Through ‘conservation evangelism,’ Caleb Ofori-Boateng hopes to prevent mining in the ecologically rich Atewa Forest
By Molly Bergen on June 11, 2021
As the son of a park ranger who eventually became an assistant warden of Ghana’s Mole National Park, Caleb Ofori-Boateng spent his early childhood on West Africa’s savannas, looking for wildlife with his father and competing with troops of baboons to find the ripest mangoes. But when Ofori-Boateng was only seven years old, his father “died under very mysterious circumstances” Ofori-Boateng says. “As a child I thought he would always come back, but he never showed up … I became deeply concerned about things that cannot be reversed.”
This experience laid the foundation for what would become Ofori-Boateng’s life’s work: Today he is the first formally trained herpetologist in the country, working to ensure that the amphibians of Ghana’s Atewa Forest and other valuable ecosystems will not suffer a similar fate.
The founder of Herp Conservation Ghana, Ofori-Boateng decided to focus his love of nature on amphibians when he realized that “there was no Ghanaian fighting for the frogs.” In 2005 he first read about the amphibian extinction crisis, and he started learning about herpetology in any way he could. He read scientific papers and emailed the authors in hopes of learning how to identify frogs; most didn’t reply, but a few who did became important mentors for him. And of course, he got out in nature whenever he could. Eventually Ofori-Boateng learned to identify more than half of Ghana’s nearly 80 frog species by their calls alone.
His first experience in a forest ecosystem came when Ofori-Boateng participated in a 2005 Rapid Assessment Program survey of the Atewa forest, one of the most intact forests remaining in West Africa that is home to over 100 species at risk of extinction. Spending 21 days camping in the forest was difficult; Ofori-Boateng would go out after sunset, stumbling through the trees on steep slopes to search for frogs, and then return to camp to sleep on a wet mattress. But the experience was well worth it. “What was incredible was the biodiversity. I’d never seen so many frogs in one place before.”
It was on this expedition that Ofori-Boateng and colleagues found an amphibian they first thought was a rediscovery of a species that hadn’t been seen in years, the Togo Slippery Frog (Conraua derooi), which is now classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is as genetically distinct from other amphibians as bats are from giant pandas. They later realized that actually it was a species never before known to science.
Like other residents of the Atewa Forest, this frog population would almost surely be destroyed if the government proceeds with its plans to mine for bauxite, the main ingredient in aluminum.
Because bauxite mining essentially rips up the forest floor, moving forward with this activity in a region that is not only ecologically unique but economically valuable would be catastrophic. A 2016 report found that protecting this forest and a buffer area around it would have the highest economic value of any activity over 25 years — largely due to the drinking water supply it provides for more than 5 million people, including 1 million in the Ghanaian capital of Accra.
Ofori-Boateng saw no evidence of active bauxite mining on his most recent visit to Atewa in February 2021. “But prior to the pandemic when I was there, they had reopened all the old mining roads and they were restricting access to the place, and everything was shrouded in a lot of secrecy.” While it’s possible that the pandemic has temporarily halted the mining plans, the Ghanaian government continues to express its interest in mining the forest.
However, it’s now facing a new hurdle: in early April Atewa joined the list of Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites, a designation given to places that are home to more than 95% of at least one species listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered on the Red List. Under the International Finance Corporation, AZE sites are a “no-go” area to fund mining and similar activities. The species that triggered this new designation is the Afia Birago Puddle Frog (Phrynobatrachus afiabirago), which Ofori-Boateng discovered in 2017 and named after his mother.
Ofori-Boateng likes to use the term “crypto-extinction”: when a species goes extinct before scientists even know it exists. “There are reserves in Ghana that have been basically written off, they have been so degraded that no conservation organization wants to put effort there now,” he says. “Yet we knew nothing or very little about the biodiversity, the species that called this forest their home years and years ago, or that still may be hanging in there, hoping that somebody comes to save them. At least if we know the species are there we can make a plan to save it, but how do we do that if we don’t know they’re there?”
To protect this forest and the species that inhabit it, Ofori-Boateng knows he can’t do it alone. He needs to pass on his passion and commitment for conservation to his fellow Ghanaians. Part of this he does through mentoring students one-on-one, and through the three-week ecological field school program that Herp Conservation Ghana organizes for young conservationists. The other part involves working with communities to instill that love of nature and understanding of its value.
“There’s a lot of local taboos that forbid the eating or hunting of certain animals, for example, or going to certain forests during certain days or cutting certain trees, and these all in the past have helped protect our wildlife,” he says. “But the challenge now is those are changing, mostly because people have found new belief systems, like Christianity or Islam.” The old beliefs were “based on that fear relationship; people did not care for the forest because they loved to do so, it was because they were afraid. And once those belief systems are eroded, there’s really nothing to protect the forest.”
In an approach he calls “conservation evangelism,” Ofori-Boateng meets with communities from churches and mosques and highlights verses from the Bible or Koran that emphasize the concept of environmental stewardship. By talking about conservation in terms people already understand, he hopes to grow the local movement of Ghanaians fighting to safeguard these ecosystems from destruction.
“The experiences that I had growing up have made me so passionate, but it’s not something that comes naturally for those who may not have that privilege,” Ofori-Boateng says. “It’s not just about imparting knowledge, it’s about imparting passion. It’s about enabling people to see what I see, and to love and to be equally committed to conservation as I am, because I won’t be around forever.”
Since beginning her career as a zookeeper, Molly Bergen has spent more than 10 years telling stories for a range of environmental NGOs. Covering everything from turtle nest guardians in Cambodia to community forests in the Congo, she is particularly passionate about conservation projects that create a "win-win" for both species and local people.