The January 2023 Friend of the Month of the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) is Randall Dobayou, Deputy Executive Director of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, the institution responsible for the environment in that country. Liberia is a member of the EPI, and Dobayou took part in the recent EPI’s Ministerial meeting in Montreal, on the sidelines of the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15
Please tell us a little about your childhood and how you became interested in nature and conservation.
My childhood was horrible. I grew up in a slum of Monrovia. I was born two years into our civil war, which lasted for 14 years. Then I was a struggling refugee in neighbouring Ivory Coast. As a refugee, I walked about three miles to school without eating breakfast at home. But at least at school we received food from the UN’s refugee agency. Unfortunately, my grandmother, whom I depended on for survival, died while on one of her food searching ventures for me. May her soul rest in perfect peace.
I had a very challenging childhood. But there was always hope of a better future. That hope took me to Cathedral Catholic High School in Monrovia, where I graduated with a diploma. Later, at university, I studied Sociology and Political Science. I am proud of my impoverished childhood because it was the unwavering beacon of my inspiration and continuous pursuit of quality education. I eventually enrolled at Clark University in Massachusetts, USA, where I got a master’s degree in Environmental Science, concentrating on climate change impacts and adaptation. I thereby increased my problem-solving capability and nourished my understanding of environmental issues confronting my country.
What are the greatest challenges in your job?
Imagine, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was only founded in 2002 as the principal institution of the Liberian government with the foremost responsibility of managing the country’s environment. It was charged with the responsibility of collecting, analysing and preparing basic scientific information pertaining to pollution, degradation, quality and standards. It started real functionality in 2006. Now considering our war period and the absence of EPA, there was huge deficit in terms of environmental regulation. Also, the absence of an environmental court in Liberia is a major challenge in terms of making environmental abusers (ie those who damage biodiversity) face justice.
As you say, Liberia suffered a long civil war – how much of its biodiversity is intact?
Liberia is a country acclaimed for its biodiversity. We have the largest remaining portion of the Upper Guinea Forest in West Africa. As a government, we prioritise the conservation and sustainable use of natural habitats. But our environment is threatened by industrial pollution, deforestation, the hunting of irreplaceable species for bush-meat, the pollution of coastal waters from raw sewage and run-off, the dumping of household waste and the illegal disposal of biohazardous products. We can overcome all these if we give our people sustainable and alternative livelihoods.
Liberia has an important forest elephant population – what threats do they face?
Yes, Liberia has a significant population of elephants. Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a dominating topic in the overall perception of elephants among local people and needs thorough investigation. A lot of communities report HEC, mostly crop-raiding by elephants.
In general, the closer the settlement or farms to the forest, the higher the human impact on the elephants’ habitat. Our HEC assessments show that affected communities do not have much knowledge of conflict mitigation methods, and usually people stay passive, run away from their farms or even give up farming. This is a major issue of concern.
Finally, you’ve been in Montreal at the UN Biodiversity Conference. Did you leave feeling inspired or downhearted?
I was inspired that we gathered to craft policies towards resetting our relationship with nature. However, Liberia had some strong concerns about the final text of the Global Biodiversity Framework. For example, we wanted a greater focus on high carbon ecosystems, such as the Upper Guinean Forest. Target 8, for example, says we should “minimise the impact of climate change on biodiversity”. But this doesn’t set any particular way in which to measure impact. We felt it could have been more specific, and therefore more ambitious. Other countries shared our misgivings, but we eventually compromised in order to reach an agreement.