April 11 was a remarkable day for biodiversity conservation and human welfare in this mineral-rich West African nation, struggling to recover from a decade-long civil conflict. For the first time since peace was declared in 2001, Tiwai's world-class wildlife sanctuary and the site of the country's only community conservation program was officially re-opened to tourists. It symbolized another small step toward stability for a nation that has suffered war, terror, and a deep, unrelenting humanitarian crisis that left it devastated.
An Island Haven for Conservation
Before the fighting began in 1991, Tiwai was famous for its ecological research, wildlife management, forestry training for locals, and ecotourism. Less than five square miles in size, the inland island in the River Moa is home to more than 700 plant species, 135 types of birds, rare pygmy hippos, and 11 primate species including wild chimpanzees that use stones as hammers and tree roots as anvils to crack open nuts.
Since 1982, the island had been a haven for research on primate ecology, behavior, and population dynamics. A fully operational field station, the first of its kind in the country, hosted students from seven universities worldwide. Tiwai was also emerging as a successful model of sound conservation management that accommodated human needs and created opportunities for returning benefits to communities. A management plan was completed in 1988 but was never implemented. After civil war broke out and spread nationwide, all research and conservation programs were suspended.
The war, fought for control of the diamond fields, killed tens of thousands and displaced more than half of the 4.5 million population. It destroyed hundreds of schools, health clinics, and administrative facilities, and wrecked the nation's already tattered economy. Thousands of civilians, many of them children, were mutilated by limb amputation a terror tactic by rebels that shocked the world.
During the war, financial support to Tiwai was terminated and the island was inaccessible to researchers. Local staff and village communities suffered tremendously, and several people lost their lives. After war's end, the potential for increased threats to biodiversity nationwide was greater than ever, especially for areas like Tiwai.
Peace could lead to sustainable development, or to an intensification of unsustainable resource exploitation such as bushmeat hunting by large numbers of hungry, displaced refugees returning to pick up their lives and their livelihoods.
EFA, CEPF Act Quickly
The Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA), a Sierra Leone non-government organization, approached the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), administered by Conservation International (CI), for support to resurrect the infrastructure of the Tiwai sanctuary and other regions. They made a convincing case for assisting communities nationwide to promote conservation and protect environmentally sensitive areas being threatened by the mushrooming returnee settlements.
While Tiwai still supported healthy populations of primates and had a tremendous potential for playing a key role in future tourism and conservation, EFA Director Tommy Garnett recognized the urgent need to act before hunting, mining, and resettlement led to the permanent destruction of the sanctuary.
Garnett promised himself that Tiwai Island would not be converted into the ubiquitous "farm-bush" that typifies much of Sierra Leone. Thousands of acres of primary and secondary forests are cleared each year to grow upland rice the staple food. Instead, this area of rich biodiversity would be preserved for the future benefit of local communities as well as nature enthusiasts from around the world.
Tiwai Island Is the Way Forward
With CEPF funding, EFA has completed reconstruction of the scientific research facilities and the visitor center as a first step to reviving Tiwai Island as a model for protected area management and community development. On my first visit to the island in 2002, there was nothing but forest, partially cleared trails, and skeptical locals.
Each subsequent trip revealed remarkable progress: structures sprang up amidst the greenery, primates no longer vanished at the sound of a human, and the local communities began to realize that this gem of an island might actually yield some benefits. The rapid resumption of ecotourism, and of wildlife and ecological studies, will discourage hunting and generate a much needed cash flow to benefit local people.
"Sierra Leone is rated as one of the poorest nations in the world, despite the country's rich biological and mineral resource base," says Garnett. "However, sustained economic development is only possible when the ecological foundation on which the Sierra Leonean society has been built, is respected. Tiwai Island is a shining example of the way forward."
What is happening in this small corner of one tiny African country is reflected in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other nations torn by civil war. CI and partners are blending biodiversity conservation and human well-being as a post-conflict tool to help communities and nations slowly recover, and the people rebuild their lives.