The Gola Rainforest: Sierra Leone's first rainforest national park

The RSPB has the opportunity to work in some of the most amazing natural places. The plight of threatened species has been the primary focus of many projects including an international partnership for the conservation of the Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone.

A river in the Gola Forest, Sierra Leone,


The Gola Forests

The Gola Rainforest is the largest remnants of Upper Guinean Tropical Rainforest left in Sierra Leone. It covers an area of nearly 700 square kilometres where more than 330 bird species have been recorded, 14 of which face global risk of extinction, including the endangered rufous fishing-owl, Scotopella ussheri, and the Gola malimbe, Malimbus ballmanni. Of global conservation concern and no doubt the most charismatic bird species in the area is the white-necked picathartes, Picathartes gymnocephalus
A variety of other flagship species are also found in Gola including the elusive pygmy hippo, Choeropsis liberiensis, threatened with extinction and only present in this part of Africa, an estimated population of 300 chimpanzees and 49 species of larger mammals.  These species are only a few of those which drove the international recognition of this area as a global biodiversity hotspot, requiring utmost effort and attention from the conservation community.

The RSPB's involvement

The RSPB first became involved in work in Gola over 20-years ago with a rapid biodiversity survey. The survey indicated the importance and unique value of this site but also highlighted the threats it faced.  
Opportunities to protect the forest were discussed and these led to an appeal to the RSPB members for their support and later a partnership agreement between the Forestry Division of the Government of Sierra Leone, The Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (National BirdLife Partner) and the RSPB to manage the site for conservation (previously the forest was managed as a production forest reserve, with the primary objective being the extraction of timber).
Early conservation work was funded by the Global Conservation Fund[e1], later during the scaling up of the work, funding was secured from the European Union and the FFEM[e2]. However, donor funding is not a viable option for long-term large scale conservation initiatives and so the partners investigated other financing mechanisms.  
From a feasibility study carried out in 2008, it was concluded that the development of a ‘Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Degradation’ (REDD) was a viable source of funds. The aim of a REDD+ project is to help reduce the impacts of global climate change by protecting the Gola Forests and preventing the release of carbon stored in the forest. A REDD+ project should not only create climatic benefits but also so called ‘co-benefits’ for biodiversity and for local people.  
In 2011, a major milestone was achieved when the Government declared the Gola Forest a National Park, in preparation for the establishment of a REDD+ project. The Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) was the second National Park to be created in Sierra Leone and it will be the first area of forest to develop a REDD+ project in Sierra Leone and indeed in West Africa.  
The Gola REDD+ project therefore represents and exciting and innovative new phase for conservation work in Gola, as well as acting as a pilot within the RSPB’s policy on forest carbon (see Annex).


The Gola REDD+ project

The project vision is to "act as a catalyst for peace, prosperity and national pride in Sierra Leone, ensuring the globally important habitats, biodiversity and environmental services of the GRNP and wider Gola landscape are conserved and that neighbouring communities are active environmental stewards of the natural resource base that underpins and enhances their livelihoods".

To facilitate the achievement of the project's vision and ensure that the project achieves net positive benefits for climate, communities and biodiversity, project activities will focus on three goals:

  • Conservation strategy and effective management for the GRNP: To strengthen the conservation strategy and effective management of the GRNP and enable the project to be a stimulus for building national policies and regulations as well as informing relevant regional and international platforms of conservation best practice.
  • Sustainable natural resource management: To enable local people to become environmental stewards of the natural resource base that underpins their livelihoods through education, capacity building, land use planning and activities that enhance the socio-economic benefits derived from the sustainable use of the project zone's forests and agricultural land.
  • Research and monitoring: To develop and maintain a comprehensive social and biodiversity database and monitoring system to ensure the availability of accurate, relevant and timely information to inform and enhance project management and the effective delivery of outcomes, using adaptive management processes.

The activities surrounding sustainable resource management have been developed in coordination with the villages immediately surrounding the park (in an area known as the leakage belt) and are designed to improve livelihoods whilst addressing and reducing the local drivers of deforestation.

