Born into the Loma tribe, Koighae Toupou grew up in the remote village of Boo in Guinea, close to the Ziama Massif. After his father died in a motorbike accident while working for the forestry service, Toupou’s family relied on subsistence farming and barter to eke out a living.
Life was not easy: “When I came home from school, I cooked for the family while my grandmother was out working in the fields, then tried to do my homework by the light of an oil lamp.”
His grandmother – who still lives with him in N’Zérékoré – has been a huge influence on his life, and the fireside stories that she related are among his most vivid recollections of his youth: “Those memories were engraved on me and filled me with nostalgia for my village.”
The Upper Guinean Forest in West Africa is one of Earth’s most biologically diverse areas. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
Toupou enjoyed accompanying his uncle into the forest, where they hunted with dogs, catching cane rats and other rodents. Those early hunting trips, during which Toupou encountered antelope, monkeys, hornbills and other wildlife, began to instil a sense of wonder about the natural world, and that spark was truly ignited while he was at college: “My class teacher was holding a book about animals and the forest. I was really interested and loved looking at them. We became good friends. One day, he gave me that book to keep. Whenever I went home for the holidays, I took it with me to show my uncle and the other hunters, and talked to them about the animals. I was hooked.”
Guinea is a globally important biodiversity hotspot. Fauna & Flora is supporting a transboundary initiative with Liberia, focusing on the Ziama Massif. A UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, Ziama harbours the last remaining population of forest elephants in Guinea, and is a priority site for their conservation in West Africa. Our conservation efforts in this area began in 2009, with the provision of direct support to the government wildlife authority, the Centre Forestier de N’Zérékoré.
The Ziama Massif is home to more than 1,300 species of plants and over 500 species of animals. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
It was no coincidence that Toupou was recruited as Ziama project manager; he had been on Fauna & Flora’s radar since 2004, having worked as field assistant on a one-year study of the bushmeat trade in the Nimba Mountains, before helping to coordinate a bamboo rat and pig farming initiative aiming to provide hunters and women bushmeat sellers with alternative sources of protein.
Toupou then undertook a two-year training programme in wildlife conservation and management, during which he completed a study on the practicalities and potential conservation benefits of a cross-border wildlife corridor linking Ziama and Wonegizi in Liberia. “The data from my research were crucial in enabling Fauna & Flora to set up its first elephant conservation project in Guinea in 2009. I was made responsible for coordinating all activities for this project.”
African forest elephants were recently recognised as a separate species and categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Credit: Gaston Touaro