Gola - A view from our expert author

Gola Sierra Leone by National Tourist Board of Sierra Leone© National Tourist Board of Sierra Leone

Among one of the last pristine rainforests in Africa, this jungle is home to more than 350 bird species.

Among one of the last pristine rainforests in Africa, this jungle is home to more than 350 bird species. Parliament’s 2011 legislation that created the Gola Rainforest National Park came as a relief to conservation groups that had for years been calling for action to try to safeguard Sierra Leone’s last truly untouched patch of tropical evergreen rainforest.  Ravaged by rebel groups during the war, logged extensively between the 1960s and mid 1980s, and exploited in pursuit of the lucrative and well-established bushmeat trade with Liberia, the forest has finally earned the protected status that it has so long and so sorely needed.

Among the last pristine rainforest in west Africa, the forest was given a clean bill of health during a 2008 flyover by wildlife-lovers, when a helicopter set off from British ship HMS Endurance, which was surveying the state of conservation along the coast. This is a boon for a country with fast-disappearing forests. At the time of independence in 1961, 40% of Sierra Leone was covered with forest; today it’s 4%, and less than 1% of the land is protected. By contrast, European countries have 20% forest cover (the UK has 28%), with 11% under protection.

Gola was last logged in 1986. However, until recently the jungle still faced threats from mining companies keen to get at reserves of gold estimated to lie beneath its canopy, as well as gem-grade diamonds. Despite legal protection dating back to 1926, at least two mining companies were granted licenses between 2005 and 2007. However, those licences were later cancelled, and in February 2011 parliament created the legislation that made Gola a national park – the country’s second, after Outamba-Kilimi. The President officially opened the park at a ceremony in Lalehun in December of that year. Gola’s new status makes it illegal for anyone to harvest the forest’s timber, dig up its minerals, or poach its wildlife.

Such restrictions make winning over communities who live alongside the forest, and hunt its ever-dwindling stock of animals, even more important. The Gola Forest Programme, a partnership between the government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and CSSL, financed by the EU and FFEM, a French environmental fund, among others, has developed mechanisms to improve the livelihoods of highly impoverished communities. The European Commission and French government have both contributed around £3 million towards the project, which includes the recruitment and training of more than 100 national park staff, including forest guards and research technicians to patrol Gola’s boundaries and monitor wildlife. The RSPB and US-based group Conservation International paid approximately £1 million each into a £6 million trust fund to cover the park’s running costs and deliver community benefits to more than 100,000 local people every year in perpetuity. The hope is that responsible tourism, along with fees directed at the community, can help persuade people of the value of keeping the forest intact. Therefore, as a visitor, making the effort to visit this wilderness proves to local people that there are tangible tourism benefits to preserving their natural habitat.

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