By Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville
10 April 2016
GOLA FOREST, Sierra Leone (Al Jazeera) – Beneath the dense forest canopy, Vandi Konneh carefully picks his way along the rocky footpath. Beads of sweat gather at his temples as he scans the undergrowth for signs of the poachers who roam here. Working as a park ranger in the remote Gola Forest in southern Sierra Leone is a dangerous business, but Konneh is not afraid.
A muscular 36-year-old with piercing eyes and high cheekbones, Konneh is one of a small band of ex-militia fighters from the country's 11-year civil war, who now use their skills and experience to preserve the forest.
Walking deeper into the trees, Konneh is alert as he examines the nearby plant life.
"If we encounter any armed poachers, lie flat on the ground," he says. Just a month earlier, another ranger was treated in hospital after being slashed with a machete during an encounter with poachers.
Pausing, Konneh breaks a small branch from a shrub on the right of the path.
"We ate this during the war to suppress our appetite and to help us focus," he says, chewing on the plant's fleshy interior. […]
Spanning seven chiefdoms and 70,000 hectares near Sierra Leone's border with Liberia, Gola is one of the last remnants of the vast rainforests that once stretched for 2,000km along the humid West African coastline.
Spindly trees stretch up to a high canopy that casts its shade over the leaf-strewn forest floor. Clouds of delicate copper-coloured butterflies swirl drunkenly in the heat.
A global biodiversity hotspot, the park supports about 1,000 plant species, nearly half of which are endemic, as well as more than 330 recorded bird species, primates, forest elephants and the exceedingly rare pygmy hippos.
But the forest is constantly under threat as a result of poaching by surrounding communities, for whom forest animals, such as primates, are a valuable source of protein. Illegal logging and gold mining also pose challenges.
"One of the challenges is that a lot of people want to do mining and some people are solely dependent on hunting," said Mana Ibrahim Swaray, the park's acting manager.
"Poachers are a very big threat to us." [more]