Philip Tem Dia works as a Technical Specialist for Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Liberia, helping to coordinate our conservation work in the Ziama-Wonegizi-Wologizi Transboundary Forest Landscape. This strategically crucial portion of the Upper Guinean forest region straddles the border between Liberia and Guinea and is a haven for some of West Africa’s most threatened and iconic wildlife.

Earlier this year, Philip participated in a large mammal survey in Wologizi, part of a series of rapid assessments designed to give us a better insight into the diversity and abundance of plants and animals in this relatively unexplored landscape. More recently, he helped coordinate a camera trap survey that has begun to provide a more detailed picture of the area’s biodiversity.

Here Philip shares some of his thoughts on those two experiences…

What was the purpose of the large mammal survey in Wologizi?

It gave us a general idea about what species were present in the forest and the conservation value of Wologizi, providing us with important baseline data on the presence, relative abundance and distribution of large mammals, particularly threatened species.

Philip Tem Dia and Dr Tina Vogt recording vital data on Wologizi’s mammal population. Credit: FFI

How long were you in the field, and what was it like?

The fieldwork lasted approximately 20 days. Words can’t really explain what it’s like to live and work in the field. The beauty and natural state of the Wologizi forest and landscape was so amazing. What I found most interesting was the collaboration and support from all the team members. We hired porters and guides from the communities; most of them were hunters who were willing and ready to show us all places where we could see signs of animals. It was great working with community members and also experts in the field. We prepared our food with the support of cooks from the communities; eating local food is so interesting. We drank water from streams near our camps. We made tents for sleeping, and prepared locally made chairs and tables. Everything was so natural. After each survey, we usually had a daily debrief and planned for the next day.

Did you face any challenges along the way?

The survey took place during the dry season, which made it easier. However, we sometimes had to walk for many hours, covering more than 10 km a day while searching for signs of animals, which was tiring, especially the climb to find out what species were in the Wologizi Mountains.

Philip Tem Dia (back right) with the large mammal survey team in the Wologizi Mountains. Credit: FFI

What were the most significant findings?

One of the most exciting species recorded was the pygmy hippopotamus. This animal is endemic to just four countries in West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Guinea) and classified as Endangered by IUCN. Knowing that we can find this species in Wologizi was so exciting. We recorded footprints, dung and feeding signs of pygmy hippos along the banks of Lofa River. It was also very interesting for us to know that forest elephants and chimpanzees are still present. Forest elephants are classified as Vulnerable and western chimpanzees as Critically Endangered. Their presence in Wologizi shows how rich in biodiversity this forest is. This helps make the strongest possible case for its future gazettement as a protected area.

Pawprints and hoofprints reveal the presence of elusive forest mammals. Credit: FFI

Why are camera traps a favoured conservation tool?

Camera traps are useful for recording animal migrations, enabling the collection of photographic evidence of rarely seen and often globally endangered species, with little expense, relative ease and minimal disturbance to wildlife.

How easy was it to install the camera traps?

Easy!? Not at all! Deploying camera traps has never been easy. It is a tedious job. What made it more difficult this time was the fact that we were installing the cameras during the rainy season. The rivers in Wologizi were in flood, and we had to cross them to fix some of the cameras at the points indicated by the GPS coordinates. Others had to be installed in high mountains, thick forest, and other inaccessible places, which presented a huge challenge to the team. It takes a lot of energy, time, passion and motivation to deploy cameras in a tropical rainforest like that of the Wologizi Mountains.

Philip Tem Dia and team struggle to attach a camera trap to a tree trunk in the pouring rain. Credit: FFI

How did you decide where to place them?

We placed 30 camera traps in grid cells in the northern part of Wologizi and 30 more in the southern section. This enabled us to compare which parts of the park are richer in terms of animal diversity during the rainy season. We also decided to place the camera traps in all vegetation types – primary forest, secondary forest, submontane forest, farmland, etc. This was to show the migration and occupancy of animals found in Wologizi. We need to know the extent to which these species migrate or move around and also to capture as many species as possible.

What problems did you need to overcome?

This was the first time camera traps were deployed in Wologizi. As such, most of the team members were new to this type of work and found it difficult. But with encouragement, training and good collaboration, we were able to overcome this challenge.

Did you record any interesting behaviour?

Yes, we recorded group interactions of sooty mangabeys. It was fascinating to see these monkeys sitting just in front of the camera traps, playing all the time and showing how friendly they can be with one another.

Sooty mangabeys caught on camera. Credit: FFI

How many photographs did you collect?

In total we have approximately 27,000 photos from the 60 camera traps, taken over a period of 90 days.

How easy is it to tell individual animals apart?

We do have many kinds of software that can assist in distinguishing between different species and individual of the same species. There are several parameters you need to take into consideration when looking at the photos carefully one after the other. You look at the sequence of occurrence, the time, day, the species structure (morphology), etc.

Were there any real surprises?

Yes, of course. I was amazed to see so many photos of the animals themselves, including pygmy hippos, elephants and rare duikers; during the large mammal survey, we found only their footprints and dung, but now I could see clear evidence of their presence in Wologizi. It was so lovely to see the animals in their natural state and made all the effort worthwhile.

Definitive proof of the presence of the endangered pygmy hippo in Wologizi. Credit: FFI