After a stint in the Marines as a helicopter and fixed wing pilot, Richard Poole got a Ph. D. in Plant Physiology at the University of Florida.  He spent most of his teaching career there in the College of Agriculture.  He traveled as well: to six continents, 33 countries and all the American states.  Here he describes a trip to help establish a hippo sanctuary in northwestern Ghana.

My first visit to Africa was Kenya.  The trip was fun, saw a lot of birds, animals and other African wildlife.  Accommodations were comfy, food was good and fellow travelers pleasant.  I saw Africa, but didn’t mingle with Africans.  My wife Christine went to Tanzania and enjoyed the trip.  She had some interaction with the locals.  After our individual trips to Africa we went to India; that’s where we met.

We talked about going back to Africa together, this time to meet Africans.  We have been on several EarthWatch excursions and liked them.  We enjoy the outdoors and these trips involve working with locals on some project.  Browsing the EarthWatch brochure, we picked a project in Ghana.  The Ghanaian government wanted to establish a hippo sanctuary along the Volta in northern Ghana and hopefully to lure tourists.  While there we would help determine the present wildlife.

Map of Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary

The trip from Orlando, FL, to Accra with Ghana Airways was long and uneventful.  We were met at the airport by one of the EarthWatch personnel and taken to our hotel.  Soon we learned that the British Broadcasting Corporation would film our activities in northern Ghana.  We also learned they had been booked into the same hotel and had quickly moved.  There were tiny hungry critters in the sheets.  We spent the night in the assigned quarters, but, you guessed it, moved the next day.

Out first task was to get acquainted with the financial system.  A basket was needed to carry enough money for every day operations.  OK, I exaggerate.  We were shown around town, visited some parks and then we took in a market on our own.

The next day we headed north in a jeep.  After a day’s drive we arrived at Wechiau and were shown our quarters, a mud hut with no running water and no electricity.  The outhouse was about ten meters from the hut.  Our ‘shower’ was two stalls with walls almost two meters high, no roof; you could get an all over suntan.  Inside were a bucket and jug.  Water was dipped from the bucket with the jug, applied to the body, then soap, then rinse.  Not a surprise.  EarthWatch gives you the facts before you sign on.  We slept under mosquito netting.   While there were no mosquitoes in the dry season, mud huts tend to crumble requiring a sweep of the floor every morning.

"The better to eat you with, my dear."

A young lady from Texas, a Peace Corps volunteer, and a woman from Japan, who spoke no English, were the only other non-locals.

The leader of our group was a Ph. D. botanist from a Ghanaian University.  There was another Ph. D., the snake guy.  Sightings of cobras, bushmasters and other snakes were a common site in the afternoon.  One of the locals, who learned his trade from his father, captured some of them.  Christine helped take data on the captured snakes.  They were later released.

There was an ornithologist on the project but he wasn’t with us.  I had about ten years experience banding birds so I spent most of my time checking nets.  Nets were stretched between poles and monitored about every half hour.  Birds caught in the nets were removed, data taken, a ribbon attached to the leg and the bird released.

Our second day started with a short trip to the local village.  There the chief was like a king.  People actually bowed to him, even the Peace Corps lady.  We were seated in some bleachers and watched local dancers.  Then the chief gave a speech welcoming us.  One of us had to respond.  As I belonged to a Toastmasters Club for many years, I was selected.

The BBC was with us only a few days.  We were interviewed and some of our activities filmed.  During my interview I emphasized the importance of places like Wechiau, not only for hippos, but for birds, and not only African birds.  We were there in January.  Many European birds winter there.  The BBC programs are dedicated to various volunteer organizations.  The films are shown nationwide, hoping to get volunteers and donations.

Sanctuary building

After BBC left, we got better acquainted with our surroundings.   Soil hard as rock.  Footprints told us about the wet.  The area was covered sparsely with small to medium sized trees.  Walking through the terrain was easy.  Not much ‘African’ wildlife.  The only large animal was the hippo.  The only other mammals we saw were hares and rodents.  There were a lot of birds.  We saw 96 species while there.

My favorite experience there happened in the village by the river.  I was waiting for the other crew to finish checking the bird nets, ‘communicating’ with a little kid.  (Communication is possible even if you don’t know the language.)  I had expressed a desire to see a Common Gonolek, a beautiful bird, black above, red below with a yellow crown.  The crew walked up with the bird I wanted to see, retrieved from a net.  I ‘asked” the kid if he wanted to hold the bird and let it go.  He held it, then released it.  I’ll never forget that big grin and those wide eyes!

The Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary is now a community-based project, protecting and preserving the wildlife and environment of a 40 km stretch of the Black Volta River in Ghana’s Upper West Region.  The river is home to one of the two remaining hippopotamus populations in Ghana.  In 1999 local chiefs created it into a sanctuary.  The project provides Ghanaian and international tourists with an eco-travel experience.

C'mon in! But the water's a little crowded.

The area has a lot to offer: diversity of wildlife and the opportunity to become immersed in the local culture and activities.  Christine and I are glad to have been part its beginning.

Next post: After Wechaiu, Richard and Christine have an adventure leaving Ghana.