26/09/2016
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Threatened African rainforest declared a National Park

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White-necked Rockfowl is unique to the west African rainforests, and is part of an ancient lineage with few living representatives. Photo: Michael Andersen (commons.wikimedia.org).
White-necked Rockfowl is unique to the west African rainforests, and is part of an ancient lineage with few living representatives. Photo: Michael Andersen (commons.wikimedia.org).
The West African Gola National Forest – which teems with threatened wildlife and is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area – has been fully protected by the Liberian government.

The park is one of the last strongholds of the Guinean forest habitat, a moist forest eco-region that once covered West Africa like a blanket from Guinea to Togo but which has shrunk by 70 per cent over 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 Guinean forest, has been severely threatened by 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, Gola Forest was officially declared a National Park this month, providing protection and security to this internationally-recognised biodiversity hot-spot.

Gola Forest NP will connect with Sierra Leone’s similarly-named Gola Rainforest NP, which was established in 2011, effectively creating a trans-boundary ‘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 trans-boundary 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 and 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-eared Greenbul, Western Wattled Cuckoo-shrike and Yellow-casqued Hornbill. Perhaps the most recognisable and charismatic of the IBA’s Vulnerable species is White-necked Rockfowl (aka White-necked Picathartes), a large passerine form an ancient lineage and whose unusual looks have given it the alternative name ‘bald-headed crow’, and is a symbol for ecotourism in the area.

The declaration of Gola Forest NP is also welcome news for the area’s incredible megafauna such as African Bush Elephant, Chimpanzee (both classified as Endangered) and Pygmy Hippopotamus (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 dragonflies and damselflies, three butterflies and one frog species.

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