Gola-Tiwai complex

Date of Submission: 31/01/2022
Criteria: (ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs
State, Province or Region:
Southern Region Pujehun District and Eastern Region Kenema District
Ref.: 6589

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Tiwai Island      7⁰ 32’N 11⁰ 21’W
Gola South        7⁰ 22’N 11⁰ 12’W
Gola Central      7⁰ 39’N 10⁰ 52’W
Gola North        7⁰ 48’N 10⁰ 40’W

The Gola-Tiwai forests contain two significant protected areas set in a matrix of traditional agricultural practices and cultural landscapes. The two protected areas are The Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) and Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Gola Forest is the largest remaining area of Upper Guinea tropical rainforest in Sierra Leone. It shows a high variety of different forest habitats (pristine to disturbed, and in various stages of succession) having a rich biodiversity of species, many of them endemic to the Upper Guinean forests, with several found nowhere else. The Gola and Tiwai areas currently enjoy legal protection and enthusiastic support from the local communities. Eco-tourism is developing slowly and is led by the communities with the support of the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) at Tiwai Island and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the Gola Rainforest National Park. Both EFA and RSPB have been supporting local communities for almost two decades; since the end of the civil war (1991-2001). The recognition of Gola-Tiwai forests as an UNESCO World Heritage site would provide the impetus for local initiatives to further its goal of environmental protection and restoration in Western Africa.

Location and Setting

Gola-Tiwai is located in the south-east of Sierra Leone, near the border with Liberia. It is mostly in the Kenema Districts of Eastern Province, with some in Kailahun, and the Pujuhun District of Southern Province. Gola-Tiwai is approximately 300 km from the capital city, Freetown, and at its closest 15 km from Bo (the second largest city in Sierra Leone), which is the nearest town to the sanctuary.

The forests of the area are the largest remnants of the Upper Guinea tropical moist lowland forest in Sierra Leone with a total area of over 700 km2. The site is located in a region bounded by latitude 07°18’ N and 07°51’ N, and between longitude 11°20” W to 10°38’ W. The Gola Rainforest National Park comprises three distinct forested blocks; North, Central and South. The forests spread over seven Chiefdoms, who are the traditional land owners, but the National Park is managed by the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS). Tiwai Island lies in the Moa River, and is approximately 12 km² in size.


From ancient times the communities of the Gola-Tiwai area have been using the local resources and developing detailed Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (ITK) to conserve forests for economic and social activities (such as the sacred groves). Much of this ITK is of great value for conservation scientists and others interested in the environment. The forests were originally designated for sustainable timber extraction by being designated as a Forest Reserve, and selective logging started in 1961. Due to poor practices, the area was redesignated as a conservation concession supported by the RSPB and the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and finally as National Park in 2011. The ecological importance of Tiwai Island was recognised in the early 1980s. Some of the researchers, along with the people of Barri and Koya Chiefdoms, who share ownership of the land, requested it become a Wildlife Sanctuary, and it was officially designated a reserve in 1987. In 1991, a civil war in Sierra Leone broke out and this interrupted conservation efforts in all parts of Sierra Leone, but especially the forests of the south and east. After peace returned in 2001 activities on Tiwai were restarted by the communities supported by EFA and Tiwai was re-launched in May 2002 to restore Gola-Tiwai as a model for protected area management and community development. The first report on the forests of Gola-Tiwai was performed by McDonald in 1931 and Small in 1952. In 1967 David Attenburgh started the Picathartes (rock fowl) survey in Gola, while Tiwai became internationally famous from the 1980’s for a series of papers on primates.

Ecology and Topography

The forests are characterized as humid, tropical lowland semi-deciduous and evergreen forests that lie within the wet tropical climatic zone with an average rainfall over 2,500 mm and high temperatures all year round. The Guinean Forests were designated by Conservation International (CI) as a Biodiversity Hotspot of global importance. The Upper Guinea forest at one time stretched from Guinea to Togo, and although now highly fragmented everywhere, is home to many plants, mammals, birds, fish and insects a significant proportion of all taxonomic groups are endemic to the region (but especially the plants and invertebrates).

