ranger in Gola. When they meet a poacher or logger, “We lay an ambush. Some ambushes take two or three hours, lying down in the bush, waiting for poachers. [Because] when you see a man with a gun, you cannot just go and stand in front of him – he will kill you.”
This bolstering of enforcement, along with the range of community projects, has been vital to protecting Gola’s beauty and incredible diversity. The long-term commitment from BirdLife partners to support GRC offers opportunities for research, collaboration with local communities and ecotourism, hopefully culminating in a haven for wildlife in the heart of West Africa.
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