The sanctuary was one of the top 25 initiatives to be awarded a US$5,000 United Nations Equator Prize for 2008. It was also one of just five initiatives that received an additional $15,000 special recognition award. The Equator Initiative is a United Nations-led partnership that supports grassroots efforts in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.
Calgary Zoo, a key supporter of the Wechiau initiative since the sanctuary was proposed in 1998, submitted the nomination and Ghanaian tribal leader Naa Chielinah Bandanaa attended the IUCN Congress to receive the awards.
Wechiau, which is on the Upper Black Volta 800 km from the coast, is one of only two hippo wallows in Ghana. Previous attempts to declare the area as protected had been rejected by tribal leaders due to concern that a traditional government-run reserve would alienate their people.
In 1997 NCRC proposed a new model of conservation that promoted integration between communities and wildlife and invited Earthwatch to conduct the ecological research needed to establish the reserve. After four years of data collection, NCRC and Earthwatch were able to demonstrate that a sanctuary would provide a profitable alternative to unsustainable hunting and fishing. Investment was made in infrastructure, equipment and training using donations from Earthwatch volunteers, with the aim of leaving behind trained individuals from the community to manage the sanctuary, and the facilities for an eco-tourism enterprise.
‘Soon after the creation of the reserve, we started to reap gains from the project, especially tourism,' said Bandanaa. ‘With those gains and the support of our partner organisations, we could then build schools, drill holes for drinking water, and even install solar panels to tap sun for electricity.'
The sanctuary, managed by a board representing the Wechiau communities, is now home to more than 500 other animals, besides hippopotamus, and to numerous medicinal plants. Since 2001 it has made a shared profit of around $30,000 from visiting tourists.
‘This successful Wechiau model is already being replicated in six additional locations in Ghana and we are taking these ideas into Liberia,' says John Mason, NCRC's Executive Director. ‘Our goal is to grow community-driven conservation across West Africa. We wish to express our sincere appreciation to all who have made a contribution to this great success.'
Nigel Winser, Earthwatch Executive Vice President, says, ‘It's wonderful to see the legacy of scientific field research and collaboration between international NGOs and local communities. This is a great endorsement of an innovative approach to conversation that is really working and can be applied around the world.'
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Earthwatch Institute (Europe) is an international environmental organisation whose mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.
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The organization was formed in early 1996 as a result of inspiration from Dr. Jane Goodall to John Mason to form a new conservation organization in West Africa as there were so few active groups. It has grown to be the largest NGO conservation group in Ghana and one of the largest in the sub-region.
NCRC is a registered non-profit organization in Ghana which is governed by a 9 member Board of Directors. The Board meets 3 times a year to steer the organization's affairs. NCRC has its head office in Tesano, Accra and local offices in Ho, Volta Region and Bolgatanga, Upper East Region. It is opening a new local office in Techiman, Brong-Ahafo Region in 2004.
The Centre has 25 Ghanaian staff and 12 international staff including seconded staff from zoological societies and volunteer organizations.
NCRC is the leading organization (including governmental and non-governmental) in Ghana developing ecotourism destinations in rural communities.
On 6th October 2008, the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary in North-west Ghana was awarded two prizes from the United Nations at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. Earthwatch and partner NGO, the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) of Ghana, were instrumental in setting up the sanctuary in 2004 following four years of field research.