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.
“On behalf of the President... For the people of Liberia I officially launch the Grebo-Krahn and Gola Forest National Parks... These Parks are now officially open!”
With these words from Honourable Prince Tokpa, Chair of the Liberian Lower House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, two new national parks were launched yesterday. The second now connects to Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone protecting c160,000 hectares of the Upper Guinea forest - one of the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world and home to 60 species of global conservation concern including White-necked Picathartes and Gola Malimbe (pictured below).
Yesterday's launch was the culmination of a long campaign led by the brilliant Michael Garbo (pictured below), Executive Director of Society for National Conservation of Liberia (our BirdLife Partner, who the RSPB has supported for many years). Liberia is committed to protecting one million hectares of forest and yesterday's launch was a great step forward towards that goal.
My colleague Emily Woodfield, Head of the RSPB’s Tropical Forest Unit, is currently in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and sent me through a few images and quotes from the launch including from Michael who said,
“Today will go down in history and will always be remembered as the day the People of Gbarpolu and Grand Cape Mount Counties extended a hand of partnership to the Forest Development Authority to safeguard the National Park for the future and benefit of the people of Liberia and the world at large.
We recognise that today would not have been successful without the support of our partners (RSPB, Birdlife, Rainforest Trust, USAID, EU, World Bank and other international and local NGOs), we appreciate your efforts and ask you to please do more along with us to foster the partnership.”
My message to Michael is that the RSPB remains absolutely committed to supporting SCNL, the Liberian Government and their counterparts in Sierra Leone to deliver their vision. There is a great opportunity to protect up to 500,000 hectares through the Greater Gola Landscape and create a transboundary park that will set an example to the rest of the world.
Yet, as ever, the really hard work starts now.
During my visit to Gola earlier in the year, I saw the National Park boundary cut and met some of the rangers. Their work is essential to crack down on illegal activities within the Park – including poaching – and they need more support to build their capacity and capability to protect the forest.
Equally, outside of the Park, our work with local communities continues. As I wrote in February (here), our team has been training the community in beekeeping, rice, cocoa and groundnut farming. The idea is simple – improve production so people have enough food to live without relying on more forest-damaging extractive activities.
The work in Gola is hugely significant and symbolic of the global conservation challenge: to create more, bigger, better and connected protected areas while sustainably managing the environment beyond park boundaries. It's at the heart of what we and BirdLife do.
Congratulations to everyone involved and good luck with the next steps in protecting the Greater Gola Landscape.