Africa: Protecting One of Region’s Most Enigmatic Creatures: the Manatee

by May 24, 2011Wildlife News

Dakar — The manatee, or sea cow, is a torpedo-shaped marine mammal that moves languidly through the tepid waters of the Caribbean, South America and along the coast, rivers and wetlands from Senegal down to Angola. In the late 18th century, one of the manatee’s closest and much larger relative, the Stellar Cow, were hunted to extinction. Today, the future of the West African manatee may not be far behind.

Among researchers it is often referred to as “the forgotten animal”, even though it has been around for over 45 million years. The West African manatee is one of three manatee types, which includes the Amazonian and Indian. All three appear on the United Nations red list of endangered species. While there is very little known about the exact numbers or distribution of the West African manatee specifically, they are believed to be the most threatened of the three groups and continue to be hunted illegally for their prized meat, hides and bones.

Lucy Keith-Diagne is a scientist with the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance and has been patiently tracking these rare creatures for over ten years.

Biodiversity and Sustainability

The United Nations declared last year, 2010, as the International Year of Biodiversity, but the term itself was first coined back in the mid-1980s to include the entire web of life, from the great blue whale down to the tiniest microbe.

Dr. Bienvenue Sambo is a professor and researcher at the Institute for Science and the Environment at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. He says that biodiversity simply means “diversity of life”.

“This diversity is important,” he says, “because more diversity means more opportunities for people to take care of themselves.”

But this may be exactly what we are not doing. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental organization, we are experiencing the greatest extinction of species since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. In the last 500 years, more species have disappeared than at any other time in history. And between 1970 and 2000 alone, the World Conservation Union (the IUCN) says the total number of water species has decreased by half.

These types of facts may signal alarm bells within the scientific community, but for the majority of people in the Western world losing a species in some far-off land may seem irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.

Most of the biodiversity loss around the globe comes from developing countries. But it is also here that people are more dependent on their natural environment for everyday survival. “Diversity of life” becomes essential to provide enough food, nutritional and even medicinal needs. If one plant, animal or insect is wiped out – even if it is not immediately apparent – it can have serious and profound effects on human health. This can spill over into the social and economic development of the population and its country.

As Professor Sambo explains, “The problem of diminishing resources is felt more in a country like Senegal because of how poor it is. If the manatees are lost there will be a gap in the ecosystem. And we don’t know the virtues of every species, so if we want to keep ourselves in the realm of sustainability, we need to protect them.”

“In Africa, they are the least studied large animal. I think part of that is they are very mysterious. They live in murky water and extremely remote places. Most people see them dead or in a stew-pot, unfortunately.”

Manatees are migratory and generally shy, solitary creatures. They are also slow breeders, mating about every two years and having only one calf at a time. Their unusual sightings have, in part, made the manatees something of an enigma. Among certain fishing communities in West Africa, they are even feared.

Working with people

In Dakar, the environmental NGO, Oceanium, has been working to protect manatees along the Senegal River and in estuaries and mangroves in the southern part of the country. El Ali Haida is director and works on the ground in remote communities with the ‘thioubalo’ people – those who live by the water.

“The manatee is a very mystic animal,” says Haida. “In the villages of Casamance, the hunters must wear many different talismans and perform a ritual that can last up to two hours before they even dare to hunt the manatee.”

Mamiwata is the name given to the spirit that supposedly lives in the manatee. This spirit is always considered to be a mermaid, but according to Keith-Diagne, the interpretations of why she exists differ across countries.

“In Gabon, it is a beautiful young woman who pulls men underneath the water and takes them to her lair – never lets them free,” explains Keith-Diagne. “Basically, I think it is an explanation for fishermen who drown – they just never come home to their families. But in Nigeria, mamiwata is a very positive thing. If she catches you, she takes you to her lair and then releases you. Then your family will be prosperous for the rest of your life. And then on a totally different perspective, mamiwata is another name for prostitute in Cameroon. There are very few places though where the legend translates to the real animal, in the sense that people respect it enough not to kill it.”

The manatees are herbivores and live off over 60 different species of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants. Every day they can eat up to 15 percent of their body weight. Their biggest threats are directed hunting, unintentional trappings in nets and the construction of underwater dams. For those who actively hunt the manatees, they are driven by huge financial incentives.

“The meat from one manatee can weigh between 400 -500 kilogrammes,” says Haida. “When sold at a market in Senegal at 2 dollars per kilo, this represents a lot of money.”

In Senegal, as in every other West African country where they are found, the manatees are legally protected. Yet, a lack of law-enforcement and a poor understanding about the animal mean the number of manatees continues to decline.

Conservation efforts

Momar Sow oversees a manatee conservation project in six West African countries with the NGO Wetlands. From his experience working with fishermen across the region, he believes the social awareness about manatees differs from country to country.

“Fortunately, here in Senegal, as in The Gambia and Guinea, they have a traditional respect for these species,” says Sow.

“It is very rare to find young hunters. Most are old. In many cases, traditional pratices have not been passed down to young boys. This is lucky for us if they do not know how to kill manatees.”

According to Sow the “hot-spot” for manatee hunting is Sierra Leone. It amazes him, because it is the only country where he can find people killing manatee as if they were really cows. He says the mammals actually come right up to the rice farms to eat the farm.

“In some countries, (the manatee) is considered like a human. And yet, in some others they just do not care because of their own personal stories,” explains Sow. “You have some refugees in these places, so there the manatee is just considered a meat.”

The work of organizations like Wetlands and Oceanium has been vital to helping build awareness around this otherwise ‘forgotten animal’. Oceanium has directly helped save 22 manatees in Senegal and are working with locals to develop eco-tourism projects where tourists pay to see manatees in the wild.

Haida believes this may be the best solution in a country where people are more concerned with putting food on the table every day than protecting a rare animal for the future.

“Only when the environment allows people to make money will people have incentive to protect their environment,” he says.