Interview: Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei

Leading CI-Ghana's bushmeat crusade is director Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei. Born into a family of 10 in rural Ghana, Ampadu-Agyei received a university education in environmental science in London before returning to Ghana to pursue a career in conservation. Ampadu-Agyei has since spent the last two decades addressing environmental issues in his home country. He spoke with CI Frontlines Managing Editor Patrick Johnston for this interview.

Q: Why has addressing the bushmeat threat come to play so central a role in your conservation strategy in Ghana?

A: For a long time I have seen the bushmeat trade in Ghana as a kind of cancer. It is emptying our forests and threatening the health of our citizens. So when I was in Washington in 1999, I raised the issue. Combating the trade was soon identified as one of Ghana's most urgent conservation priorities, and I set out to see what I could do about it.

Q: You grew up in Ghana. Did you eat bushmeat as a child?

A: Yes, I did. It was sold virtually everywhere and was often the only source of protein. Like it or not, you had to eat it. Your parents put it on your plate. After I got married and became interested in conservation, I chose to stop eating it.

Q: Did you see a lot of wildlife as a child?

A: My father was a cocoa farmer and I would often observe animals crossing the path on the way to the cocoa fields. Duikers (a type of antelope) were especially common. Later, when I started doing bushmeat research, I would go into the countryside and not come across any animals. That's when I realized that someone should start sticking their neck out and make people aware we were in the midst of an extinction crisis.

Q: You have made culture and tradition a centerpiece of your conservation strategy. Why is that?

A: In Ghanaian tradition, each clan used to come together to protect their totem, a particular animal that was sacred. We were prepared to fight to protect our totems. The sum total of totems constituted a wide selection of animals that could not be killed. This is slowly drying up. With modernization and urbanization, many don't even know what their clan's totem is.

Q: Why do you think clan chiefs can restore these traditions?

A: We all owe our allegiances to our chief, and according to our traditions, they take an oath to protect the totems. Roughly 150 totems are now threatened, endangered or extinct. I took this message to the chiefs. I told them the story of the totems, the truth of the totems, that they are almost gone. I told them if they don't sit up and notice, all the animals will be gone. And if they don't help us, the ancestors will hold them responsible for supervising the death of our lineage.

Q: When you speak before a crowd, you have the passion of a firebrand southern Baptist preacher. Why is that?

A: I am passionately committed to what I am doing. I am also a Baptist and sometimes take the pulpit. I feel strongly about my faith. And I feel I have a calling to save the animals. They too are part of God's creation. I also adopted this style because people must be challenged. If you take a soft approach, they will not be. You must make a stand and show people this is what you believe in.

Q: Have you always felt this way?

A: No. Before my faith wasn't strong. I was a nominal Christian. My faith has been strengthened by the work I am doing. I have come to realize that a responsibility given from God to man is to be stewards of his creation. And that we must protect the weaker ones, the animals. As we continue the kind of wanton destruction represented by the bushmeat trade, we are leaving nothing behind. We are being bad stewards.

Q: How do you feel about your work with the chiefs so far?

A: Very positive. In November, Ghana's leading chiefs asked CI to help them survey and document all of Ghana's totems so clan members will know them and be aware of the need to protect them. Together, we are also studying proven traditions that supported conservation in Ghana in the past. And the chiefs have asked for our assistance in establishing community wildlife farms. These would allow for the raising and hunting of common game animals, such as grasscutters, in a controlled environment.

From Conservation Frontlines, CI's quarterly newsletter, Winter 2003.