The battle to map every African reserve

The battle to map every African reserve

The MAPA project aims to map every one of Africa’s protected wildlife regions. Great in theory -- but on the ground it’s a huge struggle, reliant on hardy volunteers

MAPA projectMike Eveleigh, one of MAPA's volunteers, spent several weeks mapping Ghana's reserves with his son, Mark.It’s 16 kilometers to Bongo Camp and we’re armed with two high-caliber rifles, a chainsaw and five machetes. We have enough provisions for four days.

Three weeks into our month-long West Africa trip, we’ve learned to plan for and to expect the unexpected.

We’re collecting GPS data on Ghana’s reserves. Three years ago, the first two teams of MAPA volunteers roared off into the wilds of South Africa to begin “Mapping Africa’s Protected Areas.”

Since then relays of other volunteers have mapped every park in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Burundi, taking on the tech-enabled mapping vehicle from the last group, gathering data in their selected area, then handing it on again to the next group.

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The aim of this super-ambitious project is to map every protected area on the entire continent.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy.

Nobody’s seen Bongo Camp since a herd of forest elephants ransacked the trail and left it strewn with fallen trees three months ago.

We’re setting out with a team of Ghanaian park rangers to try to re-open the track so that it can be used for research and as a forestry base again.

Centralizing data

MAPA projectSometimes you get lucky with an open road.March Turnbull, MAPA’s creator and director explains: “There is no reliable, central website for a good depth of information on Africa’s national parks.

“If they aren’t put on the map some of the world’s greatest wildernesses could simply disappear and we might never even realize what we lost.”

By the time my father and I fly into Accra, the Ghanaian capital, MAPA’s vehicles have completed East and Central Africa and are working their way across West Africa. In the course of a month our mission is to map every driveable track in 25 reserves.

Fortunately, we have a painstakingly researched itinerary and a set of finely tuned plans and coordinates. Unfortunately, this is West Africa and in the remote wilderness things rarely run according to plan for long.

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From the dust and smog of Accra we take the long road north through a series of tiny reserves. One group of tourists a month is “busy” for this area.

Our map shows just two tracks leading into the mysterious Digya National Park, which covers 3,478 square kilometers and is said to be a haven for lion, hippo, antelope and, apparently, large elephant herds.

Nobody really knows what wildlife still survives here in Ghana’s biggest national park and I’d been looking forward to Digya as an exploratory highlight of the trip.

Bad info can mean good data

But at the ranger station outside the park we learn that all tracks are now inaccessible to vehicles, that the villages shown on the map no longer exist and that, as far as anyone knows, there’s never been a campsite at the spot where one is marked.

Frustrating, but this is just the sort of information that MAPA needs.

We find a boatman who can steer us safely between the giant crocs and hippos that inhabit this branch of Lake Volta.

We camp in Digya for a couple of days, map the positions of several settlements and hire a team of villagers to clear an area that could easily be maintained as a bush camp should other travelers come here.

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The Digya enigma effectively sums up the reasons MAPA’s work is potentially vital.

As Turnbull says: “We need to get data on the map now because in many cases nobody knows what’s really happening in the reserves. There are huge parks out there that might still be full of wildlife but are suffering from human encroachment and logging. If we don’t map them now we may never realize what we’re losing.”

MAPA projectAfter gathering the data it must be sent back to HQ via satellite.The next few days are spent driving and camping at the side of the road as we continue our mission.

At Gbele National Park we spend several frustrating days mapping a web of trails that invariably peter out where farmers and livestock herders have encroached into the park.

At Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary we have to abandon the Land Cruiser to map by canoe, this time among pods of grunting hippo on the Black Volta.

At Mole National Park we are able to help the country’s generally dedicated rangers by collecting data for what must be the most accurate map of Ghana’s flagship reserve.

We spend Christmas Day mapping a tsetse-fly infested trail into the far north of Mole where lion, leopard and elephant are said to exist and, two days later, we pitch camp in rough bush halfway up the park’s flank.

West Africa wins

We were subdued that evening as we discuss the swollen river that looks set to cost us another excruciatingly bumpy 20-hour cross-country detour.

“WAWA,” we smile sardonically, imitating the phlegmatic old colonials. West Africa Wins Again.

In the end, however, we gamble with the river and win. Just as, a week later -- after three days of hacking, sawing and abusing our trusty Land Cruiser as a bulldozer -- we finally make it, cheering and clapping, into Bongo Camp to complete the latest chapter in MAPA’s ambitious goal.

There can be no guarantees when you undertake a four-wheel drive expedition and, for many, this sense of uncertainty is a major attraction of an African safari.

Personally I’d be happy to see West Africa get a chance to win a little more often.

For more information on the MAPA Project visit www.mapaproject.org

The Project is keen to hear from anyone with something to contribute to conservation in Africa.

Six nerve-wracking hours spent dangling from a frayed cable in a Venezuelan cable-car sent Mark Eveleigh into free-fall on a career as a freelance travel photojournalist. Since then he’s worked for more than 80+ different publications in 50+ countries and has been translated into 10 languages.

Read more about Mark Eveleigh