Forest tourism: 1. Exploring Ghana's treetops

Posted: 11 July 2001

Author: Mari Omlund

Forest conservation is an important part of a major ecotourism programme being developed by the Washington-based Conservation International (CI). Here, Mari Omland, Manager of CI's Conservationist Development program, reports on a newly constructed rainforest canopy walkway in Ghana's Kakum National Park.

Raindrops roused me from a sound sleep 12 stories up in a Kyen-kyen tree. As I folded my sleeping bag, I peered into the glistening leaves, hoping to glimpse a Campbell's monkey from my well-placed lookout. The monkeys remained hidden in the dense greenery, but my night on the tree-top platform had given me the chance to enjoy a West African wood owl's silhouette and a tree hyrax's haunting call.

I was among the first to spend the night on the newly constructed rain forest canopy walkway in Ghana's Kakum National Park. It was my responsibility to test the ecotourism products we were developing for the park. I made my way across the suspension bridges which, although quite level, returned me to the forest floor where a steep slope rises to connect the walkway to the ground. I marvelled at how easy it was to explore the treetops along this unusual path.

The walkway's six bridges total 330 meters in length, and the system of ropes, cables, safety netting and platforms are carefully designed not to injure the supporting trees. Creativity was key in the walkway's construction, with the crew facing design adjustments daily to accommodate unexpected circumstances, such as squirrels' nests or crooked branches. Safety was paramount in planning, but the end product also had to provide plenty of adventure as well as comfort.

Rainforest canopy walkway,Kakum National Park, Ghana© Conservation InternationalKakum's rain forest canopy walkway, the first of its kind in West Africa, is the centrepiece of an integrated conservation strategy to protect the biological diversity of Kakum. An isolated fragment of what was once a continuous belt of rain forest extending from Sierra Leone to Ghana, Kakum remains an island habitat for several globally endangered species, including forest elephant, bongo and white-breasted guinea fowl. It also contains the headwaters of four major rivers that supply water for more than 300,000 people.

The project provides a vivid example of lessons learned in developing ecotourism within a forest ecosystem that is under pressure from overuse by local people. The challenges were many, ranging from basic infrastructure design to fulfilling local communities' expectations. Conservation International's goal was to demonstrate that tourism can provide the basis for economic growth locally and nationally, as well as the opportunity to educate visitors about other benefits of conservation.

Ghana's President, J.J. Rawlings, recognized this potential, and officially opened Kakum in March, 1994. This event boosted visitor numbers to more than 7,000, up from just 700 in 1992. But the significant jump to 27,000 visitors per year came after the canopy walkway was built in 1995. The walkway completion was followed two years later with the debut of the park's "Hidden Connections" exhibit, officially opened on Earth Day 1997 by Ghana's Wildlife Department and Conservation International. The permanent exhibit is part of a four-building visitor centre that also includes a restaurant, a gift shop and rest rooms. The facility can accommodate up to 100,000 visitors annually.

Early decisions

During the earliest stages of our work, we met with a critical design decision that reflected the unique characteristics of Kakum's forest. When the construction team first scaled the trees at the selected site, they had full view of a farm just outside the park-a reminder that the forest is a small island of trees. The site still proved to be the right choice, however. In addition to its spectacular trees, it was the most accessible entrance point, key in achieving the park's mission to attract visitors and generate local income.

Spectacular view of the forest from the canopy walkway© Conservation InternationalWhile ecotourism at this main gateway near the village of Abrafo is thriving, the next step is to further distribute economic returns to other communities that border the park. The success at Abrafo means even the hardest to reach hamlets have high expectations. This adds to the challenges for Kojo Mbir, Conservation International's former Program Advisor, who works with the Ghanaian Wildlife Department to involve local communities in the park's visitor-use planning process.

"At first residents were resentful because the park denied them access to forest resources, such as bushmeat and building materials. But the situation has turned around since we began helping local people establish projects they requested, such as snail cultivation and honey production. These projects provide replacements for some of the materials local people have traditionally taken from the forest, and they also provide a new source of income," Mbir recalled.

"By making certain that communication remains open with local people we encounter enthusiasm in almost every village. The villagers enjoy identifying interesting attractions in their area. In Kruwa, they insisted that we trek into the forest to see the pools where elephants wallow. In Aboabo, they took us to see the place where the mythical forest spirits grind their medicine," he continued.

Local revenue

"As the local people recognize the potential to earn money from the park, we see more and more support for protection. Villagers who at one time harassed or ignored park personnel are now stopping park vehicles and filling them with plantains and yams for staff to bring home to their families."

Revenue generated by the canopy walkway contributes significantly to the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust, established to maintain project-related infrastructure and financial sustainability. In addition, USAID has pledged a seed endowment of $2 million. In 1996, the walkway earned $43,000, and other local income is generated through park gate fees, gift shop sales and revenue through hotels and other associated economic growth. An estimated 2,000 local people have found employment related to the park.

Ben Asamoah-Boateng is optimistic about Kakum's future: "The forest has always been integral in the lives of the people in this region. But commercial agriculture and logging has destroyed most of the natural habitat, and has led to increased pressure on the forest. It is just a matter of giving them opportunities and tools to be a part of the solution. We are already seeing tremendous results."