My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
While staying in the Kongba region in north-west Liberia to see our Golama project (which I described in my previous blog), we could walk into the forest to watch fabulous West African birds including the endemic Gola Malimbe (pictured).
But, while enjoying the huge variety of life that the rainforests offer it is impossible to ignore the connections to home when you see swifts flying above the canopy while sitting on the veranda of the field station.
Over the past few years a number of organisations across Europe have been tracking a variety of ‘summer’ migrants and our understanding of their migratory routes is growing. From the 2014 State of UK Birds report* we also know that the group of migrant birds that are in most trouble in the UK are those that winter in the humid zone of West Africa.
As well as swifts, the Upper Guinea forest is clearly important for a range of migratory birds many of which are declining. For example, one pied flycatcher (a species that has declined by 50% since 1970) tracked by my colleague Malcolm Burgess was found to winter very near Gola. A hunter turned birder from the local community who works for our partner Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SNCL) on the Golama project told me that he has also seen wood warblers in and around the forest.
So, while the RSPB believes that we have a role in helping local BirdLife Partners to conserve globally important species such as Gola Malimbe, as a UK based charity, we have a responsibility to take action to stop the decline in migratory birds. The Liberian and Sierra Leone birders I spoke to were supportive of our flyways work – after all, this is nature we share.
My trip to the region has been hugely instructive and it has been great to see RSPB colleagues staff from BirdLife partners working together and having such a big impact.
When asked about our future plans, I confirmed that the RSPB is committed to the region for the long term.
We plan to build a strong network of BirdLife partners across the flyway to help recover threatened migratory birds and progress has already been made by establishing the East Atlantic Flyway Initiative.
We will continue to support our BirdLife partners (the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia and Conservation Society of Sierra Leone), to turn the Greater Gola Landscape vision into reality. This means protecting half a million hectares forest through well managed national parks and sustainable management of the connecting areas - delivering Professor Sir John Lawton’s more, bigger, better and connected protected areas mantra on a massive scale.
For this to be successful, we must provide sustainable livelihoods for the forest communities by continuing to help them grow more food and generate income through wildlife-friendly farming businesses such as cocoa. I am sure that UK consumers would be delighted if we can make the Gola chocolate brand a success.
And, perhaps most important, we need to find a way to finance this operation in the long term. Much of what has been achieved to date has been through donors (especially the European Union grants that have supported Gola for many years) and the generosity of RSPB members that have allowed us to sustain our support in the region.
While we continue to believe that it will be possible to access carbon finance on both sides of the border (for example through our partnership with Climate Care), I am convinced that European Governments that are keen to support forest protection could do more to make their donor money work harder. This is particularly important given that Brexit creates uncertainty about whether it will be possible for UK based charities who have links to the region, such as the RSPB, to access future EU funds.
In 2010, the nations of the world agreed to halt biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. That deadline is fast approaching. My hope is that Sierra Leone and Liberia will, in 2020, be able to announce to the world that they have established and secured long term sustainable finance for the management of the Greater Gola Landscape. And that European governments, including the UK, can say that they played their part.
This would be a fabulous message to send to the rest of the world – that it is possible to improve people’s lives and protect our shared nature.
*State of UK Birds 2014 was produced by RSPB, BTO, WWT, JNCC, NE, NIEA, NRW and SNH
Great stuff from the RSPB. It is so vital to take this holistic or broad view is taken,as you are doing and as Martin describes here. The preservation of habitats in West Africa is really just as important to our European migrant birds as maintaining their habitats in Europe. It is therefore vital that, as far as it is possible, Brexit is ignored and that working with the rest of Europe is continued at a high level, including financially, in order to keep our migrants flying to and from Europe and Africa far into the future.