A rampant land grab engulfing Sierra Leone's capital city is threatening communities and the future of its wild chimpanzees.
Freetown, the largest port city in the country, has a population of about 1.2 million people that is expected to grow by 3 per cent every year over the next decade.
Despite this growth, the poorest communities living there, as well as rare wildlife, are vulnerable to losing land via the deforestation that is taking over the fringes of Freetown's Western Peninsula.
Deforestation caused by illegal logging and the allocation of land for development and mining has also significantly increased the threat of mudslides.
In August 2017, torrential rain caused a devastating mudslide in the Babadorie River Valley that wiped out an entire community built on an area of forest illegally cleared for new homes.
According to official reports, more than 1,000 people were killed or declared missing, although the figure is feared to be even higher due to the numerous-occupancy makeshift homes that appeared a few months before.
Yanbsu Sahr, 52, had eight children aged five to 31. He lost some of his children, as well as brothers, sisters and friends in the disaster.
“I left for work at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary at around 6.25am,” said Mr Sahr, who is a wildlife ranger inside the protected area.
“A short time later, some of my children came to get me and said everyone had gone. I did not know what they meant so I went home with them.”
When he arrived, all he could see were rocks, stones and rubble. “There were no more houses there,” he said.
Mr Sahr said that he rescued a pregnant woman from the rubble and got her into a taxi that took her to the hospital. He then went on to tend to the dead and wait for ambulances to come.
“We did not know who they were. Many had been crushed by the rocks that came down,” he said.
Six years on, the shrine dedicated to the dead welcomes visitors to what is accepted as an undeclared cemetery, and reforestation of the area has already started, with new trees beginning to grow.
“Development is continuing and we mark these buildings to say they are built on protected areas, but nothing changes,” Mr Sahr said.
“It is a big risk but people cannot afford to leave and start somewhere new. When the rain comes, I cannot sleep. I worry for my family.”
Despite the tragedy, deforestation continues to spill out of Freetown's city limits and locals are becoming increasingly worried about extreme weather and violent storms becoming more common.
More than 1,200 hectares out of 18,000ha of primary forest were lost between 2015 and 2020, according to satellite imagery for a World Food Programme assessment of the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve.
Deforestation has accelerated more since, with a further 2,850ha of forest lost in the protected area from April 2021 to February 2022.
Inside the WAPFR is the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a haven for chimps rescued from the wildlife trade or that have lost their homes to deforestation.
Poachers roam the forest at night, capturing young chimpanzees to sell into the cruel international wildlife trade.
“The reality in the Western Province is that people are now encroaching into the national park,” said Bala Amarasekaran, a Sri Lankan who founded the sanctuary in 1988.
“Freetown exists because of water that comes from the mountains. If we do not protect our catchment, we are doomed.”
Despite a buffer zone being placed, land-grabbers are having “a field day”, she said.
Within earshot of the quarantine centre for recently rescued baby chimps, football commentary can be heard echoing through the trees from nearby makeshift homes that have sprung up almost overnight.
“The landslide was heartbreaking,” said Mr Amarasekaran, whose team cares for 115 chimpanzees.
“A week before, we were playing a football tournament near to where it happened.
“I looked at the hillside and I said: Do you realise all this is going to come down? All the foundations were going, so it was waiting to happen,” he said.
“We are a society that tries to fix problems after they have happened. We need change to be more proactive to prevent these tragedies. They are so predictable,” he said.
Short supply of manpower
The government of Sierra Leone said it is committed to protecting forests from further destruction, but with only 500 rangers on patrol, manpower is in short supply.
Lahai Keita, acting director of Environmental Emergencies at the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, said land-grabbing in protected areas could be difficult to police.
“Once buildings get to a certain level, it becomes a legal issue to demolish or not to demolish,” he said.
“These land-grabbers come with trucks and backfill open land at night, so it is difficult for our rangers. These people are exposing themselves to danger,” he said.
At Cop26, the government said it was committed to planting 25 million trees by 2030 spread across more than 960,000ha to mitigate some of the damage.
“Landslides pose the biggest threats to makeshift homes built into hillsides illegally cleared of forest,” said Mr Keita.
Even when the military is deployed, enforcement needs to come from the community so they understand the risk, he said.
“It has become an issue of life and death,” Mr Keita said.