An Interview with Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng, Founder of Herp Conservation Ghana
Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng was the first formally trained herpetologist in Ghana, and has become a global champion for Ghana’s biodiversity, particularly its unique and threatened amphibians. He is the founder of Herp Conservation Ghana, the latest partner in our Amphibian Programme, and has been working to save Atewa Forest, one of the highest priority ecosystems in West Africa, from mining since he first visited it and fell in love with its wildlife in 2006.
What is the biodiversity like in Ghana?
Ghana is an amazing place in terms of its biodiversity. We are not a landlocked country, so we have the sea, the coast, then the forest and then as you go north there is the savanna ecosystem. This is where I was born and raised, and where I grew up in a national park, the wildlife was visible. You could see them and interact with them.
Since I have become a conservationist, I have mainly worked in forest ecosystems. The Atewa forest is particularly special to me. The first time I worked in Atewa Forest was in 2006, when the government was thinking of mining the reserve for bauxite. I was still a very young student, I had just finished my BSc, and I was called upon as an assisting scientist to a senior herpetologist to conduct a Rapid Assessment Programme of the site. It was a three week expedition, until then I had seen the forests from afar but this was the first time that I slept in the middle of a rainforest. It was life changing.
The lead herpetologist was from the Ivory Coast, and we were asked to work together because we were both supervised by the same German professor (Mark-Oliver Rödel). We worked both in the day and in the night. The other team members who were studying birds and mammals and other species all went out during the day and then came back at nightfall, lit a fire, got a beer or a Coca Cola, had dinner and a chat. But when it got to 8pm, me and my supervisor would leave again for night-time surveys.
Why did you have to go back out at night when no one else did?
It’s actually easier to detect some frogs, particularly those we call tree frogs, at night because that is when they are more active. Their mating calls can be heard and these will lead you to where they are and then you can identify them. If you want to have a good idea of the amphibian diversity of an area it is good to combine day-time searches with night-time searches.
So what kind of species did you find during the day?
There are leaf litter frogs, small brown frogs which live in the leaf litter, which you can find in both the day or the night. We would also use the day hikes to earmark areas that we would then search that night. It was a new area, very hilly with gullies and remnants of bauxite drilling activities, so it was not a very safe place to go out into at night unless you had familiarised yourself with the terrain. So we would head for those places we had identified during the day when we went out at night, and often while we were on our way there, we would hear calls and our torches would pick up reflections of frogs or other animals.
It was also on this trip that we thought we had discovered a new population of the long-lost Togo Slippery Frog!
Your very first expedition and you rediscovered a species! That’s a high bar to set yourself!
You’re right! It was. I remember that night very well, because it was very scary. The camp was uphill, and when we left we went deep down into the valley, down and down, walking along the stream to the very base of the mountain on a side we had never been on before. It felt very adventurous, being so far away from the camp. Then it got to about midnight and it suddenly became very cold, and the wind began to blow.
It was maybe about 20 degrees – which for us is very cold! Then there were owls calling, and occasionally night-time birds would swoop over our heads – it was like a scary part in a Harry Potter movie –with a bu-bu-bu-bu-bu noise of their wings. Then we heard this eerie whistling call… and we’d been told stories of the forest, scary stories about spirits, and that night I really believed it. I thought there was something supernatural in this forest, I was really afraid!
Only to realise that the whistle was a frog! It wasn’t a spirit at all. So we looked and there it was, sitting on a stone in the middle of the stream: the Togo Slippery Frog.
Did you know what it was straightaway?
Not at first. We knew that it was from the Conraua genus, one of the slippery frogs. But there is another species, Conraua alleni (Allen’s slippery frog), that was relatively common in the Western part of the country. So we knew we’d found a Conraua but we didn’t know if it was the Conraua derooi (the Togo Slippery Frog) or the alleni, and it wasn’t until later it was confirmed as the Togo Slippery Frog, which had not been seen for forty years.
However, now we know that it wasn’t even the derooi, it is actually a new species to science and the new description will be published soon! We are almost ready to publish the new species name, and I think it will be named after the paramount chief in the area in the hope that he can put in a word for us against the planned bauxite mining of the forest. We had also considered naming it after the Sagyimase community that has been so supportive of our conservation efforts.
But I haven’t finished the story! One of the things I remember very well about that trip was how cold the Atewa forest was – even the westerners slept with sleeping bags – and, on top of that, was the rain. We did not have very good tents at the time, and it rained almost every day. We had these flat foam mattresses and they would get wet, some of them only a little, or half wet, but some were soaking. And I would get back from our work in the middle of the night and all the other researchers would have taken the drier mattresses – leaving me with the wettest one!
