The news that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has resuscitated the board of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) is a welcome development and could not have come at a better time. Our hopes are now that this new board headed by an eminent public servant, Sister Mary Laurene Brown, with proven leadership credibility would no doubt be courageous and innovative in the execution of its duties.
Although one of the smallest countries in Africa, in terms of geography and population, Liberia possesses a large diversity of species, including 2,200 plants, 590 birds, 193 mammals, 162 fish, and a vast array of butterflies. This is according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But these animals are being decimated because of over hunting and because of destruction to their habitats.
The country has the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the environmentally important Upper Guinea Forest region and the animals it shelters are a conservation priority. However, the rate of deforestation and illegal hunting are serious threats to the nation’s rich flora and fauna ecosystems.
Wild animals and the bush-meat trade represent a resource from which a large number of Liberians benefit, unlike the timber and mining industries. This is why the new FDA board should formulate sustainable policies to find a compromise that meets the nation’s biodiversity conservation goals, while integrating the management of these valuable natural resources. These policies should form part of a broader framework that increases national and community management capacity.
President Richard Nixon, more than 40 years ago, when he signed into law America’s endangered species act, said: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life for which our country has been so blessed.” The act passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1973 with barely any opposition. As a result, 1,500 species listed as threatened or endangered are now protected under the law. More than 100 species like the gray wolf, bald eagle, and sturgeon fish have been delisted.
This kind of bold leadership is what the Liberian people require and would expect from a Sister Mary Laurene-led FDA board.
Given that the bush-meat trade is an important source of protein and income to the local and national economies, the FDA should make wild animal conservation a central plank of its forest resource management strategies. There must be a complete rethink with a focus on ecosystems conservation. This new board should be more than overseeing the granting of timber concessions, its priority must be to save wildlife and wild habitats across the country from destruction.
We know that protecting wildlife, given the high rate of poverty in the country, will be delicate. Therefore, it must be done synergistically, interacting with various stakeholder groups. We can talk and chew gum at the same time; we can address poverty and protect our wildlife simultaneously. It can be done!
Since the mid-1980s, Liberia has lost 19,000 forest elephants to poaching, reports CITES. “The poaching of Liberia's elephants has cut the population by 95% leaving only 1,000 elephants” currently roaming our lush forests. We can’t wait for these species to be in the “emergency room” before protecting them. At the rate at which the elephants have declined, wildlife conservationists believe it may take almost 100 years or longer for them to get back up to previous levels. The FDA board should solicit help from all statutory agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and local conservation groups to cooperate toward a comprehensive common set of goals of conservation.
Decision has to be made on the best available science and the data now shows that more than half of Liberia’s endemic species are threatened with extinction. We are rapidly losing elephants, zebra-backed and Jentink duikers, and manatees. We need to protect these animals urgently before we lose them for good.
We can protect our animals and natural resources through science, conservation, education and management led by the new FDA board. Together we can change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony.
The Sirleaf Administration, like all other administrations before it, has been less engaged with endangered species conservation. Sister Mary Laurene Browne and her colleagues can reverse this trend and establish the President’s conservation legacy. Natural resource and land management laws need to be reformed. We need some innovative laws on the books to protect our wildlife, mammal life, wetlands, and forest ecosystems, and prevent large-scale poaching.
By focusing on ecosystem, we can protect many species from the brink of extinction. Therefore, the board should push the FDA management to move to a more ecosystem-based management system, it would be a better habitat conservation system.