Q&A with Whitley Award winner Emmanuel Amoah

  • Emmanuel Amoah was recently named one of the recipients of this year’s Whitley Awards, known as the “Green Oscars,” for his efforts to conserve the West African slender-snouted crocodile in his native Ghana.
  • Through his Threatened Species Conservation Alliance, Amoah works with communities living along the Tano River to protect the critically endangered crocodiles.
  • Threats to the species include the clearing of riverside forests where they nest, as well as increasing plastic pollution in the river.
  • Mongabay spoke with Amoah about the cultural importance of the species, his plans to ramp up conservation efforts, and why he’s optimistic about the future of the West African slender-snouted crocodile.

Baby West African slender-snouted crocodiles come into the world doubly watched over. Females of the species, Mecistops cataphractus, guard their nests on the riverbanks in the Tano River Basin until they hear the hatchlings squeak. Then they uncover them, take the hatchlings gently in their jaws and carry them into the water.

And watching over the crocodiles’ habitat — which is threatened by degradation and fragmentation of forest along the river’s edge by farms and artisanal mining — is Emmanuel Amoah. Amoah’s work with Tano River communities to protect this remarkable reptile, through the Threatened Species Conservation Alliance, has just been recognized with a Whitley Award.

The Tano River starts some 400 kilometers (250 miles) inland, in the forests of western Ghana, and runs almost due south to where it empties into the Ehy Lagoon in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. The river basin drains a 15,000-square-kilometer (5,800-square-mile) area roughly divided between forests and farmland supporting both commercial cultivation of cocoa and plantain and farmers growing food for their own consumption. There’s also extensive gold mining in the Tano River Basin.

Mongabay recently spoke with Amoah about efforts to protect forests along the river’s edge, what the 40,000-pound ($49,000) Whitley Award means for the future of his work, and the cultural and personal significance of this critically endangered species. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Mongabay: What are the major threats to the slender-snouted crocodile and its river habitat?

Emmanuel Amoah: The major threat is the clearance of the riparian areas. When I say riparian, I mean the forest along the river. The crocodiles use leaves from the forest to nest. They gather it into the form of a heap and that is what they use for nesting.

But people are clearing forest along the river for their farms, and because these farmers do not have mechanized systems, they farm near the water bodies during the dry season so that they can easily fetch water for irrigation. So that is rapidly depleting the nesting habitat.

Another threat is pollution from plastic waste: people are disposing of plastics carelessly, and these are washed into the river during heavy rains.

Emmanuel Amoah (centre) with a crocodile, Tano River, Ghana. Image courtesy Threatened Species Conservation Alliance.
Emmanuel Amoah (right) with a crocodile, Tano River, Ghana. Image courtesy Threatened Species Conservation Alliance.

Mongabay: What is the significance of the Tano River to the communities along its banks?

Emmanuel Amoah: The locals believe that they have spiritual connection to the Tano River and so they worship the river. They pour libation, they have people that more or less communicate with the river on behalf of the community, and they believe that all aquatic creatures are sacred, and nobody can harvest any of the aquatic creatures including the crocodiles because they believe that their ancestors are kind of connected to them spiritually.

Mongabay: Why have you set out to mobilize the community to preserve the habitat for these crocodiles?

Emmanuel Amoah: I always personally believe that people who are living close to the resources are the right people to protect the resources. So wherever I go to work, I see the communities as an essential part of every activity that we do. And these communities that we are currently working with have been preserving this species with their long-held traditional beliefs and so I believe that I should work directly with them.

Mongabay: How has your work evolved over the years?

Emmanuel Amoah: Initially we were being more or less explorative, trying to identify populations of slender-snouted crocodiles across Ghana, but this has evolved over the years. We are now looking more at specific threats and how to address these, because we have now found populations that we think we need to conserve.

We have moved on from the initial population surveys. We have assessed the populations that we are conserving, their movement and ecology, so now we are looking at how to address specific threats like habitat population, habitat disturbances.

And also looking at how we can build the community capacity for the long-term conservation of the species.

Mongabay: Across Africa, people are stereotypically framed as though wildlife or the environment are not priorities or incidental at best — if you can’t eat it, it’s not worth protecting. What’s got local people interested in protecting crocodiles here? How have you been able to attract and retain locals to the cause?

Emmanuel Amoah: OK, so the people believe that the crocodiles are their ancestors. They are connected with them spiritually because they worshipped that river and so everything inside that river has to be respected, has to be protected. And they believe that if they don’t do that, there is going to be a negative implication on their lives and then on their children and all that.

So they are protecting it because of the respect they have for the river god. They are protecting it because of the implication that if they don’t protect it, they might suffer some spiritual attack. So that is why they are protecting — and it is not only crocodiles they are protecting, they are protecting all aquatic creatures.

Mongabay: What are some of the challenges facing your conservation project? Are there people hindering your work?

Emmanuel Amoah: In the initial stages, people did not actually know why someone would come to their community in the night, moving with headlamps along the river … there were a lot of rumours about it.

Once we communicated to them in the form of awareness campaigns and video shows, now almost all of them are in support of what we are doing, because they have seen that we are trying to protect the river that they worship as a tradition as well as the crocodiles they revere so much.

So initially people didn’t understand, but through education we have gained their support.

Emmanuel Amoah, Tano River, Ghana. Image courtesy Threatened Species Conservation Alliance.
Restoring forest along the banks of rivers in the Tano River basin is vital for protecting the slender-snouted crocodile. Image courtesy Threatened Species Conservation Alliance.

Mongabay: You recently received a Whitley Award. How will this support your work?

Emmanuel Amoah: The Whitley Award will help us rehabilitate degraded nesting habitat. When I say rehabilitate, I mean replant the forest areas that have been cleared for farming. We are going to replant them to improve nesting habitat for the crocodiles.

We will also undertake a series of awareness campaigns to improve sanitation along the river, because there is a lot of pollution. We will also train 40 additional local volunteers to improve the conservation of the species on the ground.

Mongabay: How do you imagine the future of your Threatened Species Conservation Alliance project?

Emmanuel Amoah: I foresee that in the near future we will be able to significantly reduce threats to the river and the crocodile as well. I also see that we will be able to convert the area into a community-based protected area for wildlife, and, further, generate income to support the local economy through ecotourism.

This Whitley Award will expand our effort on the ground, building up local capacity, reducing threats and all that.
In the long term we want to make the area a wildlife protected area. In that case, farming and other activities that threaten the habitat would be reduced.

Again, we are looking at how we can financially sustain the area and we will do that through community-based ecotourism where people would come to pay money to watch the crocodiles, and also help to boost the local economy. Because we are aware that once tourists come around they do a lot of buying and this will boost the local economy.

Mongabay: What is the personal importance or significance of the crocodile to you?

Emmanuel Amoah: Personally, I see the crocodile as a beautiful species that needs to be preserved for future generation to come and see. Because this crocodile we are talking about is unique, and unfortunately we are losing it. I personally feel like I have a responsibility to work toward saving it for future generations to be able to see such beautiful species.

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