A high price to pay… but you did discover a frog!
Yes, we did, and despite the damp and the cold, I really fell in love with the place. I’d primarily focussed on frogs because they are so threatened and I felt they were going extinct, and nothing was being done about it, which really concerned me. This was the main reason that I decided to pursue a career in amphibian conservation.
It was this time in the Atewa Forest that I really fell in love with frogs. I came into contact with so many species of frogs of all different colours from black and yellow to green and red. At night I would stand in the forest and listen. The night chorus in Atewa Forest is like a frog orchestra. I had never experienced anything like that in my lifetime. It became a relationship about love from that point, not just concern for them.
Listen to the frog orchestra of Atewa Forest:
Since you had that first experience in Atewa Forest, your career as a conservationist has returned to it again and again, and now the campaign to save Atewa is all around the world. What has been happening since your first visit in 2006?
During that survey I became aware of the threats facing Atewa. The biggest one was the bauxite mining that was going to take place. Then there was the illegal logging and hunting in the reserve. Almost everywhere you went you could hear the sounds of trees being cleared.
So I put a team together and we went back there. I spent a couple of years studying the Togo Slippery Frog and documenting other frog species in the reserve. During this time I realised that I needed to get the local community behind the conservation of the forest. It was one thing to visit the reserve and have this incredible experience, but how do you engage other people who can equally act to protect this forest? How can you get them to feel how important the forest is, and get them to support its conservation?
Is this when you started the Conservation Evangelism programme?
Yes, I went out to the nearby towns and started an awareness raising programme through visits to churches and reaching out to people through their religion.
I’ve been going to church most of my life, so I’m very familiar with the scriptures. But it’s not just Christianity, I go to Islamic mosques as well. It’s a very effective way to reach people. Even though I have to run from congregation to congregation, I try to go early so I can listen to the sermon and then when I speak, I can begin by connecting my message to whatever the preacher said that day, and from there I can begin to talk about conservation and try to tell them what the Bible or the Quran says about conservation.
Then, when the issue of mining arose again, it wasn’t difficult for the NGOs (led by A Rocha Ghana) to mobilise communities because for a long time we had been raising awareness for conservation of Atewa Forest.
What is the situation with Atewa and the mining at the moment?
I have to be honest, right now, it is not looking good. In 2008 we were lucky that the company that was going to mine was a very responsible one, and after the Rapid Assessment Programme report they were not comfortable to continue with the mining.
But now the new government is very determined to mine it. The whole issue has been shrouded in mystery. They have not been very transparent about it but we know that in the last year they reopened the mining roads and have been making it difficult for researchers to go to the reserve. There has been talk of another Environmental Impact Assessment in the reserve, which means that plans are quite far along and they really intend to push forward with the mining.
So what is Herp Conservation Ghana working on right now?
One thing I dread is crypto-extinctions – when a species goes extinct before we know about them. So I am passionate about discovering as many of the species in Atewa as possible, because once we know about them we can do something to save them.
So that is what we are doing, in collaboration with Synchronicity Earth. We are establishing a long-term amphibian monitoring programme in Atewa Forest. I feel that there is a lot more to discover and protect, if we can, in the reserve before the mining begins.
Some of my previous research led to discovery of the frog which I named after my mother, the Afia Birago Puddle Frog, and on the basis of this research (which shows that 95 per cent of the population of this Critically Endangered frog lives in Atewa forest), it will be designated an Alliance for Zero Extinction site. Once that is done, it gives us an even stronger case to continue fighting against the mining of Atewa.
So far we’ve identified four sites and have done some initial surveys. Unfortunately we missed the major rain season but we’ve already found at least one more species of frog which was thought not to occur in eastern Ghana. We actually believe it might be a new species, but we are waiting on genetic studies to confirm. All this is only from a few surveys!
What is the next step?
These surveys are one part of the work we are doing with Synchronicity Earth’s support, and the other is an ex-situ conservation programme.
In the scenario where we are unable to stop the mining, the as yet unnamed slippery frog we discovered may not survive. It lives in the streams that come from the top of the mountains, and once those streams are sedimented or degraded by mining, these frogs will have no chance. So we are building a captive breeding programme in collaboration with the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana. Once it is complete, we will be able to take individuals from the wild into this programme in the hope that we will be able to reintroduce them. If the mining happens this may be the only chance this species has to survive. So it is quite a critical time to do this programme before it is too late.
So going back a little… if the slippery frog you discovered in Atewa in 2006 was a new species, what happened to the Togo Slippery Frog? Has it been found?
