Last month, the presidents of two of the poorest countries on earth, Sierra Leone and Liberia, did something extraordinary.
They met and formally created a transboundary national park out of the best chunks of remaining lowland tropical forest in the two countries, in the hopes that conservation would bring them something that decades of resource exploitation had not — peace and prosperity.
Less than a decade ago, a brutal civil war in West Africa ground to a sputtering, tenuous halt. As wars go, this one was particularly horrific, with abuses on all sides, often involving child soldiers and the nasty habit of chopping off arms, not to kill but to frighten people into submission. “Long sleeve or short sleeve?” was the question asked before the machete came down — in other words, cut off at your elbow, or at your wrist?
The wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were ultimately about control of natural resources. It was not fought on ideology, nationalism or religion. Rather, it was about who could rob the country faster. (Timber, diamonds, and wildlife were the loot.) It was a war fought between robbers, and the ordinary folks got hurt.
I grew up in Sierra Leone. As a child, I lived deep within what is called the Upper Guinean Forest, full of black and white colobus monkeys, green monkeys, chimpanzee, antelopes and wide meandering rivers coursing with red silt into which, when disturbed, crocodiles and hippos would sink.
Two of my favorite wildlife personalities — Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough — came to Sierra Leone in the 1950s to collect wildlife and write and film the experience on behalf of the BBC. In fact, Attenborough was not even supposed to be on camera — but the “talent” caught a mysterious hemmoragic fever called Lassa Fever, and died, thrusting Attenborough into the spotlight.
Attenborough was on the search for some unique animals, like the odd bird known as the White Necked Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus), which live in West African forests, as well as one of Africa’s lest well know and perhaps most endangered big mammal — the pygmy hippo (Choeropsis liberiensis).
Attenborough found the Picathartes, and the moment is forever captured on black and white film. But of the pygmy hippo, a small hog size hippo, secretive, solitary and forest dwelling, he saw no sign.
In 2004, I returned to Sierra Leone. The war had ended a few years back and UN peacekeepers in their bright blue berets roamed the streets and manned the checkpoints. Weapons were hard to come by, and the markets normally stocked with animals that had been shot to death were often empty.
I wanted to find those of my friends who might have survived the war. But equally importantly, I wanted to find out what had happened to the wildlife that once was so abundant in this country that it drew two of the world’s best-known conservationists to the scene.
My journey through the country showed me first hand the resilience of nature – although it was terribly scarred. In pockets, around the Gola Forest, islands amidst the River Moa, and around the peak of Mount Bintumani, relatively intact habitat still existed and big animals (though rare and shy) were still present.
We even managed to find the pygmy hippo. Deep within the forest of a small island, I first saw the hippo’s distinct three-toed prints, no bigger than my hand. A few days later, we would manage to snap a photo of the strange critter – the only photo of a wild pygmy hippo ever taken.
My journey was chronicled in a BBC documentary called “Wildlife in A War Zone.” (See a clip of it above, in which we find the White Necked Picathartes.) Toward the end of it, I expressed hope that perhaps maybe this uneasy peace that had descended would stick and people would look for a different way of making a living from the forest. That instead of logging it, mining it, and fighting over it, they would use the peace to set it aside for conservation. “If there is hope here, then there is hope everywhere,” I intoned.
But I had grave doubts in my mind. Back in 2004 things were still very fragile, very raw. There were still bullet holes in the walls that still stood. The impetus to actually put my boots on and do something more, to dig in, and support nascent conservation efforts by local conservationists seemed dauntingly weak.
In his announcement declaring the 250,000 hectare tropical forest national park, the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, expressed hope that his people, still desperately poor, will derive more benefits from the forest by protecting it than pillaging it. After all, they have already amply tried the latter, so why not give conservation a chance?
What an astonishing leap of faith.
And one absolutely worth supporting. With a fragile economy and a nascent conservation department, both countries deserve all the help they can get. And that help will be relatively cheap given the magnitude of the outcome. They have taken the first step, demonstrating a true resolve towards conservation, and we need to make sure their efforts remain sustainable over the long run.
On the other side of the planet there was another breaking story: A long-running and no less brutal civil war was coming to a military end in the island nation of Sri Lanka. I was born in Sri Lanka and, though I have visited a few times, the civil war has mostly kept me, and hundreds of thousands of others, away.
Sri Lanka, like Sierra Leone, has incredible beauty and biological diversity — from elephants, sloth bears and leopards to arguably more species of frogs than almost anywhere else. Healing between the dominant ethnic group (Singhalese) and the minority Tamils will take time. Jobs will have to be created, tensions cooled and administrative infrastructure built. Perhaps by taking a page from the experience of West Africa, the government of Sri Lanka, too, will incorporate the conservation of nature into their solutions for ethnic healing and building of sustainable economies in the war- shattered parts of the country.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought what is happening in Sierra Leone and Liberia today possible. It does give hope to all the conflict regions of the world emerging from their long nightmares.
And it shows why we conservationists should not write off these regions of the world, either. Our work needs to start somewhere and at some point — it might as well start now. Today is, after all, today 10 years from now.
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Tags: antelope Africa, BBC Sanjayan, chimpanzee, colobus monkey, conservation peace, David Attenborough Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, Gerrald Durrell Sierra Leone, Gola Forest, green monkey, Lassa fever, Liberia, Mount Bintumani, New Scientist pygmy hippo, poverty, pygmy hippo, River Moa, Sanjayan, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Liberia park, sloth bear, Sri Lanka civil war, Sri Lanka frog, Upper Guinean Forest, West Africa conservation, white necked picathates, Wildlife in a War Zone