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Little glimmers of hope in Salone by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | May 18, 2014 Comments Off on Little glimmers of hope in Salone by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

Donor money from abroad pays most of the sanctuary’s bills, but it took an incredibly brave and dedicated staff to keep the facility and chimps alive during Sierra Leone’s war in the 1990s. As rebel forces invaded the nearby area, staff had to sneak through the forest to both avoid the soldiers and gather food for the chimps. Our guide for our tour was given a prestigious West African conservation award a few years ago for literally risking his life during the war to care for the chimps.

The sanctuary is just above the capital of Freetown. Urban sprawl of the city as well as wood gathering for fuel, building material, and other uses have denuded the forest-covered hills my wife remembers from her visits to Freetown nearly thirty years ago. The hills surrounding the sanctuary were cut almost to bare ground twenty years ago, but secondary forest has since regrown in the hills around the sanctuary and extending for twenty miles down the mountainous peninsula to the south of the capital. Formerly designated a forest reserve, on a visit to the sanctuary a couple of years ago the Sierra Leone president vowed to make the area a national park. That step was accomplished on paper, but the government has yet to implement any significant protections for the area. Just five rangers occasionally patrol the expanse of forest, but our guide explained that poachers can easily avoid such a small force in such a large area.

Real protection of the Western Forest National Park would secure the future of one band of wild chimps that still lives there, as well as potentially make possible the sanctuary’s plans to release back into the wild some of the animals it currently holds. However, to us those plans sounded more like pipe dreams. Even our guide did not sound hopeful that more government protection and funds would materialize anytime soon. Moreover, as the city of Freetown continues to explode, the thousands more people in the metro area are likely to continue to encroach on the paper national park. Already a new highway through the hills to the southern portion of the city has made a new area of the forest easily accessible; from the road itself we saw that the hillsides to the north of the road are now completely devoid of trees.

Still, the Tacugama  provides hope that chimpanzees in Sierra Leone will not become extinct. The sanctuary allows people to see chimps up close and remind them of the needs of one of the country’s most charismatic species. As such, it helps fuel a small but significant lobbying force for more government attention to conservation priorities. The sanctuary also runs adult and student education programs; the other guide who accompanied our tour was a young woman who was first exposed to chimps through a nature club at her school.

We met another Sierra Leonian woman who was also helping to spearhead conservation through planning and public outreach. There is no shortage of NGOs active in the country, but only a small number that work on environmental protection. The woman we met has worked with the Africa Environmental Foundation since 2000; the group received funding mostly from the EU and its member countries. She was just completing work on a project to inventory natural resources near some of the country’s key wildlife areas and develop a plan for managing and protecting those resources. When I asked how the plans would be implemented, I heard a familiar refrain: “Ah, that is the challenge,” our new acquaintance sighed. AEF also does outreach to communities located near high value conservation areas to encourage them to adopt farming and living practices that are compatible with wildlife, water, and habitat protection. It too goes into schools to teach kids about environmental protection, and it is encouraging the government to add environmental education into the official curriculum materials.

Frankly, these conservation efforts and initiatives felt a bit like a drop in the bucket relative to the overwhelming challenges we’ve witnessed here in Sierra Leone. At the same time, the people we met were truly making a difference, and provide the country with at least a starting point for a more sustainable relationship between development and the environment. As such, these inspirational few provide a resource for Sierra Leone that I think is invaluable in one of the world’s poorest and most environmentally stressed countries: a glimmer of hope.






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under: General, International

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