Dr Terry Brncic reports back from her team’s most recent census visit to the Outamba Kilimi National Park (OKNP) in the north of Sierra Leone on behalf of Tacugama:
Outamba Kilimi National Park is currently the only national park in Sierra Leone. Located in the far north of Sierra Leone on the border with Guinea, it is divided into the larger Outamba section in the east and Kilimi section in the west of northern Bombali district. The terrain is relatively flat with low rolling hills and plateaus offering excellent views across the spectacular landscape.
The vegetation is primarily open parkland, with tall elephant grass and enough trees to offer some shade and give chimpanzees somewhere to nest. With good visibility we were able to see many animals, including buffalo, red-flanked duiker, olive baboons, Maxell’s duiker, black & white colobus monkeys and Campbell’s guenon. We observed many elephant signs, including fresh tracks and dung, but weren’t lucky enough to spot an elephant.
We also came close to chimpanzees, hearing their calls and finding very fresh droppings, but they were too elusive for us to actually see. At the end of the dry season the brittle elephant grass and crackling leaves usually gave our presence away despite our efforts to move quietly.
We split into four small teams, each with a local guide, covering 2 km of transect each day and meeting at a new camp most nights. To move all our supplies and food for two weeks in the Outamba section we needed 13 porters. We were a big group, 28 in total, providing some much-needed employment for the communities living outside the park borders.
May is the end of the dry season in Sierra Leone, and this year seemed to be a particularly dry one. From the eastern side of Kilimi, where normally there should have been a river about 150 meters wide dividing Sierra Leone from Guinea, the still water sat in hot stagnant pools. We were able to step over the river at a point where it was a foot wide and walk into Guinea, which was fun for the team as it was the first time most of them had ever been out of Sierra Leone, even if only a few, unofficial metres! Water shortages were common in many of the villages we visited inside and outside of the park.
In all we walked 82 km of transects between the Outamba and Kilimi sections of the park and found signs of many animals, including hundreds of chimpanzee nests. The chimps most often nested in the thin strips of riverine forest but we also found many nests in the savanna woodland. The nest counts on the transects will help us get a good estimate of the chimp population in OKNP and because there are few villages outside of the park, it is likely that there are significant chimpanzee numbers across most of northern Bombali district. We will investigate this when we come back to survey the rest of the district.
OKNP has a lot of potential for tourism for Sierra Leone. The open woodland allows great views of animals: monkeys and baboons are common, elephants and chimps are present, hippos can be seen from a river boat ride, there are great birdwatching opportunities, and plenty of hills for stunning scenic overlooks. The park is easily accessible on foot and the headquarters is being developed beautifully to house visitors, offering a good base for in-park trekking.
Unfortunately there are some serious conservation issues within OKNP and the relationship between the communities and park management is strained. When we arrived, park guards had not been allowed to circulate in the park for the last three months because of threats from the communities in the Outamba section and poaching has become a serious issue. Unlike whene we were in the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve near Freetown, we did not come across a single snare, but every night we heard gunshots. Guns are easy to obtain from Guinea and we even came across a gun trader moving openly in the park during the day.
Bushmeat is an important source of income for the communities in the park, and we know chimpanzee meat is a part of that. One of our teams found the remains of a skinned chimpanzee in a hunting camp the Kilimi section. Each year the park is essentially burned to clear the elephant grass. It is unknown what long-term effect this has on the biodiversity or whether it is feasible to control the fires. Communities in the park are also clearing land for farming and the farms also attract animals that can then be hunted more easily.
It’s a tough situation for a poor country to address. Park guards desperately need training and support in order to have any impact on poaching. We were pleased to see the evidence of chimpanzees that we were expecting but it is also clear that this beautiful area urgently needs a lot more investment and support to function effectively as a national park and for the protection of the wilderness and wildlife to be successful.
Terry’s team are now surveying in the Loma mountains, the home of Sierra Leone’s highest mountain – Mount Bintumani (1947m), in Kailahun district. Expect the next report from them at the end of this month.