On an unusual Tuesday morning in Western Area National Park , two important ministers pay a visit to Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary.
Bala, the man behind the sanctuary, along with his right hand man Aram, led them throughout the grounds, explaining why the forest and the chimpanzees ought to be further protected. For Bala, and many others, the current state of conservation and wildlife protection in Sierra Leone is deplorable. Despite efforts by the parliament in 1995 signing the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, ratification is still pending. This is because the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1972 is outdated and insufficient to protect chimpanzees and other wildlife, preventing this policy from becoming officially valid. The newest law made to prohibit the capture, killing, and possession of chimps only burdens offenders with a maximum fine of $1,000 US dollars, or jail time.
Tacugama sanctuary was established in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran to provide refuge for confiscated chimpanzees, and to stop poaching.
Chimpanzees have been, and still are under threat, from either being hunted for meat, or to capture infants. The bushmeat and pet trade industries both greatly impacted the delicate population of chimpanzees, as they have very low reproductive rates. Siera Leone was for many years a major exporter of live chimpanzees, shipping animals to Europe, Japan, and the United States for both biomedical research and entertainment industries.
“Now is the time for Sierra Leone, we are taking off.”
The government system currently consists of what is known as the ‘Cabinet of Sierra Leone,’ who’s members function as official advisors to the President. These members are also known as ministers, and each are responsible for a different sector of the country, for example, the minister of finance. Cabinet members are nominated by the president, and there are currently 27 of them, many of whom we got the chance to meet briefly at the President’s house (also known as The State House).
During this tour of the sanctuary, both ministers became further convinced of the importance of chimpanzees, forest protection, and conservation in Sierra Leone. Not only are chimpanzees keystone species, playing a critical role in maintaining the health of the entire forest ecosystem, but they are also great for tourism. Ecotourism has great potential in Sierra Leone, providing a safer, more sustainable, alternative to the traditional mining industry. Moreover, it will help rebrand Sierra Leone, putting it on the right path for development and growth. While the memories and damage from the civil war and Ebola crisis will likely never fully fade, ecotourism provides the potential to further repairing the past, while also building a strong future.
With detailed explanations from Bala, and from witnessing the chimpanzees in the sanctuary, it was clear both ministers were very moved. (Despite being pelted with stones at one point by the feisty adolescent chimps, which caused quite the spectacle, and was highly amusing for the volunteers and those observing.)
The ministers agreed on the importance of further extending and protecting the Western Area Forest Reserve. They also recognized the the stark connection between tourism and keeping the forest healthy, which in turn will provide a suitable habitat for chimpanzees. Only three days later the chimpanzee was officially declared the national animal of Sierra Leone— a huge victory! Now being the national symbol, the people of Sierra Leone will have a greater incentive to protect these animals, and there will be more legislation and enforcement to stop poachers from continuing the bushmeat and pet trade industries.