The people of Wechiau in Ghana believe the hippos saved their ancestors’ lives. So they set up a sanctuary to protect them in turn. Now the hippos are helping them again: through tourism.
The small town of Wechiau is the capital of Wa West district in the Upper West Region of northern Ghana. It is where you can find a 40 klilometer (25 miles) stretch of land which vilage chiefs turned into the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in 1998.
In many parts of Ghana hippos are hunted for their meat. But in this small traditional settlement, the huge creatures are revered. Ahmed Seidu, a native of Wechiau, explains why people here traditionally protect the hippos: "We learned that the animals saved our forefathers. The enemy was chasing our ancestors. When they ran to the river, these hippos appeared like rocks in the water, so they were able to escape by jumping across the water on the backs of the hippos. That is why it is taboo to eat them."
Everyone must help to protect the hippos
Taboos in rural parts of Ghana are respected just like laws are in the cities. There is no disagreement on the need to protect the animals. But park manager Abdullai Issahaku says that these majestic mammals live under constant threat: "Hippos are getting extinct in Ghana. They are protected only in two places: Wechiau and Bui National Park." Compared to other countries, that is not enough, he adds: "They have thousands and we are struggling with 33 to 40 hippos."
The community has turned the sanctuary into a tourist site. Profits have been used to build health facilities and schools, as well as to provide clean water to neighboring communities. Iddrisu is a member of the community management team for the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary. He says everyone - young or old - has to help watch over the mammals and their environment because there are people around who break the law in many ways: "… by going into the forest to cut the trees, burning them for charcoal, hunting. One of the most difficult problem we face is bush burning."
Benefits for the community
Pascal and Lynne are tourists who have just arrived at the sanctuary and can't wait to get their first glimpse of the animals. Pascal is excited: "I feel that the hippos are very gentle. I haven't seen them before. It's only today that I am going to see them."
Fees paid by tourists like Pascal and Lynne have also made it possible to provide the community with clean water. Without it Salamatu Sunkari and hundreds like her would still be fetching water from hand dug wells, she says: "We and our children were falling sick very often. But now, we thank God that this sanctuary has brought us a source of clean water. "