Ghana is doing well in sub-Saharan African terms but most Ghanaians still face difficulties. There are great pressures on the country’s flora and fauna but Ghana has a diverse nature conservation sector which is demonstrating how prospects for both people and wildlife can be improved in tandem. Reflecting on his last visit to the country, Julian Branscombe considers some of the key issues. 

Ghana is welcoming and vibrant, like Papa Westray, the Orkney island where I live. Otherwise, Ghana couldn’t seem more different to me, from street vendors endangering their lives dancing between the cars paused at road junctions, to the half-built houses strewn across the countryside, many of which will never be finished.

I’d spent the summer of 1989 studying rainforest birds in south-west Ghana. I didn’t leave Europe again until I returned to Ghana in July 2017 to catch up with wildlife and nature conservation in the country. When I was first there, Ghana was eight years into a period of military rule. In 1992, it returned peacefully to the ballot box. Ghana’s ‘Fourth Republic’ has stuck – 25 years on, it is a mature democracy. In December 2016, Nana Akufo-Addo of the liberal centre-right New Patriotic Party won the presidential election, wresting power from the social democratic National Democratic Congress.


The nation is an African success story, with reasonably good main roads, a health service, improving education, and a history of relatively strong economic growth. It is still a Lower Middle Income Country but it has the second highest Human Development Index of the 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States, after the Cabo Verde islands.

Ghana achieved a number of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ahead of the 2015 target date. The MDGs have been superseded by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which now set the international development agenda. In April 2017, the UN Secretary-General appointed President Akufo-Addo of Ghana to co-Chair the SDG Advocates group, along with the Norwegian Prime Minister.

The population of the country doubled between my visits – from 14 million to 28 million. Around half of the country’s population is engaged in labour-intensive farming. Much of this is for subsistence, but Ghana is a huge cocoa producer, second only to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire in this respect. Other cash crops include palm oil, shea butter, and cashew nuts.

A Ghanaian cocoa farmer. Image: Rberchie [CC BY-SA 4.0]

A range of manufacturing also takes place but industrialisation is limited. Levels of digital connectivity are high in African terms but the country lags far behind the global average. The decision to dam the River Volta, taken following the country’s independence from the UK in 1957, led to the creation of the largest reservoir in Africa, causing considerable environmental damage. The dam still provides hydro-electric power but the country’s demand for electricity continues to outstrip supply.

Whilst the economy is dominated by agriculture, the mineral wealth ranges from gold and bauxite to the offshore oil that has been discovered in recent years. The country’s recent economic performance has been closely linked to oil prices. Although much of the national debt was cancelled in 2005, subsequent government borrowing has meant that loan servicing has re-emerged as a significant problem.

There is considerable inequality in every part of Ghana. The northern regions still have a majority living in extreme poverty. Extremely basic housing is prevalent throughout the country, and even the casual tourist can’t help but be struck by the marginal nature of many peoples’ lives. Corruption is also an issue of concern, with public probity being one of the key issues that President Akufo-Addo has recently campaigned on. Ghana’s latest Corruption Perception Index rating (2016) currently scores Ghana as 43/100 (in contrast to the UK at 81/100). Having said that, the country scores consistently better in this respect than its other West African neighbours.

A roadside rubbish tip outside a small town. © J. Branscombe

A visitor to Ghana can’t ignore the plastic strewn everywhere today – the use, and discarding, of plastic has risen massively since my visit in 1989. The heaps of rubbish along roadsides horrified my environmentalist sensibilities. However, a moment’s reflection brought it home to me that waste disposal is far from the greatest priority for people, or the nation as a whole, at this point. This is a country where the majority of homes lack running water and basic sanitation, where youth unemployment is at high levels, and the median wage is tiny in western terms.

The first primate thought to have become globally extinct in modern times is Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey, found in south-east Côte d’Ivoire and south-west Ghana until late in the 20th century.

As there is little livestock farming in Ghana, bush-meat is highly valued. Consequently, substantial levels of poaching occur, even in some protected areas. It is hunting for meat (on the back of habitat degradation and loss) that is on the verge of driving species such as the chimpanzee to extinction in the country. Indeed, the first primate thought to have become globally extinct in modern times is Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey, which was found in south-east Côte d’Ivoire and south-west Ghana until late in the 20th century.

