The Gambia has sold its tourism product on a ‘Sun, Sand and Sea’ brand. For decades it even went to the extent of guaranteeing tourists that they would be refunded their full fares if it rained during the tourist season which ran from October to April. Climate change and a change in rain patterns put an end to this guarantee.
One tourism spot that needed no guarantees to attract tourists is the irresistible Abuko Nature Reserve, located on the Brikama Road about 20 kilometres from Banjul. The Abuko Nature Reserve is a birdwatchers paradise, with over three hundred bird species. Amongst the birds recorded are turacos, greenbulls, hornbills and kingfishers to smaller weavers and finches.
Extending over a mere 264 acres,Abuko contains a remarkable biodiversity for a reserve of its size. Around 50 mammal species have been recorded, such as the green monkey, red colobus, bushbuck and Maxwell’s duiker. There are many thousands of species of fungi, plants, trees, insects and other invertebrates living in and beneath the tall leafy forest canopy.
Conservation of this natural site would not have been possible without the love, commitment, passion and tenacity of a Colonial Forester called Edward Brewer. Fondly called Eddie by colleagues and friends, Edward Brewer came to The Gambia in 1957. He was accompanied by his wife Lillian, and children Stella (of Stella and the Chimps fame), Heather and Lorna. I was blessed and honoured to know this family as my father took us on outings to the reserve to visit and play with the Brewer children.
I have some knowledge of this incredible family and have fond memories of the wonderful times that we had as children playing on this idyllic reserve. While the tourists who visit the Reserve are given some historical background of how it started, many Gambians do not know the origins of this important site and how much it has contributed so much to environmental conservation and sustainable tourism.
The story is however told in Gambian Social and Environmental School Books and during school visits. A practice that was started by Eddie Brewer who encouraged teachers to bring schoolchildren to Abuko and, whenever possible, took the time to show them round himself. This became an important environmental learning resource for thousands of Gambian children thus introducing them early to environmental awareness and the need for conservation of the flora and fauna.
The beginnings of the Nature Reserve are founded on the following story. It is reported that a group of indigenes called on Brewer in 1969, then in charge of Gambia’s forestry division, demanding he shoot a leopard they claimed was eating their pigs. It was in a densely vegetated area known as the Abuko Water Catchment, 12 miles from the capital, Banjul. Following the leopard’s tracks through a hole in a fence, Brewer was immediately overawed by the lushness and variety of the vegetation. ”All thoughts of the leopard were eclipsed by the realisation that here was something of national importance hitherto unrecognised as such.” (quote from Brewer Obituary).
The Abuko Water Catchment, was set aside in 1916 to provide fresh water to Banjul. Brewer lobbied the Gambian government to use the area as a nature reserve and it was gazetted as a nature reserve in 1969. Eddie Brewer,became the first director of theAbuko Nature Reserve which became one of The Gambia’s major tourist attractions and was the subject of a BBC documentary Jewel in the Sun, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
In 1969, Brewer obtained William, an orphaned chimpanzee, and later, as director of the Gambia’s Wildlife Department,confiscated many chimpanzees in illegal transit through the country. William became the founding member of what is now the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust (CRT). The Trust was managed by his daughter Stella, who used most the proceeds from her book ‘The Forest Dwellers’ and from the documentary ‘Stella and the Chimps’ filmed by Hugo van Lawick to sponsor the CRT.
Stella who was married to David Marsden in 1977 was an early subscriber to the “holistic” approach to wildlife conservation, whereby people living in the vicinity must benefit from the conservation effort if it is to be fully supported and sustained at local level. This led to her involvement in community projects and the CRT supported the local school and the establishment of a clinic in SambelKunda.
Stella, who died aged 56 in 2008 had set up with her sister, Heather the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust in 2002 to help farmers provide better care and management of their animals in order to improve animal health,welfare and to increase both longevity and productivity. In turn, this contributes to poverty reduction in the rural areas.
To help address both her financial and strategic concerns, Stella established the Badi Mayo visitor facility in 2006. Designed as a high-value, low-impact facility where visitors can view the chimps from small boats to maintain their dignity whilst minimizing the risk of disease transfer.
It was not all happiness for the Brewers. During an attempted coup d’etat in 1981, Brewer escaped a rebel attack by hiding in the bush for two days by which time the coup had failed. He finally left the Gambia in 1992 disheartened by the brutal murder of an English girl, who was house-sitting for him whilst he was on leave in Britain.
Brewers work was recognised by the awards of many honours. In 1962, he was awarded an MBE for Services to Forestry; in 1974 the OBE for services to Wildlife Conservation in The Gambia; in 1980 he was appointed Officer of the Golden Ark for Services to Conservation by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. In 1999, Stella was also a recipient of this same award.
In 1980, President Leopold SedarSenghor of Senegal appointed Brewer as Grand Master, of the National Order of the Lion. Brewer is also recipient of the FZS Silver Medal for outstanding service to nature conservation from the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
His daughter, Stella Marsden was appointed OBE in 2006 for services to wildlife conservation and development in The Gambia. She was conferred with an honorary doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery by the University of Glasgow, in the same year for her work in conservation and equine welfare.
Brewer retired to Pwllheli Wales where he died in May 2003. His wife Lillian died of malaria in 1986.
As the UN has declared 2017 the year of sustainable tourism, today, on World Tourism Day, it is apt to highlight the contributions of Edward Brewer and his family to sustainable development and wildlife conservation in The Gambia. At a time that sustainable tourism was not fashionable, Brewer helped preserve the Abuko Nature Reserve which today is a major tourist attraction, built the capacity of many Gambians in nature guiding for tourists to honey production, and from sawmilling to the export of mangoes and by so doing, provided a range of employment opportunities.
Adelaide Sosseh / The Gambia
Photo 1/ Access Gambia: Abuko Nature Reserve, the Gambia’s first reserve
Photo 2: Entrance to Abuko Nature Reserve
Photo 3/ Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust:Stella with Zwockel