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Sierra Leone News: Urban expansion depletes biodiversity

On a bright sunny Saturday morning, 51-year old foster mother, Mama Posseh Kamara, feeds her orphaned, baby chimpanzees milk and changes diapers. The baby chimps were rescued from poachers and dropped at the Tacaguma Chimpanzee Sanctuary, surrounded by grandiose hills and green forests. The rainforest sanctuary around the National Park just outside Freetown is the only home for orphaned chimps, birds, insects and other biodiversity species. Massive construction of houses, logging, charcoal burning and stone mining is threatening biodiversity of the park at an alarming rate. Poachers hunt them for their meat, farmers shoot them to protect their crops and a lack of political will means more and more of their habitat is being surrendered to urban development and forestry. They have their hands full at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where a record number of orphaned chimps have been delivered, victims of the relentless expansion of human activity. Over the past three months, the Tacugama Sanctuary has received seven orphaned chimps, a record number. But those figures only hint at the true scale of the slaughter, said Amarasekaran. They calculated that for every chimp they received, up to 10 others could have been killed. Over the past three or four months then, between 70 and 100 chimpanzees could have perished. Founder of the sanctuary, Bala Amarasekaran, does not mince his words. “Over the past 10 years, the environment has suffered much depletion as a result of widespread construction of houses, logging and mining with the approval of corrupt politicians and lands ministry officials,” he said. Several species of wildlife around the forest, he added, had been wiped out. The chimps’ plight echoes the core message of the WWF’s new Living Planet report, released Tuesday: that the devastation of the planet’s wildlife is mostly down to “runaway human consumption”. “Most chimps that arrive at the sanctuary are less than five years old and would still be suckling milk from their mothers,” said Mama Posseh Kamara, who acts as surrogate mother to the new arrivals at the sanctuary. “Many have lost their mothers to bush meat hunters, abandoned or illegally sold as pets,” she explained. As she spoke, she fed milk to one of her new charges, a four-month-old baby chimp, as several others climbed over her back and head. “I have been doing this job for the past 14 years,” she said. “They usually see me as their mother because I feed and clean them daily. Sometimes they even cry for me.” While they do what they can to protect the animals’ habitat, their efforts are often frustrated by the actions of local officials, said Amarasekaran. “We planted over 4,000 trees around the National Park area in Freetown,” he said. “But city planners gave it away for the construction of dwelling houses, due to lawlessness, greed and corruption. “Government should stop all human activities around our forests to protect biodiversity. If we continue to deplete our environment there will be nothing left for the future,” Bala said. “Our primary objective is to enforce the wildlife laws of Sierra Leone and provide a safe and natural haven for rescued chimpanzees,” said David Momoh Researcher and Outreach Coordinator for Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. “We have 85 chimps at the Sanctuary going through different stages in quarantine and rehabilitation and the wild,” Momoh said. He added, in most cases, chimps have been hunted as part of the illegal bush meat trade or as a result of human-wildlife conflict and their young have been sold as pets by the poachers. “Five – ten chimpanzees die for every surviving rescued chimpanzee here, because they move in a group of 20-30s, Momoh said. “Our greatest challenges are encroachers, loggers, hunters, and stone miners who destroy the forest with impunity due to weak law enforcement by the Government,” Momoh said. Joko Kamara is among the many hunters, loggers and stone miners who have been recruited from communities with the National Park area to protect the reserved forest as rangers. “I used to be a gardener and hunter but after realizing the dangers we are causing to biodiversity, we are now protecting our forest for the future generations,” Joko said. Western chimpanzees are the only critically endangered chimp subspecies. They have already been wiped out in Burkina Faso, Benin, Gambia — and possibly Togo too. According to The American Journal of Primatology, their population plunged more than 80% between 1990 and 2014. And Sierra Leone is home to about 10% of an estimated 55,000 still living in the wild. And the loss of their natural habitat is only making the situation worse. “Sierra Leone is losing a lot of forest cover, due to human activities,” the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) local representative, Nyabenyi Tito Tipo, said during her visit to the sanctuary. “Our forests need to be protected, regenerated and not depleted,” she added. But for Papanie Bai Sesay, biodiversity officer at the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, there are two problems with Sierra Leone’s current conservation laws. “We have obsolete wildlife laws, which date as far back as 1978,” he explained. But the other problem was more fundamental, he added. “Our current forest conservation laws and policies are also not enforced by authorities.” International partners, such as the US Embassy in Freetown are also helping. They are financing an agricultural project to improve crop diversity in a sustainable manner, engaging the local villages near the Tacugama Sanctuary. The US Embassy, through the Ambassador’s Special Self Help (SSH) Grants program has also begun financing an agricultural project that will improve crop diversity in a sustainable manner, engaging the local villages near the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone. Locals will be trained to develop and maintain a green house, for cultivating high-value crops such as medicinal plants, vegetables, flowers, with a goal to learn best practices and replicate this sustainable agriculture in their villages and communities in the near future according to Derrin R. Smith Counselor for Commercial & Economic Affairs at US Embassy in Freetown. But change needs to come soon, warned Amarasekaran. The Freetown National Park boasts a high level of biodiversity: large numbers of species of both plant and animal life, including snakes, birds, butterflies, chimps and other monkeys, he said. But, he added: “If we continue to deplete our environment there will be nothing left for the future.”

SB/30/10/18

By Saidu Bah

Wednesday October 31, 2018.

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