West Africa's second-largest rainforest is under threat from illicit mining and hunting according to one of Liberia's top environmental officials. More than 20,000 people are thought to be living illegally in Liberia's Sapo National Park.
As part of the Upper Guinean rainforest ecosystem, Sapo is home to more than 700 kinds of animals including threatened species such as the African Golden Cat, the Liberian Mongoose, and the White-necked Rockfowl. The 1,800-square-kilometer preserve stretches from marshland near the coast of southeast Sinoe County to the steep ridges of the Putu Mountains in the north.
Years of civil war in Liberia drove many of the park's rangers across the border into Ivory Coast as rebels looted their buildings and poached forest elephant and pygmy hippopotamus. But even with peace restored, Liberia's only national park is still being plundered by illegal mining and hunting.
"Sapo National Park is seriously threatened," said Jerome Nyenkan, deputy executive director of Liberia's Environmental Protection Agency. "A whole group of West African nationals - Malians, Guineans, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Ghanians are all in the park."
Nyenkan says park rangers lack the training or equipment to properly shield the park from outside encroachment. He estimates there are as many as 20,000 people living inside the protected area cutting timber, fishing, grazing cattle, and clearing ground for planting. Many search for diamonds and pan for gold in the Sinoe River.
"We've been in the park for a number of years now. We mine gold and diamonds. And some other minerals," said Liberian Garpu Pajebo, who lives in the national park with his family.
"We don't have nowhere to go. And the government says they want to come and take us from the park. We are doing this business to bring up our future. And we need to live, so that is why we are doing this business."
The former rebel fighter says he moved to the park because he could not find a job elsewhere.
In a country were the United Nations estimates some 85 percent of people are unemployed, Liberian officials are working with donors to provide alternative sources of income for people living in the park, including fish farming and ecotourism.
"So it's not a matter of moving security men to run after people in the park. It's about addressing some of the major concerns for which people are now into the park," Jerome Nyenkan said.
While Nyenkan says the government understands its responsibility to create jobs, he says it also has the duty to prevent people from spoiling this unique ecosystem to preserve it for future generations.
"When this desecration of the park continues unchecked, the Sapo National Park is going to be gradually losing its international significance," he said. "And so we don't want this natural heritage to be destroyed, and the government of Liberia is doing her best to rescue the park."
Conservationists say Sapo is part of a biodiverse corridor that is home to the highest number of mammal species in the world including the Diana monkey, black-and-white Colobus, and the western chimpanzee.