23 Sep 2016

Threatened African rainforest teeming with unique life declared a National Park

White-necked Picathartes
White-necked Picathartes © Michael Andersen
By Alex Dale

It is one of the last strongholds of the Guinean Forest, a moist forest eco-region that once covered West Africa like a blanket from Guinea to Togo, but has shrunk by 70% over the last several centuries due to human activities in the region.

It offers vital resources to the communities who live on the forest edges, and harbours an impressive array of animal and plant life both big and small, many of which are endemic, and are now threatened by the fragmentation of their forest habitats.

But the future of Liberia’s Gola National Forest, a large block of evergreen and semi-deciduous rainforest that stretches into neighbouring Sierra Leone, was, until now, far from secure. This vital area, which forms part of the largest remnants of the Guinean Forest, has been severely threatened by a number of factors, such as mining and quarrying, charcoal production and bushmeat hunting.

However, thanks to many years of tireless work from Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia (SCNL, BirdLife Partner), Gola Forest was officially declared a National Park on September 22, providing protection and security to this internationally-recognised biodiversity hotspot.

Gola Forest National Park will connect with Sierra Leone’s similarly-named Gola Rainforest National Park, which was established in 2011, effectively creating a transboundary ‘peace park’ which covers over 395,000 acres of protected land. Two decades ago, the sounds of gunshots were commonplace in this area with Liberia in a state of civil war and high tensions in Sierra Leone; now the transboundary forest is a symbol of peace and dedication of the countries’ governments to nature conservation.

The area has previously been recognised by BirdLife as an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA), with over 300 species recorded, including species which transcend the countries’ international border. The Lofa-Gola-Mano Complex IBA is home to numerous species categorised by BirdLife for the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable, including Yellow-beared Greenbul Criniger olivaceus; Western Wattled Cuckooshrike Campephaga lobata; and Yellow-casqued Hornbill Ceratogymna elata. Perhaps the most recognisable and charismatic of the IBA’s Vulnerable species is White-necked Picathartes Picathartes gymnocephalus, a large passerine whose unusual looks have gifted it the alternative name ‘bald-headed crow’, and is a symbol for ecotourism in the area.

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The declaration of Gola Forest National Park is also welcome news for the area’s incredible megafauna, such as African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, common chimpanzee Pan troglodytes (both classified as Endangered), and pygmy hippopotamus Choeropsis liberiensis (listed as Vulnerable).

However, it could be argued that the newly-formed park’s most interesting inhabitants are actually its smallest; recent surveys into the area have revealed several species new to science, including six dragonfly and damselfly species, three butterfly species and one frog species.

With less than three percent of Africa’s remaining forests officially protected, it is possible many other animal species will be lost before we even get a chance to discover them. The formation of this new transboundary park, right in the heart of West Africa, is a huge step in the right direction.