Washington, D.C./Monrovia, Liberia - Liberia today announced the protection of more than 155,000 acres of mostly intact forest. The increased protection helps safeguard the world's largest known population of the Critically Endangered Western Chimpanzee.
The head of Liberia's interim government, Gyude Bryant, published three new bills that represent a 60 percent increase in protected areas and a dramatic reform of its natural resource conservation policies. The Sapo National Park will expand by 123,550 acres, (50,000 ha) and the creation of the Nimba Nature Reserve will protect an additional 33,350 acres (13,500 ha). The Nimba Nature Reserve borders a World Heritage Site in neighboring Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.
"Liberia's new government took a significant leap forward today by expanding its protected area system by 60 percent," said Alex Peal, Director of Conservation International (CI)-Liberia. "By safeguarding its natural resources, the people of Liberia will be able to enjoy a more sustainable long-term future."
The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at Conservation International and Fauna and Flora International worked together to co-implement the Liberia Forest Reassessment (LFR) project. The two groups used sophisticated technologies including satellite imagery and geographic information systems, (G.I.S.) as well as field surveys, to help the government demarcate the new borders of these protected areas, and also provided substantial technical input for the preparation of the new laws. The European Union and Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund both supported the Liberia Forest Reassessment.
"These new protected areas open avenues for economic expansion through the ecological, social and recreational value of biological diversity," said Harry A. Greaves, Jr., Economic Advisor to Mr. Bryant.
Scientists estimate that 600,000 western chimpanzees once lived throughout western Africa, but fewer than 25,000 remain. The numbers are expected to drop dramatically, with entire populations forecast to disappear within 10-20 years. They are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals.
A variety of endemic species are at risk in the region, including the Pygmy hippopotamus, the Liberian mongoose and the white-breasted Guinea fowl. Several populations of endangered forest elephants are scattered throughout this exceptionally important area. In total, more than 2,000 flowering plants, 620 birds, 150 mammals, and 120 reptiles can be found in these protected areas.
Liberia falls within the Guinean Forest of West Africa Hotspot, making it one of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, areas that contain large numbers of endemic species under severe threat. The hotspot covers portions of eleven countries in the region, but more than 40 percent of the original forest cover survives in Liberia. The forest is home to half of all known African mammal species, and is among the highest-priority regions in the world for primate conservation.
Liberia is emerging from a three-year civil war that has been part of a 14-year conflict claiming the lives of more than 200,000 people. Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, is exiled in Nigeria. A U.N. peacekeeping force will expand to 15,000 troops by March.
"This is great news for a country that has seen such uncertainty in recent years," said Russell A. Mittermeier, President of Conservation International. "With a single signature, the new government has helped guarantee a secure long-term future for its citizens."
With the expansion, four percent of Liberia's forests now fall within protected areas. These areas will help to defend against major threats to the Liberia's biodiversity such as unsustainable logging and poaching. Extreme habitat fragmentation and degradation continue to threaten much of the remainder of Liberia's unprotected forests.
The forest reform process took a major step forward in mid-October, when more than 200 Liberian foresters gathered at a workshop led by CI and the Society for Liberian Foresters. Workshop participants from the public and private sector, civil society and international organizations agreed upon a resolution to increase Liberia's technical capacity for sustainable logging, improve financial management and transparency and improve overall management of the Forest Development Authority. The Global Conservation Fund at Conservation International supported the workshop.
Conservationists regard these laws as a sign that the new Liberian government is committed to ensuring that critical areas of remaining forest are secured for biodiversity protection.