04 March 2012, Freetown – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has funded an independent assessment to determine the boundary of a significant forest reserve in the centre of Sierra Leone which was originally laid out in 1924.

Conducted at the request of the Government of Sierra Leone, the boundary demarcation assessment suggests that the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve may be almost twice as large as originally thought.

The Kangari Hills reserve is one of Sierra Leone’s few remaining patches of in tact primary forest, a vital island of biodiversity and home to populations of the endangered forest elephant and chimpanzee.

Its boundary was laid out in 1924 by Sierra Leone’s colonial administration. However, the intervening time and the chaos of the 1991-2002 civil war mean that many of the physical boundary markers have been lost.

The high market price for gold has increased international attention on Sierra Leone’s valuable mineral deposits. One area of particular interest for gold mining is the region surrounding the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve, 160 kilometres from the capital, Freetown.

A UK-based mining company has been granted both mining and exploration licenses for the Kangari area. They estimate that there are up to 2.1 million ounces of gold in their mine site and potentially significantly more in their exploration area to the northwest.

In 2006, the mining company alerted the government to the issue of the unresolved boundary of the reserve. At the request of the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment, the company funded an initial survey by a demarcation team. A subsequent mapping exercise carried out in 2011 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Food Security argued that the footprint differed by some five kilometres to the west and overlapped a much larger section of the mining company’s exploration concession. As a consequence, in August 2011, the government required the company to cease all exploration activities within the new boundaries.

With the situation deadlocked, the government requested that UNEP provide an independent assessment of the original boundary. UNEP contracted the respected International Boundary Research Unit of Durham University to review the evidence and search for the boundary markers in the field.

The resulting independent assessment, which was finalised in March 2012, suggests that the extent of the reserve may be 63 square miles, much larger than the 33.1 miles that was marked in some maps. The assessment has been submitted to the Government of Sierra Leone which will decide upon the final demarcation of the Kangari Hills reserve.