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In eastern Liberia, efforts are underway to formally demarcate the boundaries of Sapo National Park, the largest tract of protected rainforest in the country and one of the most important in West Africa. Sapo is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems of plant and animal life in the world, including the threatened African forest elephant and the elusive pygmy hippopotamus.
Conservation groups and Liberian government officials hope that by including rural Liberian farming communities in the demarcation, they will be able to cut down on illicit hunting and other illegal activities inside the park.
More than 40% of Africa’s remaining upper Guinean tropical rainforest lies in Liberia. Sapo was first established as a park in 1983, home to towering ekki (red ironwood) trees that loom 30 meters (100 feet) tall or higher within a biodiversity hotspot that contains nearly a thousand bird and mammal species. The park was later expanded from 1,308 to 1,804 square kilometers (505 to 697 square miles) by the Liberian legislature in 2003, an increase of 37 percent.
But that expansion has been controversial, with communities living adjacent to the park saying they weren’t consulted about the law that created it, which was passed just months after Liberia’s civil war ended. Tension between some of those communities and the agencies tasked with managing the park have been a recurring feature of Sapo’s recent history.
After the war, Sapo was infamously occupied by armed former combatants attracted by the prospect of quick cash from illegal gold mining and the bushmeat trade, requiring a U.N.-led operation to clear it out in 2005. But by 2017, mining and hunting camps had once again sprung up inside the park. During a patrol inside the park in April that year, one park ranger was killed and others were badly beaten by an angry mob that allegedly included members of nearby communities.
In the wake of the incident, seven suspects from those communities were jailed, but later released in order to de-escalate tensions in the area. Officials from Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and conservation groups say the ranger’s death marked a turning point in the relationship between local communities and the park’s managers.
“The confusion that led to the rioting was discussed in a big meeting, and community representatives asked the FDA to do better engagement with communities,” said Evangeline Swope, who heads the agency’s protected areas division.
Like in other protected parks in Africa, poverty in the communities that surround Sapo is a threat to the park and its wildlife. Hunting and mining provide desperately needed income for members of communities located near the park, many of whom trace their histories to long before the Liberian state existed. Post-war sensitivities in Liberia mean that FDA rangers are not equipped with firearms, unlike their counterparts in many other parks on the continent. Tensions surrounding policing inside the park can be dangerous for those rangers.
According to Annika Hillers, country director of the Liberian branch of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), after the 2017 clash there was a shift in how the FDA and its partners approached communities near the park. She said these changes were based on feedback shared in a large meeting held to address the ranger’s murder. In that meeting, which she attended along with senior government officials and other conservation organizations, community representatives expressed a desire to be incorporated into the management of Sapo.
“One request was to set up ‘community watch teams’ where community members would control access points to the national park and block other community members who want to bring food to the miners,” Hillers said.
Members of these community watch teams are now spread out across 10 key access points into the park and are paid $50 per month to help prevent hunting and mining. According to the FDA, as of late 2018 Sapo has been free of mining and hunting camps. Hillers says that research commissioned by WCF indicates that the inclusion of community members in the administrative structure of the park has paid off.
“Generally, the perception was quite positive,” she said. “It had changed since the conflict, because people felt that they are much more involved and that FDA and partners are making much more of an effort for consultation and collaboration.”
But she adds that the teams have not entirely stopped poaching inside Sapo. In January 2019, the corpses of four forest elephants were discovered and there were indications that members of a watch team may have played a role in their deaths. One member was subsequently arrested and later released due to lack of evidence The incident highlighted the difficulty of maintaining the park’s integrity in the midst of low government capacity and widespread poverty.
“The community members knew about it, rangers knew about it, the community watch teams knew about it, but nobody actually revealed it,” Hillers said.
Still, Swope of the FDA says improved relations between the FDA and communities in recent years have paved the way for the long-overdue boundary demarcation to take place.
She acknowledges those boundaries were drawn up unilaterally by the national government, but says for the most part they are located miles away from any physical settlements. In December, Swope and other FDA officials visited the region and held a series of meetings to sketch out how the demarcation process will look like and what role community representatives will play.
The initial “flagging” phase of that process commenced this month.
“Communities are aware that hunting inside the park is illegal,” Swope said. “They always claim they don’t know the exact boundary line, so that’s why the flagging will take some community members to the park with technicians from the FDA to identify the sites jointly. After that the physical demarcation will take place.”