Saturday, December 9, 2006


Outamba Kilimi National Park was instated in the early 1980’s by a Transylvanian biologist. Stories about this gentleman have filtered through the decades. According to ‘Good Man’, our guide, Geza was afraid of nothing and protected the park with a combative passion.

The term ‘bushwhacking’ took on a whole new dimension after my first experience of really attempting it with Aaron and Yegbeh. You cannot get through the ‘bush’ during rainy season without a machete, wet feet, grass cuts, and likely a few thorns. It was a fascinating experience though. I remember a ‘Music Appreciation’ class that I took at Wheaton College back a decade ago that was similar. In listening to a concert, I tend to settle in and listen to the ‘whole’ of it. The professor took great pains to get us to hear the lines and the contributions of each of the different instruments: the cello, bassoon, the oboe, the bass… by first isolating it, and then letting us hear it with the whole. That is how I felt on this trip… I was with the ‘masters’, for whom every scent, bent blade of grass, scuff in the earth, rubbing mark, broken limb on a tree or chewed leaf ‘spoke’ volumes of the life present in the forest. Without introduction to the ‘individuals,’ though, I had a much harder time identifying them as pieces of the whole. Aaron would say, “do you smell the red river hog?” and I’d say, “no, I just smell… forest… or maybe, maybe I smell something different…” In any case, it was impressive to watch the two of them, and I did learn a few things.
As stated in an earlier email, there are some good signs of wildlife yet remaining in OKNP. Most notably, the hippos and the vervet monkeys. We also encountered the following: multiple Chimpanzee ‘nests’ and a ‘sighting’ of chimps across the river; giant African Elephant footprints, droppings, places where elephant shoulders had rubbed against a tree and stripped limbs of the trees they like to eat from; a Maxwell duiker and many tracks of Maxwell and Yellowback Duikers; Lesser White-Nosed Guenon Monkeys; Campbell’s Guenon; Sooty Mangaby Monkeys; Black & White Colobus Monkeys; tracks of a lone big male Forest Buffalo, tracks and resting spot of a group of fifteen buffalo, tracks of a smaller group of three; Bushbuck horns (from which Aaron and Yegbeh carved and fashioned a ‘playable’ horn); and numerous ‘rootings’ of Red River Hogs. As rainy season brings on the growth of grasses that are about three feet taller than my head (I’m told they will get a five or more feet taller yet!), it’s very unlikely that one ever get a ‘sighting’ of an animal itself, unless they spend some significant time tracking it. So our mission was more to look for the ‘evidence’ to try to discern the scope of wildlife yet existing in the park.

Despite the sound of the above list, the evidence was sobering. Though some diversity remains, it is thought that 70% of the wildlife has been lost to poaching and encroaching settlements of people since the park was established in the 1980’s… much of this destruction has happened swiftly in the past 2-4 years since the war. Buffalo have been impacted to a greater degree b/c they are one of the actively hunted animals. One of the reasons that the OKNP park was established in it’s current location was the fact that it was the least populated part of the country. Prior to the war, a program was put in place to encourage people to relocate. The chiefdom’s had two options: accept a complete ‘buyout’ which included housing in a new settlement on equally good land –or- accept a ‘partial buyout’ which called for the forfeiting of certain land-use rights (including hunting. One chiefdom chose the former, the other the latter. However, during and after the war, many of the people who had accepted payment to leave returned – as there has literally been NO enforcement of the borders or of any of the rules.

Further, one of the chiefs has been selling ‘fishing rights’ in the park that the national government seems to not have the power to control. (This is another situation in which I am unclear on how the authority of ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern/national’ governance falls). Fishing for local consumption would be understandable, but there is true ‘commercial fishing’ occurring. On Aaron’s first visit, he discovered that over 30 fishing nets were strung to completely span the river –right within the first half mile from base camp. Aaron and crew have also been disheartened to hike 12-20 miles out to some of the more ‘remote’ areas of the park, only to discover that new un-mapped settlements with dozens farms exist throughout the park.
Though typically respectful of all the ‘traditional protocols’ of dealing with settlements and different chiefs, Aaron finally did have a ‘run in’ with a man from one of the newly planted Soso villages. After a first warm greeting, the man returned the next day with ‘long face’ to explain that the animals in the park were guided by the spirits. If Aaron and team did not meet with the village to ‘appease’ (pay) them, them the village would not act as mediaries with the spirits. Without their blessing, no animals would be found.

