West Africa's Forest Champion Honored

4/17/2000

Washington, DC – In recognition of his unwavering commitment and struggle to conserve his country's endangered forests, part of West Africa's biodiversity hotspot, Liberian conservationist, Alexander Louis Peal will be awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize today in San Francisco. Nominated for the award by Conservation International (CI), a DC-based environmental organization, Peal maintained his commitment to conservation, even risking his life to protect biodiversity during his country's civil war.

"The vision and commitment Alex Peal has shown for his country, its natural heritage, and the future of its people is a shining example for all of us," said Peter A. Seligmann, CI's Chairman and CEO. "Alex has demonstrated his passion for conservation through extremely brave actions and bold initiatives, even in the face of adversity."

Trained in forestry at the University of Liberia, Peal worked to establish Sapo National Park, Liberia's first recognized protected area in 1983. He also led Liberia to ratify several international environmental conventions and created the first national conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) in his country, which he continued to maintain throughout the civil war. During the war, he risked his life to gain international attention for Liberia's important ecosystems by leading two major expeditions into the country to restore conservation activities and community relations around Sapo National Park.

Liberia's forests are part of the biodiversity hotspot known as the Guinean Forests of West Africa. CI has identified 25 hotspots that combined, claim more than 60 percent of the planet's terrestrial biodiversity in less than 1.4 percent of the Earth's land surface. The hotspot extends across southern Guinea into Sierra Leone, through Liberia and southern Cote d'Ivoire to Ghana and western Togo, and after a break at the Dahomey Gap in Benin, continues into southern Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Gulf of Guinea Islands.

Despite years of forest destruction including uncontrolled logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, nearly 50 percent of the original forest cover remains. The forests provide habitat for more than 2,000 plant species, nearly 590 bird species (13 of which are found nowhere else), and more than 100 mammals such as the pygmy hippopotamus, the Diana monkey, and the drill (a large forest-dwelling baboon). Many of the country's larger mammals have been hunted to near extinction to satisfy the urban commercial bushmeat trade.

"I can't think of anyone more deserving of this award than Alex. He's taken great risks to demonstrate the importance of conservation and I believe he is one of the key leaders that will enable the government of Liberia to realize immediate and long-term financial returns by conserving remaining forests," said Mari Omland, senior director of CI's West Africa program.

Peal is heading an effort to secure Liberia's signature to the Global Biodiversity Convention and leading an effort to gain collaboration for conservation on a regional basis throughout West Africa. In December, CI facilitated a regional priority-setting process to bring together representatives from West African nations to increase conservation capacity through more biological surveys in the region. The regional planning group plans to work together to develop cross-border conservation initiatives, like peace parks.

"Alex is the ideal role model for many West African conservationists to emulate, including myself," said Mohamed Bakarr, originally of Sierra Leone, and a director of projects at CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS). "His many years of commitment and determination have been incredibly inspiring for me personally and I am very honored to work with him to save the threatened Upper Guinea ecosystem".

Peal is President and CEO of the Society for the Conservation of the Nature of Liberia (SCNL), with which CI, and other NGOs like Flora and Fauna International (FFI) work. He is also a member of the Primate Specialist Group of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission and an associate member of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia.

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