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Destruction of wildlife in Sierra Leone does not bode well for tourism and ecosystem – a special report

The Sierra Leone Government’s much hyped quest to promote tourism in the country has been dealt a major blow, after two leopards were killed by bushmeat hunting villagers in Kabala, Koinadugu District in Northern Sierra Leone. This is the first-time leopards have been seen in the region for almost 100 years.

One of the dead leopards that was photographed appears to have been pregnant, adding to the mindless destruction of what is a national treasure. A thorough investigative work has confirmed that, indeed, two leopards were killed.

This barbaric attitude towards wildlife has to be dealt with in order to preserve what is left of the fast-dwindling nature reserves of the country – especially at this point in time, when environmental degradation has become a major concern for the world.

The Minister for Tourism, Memunatu Pratt, who is working hard to secure European and Asian investment has taken her eyes off educating the country about the need to protect biodiversity.

When she comes back with European and Asian investment, there will be nothing left for tourists to see in the country. She has been signing Memoranda of Understanding for tourism projects with international organisations, but she has failed to launch a national campaign to highlight the urgent need to preserve and protect the wildlife of the country. It is inconceivable that those in authority are turning a blind eye to such obliteration – but they certainly do.

Photo: Sierra Leone Minister for Tourism, Memunatu Pratt (in yellow dress).

The minister has just returned from the International and French Tourism Market (IFTM) Top Resa Exhibition in Porte de Versailles, Paris, France, where she has been marketing investment opportunities for tourism – while wildlife vandals are destroying whatever little is left to show tourists.

Asked what her impressions were of the Paris exhibition, the minister responded: “It looks interesting … We are promoting tourism, but we also need investments.  We want investments to support the tourism sector”.

You cannot promote tourism with dead leopards. No foreign investor or country would invest their nationals’ pension funds in a failing system that overlooks this asinine annihilation of the very attractions that bring foreign visitors into the country.

Sierra Leone has some of the rarest fauna and flora, with new discoveries made every few years, but these are being systemically destroyed to an extent beyond comprehension.

The pygmy hippopotamus (Hexaprotodon liberiensis), for example, is a miniature hippopotamid found in the Gola Forests of Sierra Leone. It is now classed as critically endangered in the country after the bushmeat trade and deforestation have dangerously depleted its numbers.

In Sierra Leone, people (especially those living in larger towns and cities) pay a premium price for bushmeat. This serves as fuel for the continued and relentless exploitation of wildlife. City criminals have also taken advantage of the situation and have started selling dog meat disguised as bushmeat on the streets.

Those who travel on the highway to provincial towns are often greeted by village hunters selling dead animals and birds – endangered species – by the roadside. The reason the government has turned a blind eye to this practice is that they do not want to upset their supporters. This is absolute madness, to say the least.

A further contributing factor to the fast-disappearing wildlife of Sierra Leone is state-sponsored logging, which has destabilised wildlife habitats and decimated their populations.

On one of our field visits to Eastern Sierra Leone, we came across a 45ft-truck full of red ironwood and other valuable timber heading towards the Guinea border. This practice has caused habitat loss for rare white-necked rockfowls (Picathartes), which are now classed as vulnerable. Picathartes are regarded as some of Africa’s most prized birds, and they have become flagbearers for eco-tourism wherever they are found. They could bring much-needed income to impoverished communities – if only the government had the political conviction to educate people about their preservation.

The money received from logging is a pittance, and it is incomparable to the damage caused not only to the environment but also to the lives of people. The 2017 landslide that killed over a thousand people on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Freetown is a direct result of logging and land degradation.

Further along the coast from Sugar Loaf Mountain is the No. 2 River, a place where coveted seawater crocodiles are found. The mangrove is also home to green monkeys that have come under sustained exploitation by bushmeat hunters. The river leads to a rocky foot of the mountain beneath Guma Valley, where it abruptly stops and swallows a rushing spring from the hills.

New plant species from the Podostemaceae family are often found in such places in the country. Even here, land clearance, illegal logging and charcoal production have brutally subdued the habitat. Now you will be lucky to see any saltwater crocodiles or green monkeys. In my short, I did not see a single one.

This irresponsible encroachment is killing the whole environment, and it is mind-blowing that the tourism minister is still myopic about this.

