- Written by Wynfred Russell, Contributing Writer
- Published: 15 January 2014
Liberia makes international news headlines for many things but not for its wildlife or nature reserves, despite being endowed with some of the most distinctive animal species in the world. While many other African countries generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from eco-tourism and watching wild animals like elephants, lions, monkeys, and deer roam freely in the wild, such sightings are rare in Liberia. Well, except, in the markets, roadside stands, or on the lunch menu of cook shops.
Bushmeat is consumed on a vast scale in this small post-conflict nation, located on the bulge of West Africa, according to the Washington, DC-based Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. True, it is a major source of protein, but for many Liberians, bushmeat is more of a delicacy. The issue is how to get people to view wild animals as a finite source of meat that will run out sooner than later. Indeed, if it is not managed properly, many diverse animal species could become extinct. This will have a long-term negative affect on the ecosystem, and even deny scores of rural people a livelihood in the more immediate term. Also, future generations may lose the opportunity to see pygmy hippopotamus, monkey, zebra-backed duiker, or the secretive Liberian mongoose. All endemic to Liberia and all on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Liberia’s rivers are home to crocodiles, water buffaloes, and several varieties of fish. Its coastal waters and mangrove swamps support engendered manatees and sea turtles. The abundant animal life, once plentiful throughout the country, is disappearing fast. Approximately 20 of the country’s mammal species and 10 bird species are threatened or endangered, reports IUCN. Two national parks and several wildlife refuges have been set up to conserve Liberia’s biodiversity. However, the government needs to do more to create awareness and develop policies to facilitate the drafting of a comprehensive Wildlife Law.
The country’s tropical rainforest form the largest segment of the Upper Guinean Forest that spans the West African coast, from Guinea to Togo. A mixed forest is the predominant vegetation of the northern highlands which is an important forest system that is rich in endemic and rare species. “Diana monkeys, chimpanzees and other endangered species rely on this forest landscape for their survival. Unfortunately, it is at risk from extreme and immediate threats, such as slash-and-burn agricultural expansion, and mining,” declares Flora & Fauna International.
Liberia’s coast is flat and characterized by wetlands, creeks and tidal lagoons which are fringed with mangrove trees. This makes the country a fertile breeding ground of a complex but gorgeous ecology with an abundance of flora and fauna. Protecting wildlife and forest ecosystems played an important role in my formative years and helped shaped my worldview. Born in Upper Caldwell, Monterrado County, along the west bank of the St. Paul River, and raised in Ganta, Nimba County, the rivers, marshlands, and forests were where I learned life-long lessons in the value of sustainability and environmental stewardship. We had to protect these systems because they were the only playgrounds we had.
As a freshman at the University of Liberia, I served as the secretary of the Board of the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL), the nation’s oldest and most prestigious private environmental conservation group. That passion for conservation and environmentalism has once again been rekindled after returning to Liberia last year and seeing how wild animals are being slaughtered by the thousands, causing what the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force described as “widespread local extinctions.” The group noted that the expansion of logging is exacerbating the problem because commercial loggers provide “infrastructure of roads and access to commercial hunters and can lead to wildlife populations’ decline.”
A decade old public opinion survey conducted by Reg Hoyt, who was then Senior Vice President of Conservation and Science at the Philadelphia Zoo, found that bushmeat ranked second behind fish among Monrovians as a preferred source of protein. Of households where bushmeat was served, 80% of residents said they cooked it “once in a while,” while 13% cooked it once a week and 7% cooked it daily.
The survey was commissioned to determine the current economic value of Liberia's “forest and wildlife, perceived threats, and specifics of the bushmeat trade from the consumers.” More than 2,000 people were interviewed and markets across the country were visited, said Hoyt. It was conducted during the civil war; therefore, security risks and war-related dangers and transport of goods limited the bushmeat trade. Now that Liberia is celebrating 10 years of peace, the amount of animals killed and over-harvested for bushmeat sale and export could be exponentially higher, researchers believe.
Nevertheless, any campaign to stop people from killing endangered species and trading in bushmeat is likely to receive severe public pushback. This is because the extreme rate of poverty and people’s reliance on bushmeat as a cheap source for protein and income complicate the problem. So, there have to be realistic alternatives to help reverse the downward spiral. One solution is wildlife farming. There are efforts underway in Grand Bassa County by one creative Liberian entrepreneur to begin raising groundhogs for sale. Even though it is not on the endangered species list, it is a great start and could lead to more people farming other wild animals.
More importantly, addressing the bushmeat problem lies in creating economic alternatives within communities where bushmeat plays a strong role in sustaining livelihoods. This is why I support proposals of many conservation groups urging the government to develop policies that “integrate community, conservation efforts, and commercial interests.” Through the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the government of Liberia should introduce community-based management of natural resources to promote eco-tourism. It should establish benefits agreements with communities on the periphery of national parks for preserving wildlife habitats and ceasing hunting of wild animals.
Moreover, the FDA should set up livelihood projects as alternatives to hunting and trafficking endangered animals. It should promote vegetable production such as beans and nuts and domestic animal husbandry as protein sources. Farming and harvesting land snails are viable options as well.
Like many issues in Liberia, money is often not the problem, political will is. Sadly, wildlife protection and forest conservation seem to be absent from the government’s list of important priorities. What is the state of Liberia’s endangered species regime? The country is due for an urgent wildlife survey. The new FDA management should immediately conduct a wildlife census to determine new endangered species and assess the status of animals that were put on the list many years ago. This will greatly help with the conservation efforts. To do conservation well, we need good data. This includes good understanding of the places and species involved, and also of the wider social, economic and political contexts.
Wynfred Russell, Contributing Writer
When people think of wildlife and any African country automatically their minds go to the safari adventures in Kenya, South Africa or serengeti plains in Tanzania popularized in the media. However, safaris are not common across the whole African continent. The safaris are only found in East and Southern Africa. West and North African countries have their own unique forests (forest is physically and completely different from jungles), deserts and geographies that are as different from East Africa as night is varies from day.