Sui Forest: An Undervalued Stronghold for Ghana's Wildlife
Sui River Forest Reserve (hereafter Sui Forest) is a 333.9 km² hilly semi-evergreen rainforest at the eastern end of the Upper Guinea Forest Block, a global biodiversity hotspot. Since the loss of over 90% of Ghana’s original forest cover, it is among the few that has survived to date. Like most of these last standing forests, Sui Forest faces a number of threats promoted by anthropogenic activities such as logging, farming, and mining which are rapidly causing a reduction in its ecological quality. Nonetheless, it is possibly one of the least attention-given and researched forests in the country. Except for few past surveys and anecdotal records, the biodiversity value of Sui River Reserve has remained relatively unknown prompting the question “what is yet to be discovered?” and “how much more time do we have to save existing species?”
Save Ghana Frogs (www.saveghanafrogs.org) is the only institution to date that has shown interest in Sui Forest, putting the reserve on the global map since discovering the world’s last remaining population of the critically endangered Giant Squeaker Frog (Arthroleptis krokosua). However, we have concerns that lack of proper management could lead to the destruction of this forest. To understand the extent of the threat and identify the most vulnerable groups, we commissioned a rapid fauna assessment of the forest. We hope that by presenting evidence of the existence of other important biodiversity, we can make a case for an upgrade in the management regime of Sui Forest. For the first time since the forest’s existence, we deployed camera traps to help record hard to spot and often missed species. At least, it captured a pair of the severely hunted and difficult to observe Maxwell’s duiker (Philantomba maxwellii) and an illegal hunter.
Our camera traps captured the elusive Maxwell’s duiker (left) and an illegal hunter (right)
Overall, we recorded a total of 324 species comprising 29 species of amphibians, 23 species of mammals, 17 species of reptiles and 255 species of butterflies. Thirteen (13) of these species are classified as globally threatened with extinction (Critically Endangered CR, Endangered EN or Vulnerable VU); two (2) near-threatened (NT); and two (2) data deficient(DD). Overall, 122 (36%) of the species documented are of conservation priority because they are locally protected by Ghana Wildlife Regulation and or considered to be rare within their distributional range. Another 30% (112) of the records from Sui Forest, are restricted in their geographic range to the West African ecoregion. Thirty-five (35) species are endemic to the Upper Guinea Forest of West Africa.
The Giant Squeaker Frog
Sui Forest is synonymous with the Giant Squeaker Frog. This is the flagship species that got Sui Forest introduced to the world and subsequently paving the way for the first active non-governmental conservation interventions including habitat restoration and alternative livelihood programmes. Currently listed as CR, the total number of recorded individuals of this rare frog is 33, nearly all of which (93%) are found in Sui Forest. Fortunately, this number also includes five gravid females and 14 juveniles which offer a little glimmer of hope for the species’ continuous persistence. The unfortunate caveat is that the species’ home range continues to reduce in size as the more powerful and wealthy logging companies continue to lobby to extend their concessions. Save Ghana Frogs’ counter approach has been to rally local communities and the Forestry Commission of Ghana for their support in protecting identified critical areas of the Giant Squeaker Frog. At least, two out of the seven sites the species was recorded are hill sanctuaries which by law, are exempted from logging activities.
The poster species for Sui Forest, the iconic Giant Squeaker Frog
The Ringed River Frog
The EN Ringed River Frog (Phrynobatrachus annulatus) is one of the endemic frog species of the Upper Guinea Rainforest. It is one of the new frog species we recorded at Sui Forest. This tiny species which measures less than 30 mm, has been recorded in only four countries: Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Liberia. As at the time of writing this article, the IUCN website states that the species occurs in two forest reserves in Ghana ie Draw and Boi Tano Forest Reserves. Hence, our record of this frog at Sui Forest confirms the need for persistence monitoring to update data on the species’ biology, ecology, and geographical extent.
The Tai Forest Treefrog
The Tai Forest Treefrog (Leptopelis occidentalis) is a complement to the list of beautiful and charismatic frogs found at Sui Forest. Possessing a combination of a relatively ‘large’ size (36-72 mm) and a screeching call, it wasn’t long before we found the Tai Forest Treefrog perched on a tree branch. We did not catch any specimens to measure but we did find both colour variations, i.e. the green and the brown Tai Forest Treefrogs. Although listed as NT, we believe that as an arboreal frog, it is highly threatened by the constant felling of trees which is certainly the case at Sui Forest.
The Allen's Slippery Frog
For almost a decade of conducting amphibian searches in the forest both day and night, this frog had successfully eluded our team of experienced researchers. It was actually a surprise when we first found the frog in a temporary and shallow stream at an elevation of 350m asl. This adult was found near a school of tadpoles. Since this was our first ever encounter of the frog, it was never concluded if they were the tadpoles of Allen’s Slippery Frog (Conraua alleni).
