History of faunal research in Liberia

History of faunal research in Liberia

by Phillip Robinson

In the pre-20th century period, the interests which took early outsiders into Liberian forests rarely included zoological discovery, with focus instead on business and political exploration. With disputes between indigenous tribal peoples in that time making rural travel unsafe, most visitors to Liberia seldom ventured into relatively undisturbed territory. As a result, there was a tendancy to travel along the well trodden routes through areas where wildlife populations had already been diminished due to human activities.

Opportunities to encounter wildlife were further reduced by traveling parties requiring the involvement of numerous workers to carry supplies, compounded by the secretive, often nocturnal, nature of many forest species.

Prior to the 1880s, observations about wildlife in Liberia remained ad-hoc and largely anecdotal. Of note, however, was the delivery of the first Pygmy Hippopotamus skeletal specimens from Liberia to Philadelphia in the 1840s by Dr. Goheen, and an 1840s report on the use of rock hammers by Chimpanzees near Cape Palmas by Dr. Thomas Savage.

1880 saw the arrival on Liberian shores of the Swiss naturalist Johann Büttikofer and his field associate Carolus Franciscus Sala, who undertook an expedition on the behalf of the Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands. Following the death of Sala in Liberia in 1881, Büttikofer himself returned to Europe to regain his health. He published his first extended account on Liberian wildlife in Dutch in 1883. A second partner, Franz Xaver Stampli, was recruited to carry out further collecting activities, and he too returned ill to Europe. Together, they both returned for additional work there to expand their knowledge of Liberian fauna.

In 1890 a more comprehensive publication was completed, which earned Büttikofer the title of “The Father of Liberian Natural History”. Whilst the publication of Büttikofer’s animal collecting activities in two volumes, titled Reisebilder aus Liberia (Travel Sketches from Liberia) was in German, he also published various papers in English in the Notes from the Leyden Museum. Excitingly, 2012 will see the release of a full annotated English edition of the Reisebilder by Brill.

Subsequent eminent naturalists followed in Büttikofers footsteps. The Englishman Sir Harry Johnston published a 1906 two-volume work, Liberia. Containing excellent drawings of wildlife species, such as the Bongo, Pygmy Hippopotamus and various avian species, such as the White-breasted Guinea Fowl, Johnston also made a number of personal observations on the deforestation of the Liberian coastal region after the turn of the century. In 1912, Hans Schomburgk, an animal collector, focused on catching and exporting Pygmy Hippopotamus. In doing so he contributed the first substantial information about this species, and thereby helped New York Bronx Zoo initiate the first captive breeding efforts for this species.

A Harvard African Expedition of 1926-1927 with zoologists Glover Allen and Harold Coolidge produced the first systematic lists of mammals and birds, with findings published in 1930 in volume 2 of The African Republic of Liberia and the Belgian Congo. The young German biology student, Otto Schultz-Kampfhenkel, in the footsteps of both Büttikofer and Schomburgk, collected both live and museum speciments in 1931, publishing his account Das Schungel rief in 1933. Following a gap of over a decade, a 1940 expedition by Smithsonian’s National Zoo Director William Mann and the Firestone Rubber Company focussed on the collection of live animals for exhibition at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C.. A 16 mm color video was later assembled from this trip which documents some of the travel and collecting activities, narrated by Mann’s wife Lucile, who participated in the travels.

The 1950’s saw a gradual shift in intent, with subsequent zoological field studies and surveys increasingly directed at ecosystems, although often lacking any useful wildlife objectives. The most significant entomological publication of this era was the 1965 book The Butterflies of Liberia, by Richard M. Fox, et al. whilst the most significant and enduring contribution to avifauna during the past several decades have been made by Dr. Wulf Gatter, the author of Birds of Liberia.

In the early 1960s several biologists began to focus on the Mt. Nimba region, North Liberia, facilitated by LAMCO iron mining company’s presence in the region. Of note were papers published by Dr. Kai Curry-Lindahl. Malcolm Coe and Alec Forbes Watson, who consequently lobbied government to create a Mt. Nimba Nature Reserve. In 1968 Phillip Robinson conducted a Pygmy Hippo survey in Liberia and Sierra Leone, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund and New York Zoological Society.

The gazettment of Sapo as Liberia’s first national park in 1983, and subsequent construction of Gbaboni Field Research Station, opened a new chapter on biodiversity research in Liberia, which progressed until the outbreak of civil war in late 1989. For the years to follow, conservation work in Liberia was on hold, Liberia wildlife staff dispersed or were isolated in Monrovia, and any initiatives took place outside of the country in the form of the Society for the Renewal of Nature Conservation in Liberia while the war continued.

An increasing number of faunal surveys have been conducted since peace was re-established in 2003, driven by actors ranging from Liberian students to international commercial mining operations. A review of past studies conducted in Sapo National Park in particular can be found in Vogts/FFI’s report ‘Biomonitoring & Research Programme for Sapo National Park’, downloadable from this website. The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation havd also recently completed a nationwide Chimpanzee survey, with results anticipated to be released late 2012/2013. Nevertheless, much remains to be discovered, with the recent establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Ecological Research and Conservation Learning near Sapo National Park intended to go some way towards addressing information gaps.

Posted in West African Fauna.

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