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Saving Hippos – Changing Lives

Feb 28, 2012

Residents of the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary Share Their Stories

It was a simple concept – create a sanctuary to save hippos – and over a decade ago, the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary was founded to do just that. Nestled along the banks of the Upper Black Volta River in the northwest corner of Ghana, on the border with Burkina Faso, the sanctuary protects one of only two remaining hippo wallows in the entire country.

Living with Africa’s most dangerous animals in your backyard wasn’t easy. The hippos’ watery home was also a primary source of drinking water, and crops planted close to the river for easy irrigation were often eaten by hungry hippos at night. Conflicts between people and hippos were inevitable – something had to change.

In 1998, the chiefs and elders of 17 communities came together and embraced a new model of conservation that would protect the hippos and help their people. With help from the Calgary Zoo, two distinct zones were created along a 40-kilometre stretch of the river – one zone for humans and one for hippos. Boreholes were dug to provide fresh drinking water at seven sites throughout the sanctuary. Finally, hippos and people could peacefully co-exist.

But that was really just the beginning of the story. Over the next 13 years, true to the connectedness of the natural world, a safe haven for a single pod of hippos grew into a refuge for hundreds of other species – bats, lizards, birds, monkeys, antelopes, insects and plants. In the process, an award-winning example of community-based conservation was born.

"Since the sanctuary was established, my life has changed completely."

“The key to the sanctuary ’s success is the marriage between biodiversity conservation and community development,” says Kevin Strange, the zoo’s Head of Conservation Outreach. “The 10,000 people in the 17 different villages in the sanctuary know that the improvements to their quality of life – new schools, clean water, lighting and employment – have all happened because they have a hippo sanctuary.”

Tungbani Agba, Head Tour Guide

If you want to identify one of the 250 different bird species in the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary, Agba Tungbani is your man. Maybe the best birder in Ghana, Agba was a mason before the creation of the sanctuary turned his personal passion for wildlife into a new career.

In 2001, when ecotourism in the area was still in its infancy, Agba became one of the sanctuary’s first volunteer tour guides. Since then, Agba has been sharing his knowledge and passion for wildlife with sanctuary visitors on a full-time basis as one of 12 tour guides. “Since the Sanctuary was established, my life has changed completely,” he says.

“The most rewarding part of my work is studying the birds. I have learned them very well and now I can teach visitors to Ghana about what I know.” When he’s not working with tourists, Agba uses his wealth of knowledge about the sanctuary’s animals to research the diversity and abundance of birds and insects in the sanctuary.

Inspiring people about wildlife and sharing the work the sanctuary does to protect it is Agba’s job, but he often takes his work home with him as well. Helping the next generation – including his own children, Ibrahim, Mumaizu and Beduwa – learn about the importance of protecting wildlife and the positive impact it can have on the land and the people is vital.

Salifu Salimata, Wechiau Village Representative, Organic Shea Cooperative

Just like almost every woman in the region, 53-year-old Salifu Salimata, learned how to collect shea nuts from her mother when she was five or six years old. Collecting nuts is hard, physical work, and before Wechiau’s shea nut collective was established, it could be risky too. If the going market price was low, women often walked away without making any profit for their hard work.

Salimata is one of 1,445 women registered in the sanctuary’s new organic shea cooperative. She harvests her shea nuts as she has always done, but now delivers them to a secure compound that meets strict specifications to ensure nonorganic nuts don’t creep in. The collective sells the nuts to a fair-trade partner that provides a guaranteed price for their product and access to the organic international cosmetic market. Women also receive at 15 per cent organic premium for the total nuts sold to the cooperative each year.

With two children and three grandchildren of her own, Salimata says the coop has changed her life and that of her family. She is always able to sell her nuts at a good price and is now one of two representatives for her village at the coop’s meetings.

These little nuts could be the key to securing the sanctuary’s future in the long term, generating as much as $50,000 per year to fund the annual  operating budget that pays staff and funds the lodge, research, infrastructure, maintenance and operations.

Baryiri John Minle, Scholarship Recipient and Future Teacher

Baryiri John Minle, now 21 years old, was among the first students to benefit from two primary schools built in the sanctuary with the help of the Calgary Zoo. “I enjoyed the good teachings from my teachers and love to learn,” says John. “My favourite subject is English, and among the core subjects that is my best.”

John was always an excellent student, but as high school approached the future of his education was uncertain. “It was very important for me to get a scholarship because it would have been extremely difficult for me to pay the school fees without this assistance.”

John was awarded a scholarship and made the most of the opportunity. After three years of high school, he finished in third position in the whole school. He turned this into a bigger opportunity and qualified to be trained as a teacher in a four-year program in southern Ghana. When he finishes, John will return to Wechiau and teach in his community.

Education initiatives, including new schools, community environmental education projects and scholarship programs have resulted in increased literacy rates, created interest in higher education and resulted in careers for lighting technicians, mechanics, hospitality workers, naturalists, teachers and small businesspeople. Improved education is also helping children learn more about their natural environment and the value of having the hippo sanctuary in their backyard.

From the Winter 2011-12 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.