Bush-meat being sold at the roadside, in this case a greater crane rat, a rodent which is one of the most popular sources of bush-meat in Ghana. © J. Branscombe

Young chimps are also prized for the lucrative but illegal pet trade, as is the African grey parrot. As recently as the early 1990s, over a thousand parrots could be seen at individual roosts in Ghana, but now the species is almost extinct in the country. Bobiri Butterfly Sanctuary is the only location where visiting birdwatchers can still see the species. On my recent visit there, I saw just three grey parrots – I also saw a makeshift ladder which a parrot trapper had nailed up a 40-metre high tree to reach a roost hole.

Pangolins (bizarre armour-plated insectivorous mammals) are also at particular risk. Trade in pangolin scales and meat to the Far East makes up 20 percent of the world’s illegal wildlife trade, more than the trade in rhino horn and ivory combined. This has led to a catastrophic decline in the numbers of all three of Ghana’s pangolin species.

Trade in pangolin scales and meat to the Far East makes up 20 percent of the world’s illegal wildlife trade, more than the trade in rhino horn and ivory combined. This has led to catastrophic decline in the numbers of all three of Ghana’s pangolin species.

The savanna regions in the north of Ghana are relatively impoverished. Susceptible to drought (despite being south of the Sahel), these areas have low agricultural productivity. Rainforest clearance for agriculture is driven by the current 2.2 percent annual population growth rate across the country, and by the continued influx of farmers giving up on the north in favour of virgin land where forest can be cleared in Ghana’s wetter south-west.

Also moving southward is a constant procession of overloaded charcoal lorries. Rural dwellers in the north are steadily depleting the standing timber from what was savanna woodland, making charcoal which feeds domestic stoves. Much of this is transported to the cities.

Behind a loaded charcoal lorry heading south. © J. Branscombe

Logging, under government licence or illegally, remains a big activity in the forest region although the timber resource is much depleted. A total of 16 percent of the country is designated for natural resource management, mainly as official forest reserves. However, farming now prevails in some forest reserves whilst large areas have been replanted with non-native teak, providing a timber monoculture which is effectively a ‘green desert’ for native wildlife.

Farming now prevails in some forest reserves whilst large areas have been replanted with non-native teak, providing a timber monoculture which is effectively a ‘green desert’ for native wildlife.

Rainforest should be largely evergreen and fire-resistant. However, the fire risk is escalating. Rainfall has reduced (perhaps due to forest loss combined with wider climate change), whilst logging and farming have allowed more flammable species such as the alien Devil Weed to move in. Fires don’t just affect fragments of forest surrounded by the ‘slash and burn’ shifting cultivation. In 2016, Bomfobiri Wildlife Sanctuary was devastated by fire whilst still recovering from the massive damage wrought by fires in the severe drought of 1983.

What place can nature conservation take in a country which has such challenges?

The Ghanaian government has long had a series of nature conservation sites such as National Parks, currently administered by the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission. Some of these beautiful oases of wildlife habitat – like Mole and Kakum National Parks – are well-visited. Others attract few people at present, meaning that the visible benefits are perhaps less apparent as there is no tourism income to show.

This is perhaps reflected in the political decision to dam the Black Volta. Waters from this dam (which was completed in 2011) now flood around a quarter of Bui National Park, drowning riparian woodland and affecting the hippopotamus population. In addition, Ghana’s current fiscal squeeze inevitably affects spending on statutory conservation – there are reports that some sites are now very under-staffed.


Ghana’s government has a history of being outward-looking, quick to sign international agreements on climate change and biodiversity. It was an early adopter of REDD+. This stands for: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation + Conservation and Sustainable Development (hence the attractiveness of the acronym…).

REDD+ is a mechanism developed from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By putting a financial value for carbon stored in forests, it creates an international income stream to halt and reverse deforestation in developing countries. The potential of this approach is significant, but as is so often the case, tangible outcomes can be so much harder to achieve in practice.

It may look good but it’s a ‘green desert’ for wildlife. The edge of a teak plantation in an area which was formerly rainforest. © J. Branscombe

In Ghana, land tenure arrangements, and the role of chiefs and their ‘traditional authorities’, represent just some of the long-standing difficulties with the enforcement of forest and wildlife legislation and policy. Furthermore, the level of carbon storage doesn’t necessarily equate with wildlife value – REDD+ measures could actually reduce wildlife value where degraded forest (with a range of native species still present) is wholly replaced by non-native single-species tree plantations.