The predominant topographic features of Gola are extensive rolling hills, separated by swampy areas (inland valley swamps) and four main rivers (Moro, Mahoi, Mano and Moa). Gola South, was extensively logged and is typified by relatively small trees with a dense understory and frequent swamps along the river valleys. Tiwai Island which is close to Gola South is flat and sandy but under much denser mature secondary forest. Gola North is relatively hilly and steep, which has protected it from intensive logging.

  • A total of 970 plant species have been recorded of which 599 are forest species endemic to the Upper Guinea forests.
  • 49 species of larger mammals are known to exist. The most charismatic mammals of conservation value and significance are the: Pygmy Hippopotamus, African Forest Elephant, Zebra Duiker, Chimpanzee, Diana Monkey and Western Red Colobus.
  • 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 and six are listed as Near Threatened or Vulnerable.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Gola-Tiwai forests lie within the Upper Guinea Forest ecoregion and comprises the largest area of intact rainforest remaining in Sierra Leone. Fragments of the Upper Guinea forests are recognized as internationally important sites for biodiversity conservation through a range of scientifically implemented conservation instruments, including:

  • Global Biodiversity Priority Conservation Hotspot (Conservation International),
  • Priority Ecoregion (World Wide Fund for Nature - WWF) and
  • Endemic Bird Area and Important Bird Area (Birdlife International).

The nomination of the Gola-Tiwai forests as a World Heritage Site is the logical step forward for Sierra Leone to make sure this unique site will be conserved for future 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 global biodiversity conservation value. Recognition as a World Heritage Site would have especially positive impacts for:

  • The conservation of rare and endangered species and critical habitat located on Gola-Tiwai.
  • A boost to the eco-tourism industry in the Upper Guinea Rainforest region bringing more income into local communities for continued preservation incentives.
  • Increasing global awareness and raising Gola-Tiwai’s profile for further potential funding opportunities to preserve biodiversity in the Upper Guinea Rainforest.
  • World Heritage designation would enhance the pride of the Sierra Leonean people in its environment.

Criterion (ix): Gola-Tiwai is located in an area that was a glacial refugium, meaning it was protected from the effects of glaciation during the last ice age. Some glacial refugia were large enough to protect an entire population, while others were small pockets that hosted isolated populations of the same species that subsequently differentiated from each other. These new populations may have spread out and repopulated their former range once the glaciers retreated, relocated to an entirely new location or remained in a refugium. Range restriction associated with refugia is highly correlated with the distribution of endemic species. Endemic species are species with a habitat restricted to one geographic area or location. Species can be endemic to a country, a geographic region or a specific site. In this case, the region is the Upper Guinea Rainforest. Gola-Tiwai has a high level of species richness as well as a high level of endemicity.

While Gola has long been recognized as one of the most important forests in Africa for bird conservation, recent research is demonstrating this to be the case for 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 refuge, which has been most clearly demonstrated by genetic analysis of the herpeto-fauna. The composition of the forest’s Lepidoptera also places the area as a local centre of endemism. Such refuge 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. The forests provide 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.

Processes that contribute to underlying ecosystem services such as the role of invertebrates in nutrient cycling and invertebrates and vertebrates in pollination are amenable to study by comparing conditions on Tiwai to the mainland and by comparing the dispersal and foraging of creatures from the forest into the agri-forest zone.

Criterion (x): The richness of biodiversity is outstanding, yet the forest also proves to harbour exceptional levels of endemism and numerous species which are globally threatened. Gola-Tiwai is representative of the best remaining fragments 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 (Hexaprotodon liberiensis), (a species restricted to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea). The forests are also home to the endangered Western Chimpanzee and Forest Elephant. Despite hunting pressures in the region, primate densities are famously high and diverse (eleven species); significant populations exist on the mainland forests with an estimated 9,000 Endangered Western Red Colobus Monkeys and over 15,000 Vulnerable Diana Monkeys. Relatively high densities are also recorded for 12 species of forest ungulates.

