Blog by Benjamin Barca, Technical Advisor Research, RSPB/Gola Rainforest National Park

At Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) we sometimes like to say “Gola never rests”. That is the harsh yet rewarding reality of things for those of us working here in the forests of the eastern province of Sierra Leone - a country, I recently found out, that can call itself the roundest (geometrically) on Earth.  

Most days the GRNP HQ in Kenema is a bustling hive of activity, mud smothered vehicles coughing their way to and from the field, motorbikes whizzing through, rangers taking selfies in their freshly ironed uniforms before heading to the field. Things here in the GRNP Research and Monitoring department are not very different and 2017 has been a jam-packed year, filled with fieldwork, trainings, collaborations and inter-departmental activities.

A year in the forest

The year started with the completion of the camera trapping baseline survey and the training of a new cohort of community youth conservation volunteers that provided us with extra hands to collect invaluable data on pygmy hippos in the community forest. In February we said our goodbyes to Mark Hulme, who for the last 4 years had been hard at work on a Darwin funded conservation and cocoa research project here at Gola.

Photo: Visiting Foya Forest Reserve, Liberia

A quick visit to Liberia in April lead me to discover the incredible inselberg wonderland that is Foya Forest Reserve, where we conducted a rapid biodiversity assessment with colleagues from the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL). In May we entered the hottest month of the year and had work extra hours to complete our transects to estimate the resident populations of our many endemic and endangered primate species before the arrival of the rains.

Surveys showed promising results with a likely increase in the population of the Endangered Western Red Colobus Procolobus badius, a forest specialist species that has been declining across West Africa. Encouraged by these results we managed to get some funding for Mr. Brima Sheku Turay, Superintendent of the R&M Department, to participate in the first Red Colobus Action Plan meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in July (look at that smile as he poses with Dr. Mittermeier, one of the foremost primate conservationists in the world).

Photo:  A smiley Mr Brima Sheku Turay, Superintendent of the R&M Department (left) with Dr Mittermeier (right), one of the foremost primate conservationists in the world

August and September saw relentless rains flooding the streets and thunderstorms shaking the ground as we waited for the rainy season to subdue and for field activities to recommence. Here in the east we were lucky compared to our brothers and sisters in Freetown who suffered the worst mudslide in Sierra Leone’s history. Our partners from the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone worked inexorably to try and bring help to the victims of the mudslide and are still accepting donations to help them in their persistent endeavours.

Pangolin encounter

In September I was lucky enough to have my first encounter with the most trafficked animal in the world, the pangolin. Every year tens of thousands of pangolins are smuggled from West and Central Africa to Asia to feed a never satiated illegal demand that to this day sees no rest. The white-bellied pangolin Phataginus tricuspis was rescued in Kenema by members of the R&M department and less than 24hrs after the animal was handed over to us, after a bumpy ride in a padded cardboard box, we released the now dizzy pangolin deep into the National Park. After refusing to uncurl from its foetal ball position for some time, rightly cautious and slightly irked it began exploring its surroundings. Finally, it unhurriedly found itself a hollow tree to curl back up in for the day, waiting for darkness to fall before venturing out to explore its new surroundings, and if lucky to slurp up an ants’ nest or two...

Photo: Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world

Dung sampling protocols training

Just last month we were back in the field with members from the GRNP ranger team and with trainees from the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA). The objective? Finding fresh forest elephant dung inside Gola Rainforest National Park and training the staff present in dung sampling protocols. As the trade in elephant ivory sees no respite an effort lead by Dr Sam Wasser at the Center for Conservation Biology has been collating data from around the African continent to build a genetic geo-referenced database of elephants to be able to pinpoint the provenance of confiscated ivory.

A gap in the data was identified in Sierra Leone, thus the call for GRNP to lead a national level training and data collection effort across various National Parks in the country with the support of the NPAA. So far seven samples have been collected in GRNP and another nine in Outamba-Kilimi National Park in the north-west of the country. Most of these are in my kitchen fridge at the moment…keeping my Italian cheeses and salami company!

Photo: Dung sampling protocols training

A truly interesting year

All in all it has been an exciting and interesting year. Other highlights include the release of a critically endangered slender snouted crocodile, stumbling into a colony of roosting straw-coloured fruit bats and training with RSPB sabbaticals on endangered Gola malimbes resulting in a close encounter with a Gaboon viper...and the year is not over yet.

We are remeasuring our carbon stocks, don’t forget you can buy carbon credits and help to protect the Gola Rainforest with every purchase! We also have many external researchers from various institutions and universities coming to visit us, always an exciting time for my staff to learn new survey techniques, increase their skill set and meet some eccentric characters from abroad!

Finally, in December we will be meeting with stakeholders from across West Africa in Monrovia for the Regional Western Chimpanzee Action Planning Process and Workshop. This will be a stimulating chance to share experiences with colleagues and plan the next steps for the conservation of this Critically Endangered sub-species of chimpanzee. For someone like me, who grew up reading Curious George, devouring any monkey book I could get my hands on, and surrounding myself with furry primates, this can only be the fulfilment of a lifelong monkey obsession.

Photo: straw-coloured fruit bats