During my expedition, I got off the boat and walked along the riverbank, where I found a pair of Pandanus candelabrum trees. Incredibly, this is just under an hour’s drive from the city of Freetown.

Pandanus (Photo below) is very common and widely used in Asia but very uncommon in Sierra Leone. I asked a local guide what it was called but he did not know – he had never seen one before. There are several species of these, and in Asia they are used for food or as raw material for clothing, basket weaving and shelter. In fact, they are called the ‘vanilla of Asia’, as they are used to flavour drinks.

This is the sort of thing that the tourism minister could help the youths to grow and derive income from, so that they could leave the eco-system and the wildlife alone. But unemployed young people are instead being used as entertainers in raffia skirts in a desperate bid to ‘promote’ tourism.

Promoting tourism with young men and women in raffia skirts dancing on stage is pathetic and anachronistic, and it adds no value to tourism in the country. It only upholds a stereotypical image and the long-held portrayal of native people as uncivilised. The young men and women who are dancing in raffia skirts to attract tourists are the same people who are using the forests as hunting grounds for bushmeat. They are the same people who are involved in illegal logging, destroying the very habitat that is supposed to sustain them.

Attending international tourism exhibitions with these groups of dancers won’t add any value to the tourism industry whatsoever. Let us educate the people not to kill and eat leopards and picathartes; let us leave the wildlife alone and it will sell itself in terms of eco-tourism. As informed Sierra Leoneans, led by the Minister for Tourism, part of our responsibility is to educate the people about the value of preserving the environment. For example, in places such as Turtle Island, sea turtles that used to breed there no longer come; they are hunted for their meat and eggs. Even stranded whales on the sandy beaches of Freetown are killed for their meat by locals and fishermen. This has to stop.

In our development work with local communities in some parts of Sierra Leone, we have come across some of the last remaining forests with beautiful plants. This is Ptychopetalum anceps (Photo below), found in forests in Eastern Sierra Leone. Kew Gardens in London has been very kind by helping to identify these plants for us. But even these exquisite little forests are disappearing fast.

Even a recent rediscovery of indigenous black coffee trees (Coffea stenophylla) in the hills of Southern Sierra Leone – by Kew Gardens on an expedition funded by the Darwin Initiative – has triggered no urgency for conservation efforts by the state. This native black coffee is said to be better than the widely used Arabica.

The Sierra Leone authorities have always spoken about modelling their national tourism industry on that of The Gambia. But what they fail to realise is that the government of The Gambia educated its people way back in the 1980s. Killing a bird in The Gambia is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. The explosive birdlife you see today in The Gambia is the result of that sensitisation – today. The Gambia has a diversity of birds unrivalled by any other West African Country. This draws a large number of European tourists to the country. The Gambia also has a wonderfully protected angling haven, which draws thousands of eco-tourists to the country. Well over 70,000 tourists from the UK alone, visit The Gambia every year. But even larger numbers of tourists to The Gambia come from Scandinavian countries.

In The Gambia, historic buildings and sites are also maintained and protected, whereas in Sierra Leone, historic buildings such as the house that was used as the birthplace of the oldest modern university in Africa stands in ruin in central Freetown. (Photo below: On the Ministry of Tourism website, this is what is misleadingly advertised).

In reality, this is what the building looks like today (Photo below), taken just a few days ago; the roof is gone, the Victorian facade is gone, and the doors and windows have all been removed by vandals.

Those with foresight would say: ‘Let us rehabilitate this building and turn it into a museum, an art gallery and a restaurant’. This is where you should exclusively serve Coffea stenophylla! There is enough room to fit all these in, but it has been turned into an al fresco toilet; people using it for sanitation purposes in broad daylight.

There is not a single national art gallery in the whole country for skilled artists to exhibit their work. I sometimes wonder what planet we are living on. That such a building could be left to rot underlines our approach to decision-making.

The Parliamentary Chairman of the Tourism Committee, Mohamed Sheriff Rahman Coker MP, recently said that the country can only attract tourists when the government creates an enabling environment and passes appropriate laws. This is pure rhetoric for the cameras… because the next time he visits up-line (up-country), I predict he will be chomping bushmeat and whispering, ‘To hell with conservation and eco-tourism!’

For those who travel up-line for this ‘delicacy’, the next bushmeat you buy by the side of the road in rural Sierra Leone could be the last leopard in the country. Bon apetito!


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