Yes, it has, and we now know that the true Togo Slippery Frog only exists in the easternmost part of Ghana, in the Togo Volta Highlands along Ghana’s boundary with the Republic of Togo. I was once again lucky to be part of the team that found it. This team was led by Annika Hillers who now works for the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Liberia. As the local member of this team, the organisation that I founded (Herp Conservation Ghana) has since been working with communities and government to protect this slippery frog .
When Herp Conservation Ghana first visited the sites harbouring the last population of the Togo slippery frog in Ghana, it was all abandoned land and degraded forest. We were able to successfully convince the local people and the government to establish a protected area, but the degradation remained. Local people there have a practice of ‘shifting cultivation’ due to the nature of their soil. They farm the land for two or three years and then clear another patch of forest. So a lot of this forest has already been severely degraded and for the long-term survival of the Togo Slippery Frog we need to restore it.
With support from Synchronicity Earth’s Amphibian Programme, we have established a community nursery and we have already planted lots of seedlings, which are doing well. To make sure that this project succeeds in the long-term (which is a situation where communities are continually restoring what they have degraded in the past and protecting their endangered species) they need to be actively involved in the project. So what we have done is engage young people from the communities in conservation, inspiring them and training them to implement conservation actions. We call them our Behavioural Change Champions.
When I’m visiting a community, I prioritise my time with these young people. I train them with my team, I pour my passion into them, I try to help them understand the issues and what needs to be done. Then in my absence, they go to their churches and speak to the congregation, they go house to house, and they wear these yellow and green fancy t-shirts that say ‘I love frogs, ask me why’ and people come and talk to them. In their spare time they patrol the reserve, restore the degraded habitats, and weed around the young planted trees.
This kind of care is so important. So many trees are planted each year in my country, because politicians love to say “I planted a thousand trees” and leave it at that, but most of those trees never survive because nobody is taking care of them.
Taking care of the trees is the hardest part of any forest restoration programme and that is why I am so proud of the our Behaviour Change Championship programme, because they voluntarily go out there and look after the trees, they take photos to send us and they are very proud of their young forest.
When we have funding, we send them stipends. However, most of the time we don’t but they still go out there and do it, and we are so happy that they care as much as we do.
As the Founder of Herp Conservation Ghana, someone who spends so much time engaging with and training young people, you are a huge source of inspiration for conservationists. But you were the first formally trained herpetologist in your country… so who inspired you?
I was very close to my father. I have a family of my own now, and some of the things that my father did for me, I appreciate now how hard it was to do.
He worked as a ranger in the national park I grew up in, as second in command. But my father saw beyond ‘I have to do this because it is my job’ and thought ‘I have to do this because it has to be done, and if I don’t, no one else will’ and I admired that so much in him.
One thing I am sure about is that I got my love for wildlife from the exposure I had, growing up in a national park with my father the ranger. He was so, so, so close to me. I can’t begin to tell you how much he meant to me, I loved him so much. I was the lastborn for seven years, and he kind of pampered me, carrying me around with him everywhere, and he passed on when I was seven years old.
I couldn’t believe it. I always felt like he was going to come back. Over and over, he will come back, he will come back. I feel that death and extinction are very similar. I can’t stand the idea that a species will go extinct and be gone forever.
The thought of this unique species of slippery frog with its big bulging eyes, eating with its hands, living in its stream… gone. Gone for good, with us looking for it for a year, two years, five years, ten years and never seeing it ever again, I can’t live with that.
It comes back to what I learned from my father… if I don’t do it, no one else will do it, so I have to act. Fortunately I have been able to spread my crazy passion to my team here, who are in this with me to try and turn things around.
I think if he was here, he would do exactly what I am doing. Probably more. I’m sure about that.
If you had another opportunity to name a frog, would you name it after him?
I named my daughter after him, but he definitely also deserves a frog!
My mother is still here, though, and as I never got a chance to express how much I loved my father before he passed away, it was very important to me to show my mother how much I love her, as she is still here. She has been through a lot, and I wanted to show her how much I care about her and appreciate all the hard work and trouble she has been through after my father died to keep us in school. She made us who we are, we couldn’t have done it without her. So that’s why she got the first frog! The Afia Birago Puddle Frog. But yes, the second one… There are a few new species that are awaiting description! Certainly one of them will bear his name.
Our Amphibian Programme is expanding and currently taking on many new exciting organisations dedicated to protecting amphibian biodiversity around the world, like Herp Conservation Ghana.
And if you’d like to hear more from Caleb, he is also a Trustee of Conservation Optimism. Caleb was recently interviewed for their Good Natured podcast about why he is a conservation optimist, and you can listen to the 25 minute podcast episode here.