The Gola Forest is the largest remaining area of Upper Guinea tropical forest in Sierra Leone. It shows a high variety of different forest habitats in different stages (pristine to disturbed, and various succession stages) and is home to many species, many of them being endemic to the Upper Guinean forests, and even to smaller areas in the region.
Location & Setting: Located in the south-eastern edge of Sierra Leone, on the border with Liberia, the Gola Forest is the largest remnant of the Upper Guinea tropical moist lowland high evergreen forest in Sierra Leone with a total area of 71,070 ha. The site is located between latitude 07°18’22” N and 07°51’00” N, and between longitude 11°21’13” W to 10°37’40” W. The National Park comprises three distinct forested blocks, including Gola North, Gola Central and Gola South. The Gola Forest lies mostly in the Eastern Region (province) of Sierra Leone, but extends marginally into the Southern (Bo) region. It lies in three districts, principally Kenema district but extends into Kailahun district in the North and Pujehun District in the South. Seven chiefdoms are associated with the Gola Forest. These can claim land ownership of the Gola Forest, yet the legislative and administrative authority lies with the Forestry Division of MAFF and more directly with the offices of the local District Forestry Officer in each of the three districts.
Ecology: The Gola Forest lies within the wet tropical climatic zone and the average rainfall is estimated at 2,800mm (White 1972). The predominant features of Gola include extensive rolling hills, but also areas of swampy terrain. Gola South, as far as the Mahoi River, is typified by relatively small trees with a dense understory and frequent swamps along the river valleys. The Gola Forest provides important local water supplies to villages around the forest and the forest reserves are an important catchment for the Moro, Mahoi, Mano and Moa rivers. The total number of plant species recorded is 970 species with 599 forest species endemic to the Upper Guinea forests. Forty nine species of larger mammals are known from the Gola Forest. The most important mammals of conservation value and significance are pygmy hippopotamus, African forest elephant, zebra duiker chimpanzee, Diana monkey and western red colobus. All but the African elephant and chimpanzee are endemic to the Upper Guinea forests making Gola Forest exceptionally important for their conservation. Approximately 313 species of birds have been recorded with at least eighteen species of global conservation concern. To date 43 species of amphibians have been identified in the NP and six are listed as Near threatened or Vulnerable.
Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionelle
The Gola Rainforest National Park lies within the Upper Guinea Forest ecoregion and comprises the largest area of intact rainforest remaining in Sierra Leone. The remaining Upper Guinea forests are recognized as internationally important sites for biodiversity conservation, through a range of scientifically implemented conservation instruments, including that of Global Biodiversity Priority Conservation Hotspot (Conservation International), Ecoregion (WWF) and Endemic Bird Area (Birdlife International). However, the Gola Forests have yet to receive recognition by the highest global authority to this date, the United Nations. Relying on the local, national and international motion built over the last two decades, the nomination of the GRNP as a World Heritage Site is the logical step forward for Sierra Leone to make sure this unique site will be conserved for the next generations. The Gola Forest is widely recognized as one of the last significant remaining fragments of the Upper Guinea forest type in West Africa and hence is of inestimable global biodiversity conservation value.
(ix) The extreme richness of biodiversity in GRNP is itself outstanding, yet the forest also proves to harbour exceptional levels of endemism and numerous species which are globally threatened. This makes GRNP not only unique nationally, but of immense importance both regionally and internationally. Gola has long been recognized as one of the most important forests in Africa for bird conservation and current research is demonstrating this to be the case in numerous other taxa too. It is now one of the best-documented forests in West Africa, making it an important representation of the Upper Guinea forest type. The high levels of diversity and endemism are indicative of the forest’s role as a glacial refugium, which has been most clearly demonstrated by genetic analysis of Gola’s herpetofauna. The composition of the forest’s Lepidoptera also places GRNP in a local centre of endemism. Such refugia have served to both preserve and enrich the region’s fauna and flora during the region’s history and have an important role in sustaining this into the future. GRNP provides the opportunity to study processes of disturbance and recovery which is of paramount importance for the effective management of the remaining forests throughout the Upper Guinea region.
