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Hippos in the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in Ghana.Supplied

In Ghana’s Upper West Region, along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Black Volta River, groups of hippopotami spend their days languidly submerged in the water. Seemingly unfazed, they watch as the odd boat carrying locals and tourists passes by, only to emerge once the sun has set to devour 80 pounds of vegetation each night.

This is the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary (WCHS), a community protected area created to preserve one of the last remaining hippo populations in Ghana. Here, anywhere from 20 to 50 hippos can be spotted at any given time, an increasingly rare sight in a country where there are likely less than 150 of the vulnerable species remaining.

Established in 1998, the WCHS has been designated by the Wildlife Division of the Ghana Forestry Commission as one of the country’s first Community Resource Management Areas, where the hippos live in synchronicity with the surrounding communities. It means the hippos have a one- to two-kilometre-wide stretch of protected wetland and riparian habitat, along a 40-kilometre section of the river, to roam safely without human interaction. The rest is dedicated to human settlements and farmland.

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Hippos in the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in Ghana.Supplied

The Wilder Institute, a Canadian conservation organization recognized globally for its science-based efforts in restoring balance between wildlife, wild places and people, has supported the WCHS since its inception. With the Wilder Institute’s reputation of working to secure a future for threatened and endangered species, they were engaged by other involved partners early on. The collaboration enables them to work alongside the WCHS and the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation Research (CBCR) to protect the hippo population while also improving infrastructure development and creating economic opportunity for community members.

Dr. Mary Liao, senior advisor of community conservation at the Wilder Institute, manages the organization’s involvement in the WCHS partnership out of Calgary and just returned from a 40-day trip to Ghana. During her visit, she spent time collaborating with the WCHS and the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation Research on a number of initiatives, including supporting the development of a comprehensive biodiversity monitoring plan which involves reviewing the data of many years of hippo censuses. While there, she was struck by the sobering analysis of the state of the species just outside the WCHS’ borders.

While the hippo population in the WCHS is protected, this isn’t the case further south. Liao says communities of approximately 200 were once spotted in Bui National Park, but after a hydroelectric dam was constructed nearly 10 years ago, numbers have declined – and only 20 hippos were most recently counted.

“We went down to Bui to talk to the Wildlife Division about that. Nobody knows where the other 150 or more hippos have gone,” says Liao. “So, there’s a real need to understand what’s happening all the way up and down the river.”

In addition to poaching threats, hippos are suffering from habitat loss. Bushfires, for instance, have been more prevalent in recent years, due in part to climate change, and have both an impact on the vegetation hippos depend on for food, as well as the farmed crops the surrounding communities need for their own livelihood.

During her time at the WCHS, Liao also worked alongside members of the Wechiau Numbu Shea Butter Processing and Marketing Cooperative, the Wechiau Shea Nut Pickers Coop and the wholesaler Savannah Fruits Company on a shea butter enterprise that now engages more than 1,000 women in its value chain and production facilities. It’s just one example of how the WCHS, together with the support of the Wilder Institute and other partners, delivers socioeconomic benefits that inspire its residents to protect and preserve the land and the wildlife that call it home.

“If you create a zone that has protection for hippos with no hunting or farming allowed, you’re creating this corridor of habitat,” says Liao. “But to have that happen, people need to have access to alternative livelihoods, so that the communities feel that there are tangible benefits.”

Another initiative that the Wilder Institute has supported is the installation of over 60 water systems. These wells provide 10,000 residents with direct access to fresh drinking water. But despite all these achievements, Liao says it’s just a starting point, with more critical work to be done to ensure these efforts lead to definitive improvements for both people and nature as a whole.

While the impacts of biodiversity loss can certainly be felt in many communities across the globe, Gen Z in particular (who the Wilder Institute calls the “conservation generation”) is especially devoted to battling the crisis. In fact, according to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 76 per cent of Gen Zers consider climate change a top concern.

How can you help? In addition to daily tasks that minimize our carbon footprint like switching off the lights, Liao says it’s about educating ourselves and developing a genuine interest in conservation.

“Taking the time to really enjoy being outside and understanding our relationship with the wild is critical, because that engenders our ability to make those kinds of decisions in our daily life.”

Take action and donate to the Wilder Institute’s conservation efforts or participate in their Adopt-a-Species program, WildCare.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Wilder Institute. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.