Ghana has been at the centre of the development of Fairtrade chocolate which guarantees cocoa farmers a premium price, and also investment in community services. However, Fairtrade certification does not preclude agriculture-led deforestation. Rainforest Alliance certification offers an alternative model based not on guaranteed prices but on providing assistance with productive, environmentally-sensitive farming. A wildlife corridor of ‘climate-smart cocoa farming’ is being trialled to link forest blocks. But it will take time, and a sensitive approach, to establish what model of incentivising farming is best to balance Ghana’s social, economic, and environmental needs.

It will take time, and a sensitive approach, to establish what model of incentivising farming is best to balance Ghana’s social, economic, and environmental needs.

The country has a relatively long history of voluntary nature conservation organisations. Ghana Wildlife Society (GWS) is the country’s largest wildlife NGO. Its origins date from the early 1970s and it now has about 25 staff. GWS is the Ghanaian partner of BirdLife International. Amongst their many projects, they are working with the RSPB (the UK BirdLife International partner) on the conservation of migratory birds such as wood warbler, a species which breeds in Scotland’s Atlantic oak forests but migrates to the forests of Ghana.

As their website indicates, GWS seeks to ‘address threats to wildlife and nature for improved quality of life for all people’. In recent years, a number of other Ghanaian conservation NGOs have formed to pursue a similar vision.

Some Ghanaian charities, like the Nature & Development Foundation (NDF), have a strong emphasis on policy. The NDF concentrates on forest conservation through influencing REDD+ and forestry management standards (e.g. as quality-marked by the Forest Stewardship Council). It also highlights problems such as illegal forestry, and the trade in endangered timber species.

Religion is also a part of Ghana’s development and conservation picture. It plays a big part in most peoples’ lives here; the country is 71 percent Christian and 18 percent Muslim. Traditional religions also hold sway to an extent and religious tolerance is the norm. A Rocha Ghana – a conservation charity which is Christian in its motivation – was formed in 1999. Its National Director, Seth Appiah-Kubi, told me: “We think the poor communities that live around Ghana’s protected areas are not resourced enough themselves, leading to conflict over access to natural resources.”

For over ten years now, this has been the basis of A Rocha Ghana’s work. It is focused on providing alternative livelihoods for rural communities which had been putting unsustainable pressure on local natural resources. A Rocha has helped various communities to increase their agricultural yields (especially through wildlife-friendly farming methods), and has encouraged sustainable sources of income such as bee-keeping, the domestication of ‘grass-cutters’ (the greater cane rat which is one of the most popular sources of bush-meat in Ghana), and the growing of saleable plant species such as the Afromomum shrub, which has spicy seeds.

The Atewa Range Forest Reserve. © J. Branscombe

The Atewa Range Forest Reserve is home to a wealth of rare and threatened wildlife. This biodiversity hotspot, and the communities who use the area, are a focus for the work of A Rocha Ghana. They partnered with international expertise in ‘costing the earth’ so that a Natural Capital assessment could be undertaken. This extensive report showed that Ghana’s national interest was best-served by identifying the Atewa Range as a National Park, not just due to its importance for wildlife and the benefits it brings to local people, but also because it secures water supply for the five million people within its catchments.

The change in government at the start of 2017 soon helped the margins of Atewa and its watercourses. Illegal gold mining (‘galamsey’) had been rife in the area but a government-led crackdown on this practice was effective. Nearby streams no longer run orange from mine pollution.

Ghana’s new government went to China last year, returning with a memorandum of understanding – it is understood that this will open up areas to mining in return for China Development Bank investment.

However, the Atewa Range is rich in bauxite. Ghana’s new government went to China last year, returning with a memorandum of understanding – it is understood that this will open up areas to mining in return for China Development Bank investment. Ghana has other bauxite deposits but there are great fears that the Atewa Range will now be strip-mined to meet the global demand for aluminium. A Rocha Ghana is leading the campaign to save the hills for the sake of millions of Ghanaians, and for wildlife such as Atewa’s very recently discovered population of an endangered monkey, the white-naped mangabey.

The remains of an illegal gold mine on the edge of Atewa Range. It was abandoned after the 2017 government crackdown. © J. Branscombe

The Executive Director of SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana, Gilbert Adum, is another conservationist who is fully behind the campaign to save the Atewa Range Forest Reserve. Since 2009 though, much of his work has been at the Sui River Forest Reserve, the only place in the world where the giant squeaker frog can still be found.

