Staying in the fight for future conservationists

Caleb Ofori-Boateng, April 2022

Three-time CLP award-winner, Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng, is the founder and Director of Herp Conservation-Ghana (Herp-Ghana), an NGO working to raise awareness and garner support for amphibian conservation. In this interview, we hear about his extraordinary achievements, what keeps him motivated, and his dedication to mentoring future conservation leaders.

What or who motivated you to pursue a career in conservation?

One motivation was my love for nature and wildlife. This was not random— I grew up in two national parks, as my father was a park warden until I was 7 years old. So I had daily encounters with wildlife. Walking to school, I remember passing troops of baboons and a huge monitor lizard people said had mystical powers. There would be times on our way home that the road would be blocked by elephants, and we would just have to wait until they moved off before we could continue home. Animals were all around me, and I loved them.

A second motivation came from my relationship with my father. He instilled in me a deep concern about the issue of extinction and the fact it is irreversible. My father and I had a very special, close bond. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Unfortunately, when I was seven, he sadly passed away under mysterious circumstances. His death forced us to leave the national park to live in a very deprived community. As a single parent, my mother’s priority was to find food, so I basically grew up by myself.

But two important experiences would shape most of my adult life: the love for the animals my father worked so hard to protect, and my father himself. As a child, I often thought there must be something that I could do to bring my father back to life. After years of such fruitless thinking, the horrors of the irreversibility of death and many other things in life dawned on me – including species extinction.

To continue the story, I eventually went to University, where the easiest thing for me to study was conservation and wildlife management because it was the subject I knew most about. During my studies, I learned about amphibian extinctions. My first reaction was that once they are gone, that’s it, we can’t do anything about it. It reminded me of my father and things that cannot be reversed in life. I then knew that I had to take this issue into my own hands and focus on doing something about it before the worst happens.

What are the main projects you’re working on at the moment?

A few years ago, as a direct result of our second CLP project in 2013, Herp-Ghana established the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge in the Togo-Volta Hills to protect the Togo slippery frog and other threatened wildlife. The refuge was named in honour of the two communities who donated land to enable its creation. Within the reserve, we have three ongoing programmes: community outreach, ranger patrols, and habitat restoration.

Our community outreach is run by volunteers, who we call Behaviour Change Champions. The work these volunteers do is vital. Local people here don’t know much about conservation but we desperately need their help to sustain the reserve. So we need to educate them. I remember doing the CLP Behaviour Change training [during the Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Canada in 2010] and being told that people need to hear the same message about 14 times before they actually change their behaviour! So this is what we’re trying to do here-drum home the conservation message with our outreach activities until we realize targeted results.

A large part of Caleb's work involves educating the local communities about amphibian conservation © Herp Conservation Ghana

Within the reserve, we’re also carrying out habitat restoration. We have a long-term programme aiming to plant 20,000 trees every year. So far we’ve planted 5,000 tree seedlings in priority habitats as part of the project funded by our 2021 CLP Leadership Award. This project has also supported the expansion of our conservation work into Togo, where we have now completed the first global population assessments of the Togo slippery frog and are making plans to bring the Togo team to Ghana to develop a range-wide action plan for the species.

Characterising and restoring the Togo slippery frog's habitat, and that of other threatened amphibians, forms a large part of Caleb's CLP-funded work © Herp Conservation Ghana

Within the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge, we also run an ecotourism project. A few years ago, I came up with the idea of building a canopy walkway, which is a bridge allowing people to walk among the tree canopy so they can see directly into the forest and enjoy the sights and sounds of the wildlife. It became very popular and is now considered a national asset. During Covid, we’ve halted tourism activities while we expand the walkway so it can hold more people. We hope to reopen it in May 2022.

I’m also getting more involved in building capacity for conservation. I have a contract with the ZSL EDGE of Existence Programme through which I mentor 16 EDGE Fellows (early-career conservation leaders working on Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered Species [EDGE] species) across Africa.

I also hold a Senior Research Scientist position at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), which also involves mentoring students and leading a captive breeding programme. This aims to save the endemic, Critically Endangered Atewa frog from a planned bauxite mining of its habitat in eastern Ghana (Atewa Forest).

Despite all these ongoing projects, what I find truly exciting is conducting fieldwork to know more about frogs—that’s what I really love. And of course, when I get some downtime, I play lawn tennis!

What advice do you give to the young conservationists you mentor?

It’s always very exciting when someone comes to me who has already decided that they want to work in conservation. Hearing that makes me very happy. The advice I give to them is to keep learning new things. I also ask them to keep focused on the overall impact they want to make in conservation. I encourage all my mentees to have a career development plan, so they have targets reminding them where they want to be in the future.

This helps with my second piece of advice: never give up! In Afrotropical conservation, one needs to be very resilient. I believe that every challenge we face and overcome makes us better.

Caleb enjoys mentoring others interested in amphibian conservation and is helping to build the next generation of conservation leaders in Africa © Herp Conservation Ghana

It’s been inspiring to work with these young talented conservationists. I feel very privileged that, already in my lifetime, the people I’ve mentored are already doing some amazing work. One of them called me last week and told me he wanted to talk about establishing the first marine reserve in Ghana – you can imagine how exciting this could be! Some are being shortlisted for different awards and establishing NGOs across Africa. They are giving back to me and motivating me through these remarkable achievements.

