For decades, conservation in the Guinean Forests has been focused on a network of forest reserves throughout the region. Although these reserves were mostly designed to protect watersheds and timber supplies rather than biodiversity, they are vital for conserving the remaining forest fragments in West Africa. Nonetheless, many critical forested habitats have not yet been included within the national systems of protected areas.
Since the late 1960s, all countries in the region have made efforts to establish more effectively managed and controlled protected areas. Two of the largest and most important protected areas in the Upper Guinea sub-region are the Tai National Park in Côte d'Ivoire and the Sapo National Park in Liberia, which was recently expanded. In the Nigeria-Cameroon forest sub-region, the most important parks include the 4,227 km² Cross River National Park in Nigeria, which is the largest protected area in this sub-region, and the adjacent 1,260 km² Korup National Park in Cameroon, which is home to the oldest rainforests in Africa.
About 108,104 km² or 17.4 percent of the remaining closed forest in the hotspot is technically under some form of protection. However, the true picture emerges when one considers only those protected areas in categories I to IV, which shows that a mere 18,800 square kilometers (3 percent) of the area is under a more appropriate level of protection for biodiversity conservation purposes. Forest reserves are under increasing threat from logging and agricultural conversion, as well as bushmeat hunting, and it is uncertain whether existing government action will be sufficient to protect them. For example, Ghana's Bia National Park was reduced from 298 km² to only 77 km² by logging within just two years of its establishment in 1974. To improve the prospects for conservation in the region, an expanded network of protected areas, the elevation of forest reserves to national park status, and better enforcement are all critically needed.
One important way to enhance the effectiveness of protected areas in West Africa will be through the establishment of conservation corridors comprising biodiversity-friendly land uses to link protected areas together. Additionally, conservation strategies in West Africa require collaboration across nations as many of the remaining forests extend beyond these political boundaries. A Guinean Forests conservation priority-setting workshop, sponsored in part by Conservation International in 1999, began the process of creating a regional strategy in West Africa, and the following year, the U.S.- based World Wildlife Fund organized led a similar process for the Congo Basin forests, and extended it to the Nigeria-Cameroon forest block. This work has been supplemented by the identification of Important Bird Areas as site-scale targets for bird conservation, by the BirdLife International partnership, in 2000. This process is currently being expanded by the BirdLife partners and Conservation International to identify Key Biodiversity Areas across the hotspot.
One of the greatest conservation challenges in West Africa is finding alternative ways to accommodate human needs, in order to decrease the pressure from rural communities living adjacent to protected areas. Development of economic alternatives such as ecotourism, handicrafts and agroforestry has shown promise. Efforts to counter the pervasive threats to biodiversity in West Africa are probably best focused at the community level in the areas surrounding existing and proposed protected areas, where it is important that people understand and appreciate the contribution that these areas can make to environmental stability, human health and local economics. Over the past two years CI and its partners in Ghana have collaborated on an innovative campaign to revive traditional cultural practices in order to curb the bushmeat trade in the country. The campaign, based on Totems, or sacred animals, included messages to remind the Ghanaian public of their traditions and make them aware of their own impacts on biodiversity. The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force is working on a larger scale with a number of organizations across the region to address the bushmeat trade, which is devastating the wildlife in this hotspot.
A five-year US$5 million investment in the Upper Guinea forest block by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), initiated in 2000, has been particularly crucial in mobilizing locally based conservation organizations and civil society groups, mainly through partnerships with international organizations. This investment has also catalyzed new investments from bilateral donors and the private sector. For example, CI and local partners are implementing conservation activities in the Greater Nimba Highlands with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Rio Tinto.