(x) GRNP is typical of the moist evergreen Upper Guinea Forest which is now a highly threatened habitat. Despite being at the western extremity of this forest type, and experiencing some disturbance in the past, the forest retains a remarkably high proportion of the representative fauna, including at least 49 large mammal species. It has one of the most important known populations of the Endangered Pygmy Hippopotamus, a species with a global range restricted to the western part of West Africa, as well as the endangered Western Chimpanzee and Forest Elephant. Despite hunting pressures in the region, primate densities are high with at least 9,000 Endangered western red colobus and over 15,000 Vulnerable Diana monkeys, as are forest ungulate densities and diversity with as many as 12 species recently recorded. 313 birds species have been recorded of which 18 species are globally threatened or near-threatened, accounting for almost all forest species recorded in the Upper Guinea region. These include globally important populations of Gola Malimbe found here and in very few other sites with effective protection, and White-necked Picathartes which only nest on rarely occurring rock faces found under forest canopy. In other taxonomic groups, recent surveys have recorded 41 species of bats making it one of the most diverse forests in West Africa for this group; over 500 species of butterfly, including several new to science in recent years; 31 species of fish of which 35% are regional endemics, 43 species of amphibians and 13 species of reptiles, many of which are regional endemics; over 20 small non-volant mammals and 140 dragonfly and damselfly species. Botanical surveys have identified close to 1000 species in the GRNP and immediate environs, including well over 300 species of trees. New species to science and first records for the region continue to be discovered within the National Park and surrounding corridor areas – for example surveys in 2011 revealed at least six new dragonfly species, one butterfly and one shrew species; in 2009 two new butterflies and one frog species were discovered.
Satements of authenticity and/or integrity
The management of the site is currently guided by a Management Plan (2007-2012) which has an overall aim to “protect the Gola Forest in perpetuity through effective management, sustained funding and ongoing benefits for the local communities”. The Management Plan has been approved by the Forestry Division and will be reviewed and renewed in 2012 for another 5 years.
The GRNP is being managed by the Gola Forest Programme (GFP) – an enduring partnership of over 20 years between the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a UK based international NGO. The GFP is mandated by the government to manage the National Park within the legal and policy framework of the government. The partners of the GFP meet regularly to discuss and jointly approve strategies and solutions to management issues, ensuring active involvement of both government and civil society in the implementation of the programme. RSPB has a long term commitment toward providing ‘on the ground’ technical and management support to the GFP which currently employs over a 100 national programme staff in Kenema. Additionally, the Tropical Forests Unit of the International Division of the RSPB in the U.K backstops the GFP and its advisors on the ground with additional technical and management support on regular visits. The GFP comprises a senior management team (including the National Park Protected Area Manager), and programs / departments in Administration, Human Resources, Financial Management, Community Development, Park Operations and Research and Monitoring. The GFP retains the most experienced and technically proficient pool of protected area staff in the country and is regarded by government as a model for guiding the management of other national protected areas.
Currently, 50 forest guards patrol and monitor the forests throughout the year, covering several hundred kilometres within the park each month. Since the beginning of the programme there has been a significant reduction in the number of poachers and guns apprehended and only isolated incidents of small scale logging, mining and agricultural encroachment around the edges of the park which have been successfully contained. The conservation program has been fortunate to enjoy the involvement and commitment from high levels of government, including the personal attention of the President, without which the establishment of the National Park would have been unlikely. The most significant threat to the park as a whole comes from increasing population within the forest edge communities and the consequential pressure to expand agricultural development. However a planned programme to introduce extensive livelihood development support to these communities, as part of the future carbon REDD+ project (currently in development) will have a significant impact in mitigating this threat.
A significant historical threat to the park has come from commercial mining interests – particularly in the iron rich Bagla Hills – which the government has successfully contained through a commitment to not allow any form of mining inside the National Park. The current review of the Forestry and Wildlife laws and policies (due for adoption by government by mid 2012) together with the publically stated intention of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS) to establish a national protected area authority further indicates the continuing commitment of government to improving the sustainable management of natural resources, environmental protection and protected area management in the country. In 2012 the GFP will be assisting MAFFS to establish a Management Board for the GRNP – to eventually sit within the national PA authority – and to further build the capacity of the government to take a progressively more active role in overseeing the management of the GRNP through the GFP.