313 bird 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 (Malimbus ballmanni) found here and in very few other sites with effective protection, and White-necked Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus) which only nest on rarely occurring rock faces found under forest canopy. Eight species of Hornbill and the White-breasted Guinea Fowl (Agelastes meleagrides). In other taxonomic groups, recent surveys have recorded 41 species of bats making it one of the most diverse forests in West Africa. Invertebrates included: over 500 species of butterfly, including several new to science in recent years and 140 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies). There are 31 species of fish of which 35% are regional endemics, 43 species of amphibians, 13 species of reptiles, many of which are regional endemics, and over 20 small non-volant mammals. Botanical surveys have identified close to 800 species including well over 300 species of trees. New species to science and first records for the region continue to be discovered within the forests and surrounding landscapes. Since 2009, six new dragonfly species, three butterfly species, one frog and a new species of shrew have been discovered; but many taxonomic groups such as fungi remain yet unexplored.

A field research station was established on Tiwai in the 1980’s and managed collaboratively by Njala College (University of Sierra Leone), Hunter College (City University of New York) and the University of Miami. The main activity was the study of primates and forest dynamics. Research was suspended by the civil conflicts of the 1990s, and some hunting and farming took place, but in 2002s Tiwai was re-established as a combined eco-tourism and ecological research facility. The island is an ideal research location due to the dozens of unique species that thrive there in a nearly undisturbed environment. The community-based tourism initiatives supported by EFA and the Tiwai Island Administrative Committee (TIAC) are committed to long-term preservation of the island.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

a) Gola-Tiwai demonstrates its Outstanding Universal Value through meeting all aspects of criteria ix and x for consideration as candidate for World Heritage Status.
b) Gola-Tiwai has over 700 km2 of protect forest and is the largest intact terrestrial forest block in Sierra Leone. The persistent breeding populations of mammals such as the Forest Elephant demonstrate that its size plus the surrounding corridors and community forests are of a sufficient size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey the property’s significance.
c) While the boundary of forests in Gola-Tiwai have fluctuated since the first maps produced in the 1950’s the core of the forests have remained intact for at least the last 70 years (and probably much longer). The apparent expansion of some forest is due to movement of people away from the countryside and into the cities during the civil war (1991-2001); this trend has been partly reversed, however, rural-urban migration by young adults is altering the agriculture activities in some areas. Population density near the protected areas is relatively low and population growth in the 40 years, 1975-2015, is strongly correlated with the main towns in the region and only modest increases in rural villages.

For the GRNP the overall aim is to “protect the Gola Forest in perpetuity through effective management, sustained funding and ongoing benefits for the local communities”. The Management Plan has to be approved by the Forestry Division and renewed every 5 years as part of 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 (MAFFS), 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 UK 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, all of 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. The most significant threat to the park as a whole comes from increasing populations 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. The REDD+ 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 for the next 20 to 30 years.

Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary is managed by the Tiwai Island Administrative Committee (TIAC), consisting of the paramount chiefs of the Barri and Koya Chiefdoms, other community elders, government officials, academic institutions and environmental organizations including the EFA. A new management plan prepared by an outside consultant has recently (2019) been formulated and agreed by the communities. This sanctuary is exceptional in that it is the country’s only community conservation programme. Given that the island is surrounded by eight communities, one of the driving factors for the establishment of the sanctuary was that the neighbouring communities would shelter the Island from logging, mining and poaching whilst benefiting from community development and livelihood assistance. In line with this philosophy, the relevant Chiefdoms have expressed a desire to maintain Tiwai as an important natural protected area by harmonizing its management with that of the GRNP.

