Poaching and Illegal Logging Are Wiping Out Ghana’s Birds

Researchers find the African country’s bird population has fallen by half since 1995 while deforestation has increased 600 percent.
Illegal logging in the Krokosua Hills Forest Reserve in Ghana. (Photo: Nicole Arcilla)
Sep 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The biodiversity-rich forests of Ghana should be full of the cries and chirps of dozens of native bird species. Instead, the only sound you hear at night is gunfire.

“You feel like you’re in a war zone,” said Nicole Arcilla, a postdoctoral researcher at Drexel University who spent weeks in Ghana’s forests studying and counting the country’s birds. The bullets, she said, weren’t aimed at people. “It’s not humans versus humans,” she said. “It’s humans versus all other life.”

Poachers and illegal deforestation have taken a terrible toll on Ghana’s wildlife. Previous studies have shown dramatic declines in many of the country’s mammals. Now, a new paper by Arcilla and other researchers has found that the situation is just as bad for Ghana’s birds. According to their research, the number of forest birds has declined by more than 50 percent since 1995. The number of species has also fallen.

During that same period, the level of both legal and illegal logging has increased 600 percent.

“The logging is so intense that it’s literally deforestation,” said Arcilla. “Within a generation they’re all going to be gone. It’s just a terrible tragedy if we let it happen.”

The population of the olive sunbird in Ghana has fallen 50 percent since 2000. (Photo: Nicole Arcilla)

While they were in Ghana, the team managed to observe 46 forest bird species, compared with 71 species that one of the researchers—Lars Holbech of the University of Ghana—observed during a previous study in 1995. Each of the species they did find this time occurred in significantly depressed levels, sometimes as much as 90 percent lower.

Although they knew deforestation was taking a toll, the researchers were not prepared to find such a dramatic drop in Ghana’s bird population. “It was pretty jaw-dropping,” Arcilla said.

According to previous research cited in the new paper, as much as 80 percent of Ghana’s logging is illegal. Not only does this directly destroy the birds’ rainforest habitats, but it also creates roadways for poachers to enter previously inhospitable areas to collect animals for the bushmeat trade.

RELATED: This Rare Bird Is Worth More Than Ivory to Poachers

“Everywhere we went there were wire snare traps, which are completely banned in Ghana, but they’re everywhere,” Arcilla said. “Even the smallest amount of law enforcement could change that, but there isn’t any.”

The worst thing about this, Arcilla said, is that the people of Ghana—whose population has quintupled since World War II—need to turn to this illegal lumber because virtually all of the legal lumber is exported out of the country. “It’s almost impossible to buy legal timber in Ghana,” she said. “It would probably be healthier if they reduced the number of exports, but they can make more money by selling to foreign countries, because people in Ghana are not as rich.”

Arcilla’s research did reveal some good news. Even with population declines, the forests still held many of the species that they once did. “If they’re allowed to recover, they can recover,” she said. The researchers say urgent measures must be taken to protect Ghana’s forests and the species that still live there. Suggested actions include forest patrols and roadblocks to prevent further incursions.

“These problems can be solved,” Arcilla said. “Ghana is a resilient, vibrant country. There are a lot of people in Ghana who will help solve these problems if they are supported by the international community.”

One possible avenue for that support could come from eco-tourism. “Ghana is a great destination for birders,” Arcilla said. “It’s safe. There’s no Ebola. There’s no war. It’s pretty easy to see birds if you go at the right time of year. If the poachers and loggers see that other people are interested in the forests, sometimes that’s all it takes to keep them safe.”