A night in Ghana’s tropical forest



Night comes quickly, a steady dimming of the light as crickets and frogs take over from the daytime chorus of birds and cicadas. I and my local guide, Kwesi, tuck into rice and fish cooked over a camping stove. On other occasions, I have accompanied hunters to the forest and eaten kusie (giant pouched rat) with cassava, cooked over a campfire. It was surprisingly good. Giant pouched rats reproduce quickly and their populations seem able to withstand hunting pressure, but other species are less resilient. The unique subspecies of red colobus monkey – ebene – once found in Ghana has now been hunted to extinction, and other monkeys are not far behind.

The concept of extinction is alien here. To the market women who sell bushmeat, animals are a gift from God, sent down for people to “chop”. Hunters will tell you that now-absent species have “run away deeper into the forest”. But try to push deeper into the forest, and after a few kilometres you come out the other side, into a patchwork mosaic of cassava and maize fields with plantains, chilli peppers and garden eggs; cocoa farms, many with a canopy of remnant forest trees; overgrown plots of oil palm; and dense thickets springing up on land left fallow for a few years to regain its fertility. My research in Ghana looks at the biological richness of such landscapes, comparing them with forests and oil palm plantations, in an attempt to get a better understanding of a contentious debate: should conservationists focus more of their efforts on preventing conversion of forests to mosaic farmlands, or on preventing the homogenisation of those mosaics into uniform but high-yielding monocultures?

Kwesi himself is a hunter, and I ask him about monkeys. He knows five kinds well, and I ask if he would be sorry if they “finished”. He says he would be happy to see one kind finish. He calls it kraa, and says it is a “very stubborn monkey” which raids farmers’ crops. I know it as the white-naped mangabey, globally endangered, which has declined by 50% or more within my lifetime. I encourage Kwesi not to shoot those species he sees becoming rare, but as an outsider my words don’t carry much weight. It will take far more dedicated efforts to regulate hunting, protect habitats and find culturally acceptable alternatives to bushmeat if declines of this and other species are to be reversed.

It’s fully dark now. I go to “bath” in a forest stream. Little fish dart away from my light, and freshwater shrimps with long pincers peer up through the clear water. From the dark treetops, a rhythmic series of dreadful cries starts up. It sounds like an animal in pain, or perhaps in the throes of ecstasy, or both. It’s an owea, a tree hyrax, a dumpy, shaggy little creature with rather human-like toes. The hoarse wails build to a crescendo, and then stop abruptly. From further off, the quavering laugh of an African wood owl drifts through the trees. The night air is alive with the hum of insects, but mosquitoes are mercifully few.

I retreat to my hammock, slung between two trees and covered over with mosquito netting. I’m not expecting a downpour so I’ve left the fly sheet pulled back, and through the dense foliage 40 m above my head I can see a few silvery stars. I call out a good night to Kwesi, and soon fall into a deep sleep. Who knows what the morning might bring? Delicate butterflies drinking sweat from my shirt, new and unfamiliar bird sounds to be traced and identified, a blitzkrieg of driver ants, a bewildering diversity of trees to be measured and catalogued, perhaps a lucky sighting of a very stubborn monkey… One thing is certain: in a tropical forest like this there will always be something I have never seen before.