First picture taken of Allen Slippery Frog from Sui Forest
A few months later, the second record of the frog was found at a new location within the forest this time, in a wider, deeper and fast moving stream at sea level. All these streams we found the frog in were in undisturbed parts of the forest with nearly closed canopies. This is the first country record of Allen’s Slippery Frog adding to the earlier ones from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Until 2016, this frog was listed as VU on the IUCN redlist but has recently been down listed to LC although, their home ranges continue to be ravaged by activities such as logging.
The Gaboon Caecilian
For every wildlife researcher, the greatest highlight of your work is making discoveries and rediscoveries. Deservedly, we were overcome with joy when we made first time record of Gaboon Caecilian (Geotrypetes seraphini) for Sui Forest. This was a pure chance encounter just as we were getting back from our forest surveys. Although listed as LC, it still should arouse our curiosity in wishing to know what other species are yet to be discovered and the level of threat they face. The rapid changing of this landscape from especially logging and agriculture intensification renders most of these species locally threatened. Scientist also assert that the use of herbicides and pesticides, is a major threat to the Gaboon Caecilian. If this is anything to go by, we know on the ground the extreme reliance by nearly 100% of local farmers within and around the forest on inorganic farming.
First picture taken of the Gaboon Caecilian at Sui Forest
The NT Large-Headed Shrew (Crocidura grandiceps) is our first report on a species that is not an amphibian. It is a West African forest specialist. We recorded this small mammal in parts of the forest that can best be described as partially closed with the floor littered with dead logs. Crocidura grandiceps type locality, Krokosua Hills Forest Reserve, is actually a close reserve to Sui Forest which should present an ideal opportunity to conduct further studies to monitor populations between the two sites to understand the characteristics, similarities and diversities between them.
We were fortunate to have encountered two individuals of the White-bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) albeit under sad circumstances. We recorded these two in the possession of local hunters, with one still alive. We suppose this situation sums up the two face of wildlife research where working with hunters is a necessary evil. The White-bellied Pangolin is one of the world’s most trafficked wild animals. It is not only an EN species but also a Schedule I species which according to the laws of Ghana, should not be hunted or killed under any circumstance.
High demands for the White-bellied Pangolin within Africa and Asia especially China as food and use in unproven medicinal potency, is greatly influencing the species populations. Our local investigation concludes that this peaceful creature which spends its time feeding on ants, is now less encountered by rangers and hunters, a situation experienced in other parts of the country where they are found. Experts warn that with growing economic ties between Asia and Africa, the overhunting of the species will not be slowing down any time soon.
A live White-bellied Pangolin (left) and a not so fortunate individual (right) found with hunters
Pel’s Flying Squirrel
We wished we had met this fella under different circumstances and captured it whilst in flight or as some would prefer, gliding. Unfortunately, it was in the hands of a hunter, killed. Pel’s Flying Squirrel (Anomalurus pelii) according to IUCN, is DD. Surely, if it is not hard for hunters to locate them, it would be worth commissioning a study here especially since this is the first time the species has been recorded beyond the River Volta on the east side of Ghana towards its west?
A spread out Pel’s flying squirrel found in the community
Primates especially monkeys, are a rare sight now at Sui Forest due to excessive habitat destruction and hunting pressures. It is therefore, a real treat to ever encounter one. Of the seven primate species that hunters confirmed to exist within Sui Forest, only two were visually encountered, the VU Lowe’s monkey (Cercopithecus lowei) and LC Demidoff’s Dwarf Galago (Galagoides demidoff). According to experienced hunters interviewed in different fringe villages, EN Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) still exists in this forest. This information was an important lead for experts we engaged from A Rocha Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology who confirmed the presence of chimpanzees from evidence of what they believed to be their faecal matter and raiding activities.
Unfortunately, many of these primates are getting displaced and over hunted to the point of no recovery. Primates such as EN Western Red Colobus (Piliocolobus badius) is reported to have been last seen in the forest 16 years ago! Some hunters have also observed that the social behaviour of these monkeys have been influenced such that vocalisation have reduced to the minimum. Hunters in fringe communities also reported oscillating encounters of monkeys which they believed is influenced by the frequency of hunting within each locality.
A sad looking Lowe’s monkey found in the home of a local hunter. It will end up as a pet which although unfortunate, the chances of it living a bit longer is certain than if it were sold to a local restaurant.
Northern African Rock Python
We found Africa's largest snake and one of the largest in the world at Sui Forest! Even as a juvenile, it already measured 1.5m long. This is the surprise that keeps on giving; a never ending encounter with unique species which should be strong reason for anyone to be interested in the biodiversity value of Sui Forest.
Not only is the Northern African Rock Python (Python sebae sebae) NE, it is also a Schedule II species which means that young ones and mothers accompanying their young are not to be hunted. Unfortunately, misconceptions, myths, and superstitions surrounding pythons and snakes in general in Africa, have been recipes for increased human-wildlife conflicts. People deliberately kill pythons out of “fear for their lives,” though there are few records of humans killed by them.
