Poachers, miners, squatters leave Sapo National Park

Conservationists have moved hundreds of squatters out of Liberia's largest national park, putting an end to their slaughter of wildlife and illegal gold mining.

Alexander Pearl of Conservation International said about 500 people had been transported out of Sapo National Park in south-eastern Liberia during a five-day programme carried out in conjunction with UN peacekeepers and the government.

Rebel fighters, as well as civilians fleeing violence, began holing up in the park during the final months of Liberia's 14-year civil war that ended in August 2003.

Many were attracted by the prospect of the gold to be mined there, and the abundance of lucrative timber. When food supplies dwindled, guns were often turned on the vast array of endangered species living in the park allowing the squatters to feast on bushmeat.

"The removal of these illegal occupants from the Sapo National Park marks the positive beginning of a sustainable control of our national forest reserve and protected wildlife," said Pearl, who heads up operations for the US-based environmental group in Liberia.

"Before then the park was uncontrollable," he told IRIN on Friday. "Occupants there were hunting every animal they came across, digging the soil for gold and creating large holes all around the park."

In early March, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) estimated that there were about 5,000 people living illegally in the park, but Pearl said the majority had left before his scheme started at the end of August.

Despite some occupants saying they would rather die than leave the park, Pearl said that the operation had passed off smoothly and there had been no violence.

Those leaving the park had headed to Zwedru and Greenville, other main towns in the east, as well as the capital Monrovia, some 300 kilometres to the west, he said.

Sapo National Park, which lies in Sinoe County, was established in 1983 and is home to leopards, forest elephants, pygmy hippos and chimpanzees. At some 700 square miles, it is one of the largest blocks of protected forests in the sub-region.

Eugene Wilson, the head of Liberia's Forestry Development Agency, said the government had taken action to ensure the Sapo squatters had gone for good.

"I can tell you that we have established full control of the Sapo National Park and our trained forest rangers have been deployed there and no unauthorised persons will move in there," Wilson told IRIN on Friday.

Liberia's transitional government is still seeking to reclaim other tracts of land like Sapo, where gun-toting youths are controlling natural resources such as gold, rubber and diamonds.

The UN Security Council has imposed an export ban on timber and diamonds but officials say smuggling is still going on.