Watching wildlife in Gola Rainforest National Park
A dense, uneven root system covers the ground. The mossy stones are moist and slippery. An army of ants crosses your trail. A lizard disappears into the forest undergrowth. Keep your eyes on the ground and plan each step carefully. Your attention frees your mind. You become one with the jungle.
About an hour ago you left the Lalehun Lodge of the Gola Rainforest National Park in the dark, your flashlight illuminating the narrow trail in front of you. Now the day is awakening. The first rays of sun are breaking trough the trees.
Your guide finally stops and tells you to look through your binoculars. Close to a huge rock you can detect movements between the branches. A colony of White-necked Picathartes birds is greeting the new day. The muddy patches on the rock overhang are their nests.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List, Picathartes are a vulnerable species. They live in rocky jungle areas of West Africa, usually close to rivers. In Sierra Leone, some people believe the birds to be protectors of the rocks to which they attach their nests, and that these rocks are the homes of ancestral spirits. And indeed, there’s something mystical about the birds.
The Gola Rainforest National Park is one of the largest remnants of the Upper Guinean Tropical Rainforest. Tourists, who visit the park, usually come from Kenema, the largest city in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. From Kenema, dirt roads lead to Lalehun, Balebu (both are about 40 kilometers from Kenema), and Sileti community, which is about 70 kilometers from Kenema. The park is around five hours by car from Freetown.
Gola is a paradise for birdwatchers: more than 300 species live in the park. Several are endangered or face global risk of extinction, for example the Gola Malimbe and the Rufous Fishing-owl. Agricultural activities, mining and deforestation have threatened their populations.
But birds are not the only forest inhabitants. Gola is a biodiversity hotspot. On a tour through Sierra Leone’s ‘Green Diamond’ you have the chance to walk in the footprints of forest elephants, you can hear the calls of chimpanzees, see duikers and monkeys, and – but only if you are really lucky – catch a glimpse of the endangered Pygmy Hippos.
Between August 2012 and December 2014, the Gola REDD project has prevented the emission of almost 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide. REDD stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation’, and its basic concept is simple: the communities and the government are rewarded if they protect their forest instead of cutting it down.
Watching wildlife in the Gola rainforest is not like visiting the Kruger National Park in South Africa or the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Gola is a true adventure. Most likely, you will be the only tourist. Don’t go into the park without a good guide. Prepare yourself carefully. Bring enough water and don’t forget your mosquito repellent. Wear long trousers and rubber boots.
The animals in Gola Rainforest National Park won’t ‘pose’ for your the camera like the giraffes and gnus in Kruger or Ngorongoro. Sierra Leones’ chimpanzees, for example, are afraid of poachers and will usually avoid humans.
Watching wildlife in Gola is like playing hide and seek: you need time and patience. But it’s worth your effort. Nature will uncover its secrets and you will experience magic moments in the jungle.
By: Claudia Christine Wolf