Engaging local communities in both management actions and livelihood activities is central to the project as it ensures the permanence of the project. Activities include developing sustainable farming practices which increase the production of rice, the staple food crop in the region, but also rehabilitating and improving production, harvesting, post-production techniques and marketing of plantation crops such as cacao, savings and internal lending communities to support alternative livelihood strategies.

The project is also taking on the development of land use management plans for community and co-management areas. An exciting aspect of the research and monitoring component of the project will be the development of a research station within the GRNP. The research station will provide a centre for national and international research on tropical rainforest ecosystems and integrated conservation and development approaches to protected area management and further the recognition of the National Park's high conservation values.

The Gola REDD+ project has a 30-year lifecycle and will be managed by a company, which will seek registration as a charitable company, formed by the three original partners (the Government of Sierra Leone, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and the RSPB). The overall management of the project is overseen by the three partners and the representative of the Paramount Chiefs of the seven Gola Chiefdoms, while the project is implemented by a team of more than 130 staff based in country.

RSPB policy on carbon offsetting for tropical forest projects

The RSPB will:

  • Continue to advocate that governments, companies and individuals must concentrate on reducing their own carbon emissions and we will not recommend or endorse carbon offsetting in the UK;
  • Secure long-term financing for our biodiversity conservation work in tropical forests through the generation and sale of carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market, subject to strict criteria on purchasers; with the intention of eventually selling credits only on the compliance market once this becomes operational;
  • Use all income from the sale of credits on the carbon markets to directly fund our biodiversity conservation work in tropical forests; 
  •  Use our projects as ‘proof of concept’ models for others to learn from and replicate;
  • Advocate an effective REDD mechanism that explicitly addresses forest and biodiversity conservation through the compliance market;
  • Advocate the development of a credible voluntary carbon market based on sound science with proven climatic benefits;
  • Advocate and work to improve the highest possible quality assurance standards within the voluntary carbon market;
  • Ensure local indigenous communities directly benefit in a fair and equitable manner from any carbon revenues;
  • Respect internationally proclaimed human rights as contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; support and promote the realisation of human rights wherever appropriate within the scope of our forest conservation programme, strive to avoid harming the most vulnerable and promote the improvement of governance systems which can secure the rights of local people, as they relate to conservation and the ecologically sustainable use of natural resources.

Planned Work

Stakeholder engagement

The Gola REDD+ project has adopted and followed the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in developing the project. A stakeholder engagement plan was developed and implemented which began in January 2012 with a series of consultative meetings. 
Consultations and meetings were conducted in accordance with best practice for social impact assessment, in the local language and using appropriate methodologies and tools. Community engagement, consultation and participation is a key part of the project and regular road shows, radio programs, workshops, school events as well as traditional meetings and forums all form on-going means of communicating and engaging with a full range of local stakeholders from Paramount Chiefs to school children and farmers throughout the area.

Rights and tenure

The Forestry Division of the Government of Sierra Leone is the management authority for all Forest Reserves and National Parks in Sierra Leone, including the GRNP. Through carbon agreements with traditional landowners the carbon rights also lie with the Government of Sierra Leone. 
In order to implement the REDD+ project the partners have developed a series of agreements with the government and local communities to secure carbon and management rights and provide compensation in local stakeholders through a Benefit Sharing Agreement.

Ebola Update

The largest ever Ebola outbreak is affecting several countries in West Africa, including Sierra Leone and Liberia where the RSPB has been working for many years with local BirdLife partners and Governments to conserve critical biodiversity and sustainably manage the greater Gola landscape.
The epidemic has already been responsible for more than 1500 deaths and is still threatening more lives as well as the economies of these countries. The RSPB is doing its upmost to support and assist project staff as well as Gola’s local communities during these particularly difficult times, and stressing that staff and communities should take advice from the medical authorities, and highlighting how critical it is for all to abide to national and international efforts to contain this epidemic. It is with heartfelt friendship the RSPB reaches out to all its Sierra Leonean and Liberian colleagues.


Gola Rainforest National Park Management


Implementation Partners



Coast on a stormy day

Nicolas Tubbs

Tropical Forest Conservation Manager, RSPB

Further reading

Tagged with: Country: International Country: Sierra Leone Project status: Ongoing Project types: Advocacy Project types: Education Project types: Organisation development Project types: Site protection Project types: Species protection