Supporting small communities to manage huge hippopotamuses


The Black Volta in Wechiau is the home of Hippos and it is protected for sustainable development. Credit: Justice Baidoo

On the fringes of Ghana’s north-western border with Burkina Faso lies a breathtaking haven for the country’s only surviving hippos.Wechiau, a community located in the Wa West district of the Upper-West Region, is not only home to some 18 hippopotamuses, which have survived the harsh environment and poachers. It is also home to the local Wala and Lobi people, both of whom have an intriguing culture and way of life.

In 1999, when the chiefs and people here began conservation efforts along a 40-kilometer stretch of the Black Volta, there were only two hippos after years of indiscriminate hunting of the globally endangered species.
But now the area is a world class sanctuary. There are now more than 250 species of birds and countless animals ranging from baboons and hedgehogs to chameleons and pythons.

Visitors to the sanctuary love to see the hippos and the birds, but for many it is the combination of the wildlife and an immersion in local community life that make the visit a truly memorable experience. There are few places in the world that can offer eco-tourists such amazing insight into indigenous African life in such an unspoiled and beautiful environment.

Highlights

  • Wechiau is home to some 18 hippopotamuses, more than 250 species of birds and countless animals ranging from baboons and hedgehogs to chameleons and pythons.
  • UNDP has invested $70,000 (USD) through the Global Environment Fund in order to support integrated community management, sustainable development and the protection of natural resources in the Volta River Basin plan.
  • Despite laying 650 kilometers from the national capital of Accra, receives 150 about visitors weekly.

Wechiau is unique in that the hippo sanctuary and the surrounding areas are managed, regulated and developed through the efforts of the local community, with minimal support from outside.  Locals are eager to share their way of life with all visitors to the sanctuary.

Since 2000, the UNDP has invested $70,000 (USD) through the Global Environment Fund in order to support integrated community management, sustainable development and the protection of natural resources in the Volta River Basin plan. The aim is to create a safe haven for the hippos while benefiting the local populations with community investment and jobs.
Community conservation committees were formed and trained in six communities in the river’s catchment areas on conflict resolution mechanisms and strategies in natural resource management.

These lessons were build on traditional institutions, participatory community-based land use planning and the use of ecological sacred groves and riverines along the Volta –  Ghana’s longest river.Visitors’ reception centers were initiated by the local communities alongside a hippo observation center. A four-room guesthouse in Wechiau is near completion now.

The Equator Prize
There is huge global interest in the stunning wildlife at the Wechiau hippo sanctuary. In 2008, it received two awards from the prestigious United Nations Equator Prize. The award recognizes the best examples of projects that reduce poverty through biodiversity. The UNDP supported three chiefs from the community to travel to Barcelona, Spain to receive $20,000 (USD) as prize money on behalf of their communities’ residents.

The money has since been directed into making the sanctuary more economically viable, as well as being used to open up enterprises that help the surrounding communities benefit from the project’s positive multiplier effects.  With proceeds from the sanctuary, for example, the community was able to construct a brand new basic school.


National lesson
Naa Danyagriu Walaman-I, chief of Wechiau, says he thinks the award-winning model of Wechiau must be replicated in other parts of the country where tourist sites abound. “People who are blessed with natural tourist sites must own them,” he said. “They must be supported to build their own capacities in managing them. Technology is important to ensure that anybody from anywhere would feel at home visiting. When this is done, then people will begin to understand why they should help conserve their environment. We, in Wechiau, have set the example – and the nation can learn from us.”

Today, Wechiau, despite laying 650 kilometers from the national capital of Accra, receives 150 about visitors weekly.