A researcher found this African Rock Python at Sui Forest
It was not much of a surprise that we found the severed head of a viper called the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), within one of the communities we visited. The only reason it was killed was not because it had attacked anyone but because it was a python.
The severed head of a viper found in one of the local villages
Tortoise species we have confirmed to occur here, DD Forest Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys erosa), VU Home’s Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys homeana) and NE Bell’s Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys belliana), are all of conservation concern. However, the record of Bell’s Hinge-back Tortoise requires a follow-up study. The West African species, Kinixys belliana nogueyi, is said to occur in savannah habitats which records seasonal rains (www.britishcheloniagroup.org.uk/caresheets/hinges#homes). Sui Forest being a rainforest, makes this conclusion an interesting one for review.
Since we started researching into tortoises in the past four years within the forest, we have consistently found the Forest Hinge-back Tortoise, mostly in the possession of hunters. This should present a good opportunity to conduct extensive population study to contribute much needed information especially on its ecology, and even compare its genetics to that of the central African records.
A Home hinge-backed tortoise recorded during community surveys. The species was still alive but has been ‘tortured’ with live fire as is a common practice by hunters to get them to come out of their shell
Sui River Forest Reserve as the name suggests, is an important riverine habitat that supports a variety of species previously not accounted for within this part of Ghana. At least, of the three crocodile species native to West Africa, we recorded two in this area. This is indeed impressive. We recorded CR Slender-snouted Crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) and VU West African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis tetraspis). Unfortunately, even though they fall under Schedule I species, they are hunted incessantly mostly for consumption. Our record of the West African Dwarf Crocodile was actually its carcases in the possession of a hunter.
A ‘large’ Dwarf Crocodile found with a hunter, another victim of indiscriminate and unregulated hunting of wildlife within Sui Forest
Grey Parrots and Other Birds of Importance
We managed to catch a glimpse of three individuals of EN Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) flying above the tree canopies and calling out in the woods. Anecdotal records indicate that the population of the Grey Parrots have declined to the point that local hunters believed that they no longer existed here. Thus, to not only hear it call but to actually see it offers a glimmer of hope. Should a population study confirm the species in abundance and resident, it could qualify Sui Forest as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Besides, it also occupies this area with 45 other birds, representing 58.44% of the recorded 77 species, that are restricted to the Guinea-Congo Forest biome including, the African Pied Hornbill (Tockus fasciatus) and White-tailed Alethe (Alethe diademata) which makes Sui Forest an area of conservation importance. Species such as the Long-tailed Hawk and Red-necked Buzzard being birds of prey, are wholly protected under the Ghana Wildlife Conservation Regulation (Wildlife Division, 1998).
Some bird species found in Sui Forest restricted to the Guinea-Congo Forest Biome. Left: White-tailed Alethe and Right: Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer).
The composition of butterfly species we found indicates that this forest is in a relatively good condition despite ongoing threats. At least, 92 of the species we encountered representing 36% of total butterfly species recorded are rare. A further eight (8) of this number are classified as Very Rare on the African continent. Some of these rare species, for instance, Bicyclus abnormis, Euphaedra zampa, Euphaedra gausape, Euphaedra perseis and Euriphene leonis, are endemic to the forest zone west of the Dahomey Gap (Larsen, 2005). We encountered some species which we suspect to be new records to Ghana; Celaenorrhinus illustris illustris, Celaenorrhinus boadicea boadicea, Bicyclus technatis, B. hyperanthus, B. iccuis, B. graueri choveti, Euphaedra judith judith, E. controversa, E. dargeana and Lipena batesana. While we are still examining the specimens for confirmation, we have done a thorough review of Torben B. Larsen’s authoritative book on West African butterflies “Butterflies of West Africa” and did not find any definite records of these species occurring in Ghana (Larsen, 2005).
It must be said that this rapid assessment gives a fair conclusion that Sui Forest accommodates some of the countries unique and important biodiversity. If an average of 5-days rapid assessment for each taxa turned up this number of species, we can only guess the many more we are yet to discover for this area. With the unfortunate interest in more publicised forests (not that they do not deserve it), little interests in the form of stronger regulation of resource extraction, justifies our fears that yet to be discovered species could go extirpate without us ever getting to know them. This all too familiar example of misprioritisation of reserves is what we aim to reverse at least in the case of Sui Forest. As an early action, Save Ghana Frogs is proposing the implementation of a Community Resource Management Area (CREMA) as the basic mechanism for implementing collaborative sustainable natural resource management. The CREMA concept is based on stakeholders including state actors like the Wildlife Division and District Assembly, private organisations, and importantly, local communities regulating together, the use of natural resources through the development of bylaws and natural resource management plans. At least, till we fully conclude on the long-term management plan of getting it to a Key Biodiversity Area, we hope that CREMA will raise the profile of Sui Forest.
Full checklist of fauna at Sui Forest