Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Friend of the Month for September 2022, Ghanaian Sheila Nana Akua Ashong, is Deputy Director of Natural Resources at the Environmental Protection Agency in Accra. According to her, the development of national tourism strategy and the management and business plans of protected areas reflects the increasing national commitment on nature conservation in Ghana
Where were you born and raised, and when did you first start to appreciate the natural world around you?
I was born and raised in Korle-Bu, a suburb of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Korle-Bu could be interpreted as the lower part or valley of the “Korle” Lagoon, on the western side of Accra and linked to the Gulf of Guinea. I spent 25 years at Korle-Bu, which is known for hosting the premier teaching hospital in Ghana, built during the colonial era under the leadership of Sir Gordon Guggisberg.
Since I was old enough to reason, I have always related to the “femininity” of the lagoon, the myths, stories, and festival of the people and, especially, the indescribable smell that the wind blew to announce each rainstorm long before the raindrops arrived. However, I first started to appreciate the natural world at about ten years.
I remember the beach was a 15- to 20-minute walk away and we never lost the opportunity to go there and pick up seashells while enjoying the sea breeze. Each time we found a shell, we relished it as we would a diamond. I also loved picking mangoes from nearby fields with other school children on our way back from school.
Has all your professional career been involved with conservation and environmental protection?
Yes! All of it and come to think of it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As the daughter of a nurse, I aspired to be a doctor once upon a time. Interestingly, fate had it all worked out and brought me into conservation. I started working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a National Service Person right after my degree. EPA has been my only employer and it has been a wonderful and colourful journey. Indeed, I am at my best when I am educating local communities, especially children on why we need to conserve nature and natural resources. The icing on the cake is that I have had the opportunity to collaborate with stakeholders in many countries across the world.
Are there any outstanding conservationists in Ghana and beyond who have inspired you during your career?
Yes, several but I will mention just two. Firstly, Prof Yaa Ntiamoah Badu, a principled and industrious researcher who is still impacting the course of conservation in Ghana to guide younger generations. Through her leadership, several initiatives have been undertaken in the creation and management of protected areas, biodiversity conservation, civil society action and the development of study programmes to meet national conservation needs. I pray that I impact my generation and the next as she is doing.
Secondly, Dr Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisoa from Madagascar, who is the current Director of the Division of Ecological and Earth Sciences of UNESCO and Secretary of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme. Noeline has been exemplary in her sacrifice and people management skills which have inspired the work of many of us, especially in Africa, in environment and sustainable development. She has helped to open many doors through capacity building and networking, which have shaped my career and I still look up to her.
Ghana is not famous for its elephants or wildlife generally but, tell us, are there reasons to be optimistic about wildlife protection in Ghana?
Yes, there are so many reasons to be optimistic. To start with, I think we are not famous for elephants and wildlife because, Ghana has so many other natural resources, and so wildlife was not highly marketed as a source of national revenue. Also, local tourism in protected areas was not high due to low awareness. However, that has changed tremendously in the last decade, as awareness has increased both locally and globally on the services that wildlife and our ecosystems play. Several legal and policy reforms have taken place, not to mention the awakening that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now more locals are patronising such sites in appreciation of environmental issues. There is increasing national commitment on nature conservation, reflected in the national tourism strategy and the management and business plans of protected areas. Local patronage and marketing of wildlife as a source of recreation and income is increasing and will continue to do so. I am also certain that Ghana will be joining the EPI soon.
Let us benefit from your knowledge in case we are lucky enough to visit – where are your favourite natural beauty spots in Ghana?
My favourite spots are:
- Kintampo Waterfalls.
- Bia National Park, a forest reserve on the Côte D’Ivoire border which includes the Apaaso Sacred grove.
- Songor Ramsar Site including the Volta Estuary, home to turtles, manatees and migrating birds.
- Mount Afadja, the highest mountain in Ghana.
- Kyabobo National Park, which includes the “Breast Mountains”.
- Mole National Park, home to Ghana’s largest elephant population, and a mixture of cultural and natural heritage with a serenity that makes you want to see more of it each time.