Thursday, April 19, 2007

A wild(life) adventurer

Mary Morgan , 11/04/2007

Amongst the young fliers taking to the skies in Kwahu over the weekend was a somewhat older one; Dr Torben B Larsen, 63, a Danish butterfly expert who is renowned the world over for his pioneering surveys. Indeed, he even has a butterfly named after him.

Dr Larsen is not new to flying, he says, as he reminisces about a 1930s-produced dual glider he had tried in India which "had an uncanny ability to fall like a rock," and tells me about the time he "accidentally" went parachuting when he fell from a moving aircraft on a butterfly expedition.

His wildlife exploration, and his former career as a family planning consultant, has taken him to over 80 different countries - and he is no stranger to adventure.

But Dr Larsen's presence here today is in fact one of chance; the result of a recent email exchange with the paragliding "legend" behind the Pepsi-Ferdinand Ayim Hang and Paragliding Festival, the third annual such event, which took place at Atibie in Kwahuland over the Easter weekend.

"I was in Kenya and Tanzania, investigating a mass migration of butterflies, when I received an email from Walter to say that he had spotted butterflies at a height of 3,500km when he was gliding," Dr Lawson explains. "The next email came from Ghana, and I said, 'What? Ghana? I am going to Ghana next month."" – and paragliding can be excellent way to catch high-altitude butterflies.

It is also an example of the increasingly diverse base Ghana’s newest tourist attraction might hope to attract – daredevil sportsmen alongside professional naturists, travelling volunteers alongside curious Ghanaians.

According to Dr Lawson, it might even serve to preserve some of Ghana’s rich wildlife resources: because who wants to paraglide over a slashed and burned forest?Butterfly haven

Dr Lawson is as a "specialist" should be: grey, bearded, rugged, posh but irreverent – "un-bloody-believable" he exclaimed, as the first flight of the day soared into the sky – and above all, passionate.

Who would have thought butterflies could be so cool? We had begun our discussion over breakfast and continued as we ascended the bumpy road to the top of Kwahu Ridge. Dr Lawson is going to jump, and he has his butterfly net ready to see what he can catch.

But besides the paragliding today, why Ghana? I ask a man who made his first visit here some four decades ago, and who has returned countless times since to study its forests, often with a team of volunteers in tow. Certainly, tourism planners keen to encourage more eco tourism in Ghana might be interested to know.

Dr Larsen began studying the wildlife of West Africa when he realised quite how little chronicled it was – and this remains the allure for many nature pioneers, keen to explore a place rich in species, poor in research.

The first of his many authoritative studies was a book on Kenyan butterflies in 1992. "Then I looked at the map and realised that nobody has any possibility of identifying West African butterflies," he told me. "There are millions of them sitting in museums all over the world, but they have never really been treated in any comprehensive manner."

He started in 1993 on a five-year project to write a definitive book on the butterflies of the sub-region; from Mauritania to Nigeria. The five years dragged on into 10, 12 – and the book was finally published in 2005.

During the years of that study, Ghana was an obvious place to focus – both because of its biodiversity, and because of its stability; for "logistical practicability," as Dr Lawson says. The forests of Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire may have offered a similar environment, ecology-wise; but even for a natural explorer, there must be limits.

Dr Larsen had first visited Ghana in 1967 and came back twice in the next 20 years in his role as a specialist in the development and evaluation of family planning and health programmes for the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Now, he travels to Ghana several times a year, spending a month or so every time – and he is even considering making Ghana his base for a while.

"I did 65,000km in a car that I bought for $2000 in 1993, and I’ve never had an untoward moment in Ghana."

Dr Larsen’s current interest in Ghana is in the Bobiri Butterfly sanctuary, 50km north, where he was heading later on Saturday afternoon for a reception with President John Agyekum Kufuor. He is working on a project he describes as the 2100 butterfly survey – a comparative study of some 600 species of butterfly which can currently be found in the area, and the number and variety of butterflies which remain in the year 2100.

