Clan leaders in Ghana wield more influence over their subjects than even Ghana's president, according to Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, Conservation International's (CI) director in Ghana.
Now the clan chiefs from Ghana's 10 major regions have become a leading force in CI's ambitious campaign to stop the growing trade in wild animals for food that threatens many of the country's endangered species.
What is the key to such collaboration? Focusing on culture as a core campaign tool.
The culture and tradition of many Ghanaian communities are inextricably interwoven with wildlife. Some wild animals are symbols or totems of specific clans and therefore taboo to hunt while others are crucial to the celebration of certain festivals. In addition, many Ghanaian chiefs swear an oath to be custodians of the culture of their people—an oath proving to be an important foundation to support biodiversity conservation.
Historically, traditional rulers played a vital role in preserving wildlife by enforcing rules, taboos and social sanctions that prevented people from overexploiting natural resources. Since the colonial era, however, their authority has been considerably reduced. Now almost 98 percent of the animal totems associated with Ghana's 110 clans are no longer found in their traditional territory.
"The chiefs were shocked when they heard that most clan totems are threatened or extinct," Ampadu-Agyei says. "Now, in many of these tribes, if anybody is caught killing totems, traditional laws and sanctions will be applied."
Leaders of the Ashanti clan, Ghana's largest, have taken the most far-reaching action, banning all hunting of totem animals as well as the use of toxic chemicals, automatic rifles and bush burning for hunting—all of which have contributed to species declines.
Others are taking dramatic actions as well. Following Ghana's first national bushmeat conference organized by CI-Ghana and Ghana's Bushmeat Task Force with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in 2002, the Ghanaian government launched a $23 million program to establish livestock farming that could provide alternative food sources and income to bushmeat. The action was spurred in part by study results indicating that one-third of bushmeat sold in local markets was contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. Meanwhile, in Accra and other major cities, some consumers are boycotting bushmeat.
As support for the campaign grows, there are already visible results on the ground: a marked decrease in the number of roadside sellers and restaurants offering bushmeat.