CALGARY ZOO CONSERVATION OUTREACH in WEST AFRICA:
The Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary and Beyond
March, April & May, 2010
31st May, 2010
Greetings as usual from West Africa! I just spent seven weeks in Liberia moving forward our community forestry pilot programs. The experience was a lot of things but most of all it was lonely. In fact, I am not sure if there is a lonelier place on earth. So many people seem to have gone numb due to the war, and they are able to inflict cruelty on one another without flinching, or even noticing. I guess that people have witnessed so many atrocities that the small hurts don't register.
The work in the field did go very well however, and I have now become a tree crops expert! - well, not exactly an expert, but I have sat through two training programs for agro-forestry farmers and have written a training manual for future reference. We were able to put 120 people through a two separate 3-day training programs including education about pest control; how to establish a nursery; planting, spacing, and harvesting techniques; and farm management skills training.
The idea is not that we want to replace the natural rain forest for coffee, cocoa, oil palm and rubber plantations, however we are interested in maintaining tree cover as a buffer zone for natural forest. With the other livelihood strategy being shifting agriculture (rice and cassava), economic tree plantations are a positive bridge between conservation objectives and development objectives.
The Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary is never left out of my dispatches, and this reporting period will be no different. In March, a team came to spray for tsetse fly eradication along the length of the Black Volta River. As a tribute to our conservation efforts, the Hippo Sanctuary was selected as a control monitoring site due to the health of her riverine rainforest habitat. The team claimed that, after much surveying, Wechiau was the healthiest stretch along the entire river! Our head tour guide, Agba Tungbani, was able to further strengthen his field research skills by performing the post-spraying insect sampling and monitoring with the team.
At the end of May, some of my family members from England came for a 10-day Ghana adventure. The adventure started before they had even set foot on Ghanaian soil though, as their carrier went bankrupt (Ghana Airways) and there was a mad scramble to get a replacement flight with only 24-hours left to departure time!
We did so many things and explored many parts of the country. We were able to experience both cultural and environmental aspects of Ghana. Though the weather was hot in the extreme during their entire stay (40° to 50°C!!!), they met every challenge and new experience like troopers. At 79 years, my Uncle Mike stole the show and was praised by all at a welcoming ceremony held at the Hippo Sanctuary. Laden down with new gifts of heavy-woven traditional smocks, the four of them could only be left to wonder at how they could be expected to wear such heavy items in our scorching temperatures.
While at Wechiau, they enjoyed cultural performances and tours, a visit with the paramount chief, and the warm breezes coming from my floor fan in the kitchen! Beyond Wechiau, we also visited a slave castle, a rain forest canopy walkway, a monkey sanctuary, a community owned and operated butterfly garden and, of course, a visit to the home of the African elephant. We set out on foot through rugged and flooded savannah lands in search of the world's largest land mammal and were ultimately rewarded by the sighting of several females at close range. The trumpeting matriarch reminded us to keep our distance.
I had a wonderful, unexpected day recently that describes Ghana to a tee, and is the reason why I love living here. My driver and I set out for Accra on our 10 hour drive from the Hippo Sanctuary at 4:30am. Unfortunately, I couldn't get far into my overland expedition (actually not even into my courtyard) since the sky had opened and the rain was pelting down. We finally got underway at 7am (so much for the alpine start), and were only on the road for an hour when the vehicle broke down along an abandoned stretch of highway.
After getting water from nearby farmers (who shared what they had brought to the farm in a plastic container), we were able to re-fill the radiator. Re-starting the vehicle remained elusive though and, as we languished by the roadside, many people stopped to help us push-start the truck. All efforts were for not. Finally we tied the pick up to a huge lorry with a length of rope and went off, careening and swerving a path to the nearest town.
'Major repairs' being the report from the local mechanic, I left most of my money with them and beat a hasty retreat to public transport, thereby leaving my driver to settle the dust and bring the vehicle to Accra… eventually - 7 days later! Fortunately, there was a funeral in town and many vehicles were around. We stopped a man driving a pick up who set me in the front seat and gave me a free ride all the way to Kumasi, about 7 hours away.
This kind fellow also happened to be an off-duty mini-bus driver and so, from Kumasi, placed me into the cheapest public transport going to Accra: 23 passengers in a Benz 'bus' that we had to push start to get out of the bus yard, with wobbly seats, leaky windows, and a raucously loud, x-rated video entertainment.
I arrived at my happy little house in Accra at 2am, where it was still raining! It had been an epic journey and a very nice day at the same time!
Donna J. Sheppard
Conservation Outreach, Calgary Zoo; In collaboration with the Nature Conservation Research Centre & the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary
Donna J. Sheppard, Monthly Updates 2010;
CZOO Conservation Outreach in West Africa: The Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary & Beyond