Dr Larsen is in the process of establishing the baseline for the comparison, bringing together a "whole lot" of volunteers, he says – butterfly enthusiasts from around the world – to undertake the work.

The quantity and range of butterflies in Bobiri is quite extraordinary, he tells me, compared, for example, to the just 60 species which can be found in the whole of his native Denmark. Of the world’s 20,000 species of butterfly, 930 of them have been identified in Ghana. Expanding eco research and eco tourism

As Ghana strives to attract more nature and wildlife visitors, the reception met by Dr Larsen has always been one of welcome and support, he says, with the willing collaboration of the Wildlife Division in Ghana particularly conducive to his work.

"I was more or less adopted by the Wildlife Division," he says, which has decided to have a liberal policy on granting collection permits to all butterfly enthusiasts to facilitate their work. "If people look serious, they will get permission to collect and to export butterflies."

"I did many other places [for the West Africa study], but I used Ghana as the place where I could actually see the butterflies in their natural habitat, and I’ve spent hundreds of nights just lying on a camp bed in the forest."

For Dr Larsen, both serious and amateur interest in wildlife has increased dramatically since he has been working in the country. And now, the first Ghanaian researchers are beginning to work on butterfly projects, based out of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi.

Eco and wildlife tourism – the focus of national tourism policy – has also grown tremendously, and Dr Lawson has even been involved with improving some of the visitor facilities, working with Conservation International in the establishment of the visitor centre at Kakum National Park.

At the request of the then-director of the Wildlife Division, Dr Lawson and a company called A Brush With Nature also organised the first ecotourism tour to Ghana, for a group of 14 American butterfly collectors. "It was quite difficult then, in 1996, to find the necessary reasonable hotel accommodation;" even those which did exist, in the rural areas they visited, very rarely had electricity.

"If we were doing the same trip today, there would be no problems," he says, although more formalised training for hotel staff and receptionists would improve the experience. "You come to places that have reasonably substantive structures, but management has no idea of what should happen." Protecting our assets

There are concerns, however, that the flourishing interest in wildlife and ecotourism in Ghana might suffer if the country continues to treat its natural resources with the callous disdain many environmentalists lament.

"Of the original forest area in West Africa, only about 5 percent of that is left in really good condition" says Dr Larsen – and some of the best of this can be found in Ghana’s national parks.

In 2005, Dr Larsen was assigned by the Wildlife Division to produce a report on the butterfly species in the country’s national parks and areas that might be included in the national parks.

"The national parks are good; they have nice forests, they have certainly maintained their biodiversity of all types. But I would likes to see a little but more of the forest as formal national parks. Ghana’s forests include Global Sites of Biodiversity, but they are not being given any special treatment."

Of particular concern is the Atewa Mountain at Kyebi, and the Atewa range forest which is, "by far the most biodiverse and one of the most interesting places in Ghana." At 8,000 ft above sea level, the upland evergreen forest is actually a remnant of some conditions that were unique hundreds of thousands of years ago. "There are species up there which are found up that mountain, and then only re-found in the high mountains of Cameroon and Uganda."

But the mountain is not only rich in wildlife; it is also mineral-rich – and the two have rarely co-existed happily. Made of bauxite, the Government seems willing to open it to mining if it is viable, Dr Larsen says. "If it were to be mined, the whole forest would go completely, and I would consider that a tragedy."

He also points out that the people living in the area, including the Paramount Chief, are also "dead against it" because they say that when the mining stops, it will cause an incredible disruption to their water supplies.

Tano Orphen is a similar forest type to Atewa – but soon there could be very little of it left, Dr Lawson warns. "From what I have seen, it is really getting smashed up very badly."

This is where the paragliding festival comes in – where the passions of Walter the paraglider and Dr Larsen the naturist collide – because sports tourism really can be eco tourism as it is meant to be.

"I think it’s great because not everybody’s going to do it and it’s not even on all the time, but every little bit adds to the growing degree of tourism around Ghana. This small-scale tourism is definitely assisting in the conservation of what little forest is left. And I think that’s very very important."


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