By 2013, Gilbert’s research into the frog’s ecology had made it clear that reforestation work was essential. This got off to a difficult start though, as Gilbert explained:

“A third of the first 2,000 native tree seedlings we planted in disturbed areas of the Forest Reserve died. It was only later, when I got to know the local people better, that I realised that they had been quietly killing the young trees because they depended on being able to hunt and farm illegally in the Forest Reserve.”

Gilbert continued:

“I found I could relate to the locals. Some of them even spoke the same Kasem language as me, as they had come from Ghana’s northern regions like me. I had grown up hunting throughout the dry season – this was the only way to provide for our family between harvests, as my father had done, and his father before him. When we got to understand each other, they explained they could only survive if they could find another source of income. We discussed it and I agreed to get financial support for them to start bee-keeping, and they would help replant native trees.”

The work of SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana at Sui River is ongoing. In recognition of his sustained contribution, Gilbert has been honoured by being made one of the local Chiefs.

Gilbert’s love of wildlife had developed from learning about nature whilst hunting. Returning to Ghana in 2017, I took a private tour with Ashanti African Tours and their expert birding guide, James Ntakor. He was exceptional – not only could he identify everything, he was also incredibly sharp-eyed, spotting birds sitting in the rainforest’s criss-cross maze of branches, twigs, and leaves which had been completely invisible to me.

How did he do it? Well, as a child growing up near Kakum National Park, he was off hunting in the forest whenever he could. This is how he developed his near-supernatural field skills.

My guide James Ntakor stands by the buttress roots of a kapok tree. © J. Branscombe

Ashanti African Tours has shown commitment to the principles of ecotourism from its very inception. The company is doing well, in part because Ghana is the most popular destination for birdwatchers in West Africa, thanks to its stability, welcoming attitude, and the huge range of birds that can be seen.

Ghana’s star bird is the white-necked picathartes. This rare magpie-like species nests under a few rock overhangs in Ghana’s forests. This is a real draw for birders who all want to visit the world’s only accessible picathartes site, near the villages of Breku and Bonkro in Ashanti Region. There, Ashanti African Tours pay local guides to escort people to see the birds. The company’s commitment to the community is such that it has answered the call to build a new primary school to serve the villages.

The school that Kojo is building, This project represents an excellent example of how ecotourism can work well for locals. © J. Branscombe

The company has also set up a charity – called Rainforest Rescue Ghana – which is spending tour profits on building and equipping the school. The project is overseen by Joseph Frimpong (known as Kojo as he was born on a Monday), alongside his main job as a driver for Ashanti African Tours. Kojo told me that the attitude of local people to the forest around the Picathartes nest-sites has been transformed since visitors first started coming. This is one small, but positive, example of how ecotourism can make a bigger contribution in the future.

Ghana is wonderful. But seeing the harsh realities faced by the Ghanaian people, and the challenges facing its wildlife, has made my visits there bittersweet. President Akufo-Addo came to power just over a year ago on the back of an economic slump which has undermined the country’s finances. 2017 saw considerable progress but the President still has much to deliver on his campaign promises regarding jobs and education – I wonder what this will mean for Ghana’s wildlife as well as its people?

International investment will be essential for the President’s modernisation agenda. If this is sought without care, it could affect people and the environment from which they benefit, in conflict with the Sustainable Development Goals to which the country is so committed. The situation is very challenging. But the pioneering work of the country’s conservation charities demonstrates that bright prospects for people and wildlife can go hand-in-hand. That is where I find hope.

Julian Branscombe lives in Papa Westray, Orkney. He currently works as a nature conservation consultant in the UK whilst providing some pro bono support for Ghanaian NGOs. He enjoys Papay’s community life and the island’s rich natural history. Mail him at: Find him on Twitter at: @julianbrans Read Julian’s most recent trip report from Ghana – Birds and the odd bug or two – birding Ghana with James & Kojo. July / August 2017 – by clicking here.

The author would like to thank everyone who he spoke to in Ghana about nature conservation, including: Gilbert Adum; Seth Appiah-Kubi; Kwame Boafo; Daryl Bosu; Joseph Kojo Frimpong; James Ntakor; and Mustapha Seidu.

Feature image: The white-necked picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus). Its presence in Ghana has underpinned a modest, but successful, local ecotourism venture and shows how wildlife conservation can help local communities. Image: Michael Andersen [CC BY 2.0]