While it is not uncommon for Aaron to approach recognized chiefs of larger areas with a small gift, in this area of the park it had started to seem as though a third of the populace was somehow identifying themselves as ‘chiefs.’ After having paid out a number of these token gifts (including a gift to the true chief of that area – from whom a blessing had been obtained) and having witnessed deeper and deeper evidence of hunting and the destruction of wildlife habitat, Aaron’s group was frustrated. He replied (in Mendingo) “I have a word for you, and you can tell your chief I said this: You are greedy. This is the first area I have been to in ALL of Sierra Leone where I have not been offered kola nut (typical welcome offering). And yet I have been asked for much. You must ‘hold’ your visitors well if you want for them to hold you well. (Finally… and a bit facetiously) You must have VERY powerful spirits at work, because they have not only hidden all of your animals, they have hidden all evidence of your animals.”
One of the unintentional legacies of the first re-settlement of people out of the park may be the willful destruction of wildlife. One still hears undercurrents of resentment in the park to sentiments expressed by park staff and govermental re-settlement officers at the time: that the homes of people should belong to the chimps, etc. Though effort was made to fairly negotiate this (at the time) during the war, park boundaries were not enforced and distinct villages and resettlements have emerged. Unfortunately, it appears likely that people believe that if they quickly hunt and eliminate as much wildlife as possible, that no one will bother to evacuate them again.

There is a current trend, popular with many NGO’s, to try to combine conservation efforts with development efforts. In OKNP, there are plans to build a good school right on the edge of the park, Honda (motorbike) paths and pavilions and outpost camps throughout the park. Some of this might be ‘dreaming,’ as these projects would be completely dependant on external (likely EU) funding… but it raises a good question: “are ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ compatible, or not?” I know the ‘politically correct’ answer to this – I’ve espoused it myself – but… as soon as you build good schools, you are sure to get more people moving to the area. More people, in SL, usually means more farms. More farms & human presence usually means less wildlife.

So, in summation, there are huge challenges to OKNP. The good things are as follow:
1) A diversity of species (though very limited in numbers) still remain is some areas of the park. If well protected, a resurgence would still be possible for the next couple of years.

2) A few people, namely ‘Good Man’, our guide, and Manseray, from the office in Freetown, really know the park well and are passionate and sacrificial about conservation efforts. Note: ‘Good Man’ is not actually employed by the park, but is the one that the park staff turn to for any ‘tracking’ or bush country expedition.

However, the challenges are immense. While clear that the park is understaffed and severely underfinanced, it’s still frustrating that the year-around ‘paid’ staff were completely unfamiliar with the new farming settlements that existed within the park borders. Poaching from across the Guinea border is a huge problem. It would take serious ‘political will’ to preserve what still exists, and the likelihood of income from tourism is slim for a while – until some serious conservation efforts are put in place and resurgence of wildlife occurs. Even if this does happen, the viewing of wildlife in the forest / bush of West Africa is less accessible to the casual tourist than the easy viewing on the East African savannas. Senegal apparently has a successful model, though, so there is some hope… and this is truly a unique place… sandflies, mud and all. Better designed for animals than humans, in my opinion, which may be a good thing.

Love to all – we miss you!
Emily & Aaron

P.S. On occasion, a character trait will ‘stick’ as a name, as is the case for a few people we have met here: ‘Peace-Maker’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Good Man.’ Whenever I would call out to Good Man (in my funny accent), he would look over at me with a funny glint in his eye and say, ‘Good man. Won-der-ful-man.’ Which was true… he was indeed.
NOTE: This posting has been edited to remove some ill-thought-out 'editorial' comments about the work of an indivual in OKNP. I am sorry for any hurt or offense. I should know the complexities of attempting any kind of conservation work in Sierra Leone and the potential for mis-interpretation by some of such activity and the stories that result. Many such stories get told of my husband (for instance: his bringing a mosquito screen / net up to his research site instigated false rumors of diamod mining!) Further, a certain banter and looseness of language is 'understood' among family and friends that should have been revised when I later posted emails to a public blog. My sincere apologies.

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