Do you have a particularly vivid memory from your time working in conservation?

I’ve had the privilege of discovering a few frog species new to science. These moments gave me goosebumps because I knew I was holding something very special in my hands, probably something no one else had ever held or discovered before.

One species I discovered in the Atewa Forest was part of my first CLP project in 2010 (but I officially published the description in 2018). I named it Phrynobatrachus afiabirago, the Afia Birago puddle frog, after my mother Afia (which means someone female born on a Friday). The IUCN declared the species Critically Endangered shortly after the description was published.

Caleb discovered the Afia Birago puddle frog (Phrynobachtrachus afiabirago) - which he named after his mother - during his CLP-funded project in 2010 and published the discovery in 2018 © Adam Leache

My discovery of Phrynobatrachus tanoeensis (Tanoé puddle frog) also leaps to mind. I was doing some work in the swamps and I picked up this frog, and its back looked like a juvenile of another frog species. But when I turned it upside down, and I saw these completely different, unique patterns. It was like one species on the back and another species on the stomach! To help you understand how it felt; imagine that you see Henry [CLP Programme Officer] and you call to him and he turns around, and it’s actually Stuart [CLP Executive Manager].

I sent the photos to my PhD supervisor (Dr Mark-Oliver Rödel, now Head of the Herpetology Collection at the Natural History Museum Berlin), and after DNA analysis, it turned out to be the same as a new species that one of his PhD students had also found – we eventually co-authored the paper describing the species.

How did your CLP training benefit your impact on conservation?

The CLP training I took in Canada, back in 2010, directly inspired my Conservation Evangelism programme. Conservation Evangelism is where we combine science with religion. We try to see the shared values between them, and share these messages among the community. This programme has really helped us leverage a lot of support for amphibian conservation in Ghana.

Caleb (far right) taking part in the CLP Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Canada, in 2010 © Conservation Leadership Programme

I didn’t call it Conservation Evangelism then, but it was the same idea, which was inspired by the Behaviour Change module. I’d never been taught behaviour change before then. Fortunately, during our CLP Behaviour Change training session, we were asked to consider the most authoritative source of information for your target audience when deciding how to communicate our messages. This was a revelation to me! I realised that the church had a profound influence on our community. So I decided I would develop something around that.

We started using the pulpit as a platform to present our conservation messages about amphibian conservation. I looked to the Bible for scriptures related to conservation and I combined these with scientific knowledge. And we have found that it really works. People listen. They take notice. And it all came from my CLP training.

Caleb's Conservation Evangelism programme was inspired by the Behaviour Change module he attended during CLP's Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Canada in 2010 © Herp Conservation Ghana

You have faced personal sacrifices throughout your career – what has kept you motivated?

One thing that has really helped me, and might help others, is having a good reason to stay in the fight. What I’m doing is very sincere, it’s what I want to do, and I know why I’m doing it. I love nature, but I know it’s not in a good condition and needs my help. Think about it: if you had a friend, someone you really love, who is on the brink of death and with your help that situation could change, you would go out of your way to help even if it requires some sacrifices.

What has helped me to not give up is keeping my eyes on the bigger picture. For example, in the establishment of the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge, I had a clear vision of communities living in harmony with wildlife. If I closed my eyes I could see it and that is exactly what has happened. Also, I have learned over time to minimize worrying. I learned that things will happen in their own time and not to worry if they didn’t happen overnight. This has helped me keep positive energy around me and motivated.

In November 2021, your achievements were recognised when you were named one of the finalists for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa 2021. Can you describe what that was like?

Firstly, I have to say that Tusk happened only because of CLP approaching me about it, and nominating me, so thank you!

Caleb was shortlisted as one of the three finalists for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa 2021 © Aurelien Langlais/Ninety One

I never expected to get that far. Not only did I get to go to London for the awards ceremony and meet [Tusk patron] Prince William, but it has also opened up more opportunities afterwards. We show the video that Tusk made about our work to potential stakeholders and communities, which helps us get better support and recognition. I’ve shared the photos from the ceremony with potential donors and it makes a world of difference! The main thing is that it’s making amphibian conservation more important, not just in Ghana but also globally.

Caleb meeting HRH Prince William at the Tusk Awards ceremony in London, November 2021 © Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Tusk Trust

What are your plans for the future?

We want to establish Herp-Ghana branches in Cameroon and Liberia. These countries have incredible amphibian endemism, with some Critically Endangered species that are so far unprotected. Plus, in terms of capacity building, I would like to see my mentees collaborating and working together across the continent of Africa. We also want to identify new species that are not protected by our reserve and expand the core area, and we want to introduce more ecotourism projects, like zip-lining, to generate more income for amphibian conservation.


Feeling inspired?

Fancy following in the footsteps of Caleb and other conservation heroes like him? Then apply for one of our Team Awards! Look out for the call for applications announcement in July each year. Don't miss the chance to gain a $15,000 grant towards your conservation project as well as training, networking and mentoring opportunities to help you develop as a conservation leader!