Etta R. Nyemah used to sell bushmeat at the Caldwell Central Market in Monrovia. Selling bushmeat is stressful, uncertain, and bears the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases. Sometimes, the meat Etta already paid for would never come from the forest; sometimes, that meat would be confiscated, as trading bushmeat is illegal in Liberia. But that has changed. She now sells fresh and smoked fish at the market. In addition, she’s going from market to market around Monrovia with other former bushmeat salespersons, acting out dramas, helping others understand why they shouldn’t sell illegal wildlife. And it’s working. The drama series is part of activities undertaken by the “Strengthening Local Communities and the Law Enforcement Network to combat Wildlife and Forest Crime in Liberia,” a project funded by the Delegation of the European Union (EU) in Liberia.
In Tarsla in River Gee County, Jeaty Munnah, has gone from commissioning hunters to bring her bushmeat to sell to patrolling at Grebo-Krahn National Park as a community Eco guard to help stop illegal wildlife hunting. Jeaty wasn’t always looked up to in her community the way she is now. There was a time when, as an impoverished single mother of three, people laughed at her. They laughed at her too when she started the training to learn about wildlife protection. But she passed with flying colours. She learned how to use GPS, patrol, gather information and evidence of illegal hunting. She learned about the wildlife law and why it is vital to monitor illegal hunting, how the wildlife is essential for their community.
“The money I make from working as a community Eco guard has made it possible to send my children to school, build a house, and they now respect me in this community,” Jeaty says with pride.
Jeaty and Etta are not alone. They are just two of a growing number of people who have turned from hunter to gamekeeper with the help of the EU-funded project Strengthening Local Communities and the Law Enforcement Network to combat Wildlife and Forest Crime in Liberia. Last year alone, the project trained 300 people, all of whom form part of a growing network.
Empowering local community members and strengthening law enforcement
The EU-funded project is working on three different fronts. It is working with local communities to control and monitor and lead awareness-raising efforts in protected areas. After the forest patrols, they conduct public education on the importance of wildlife protection to communities. Others are being trained to raise awareness in bushmeat market areas. And finally, the project is strengthening the enforcement of laws to protect wildlife.
When we started this project, says Dr. Annika Hillers, Country Director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Liberia, few people knew about the law or thought it was important. But the project has worked with the prosecution, the judiciary, and the police to help them better understand the law. Before 2019 there had been only one conviction, now they have had 13, and the trend is increasing. Recently, the Ministry of Justice signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forestry Development Authority to combat wildlife crimes. The law enforcement bodies and sanctuaries are better coordinated to tackle the problem. They have established a wildlife crime task force.
The project has also really tried to promote women in the programme. At first, says Annika, “there were no women involved in the patrols, but the project made sure to include them in training. And they have proved very good at the work. When they go to the villages with their male colleagues, they get more information and reach out to more people than if they were on their own. So, it works well, and at the same time, it changes the women’s status in the community,” Annika added.
“Changing the mindset of whole communities is not easy,” Annika concludes. But the work is beginning to bear fruit. They are seeing less wildlife being sold in the markets and on the streets. The communities do see it is vital for the health of the forest to protect the wildlife species. They are interested in developing ecotourism. They have seen that it’s getting more challenging to find the animals with their numbers are diminishing. The communities also have access to alternative livelihood through other projects, some funded by the EU in the same counties, linked with fish farming, rice, cassava, cocoa cultivation, etc.
About the project
The “Strengthening Local Communities and the Law Enforcement Network to combat Wildlife and Forest Crime in Liberia” project is working with local communities to empower them to be actively involved in managing and protecting forest and wildlife resources. The EUR 1,875,000 (USD$ 2.2m million) project is funded by the European Union and implemented by Wild Chimpanzee Foundation. Other partners include the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection, and the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary.