One of the great misconceptions about travel in general is that you need to visit South America for authentic jungle. And one of the great travel myths about Africa in particular is that, broadly speaking, the east and south are for wildlife, while the west is for culture. It can come as a surprise, then, to learn of a large-scale, well-established eco-venture like the Ivory Coast's Tai National Park, a jungle of epic biodiversity which smashes both these myths at once.
Tai is no fledgling operation formed in the current eco-frenzy. Created in 1972 in western Ivory Coast, near the Liberian border, it was West Africa's first national park, earning World Heritage status in 1982. During the climax of the most recent ice age, 18,000 years ago, the Tai region was the last refuge for West Africa's rainforests. As a result, the area is now one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, with more large mammal species than Latin America's rainforests (including 12 endemics) and 1300 plant species.
Along with the neighbouring N'Zo Reserve, the Tai area covers a vast 5340km2, comprising half West Africa's protected forest. A reserve this size is necessary to preserve the full genetic diversity of such a complex ecosystem, especially in the face of a voracious national logging industry. 50% of the Ivory Coast used to be forested; now the figure is only 7%.
Thanks to WWF and German donor support for Tai, which began in the 1980s, tourists from around the world are now able to visit this extraordinary rainforest, staying at the locally-run Touraco Ecotel on the park border. Built in traditional style and designed to minimise environmental impact, the 20-bed lodge has solar power, a wastewater treatment system and environmentally sound rubbish disposal practices.
As well as creating employment and a market for local enterprises, the lodge integrates the community into the conservation process, thereby increasing the prospects of its long-term success. Since it opened in 1999, several hundred guests have visited Tai each year; the park's management plan aims for a carefully chosen target of 1500 annually.
Guests come face to face with the rainforest, taking guided walks, canoe trips on the Hana River, or trekking up Tai's highest mountain. Overnight stays within the park are possible, at small permanent tented camps. There are also treks to visit resident chimpanzees, habituated to humans as a result of scientific research. Astonishingly, Tai's chimps have been found to use wooden and stone tools for cracking nuts, and to hunt Colobus monkeys cooperatively, sharing the catch with their families.
The thick vegetation also harbours forest elephant and buffalo, giant hogs, leopard, golden cats, civet and endemics such as the Pygmy hippo, Diana monkey, Jentink's duiker and Zebra duiker. Guides point out the forest's subtler secrets, including flora with medicinal uses: one fruit has a protein 5000 times sweeter than sugar; fever tree bark is used by the Krou tribe against malaria. So far, 235 bird species have been identified, including endemics such as the Nimba flycatcher and the Bare-headed rock fowl.
Tai itself may be in good health, but it is under constant pressure from the exterior, where the population has grown tenfold in the past 30 years and is now farming right against park boundaries. Timber companies once made regular incursions. Money generated from tourism is vital in funding patrols to prevent illegal logging and poaching, and for education programmes in local schools and villages, to explain the importance of conserving the park.
Areas beyond the boundaries have been designated community forest and are managed successfully by local people. There are also programmes to produce alternatives to forest resources: livestock breeding and fish farming schemes are removing the need for bush meat, while high-yielding rice reduces the need to clear land for agriculture.
Within the park research takes place into numerous subjects. Reptile, insect and small mammal species are still being counted, while Tai's flora remains a vast source of potential for western medicine. There are plans for a second research station and a canopy walkway in the east of the park.
Tourists who stay at Touraco and venture into Tai find themselves immersed in a dense green world that more than fulfils the childhood fantasy of jungle adventure. What was never part of that fantasy was the generation of funds and awareness for the preservation of a unique concentration of species. But that, surely, is key to the adult dream.
Contributor: Stephanie Debere