IFLScience Meets: Director of Herp Conservation Ghana, Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng

'All that I ever wanted was the opportunity to be able to do something about the amphibian extinction crisis.' Image credit: Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng

Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng, founder and Director of Herp Conservation Ghana, was recognized by the conservation charity Tusk this week as he was a finalist for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa. Having started the NGO Herp Conservation Ghana to raise awareness of the need for drastic action for amphibian conservation, his contributions have seen the discovery of several new species to science and the rediscovery of populations thought to have gone extinct.

Here, he tells us more about his work combating the amphibian extinction crisis and some of his proudest moments from life in the field.

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa?

When I took up the challenge of conserving Ghana’s amphibians, all that I ever wanted was the opportunity to be able to do something about the amphibian extinction crisis. So being shortlisted for an award really overwhelms me in a very positive sense. I am thrilled about it and I already feel very motivated to do more for species conservation in Africa.

Can you tell us about some of the key milestones on your project so far?

I led the establishment of a large, protected area for endangered frogs in Ghana (Onepone Endangered Species Refuge). This is the first time a protected area has been established in my country for a frog. I am happy about this achievement because it took a lot of effort to realise. First, we have to help people understand the value of amphibian conservation which stood in sharp contrast to their cultural beliefs. Second, we had to make a lot of people work together who normally will not work together (politicians of different political inclinations, different tribes, government agencies etc.) to realise this goal. The reserve now protects 11 IUCN threatened species and several undescribed butterfly and frog species.

I am privileged to have been able to train and mentor over 50 young conservationists in Ghana and across Africa. I provide training through a residential capacity-building programme (Ecology Field School) that I established for young conservationists in Ghana in 2013. At least five new conservation NGOs have been established by my mentees and beneficiaries of the programme.

I am also excited that my research has contributed to the discovery and description of several new species to science. My excitement stems from the fact that these new discoveries are helping to canvas support and influence political decisions for the conservation of not only frogs but other imperiled species. For example, because I have named the last two newly described frogs after local people and places, Ghanaians, particularly the media, have become so interested in their conservation.

In addition, one of the frog species I described and named after my mother has become a trigger species for the Atewa forests reserve in Ghana to be recognized as an Alliance for Zero extinction Site (AZE). An area can receive AZE status if 95 percent of the entire population of an endangered species lives there. With the AZE status, the forest has become a no-go area for companies and banks that adhere to the agreements for project financing of the International Finance Corporation. This means that hundreds of plant species, more than fifty mammal species, 230 species of birds and 570 species of butterflies as well as the source of clean drinking water to five million Ghanaians would be protected.

I have also worked on the establishment of a community-based ecotourism programme that provides economic opportunities for local communities whilst sustaining wildlife conservation efforts. The ecotourism programme is built around an endemic frog species (Togo slippery frog), its waterfall habitat, mountainous landscape and a canopy walkway.

Dr. Caleb Ofori-Boateng with the Togo slippery frog at the Atewa Forest Reserve. Image credit: Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng 

From a young age to present day, what did it take to reach this point in your career?

Being exposed to wildlife at an early age played an important role in getting me enthused and ultimately passionate about species conservation. Beyond this, I benefitted from experiences and training that shaped my thinking and gave me the tools that I believe are helping me succeed. One highlight of these experiences has to do with my personal struggles with poverty following the early demise of my father. Not being sure when or where the next meal will come from has helped me to appreciate the problems of resource exploitation by rural poor communities and therefore the need for alternative livelihood interventions as part of my conservation work.

My University Professors, William Oduro and Mark-Oliver Rödel, were a great inspiration to think outside the box in finding solutions to conservation challenges. In addition, I benefitted from a lot of capacity building programmes, each adding on layers of skill to the other. Most remarkable of these were four weeks’ ecology training in Uganda organised by the Tropical Biology Association, a five-week conservation leadership course in Canada as part of the Conservation Leadership Programme award, and a conservation tools training course in Kenya organised by the ZSL EDGE of Existence programme.

In terms of internships, some of the most impactful ones were an academic term spent with Prof., EJ Milner-Gulland (ICCS, University of Oxford), and a month with Prof. Ken Norris (during his days at the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research), University of Reading. Other very useful internships included a three-week stay with Mark-Oliver Rödel at the Museums Naturkunde, Berlin and several research visits with a longtime friend and collaborator, Prof. Adam Leache, University of Washington, Seattle.

Any funny stories from life in the field?

The tropical forest is full of unknowns and sometimes what you do not know or understand can truly terrify you. One night, we heard something whistling from inside a river. We were very curious and actually afraid. We thought that some of the folktales we have heard about spirits inhabiting the forest were really coming true. Later that night after several bold searches, we found out that it was a new species of frog, which we have recently described as the Atewa slippery frog (Conraua sagyimase).

Any challenging moments on the job?

Sometimes fieldwork does not go as planned. At one particular time, we walked 12-hours lost in the forest, hungry because our GPS could not get good signal under the dense forest canopy to enable us to trace our way home or to the camp. There are times we have to use our field car as an ambulance to help get local people in remote areas earlier to the hospital. In one such event, I had a terrible accident on my return to camp.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

I will say be optimistic, have an inspiring vision and keep your eyes on it. It will help you overcome many obstacles along the way to realise your goal.

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