As a community run enterprise Tiwai depends on the income from tourists. Activities are limited as tourist numbers are between 500 and 800 per year, most of these in the period around Christmas and Easter. Forest Guards are employed on rotation from the eight surrounding communities and paid for by funds generated from the visitors. Tourist numbers have been badly affected by unexpected shocks such as the Ebola epidemic and more recently the Covid crisis. EFA has several ongoing projects to continue improvement of Tiwai and are currently developing an in-depth, long term eco-tourism plan; one of the many benefits of this will be to provide an alternative livelihood for the people of Sierra Leone. In addition, eco-tourism will offer a way for the government to rationalise its Natural Resources Management Strategy in a sustainable manner. A Biodiversity and Renewable Energy Learning Centre (BRELC) is currently being designed and a sustainability and business plan being developed for the centre. This will further expand the potential for research and educational opportunities within Sierra Leone. The centre will serve an audience ranging from primary school children to international tourists. 

EFA has deployed substantial effort towards supporting community development and managing the sanctuary as well as rebuilding the infrastructure requisite for a research station, together with Njala University, and to augment TIAC’s capacity to attract visitors to the island. With increased eco-tourism, the project aims to create more opportunities for community development and to highlight the role of these communities in environmental and wildlife protection.

The recognition of Gola-Tiwai as a UNESCO World Heritage Site will also significantly contribute to the conservation and protection of the rainforest and the plethora of plants and animals that inhabit it by increasing income to the local communities and their conservation efforts, and that of eco-tourism in the region.

Comparison with other similar properties

There are currently no designated World Heritage Sites in Sierra Leone. There is one World Heritage Site in the neighbouring country of Guinea, and none in Liberia. The most similar existing World Heritage Sites would be Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve straddling the Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire border, and the Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire. All these are home to populations of Pygmy Hippos, Forest Elephants, Chimpanzees and Diana Monkeys, and are part of what was once contiguous primary forest across West Africa. As they are all in the same eco-region they have many species in common, but as they are located in areas of different weather patterns and topography, they support a different assemblage of species. It is critically important to protect multiple populations of species in order to preserve genetic diversity and account for potential natural disaster or population collapse.

There are several superficially similar properties in Sierra Leone:

  • Kambui Hills, is adjacent to Kenema and is now a peri-urban forest with reduced diversity.
  • Western Area Forest Reserve, originally had vegetation that was similar to Gola-Tiwai but like Kambui it is now a peri-urban forest. The higher mountains are providing limited protection for wildlife and the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary protects a relatively small area of the forest. Plant and animal diversity is currently much lower than Gola-Tiwai.
  • Kangari Hills, has similar vegetation to Gola-Tiwai.
  • Loma Mountains, the lower portion of the mountain is similar to Gola-Tiwai but the vegetation types on higher elevations are rather different and grade into species poor grassland at the highest elevations. The Pygmy Hippo is known to exist at lower elevations and there is still a good population of Chimpanzees. The forests on Loma still exist because access is so difficult, but this also limits the potential for tourism and other income generating activities for the local communities.
  • Outamba-Kilimi National Park is tall grass savannah with gallery forest and is ecologically dissimilar.

In neighbouring Liberia, the Gola National Forest (GNF) (previously known as Lofa-Mano Forest), is 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. Transect and camera trapping surveys in both protected areas indicate differences in the abundance of certain species e.g., Forest Elephants and Chimpanzees 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. While being very similar in terms of biodiversity, the level of management and protection varies greatly between the two adjacent 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, 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 most obvious similarity between Gola-Tiwai and West African World Heritage Sites 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, although Gola-Tiwai is recognised as a centre of endemism for butterflies and herpetofauna. Additionally, Gola-Tiwai and Tai NP respectively lie at the western and eastern boundaries of the Upper Guinean Forest ecoregion and experience different rainfall patterns which is reflected in ecological and biodiversity differences between the two areas.

Gola-Tiwai is remarkable and stands out for its diversity and density of primates, with some of the highest primate biomasses ever recorded anywhere in the world. It is also one of the strongholds of the Pygmy Hippo found only in a few selected rivers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Gola-Tiwai is the last refuge of the Forest Elephant in Sierra Leone, having been exterminated from many other places. The forests are home to a rich diversity of birds with large and stable populations of several endangered species. Gola-Tiwai is a glacial refugia and this results in high levels of endemism. This makes the forests not only unique nationally, but of immense importance both regionally and internationally.