In response to the challenge of sustainable financing, the Gola Rainforest National Park was upgraded in status from a forest reserve under the presumption that the cost of managing the area and the provision of community benefits would come from the sale of carbon credits. This is why the RSPB is currently developing a REDD+ carbon project for the park for implementation in 2012-2013. It is currently in the feasibility analysis stage with indications to date that the project has the potential to generate sufficient revenue to sustain park operational and management costs - including the continued implementation of the Community Development Benefit Sharing agreement (signed in 2005 and guaranteeing delivery of an annual development fund to each chiefdom surrounding the park) - for the next 20 to 30 years.
In summary, the long term commitment of the RSPB to providing continued technical support to the GFP – as it has done for the past 20 years – coupled with a high level of government commitment to the programme and establishment of the GRNP, provides a high assurance that the park will be optimally protected and managed for the next two decades and beyond.
Comparison with other similar properties
The Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) in Sierra Leone and the adjacent Gola National Forest (GNF) in Liberia (previously known as Lofa-Mano Forest), separated only by the Moro-Mano River, share a common species pool and diversity of habitat types. As a result, both protected areas share a similar biodiversity, species richness and number of endemic species. This is particularly evident with the larger mammal species such as primates, duikers, forest elephants, pygmy hippos, bongo and buffalo which range across both protected areas. However, transect and camera trapping surveys in both protected areas indicate differences in the abundance of certain species e.g. forest elephants seem to be more abundant on the Liberian side (this may be due to the larger, continuous forest area) while pygmy hippo signs were recorded more frequently in Sierra Leone at the edge of the GRNP. Additionally, a 2009 chimpanzee survey in and around the GRNP reported 138 chimp nests at a density of 0.27 individuals / km2 which is higher than that found in the GNF (and also that of the Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire). The ecological separation of the two protected areas by a major river boundary (Moro–Mano River system) is possibly reflected in the discovery of smaller more sedentary species which have been found in either one or the other protected area but, as yet, not in both e.g. the Critically Endangered toad Amietophrynus taiensis from the GRNP and the Vulnerable leaf-litter frog Phrynobatrachus villiersi from the GNF.
While being very similar in terms of biodiversity, the level of management and protection varies greatly between the two adjacent protected areas. Unlike the GNF in Liberia, the GRNP has well established and trained forest guard teams regularly patrolling the National Park, gazetted boundaries, a community benefit sharing agreement in place, an active research and monitoring program and a high level of political commitment and inter agency coordination to prevent the commercial exploitation of natural resources in the park. The GNF on the contrary has yet to be upgraded to National Park status (though it is planned), the boundaries have yet to be gazetted and it is only sporadically patrolled by government forest guards. As a result the protected area suffers from frequent and unregulated logging, mining, farming and hunting activities.
The Transboundary Peace Park Accord signed into existence by the Presidents of the two countries in 2009 (encompassing both protected areas and the further northern lying Foya protected area in Liberia) has yet to make a tangible impact on the management status of the GNF. However, national and international efforts are underway to provide additional support and impetus to the realisation of the Transboundary Park on the Liberian side. The upgrading of the GRNP in Sierra Leone to WHS status would provide a much needed political boost and international profile to the nascent Transboundary Park which has a vision to conserve a tropical moist forest landscape of more than 300,000 ha between the two countries while delivering much needed social and economic benefits to the communities in around the protected areas.
Presently, 33 World Heritage properties are listed in Africa with 8 of these occurring in West Africa. Sierra Leone is without a World Heritage Site at present. The most obvious similarity between the proposed GRNP and other World Heritage Sites in the region would be that of the Taï National Park in the Ivory Coast. It too is one of the last remnants of the primary tropical forest of West Africa and also shares flagship species such as the pygmy hippo. The two protected areas share similar biodiversity richness – as indicated by studies to date – although the eastern Sierra Leonean–western Liberian region, where the GRNP is situated, is recognised as a centre of endemism for butterflies. Additionally, as the GRNP and Tai NP respectively lie at the western and eastern boundaries of the Upper Guinean Forest ecoregion the two parks experience different rainfall patterns which would likely be reflected in ecological and biodiversity differences between the two areas.
Additionally, the sale of carbon credits from the forests of the GRNP – due to come on stream in 2013 - is a unique venture in West Africa (and one of a few such projects worldwide) potentially assuring sustainable financing for the GRNP over the next 20-30 years.
It is important to realise that the nomination of the GRNP as a World Heritage Site should be seen to complement that of the Taï National Park as they will both serve as eastern and western cornerstones to the conservation of the once vast, but now largely fragmented and globally important Upper Guinean Forest ecoregion and hotspot.