The Shelley’s Eagle-Owl, a giant owl and one of the most elusive and mysterious of all birds, has been rediscovered in the Atewa Forest, after going unnoticed in Ghana by scientists for almost 150 years. The discovery was made by two British scientists working in Ghana.

The Shelley’s Eagle-Owl Bubo shelleyi was described in 1872 from a specimen obtained from a local hunter in Ghana by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, curator of the bird collection at the Natural History Museum in London and founder of the British Ornithologists’ Club. There have been no confirmed sightings in Ghana since then, and very few glimpses elsewhere. It remains almost completely unknown. The only photographs were grainy images taken in 1975 of a captive behind bars at Antwerp Zoo.

This all changed when, on the 16th of October 2021, the species was conclusively rediscovered by Dr Robert Williams, a freelance ecologist from Somerset, and Dr Joseph Tobias, a biologist at Imperial College London and leader of a UK-government funded field project studying biological impacts of agricultural development in Africa.

The scientists, who visited the Atewa Forest during their time in Ghana, disturbed the huge bird from its daytime roost while they were walking in the forest, and initially thought it was an eagle as it flew through the tall trees. Luckily, it perched on a low branch, where they had a few seconds to clinch the identification and take the first known photographs of a wild Shelley’s Eagle-Owl.

“It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle,” Dr Tobias said. “Luckily it perched on a low branch and when we lifted our binoculars our jaws dropped. There is no other owl in Africa’s rainforests that big.”

According to records available, there have been occasional reports of Shelley’s Eagle-Owl over recent decades with brief sightings or calls heard from a few different localities across West and Central Africa from Sierra Leone to Angola and eastern Congo. Most of these records are unconfirmed.

The species has therefore become a ‘holy grail’ for birdwatchers in Africa and beyond. Shelley’s Eagle Owl is officially classified as Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature with an estimated population of only a few thousand individuals.

According to Bird Life International, Shelley's Eagle Owl is listed as vulnerable with its decline in part due to the clearance of its habitat by humans.

The fact that a predator of such massive size had become essentially invisible over a large swathe of Africa fuelled speculation as to its current whereabouts and reasons for its apparent rarity.

Commenting on the observation, Dr Nathaniel Annorbah of University of Environment and Sustainable Development, Ghana, said “This is a sensational discovery. We’ve been searching for this mysterious bird for years in the western lowlands, so to find it here in ridgetop forests of Eastern Region is a huge surprise.”

In November 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature passed an international resolution calling for global action to make Atewa Forest a National Park to secure its invaluable biological assets as well as its crucial water provisioning services for over five million Ghanaians.

Atewa for National Park

Although the Atewa forest reserve is threatened by illegal logging and proposed bauxite mining, higher elevations still support large areas of evergreen forest. Environmental groups, such as A Rocha Ghana and the Friends of Atewa among others, are lobbying for the area to be designated as a national park.

This latest discovery adds credence to the clarion call by CSOs, state agencies as well as the international community of the need for the Government of Ghana to secure the Atewa Forest by protecting it from all extractive activities that will destroy its ecological integrity.

A statement about the discovery of the bird said “It is also imperative that we collectively pursue a green development pathway, that will ensure the complete protection of the forest’s ecosystem services of water provisioning, habitat for teeming biodiversity as well as climate amelioration services, and this cannot be overstated”.

The Okyenhene, Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori Panin II has in July 2021, reiterated the urgency to protect Atewa Forest as a National Park. With all the recent discoveries in Atewa, it is becoming increasingly clear that Atewa Forest is the jewel in the crown of Ghana’s forests and needs all the necessary protection it can get.

Deputy Director of A Rocha Ghana, Daryl Bosu said of the discovery “This find is amazing and further attest to long held and proven record that Atewa is not just an invaluable water tower and critical climate mitigation ecosystem but also a globally biodiversity significant area, making one of the most important places on earth to protect against any extractive industry. We need to seriously start shifting the investment policy towards one that secures these amazing ecosystem services. This is time to make Atewa a National Park”.

Dr Williams said: “We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity. Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana.”

By Awudu Salami Sulemana Yoda