The trees had been there a year ago. He was very sure he had seen the forest and the long-necked white birds perched and chirping melodies that only they could understand.
A year after, he returned to the same spot to stroll through the Akwamu Forest in the Eastern Region of Ghana, the vegetation and the birds that attracted him there were gone – probably the handiwork of illegal chain-saw operators.
Then he heard a flock of birds flying over his head as though someone was after them; he moved forward and suddenly a tree fell. With his heart in his mouth, he took to his heels before the chain-saw operators came after him. He had heard tales of chain-saw operators killing even Forestry Commission officials. He was, therefore, not about to become a victim.
Across Ghana, the white-necked Picathartes are endangered as a result of the destruction of their habitat. The activities of illegal timber loggers and bad farming practices, as well as hunting are threatening the existence of these rare species. Until 2003, it was thought that the birds had gone extinct.
To save the situation, the breeding of white-necked Picathartes is currently underway as part of a project to conserve the Akwamu Gorge Forest and the Akwamu Hill Community Forest project.
As the brainchild of the Akwamu Heritage Conservation Trust, financed by a group of businessmen with conservation interest, the project is envisaged to provide a future site for scientific research.
The project would not only protect the birds, which are flagship species in the Akwamu forest, but conserve the fauna and flora of partially degraded 3,500 hectare site.
A Conservation Biologist, Dr Erasmus Henaku Owusu, who is providing technical support for the project, estimates that there are about 20 birds in the Akwamu forest.
Dr Owusu explained that the conservation of the Akwamu Gorge Forest was of prime national and local importance, with the forest having the potential for ecotourism development and promotion.
“We are using a model based on responsible tourism through the use of the guiding principles of creating a shared value of integrated sustainable development that is environmentally, socially and economically responsible,” he said.
Ecotourism promotion at the Akwamu Gorge, he added “can improve local livelihoods through direct and indirect employment and the establishment of tourism-related enterprises. Any development activities shall be done in consultation with and involvement of communities and community leaders.”
It is envisaged that the project will employ tour guides and community relations officers, visitors reception staff directly, but more importantly, the engagement of the local people in auxiliary service will be paramount.
“It is going to be a purely community-based natural resource management project with active participation of the local people,” Dr Owusu said.
A project committee, which has been instituted, has all its members drawn from the local community, while six guards, mostly former hunters, have been employed to undertake preliminary patrol to check encroachments.
The leaders of the Akwamu Traditional Council, who are part of the heritage conservation trust, have given their full support for the project.
The Paramount chief, Odeneho Kwafo Akoto, lauded the project and stated that he would provide all the necessary support needed for the project to be a success.
The Akwamu Gorge Forest is recognised as a fragile ecological zone of significant biodiversity importance. It is a recognised protective cover for the micro climate of the Volta Lake area and for the Volta Basin as a whole.
For years, the conservation and protection of the Akwamu Gorge forest and the surrounding flora and fauna has been a major concern.
As a conservation tool, a major rationale is that the activities will be on a small scale and locally owned.
Dr Owusu is sure the project will provide a source of financing for conservation of the area and provide the local people with economic alternatives to encroachment on the protected area.
Apart from ensuring ecological sustainability and minimal impacts on the environment, Dr Owusu is of the view that it would build constituency to promote conservation; and stimulate local sustainable development in surrounding communities.
Work done so far
At a meeting to brief the traditional authorities, on May 11, 2014, Dr Owusu outlined the activities undertaken so far to include the development of a master plan and an overall site plan.
In the past two years, baseline data on species in the area has been completed.
Botanical gardens and the designs and concepts for cultural celebration and learning spaces have also been done.
Through cooperation with technical and scientific experts and in conjunction with the Department of Botany of the University of Ghana, seedlings propagation and soils analysis have also been completed.
Preliminary surveys for the Botanical Gardens site topographic and electric cart path to a plateau and Canopy Walkway site have also been completed.
Corporate Social responsibility
Apart from the short-term and permanent employment onsite for the local people primarily from the Akwamufie and Atimpoku townships, the good news for the people in the catchment area is the plan to support traditional subsistence farmers.
Both the men and women who will be engaged for jobs such as tour guides and rangers, cleaners, receptionists, among others, will receive training before they commence work.
The project also includes the development of an internship and training programme for all hospitality staff at Senchi Royal Resort.