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 International

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 International (FFI) 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 International

It was no coincidence that Toupou was recruited as Ziama project manager; he had been on FFI’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 FFI 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

“The fauna has diminished considerably since I was a boy, as have the vegetation cover and forests. But we still have hope that Guinea’s wildlife – and Ziama’s elephant population in particular – can recover as a result of our work. The challenge is for Ziama to become a benchmark site in terms of biodiversity conservation and the recovery of elephants and for us to extend programme activities to other sites sheltering fragile areas and endangered species in Guinea.”
Koighae Toupou Site Manager, Ziama

His passion for conservation, and for forest elephants in particular, has earned him the affectionate nickname ‘Toupou Elephant’ among the communities and partners with whom he now works. He is widely recognised for his energy and drive in finding community-based solutions to the threats facing these incredible animals.

Among his many achievements since joining FFI’s team in Guinea, Toupou has overseen a programme of work that has led to the complete eradication of elephant poaching in Ziama, a critical habitat corridor that is home not only to Guinea’s last remaining elephants, but also to some of the world’s poorest communities. “I’m proud of the huge reduction in elephant poaching that we’ve achieved, as well as the work we’re doing to improve the well-being of communities by helping them to increase revenues from their agricultural activities.”

West Africa walkabout - The further adventures of the elephant brothers

Toupou’s work is helping to protect the last remaining population of forest elephants in the country. Credit: FFI

The juxtaposition of forest-edge subsistence farmers and Earth’s largest herbivores has led to inevitable complications: local communities in and around Ziama have a complex relationship with the remaining forest elephants, which have enormous cultural and ecological importance in this area, but which also pose real dangers. Some people have fallen victim to crop raiding or suffered other damage, which can lead to retaliation; others have become afraid.

Toupou has dedicated an immense amount of creativity to resolving many of these issues, collaborating closely with partners in the community and within the government wildlife authority, Centre Forestier de N’Zérékoré.

A local football tournament organised by Toupou to raise community awareness of the plight of elephants. Credit: FFI

He has mobilised thousands of community members in support of Ziama and elephant conservation, including through a novel football tournament organised in coordination with the wildlife authority, which not only helped to foster a sense of goodwill for forest elephants, but also brought communities together and enabled women’s groups to earn cash.

Most notably, Toupou’s success in resolving the serious conflict between the N’Zebela and Gboda communities and the elephants that were raiding their crops by developing tailored solutions to defuse the situation have played a vital role in improving the relationship between Ziama’s people and its elephants – painting a brighter future for this vital elephant population and the many species that share its forest home.

These achievements have wider significance too. The conservation model being pioneered by Toupou and his colleagues – intertwining community and government management of a protected area within a fragmented forest system that is typical of much of West and Central Africa – offers real potential and hope for the wider region, which faces many of the same conservation and sustainable development challenges as this small, and often forgotten, corner of Africa.