The Calgary Zoo has been a primary supporter of the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary since its formation in 1998, and has been privileged to help it grow and flourish. At its origin, the Wechiau sanctuary was created when principal chiefs and elders of the Wechiau area recognized a need to preserve one of West Africa’s last remaining healthy hippo populations.
Linking protected area management, species conservation, and community development, this pioneering project encompasses a multi-pronged approach with major activities such as scientific study, conservation of endemic species, rural governance and land management, socio-economic development, ecotourism and economic diversification for the local communities. This initiative was no small feat, but with the support of the zoo and other partners, their determination has brought positive results over the long term.
Not only did the conservation of the hippo result in the additional protection of other wildlife in the area, but benefits such as ecotourism initiatives brought the first signs of economic prosperity to these hardworking communities- and can be held up as a successful model for other communities around the globe. The Wechiau sanctuary’s success (visitor numbers boast of about 2,000 tourists per year) makes it possible for staff salaries and the maintenance of buildings, boats and other holdings to be financed through gate sales alone. The Calgary Zoo Centre for Conservation & Research has supported and encouraged this local effort by collaborating in the building of schools, installation of solar panels, and the drilling of boreholes for safe drinking water.
To buttress this success, and to add economic security, a second environmentally friendly source of revenue has been added to the Sanctuary. The Organic Shea Cooperative allows the women of the 17 Sanctuary communities the opportunity to organically harvest shea nuts for the creation of organic shea butter an internationally popular cosmetic product. Local women have been harvesting shea nuts and creating shea butter for many generations, both for home use and to sell in the market. Unfortunately, the majority of the shea women are illiterate, and as a result were frequently robbed of their profits.
In order to combat this problem, and to add value to the conventionally harvested shea nuts, organic certification was secured for the Hippo Sanctuary women and a shea cooperative established. To date, 1,500 card carrying co-op members have been selling organic shea nuts. And now, they have the opportunity to build their own organic shea factory.
The construction of this factory makes it possible for organic butter to be produced on site. Butter is a more valuable commodity than are the raw shea nuts, and, as a result, local women will enjoy a further improvement to their economic conditions by selling butter instead of nuts. The construction of the factory (scheduled for 2014-2015) has added jobs for both women and men, and, on its completion, organic butter production will bring a welcome environmentally-friendly industry to the area – improving lives and preserving the environment.
By continuing to support environmentally sound business models that empower trade and economic development in rural West Africa, partners like the Calgary Zoo can help alleviate poverty and empower locals to engage in further conservation initiatives. We’re so excited to witness this next great step in community conservation!