October 20, 2014

Up Close and Personal with Prof. Dan Rohlf - Sierra Leone: hope and a dose of reality

Professor Dan Rohlf recently returned from a sabbatical trip across the globe. During his travels, he found time to contribute to the “Sustainability Law” blog and reflect on the efforts and challenges of environmentalists in a variety of countries. He recently wrote an introduction to this essay on Sierra Leone describing the ebola outbreak which exploded just after his visit.

First, the reality check:

For several years, my wife Lori and I had planned to use a portion of our available time during my 2014 sabbatical to visit Sierra Leone in west Africa, where Lori had lived for two years during her service in the Peace Corps. In March, we read news accounts of an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the area not far from the village where Lori had lived. Concerned, we delayed our trip and anxiously monitored news reports as well as information released by the World Health Organization. In April, these sources indicated that the outbreak was not serious and had not spread to Sierra Leone. We therefore decided to visit the country in the first half of May. We traveled throughout the country during the two and a half weeks we were there, including the area near the border with Liberia and Guinea where the outbreak had been reported. 

We saw no signs of the virus while we were in the country. However, the country’s lack of basic infrastructure was obvious. We also had an interesting – and prescient – conversation with a young British doctor working with the staff of the largest hospital in the capital city of Freetown, who described the country’s medical system as vastly inadequate even to deal with day to day challenges under “normal” conditions. A report in the journal Science traced entry of the Ebola virus into Sierra Leone to a funeral of a victim from Liberia, at which 14 women from Sierra Leone became infected and began to spread the virus widely. The funeral took place in mid-May about 25 kilometers from Lori’s “home” village of Buedu, which we had visited only about 10 days before.    
Now, a glimmer of hope (written while Prof. Rohlf was in Sierra Leone last May):

We’ve seen many examples of environmental degradation on our travels in Sierra Leone. Hills denuded of forest cover. Land itself stripped away near major rivers by diamond mining, leaving pits filled with muddy water and hills of dirt and sifted gravel supporting nothing but stands of invasive bamboo. Burgeoning – and highly polluted – cities.

But there are few good things, too.  We visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where 98 chimps rescued from poachers, illegal traders, and even the bushmeat market receive medical care and live in comfort in large, forested enclosures.

When my wife was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1985, perhaps 20,000 chimpanzees lived in Sierra Leone. Today three quarters of that population is gone as a result of habitat destruction and direct human exploitation; perhaps 5,000 individuals still exist in isolated forest fragments and at the edges of farms and villages. A few of the fortunate refugees from this precipitous decline end up at Tacugama, where they can enjoy a semblance of their life in the wild.

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.