Tropical forests research

The RSPB’s work on tropical forests focuses on two special places - Gola in Sierra Leone & Liberia and Harapan in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra, Indonesia


With tropical forests disappearing at a frightening rate it is crucial we understand the impact on forests of past and current exploitation (eg logging or hunting), of increasing human populations and the management techniques which can be applied to prevent damage, reduce damage or to aid recovery.

Local communities are critical partners in the conservation of forests - collaborative projects which can deliver the shared goals of enhanced livelihood, biodiversity and ecosystem services are key to forest conservation success.


  • To identify production systems (such as productive cocoa, rubber agroforesty or sustainable timber production) which enhance the livelihoods of forest edge communities and reduce the pressure on core conservation areas.
  • To find out which production systems have a positive impact on wildlife and what active restoration techniques can be used to enhance this impact.
  • To determine how serious damage by forest wildlife is to crops and how this can be overcome.
  • To build local capacity to monitor and protect forest habitats and their wildlife, this includes the development of low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) monitoring.
  • To monitor the long-term effects on biodiversity of a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degredation (REDD+) project in Gola Sierra Leone and help safeguard long-term funding for the conservation of the forest.


Key Dates

  • 2008: Licence of 520 square kilometres granted to protect, nurture and restore Harapan forest, a former logging concession.
  • December 2010: Declaration of the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) in Sierra Leone.
  • December 2015: Validation and Verification of Gola REDD+ project including Biodiversity Monitoring Plan.
  • September 2016: Declaration of Gola Forest National Park in Liberia, biodiversity surveys and monitoring of research teams in both countries provided important data for upgrade to national park status.
  • January 2016: Start of the Community Youth Conservation Volunteer programme around the Gola Rainforest National Park, allowing local communities to play an active role in biodiversity monitoring, awareness raising and protection of threatened species and their habitats.


At Harapan we have established:

  • A large enrichment planting trial and assessed the survival and growth of 38 common used "framework" species;
  • An experiment to assess the success of selective pioneer tree removal to accelerate forest regeneration;
  • We have mapped ~10 square kilometres with drones and developed analytical tools to measure forest quality;
  • We have begun a Darwin Initiative funded project to trial rubber agroforestry as a method to enhance small holder livelihoods and biodiversity. 

In Gola cocoa fieldwork was completed with the generous help of the forest edge communities. The monitoring work in the Gola Forests in Sierra Leone and Liberia has given insights into the distribution of species in and around the national parks, population sizes of some threatened species, including western chimpanzee and white-necked picathartes, and besides the important value of protected areas revealed the importance of the community areas and thus community-based conservation activities for threatened species such as the pygmy hippo.

The Gola research teams have been trained in all relevant taxonomic groups and techniques and are among the best trained field researchers in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Planned Work

At Harapan we plan to experimentally assess the success of active and passive forest restoration management at large scales. Success will be measured in terms of the cost efficiency with which biological diversity and ecosystem services develop.

Around Gola we are looking at the data from cocoa fieldwork to see how bird and mammal communities change with different land uses and cocoa intensities in a move towards forest and wildlife-friendly livelihood development.

Linked to the Gola REDD+ project in Sierra Leone we plan to continue with monitoring the project's effect, especially focusing on High Conservation Value species of mammals, birds and amphibians, while tree plot measurements will tell us the increase in biomass and stored carbon which occurs as protection allows forest regeneration.

In Gola Liberia, our research will help to understand the dynamics in bushmeat hunting and trade and to try to find alternatives in order to reduce poaching. Illegal Wildlife Trade is an increasing threat at Gola which we plan to tackle in future projects.


  • We have revealed that enrichment planting is a costly and inefficient method to restore secondary forests, such as Harapan.
  • In contrast the selective removal of pioneer trees can increase the growth of desirable species, if carefully implemented. 
  • Drones are capable of measuring tree heights and other forest stand parameters, enabling accurate and rapid forest quality assessment.
  • Early results show cocoa provides a home for many forest species in Gola. We confirm chimps, monkeys and squirrels as occasional cocoa raiders and are working with farmers to reduce their impact and to increase yield to offset the loss from disease and wildlife.



Coast on a stormy day

Prof Juliet Vickery

Head of International Research, Conservation Science
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Fiona Sanderson

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Tom Swinfield

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Mark Hulme

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Annika Hillers

Technical Advisor - International, Conservation Science
Tagged with: Country: Indonesia Country: Liberia Country: Sierra Leone Project status: Project types: Research