News / Africa

Conservationists Working to Protect Endangered African Manatees

A manatee is rescued in Senegal, Nov 2010
A manatee is rescued in Senegal, Nov 2010
Amanda Fortier

Conservationists in West Africa are working with local fishermen to protect endangered African manatees, which are an important part of both the environment and local folk lore.

The distinctive sound can be heard of a manatee - a torpedo-shaped marine animal that lives in the Caribbean, South America and along the coast, rivers and wetlands of over 20 African countries.

While very little is known about the numbers of African manatees, they are the most threatened. Some fishing communities hunt them for meat, hides and bones.

Elusive creatures

That has put the African manatee on the United Nations red list of endangered species. Lucy Keith Diagne, a scientist with the American-based EcoHealth Alliance, has been tracking manatees for more than 10 years.

"In Africa, they are the least-studied large animal," said Diagne. "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 migrate and are generally shy, solitary creatures. They also are slow breeders. They mate about every two years and have only one calf at a time.

Their rare sightings have, in part, made the manatees something of an enigma. Among some fishing communities, they are even creatures to be feared.

Mystical animal

El Ali Haida is director at l'Oceanium, an environmental non-profit group based in Dakar. Haida said the manatee is a very mystical animal. 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.

Diagne said the spirit that supposedly lives in the manatee is called Mamiwata.

"I find it fascinating that in many different cultures the manatee is always a mermaid. Here in Africa, mamiwata means lots of different things, in lots of different 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. Basically, I think it is an explanation for fishermen who drown - they just never come home to their families," said Diagne.

"In Nigeria, mamiwata is a very positive thing. If she takes you to her lair and then she releases you later, then your family will be prosperous for life. Totally different end of the perspective, mamiwata is another name for prostitute in Cameroon," said Diagne. "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."

Financial gain

For those who actively hunt the manatee, Haida said the financial benefits can be huge. The meat from one manatee can weigh as much as 500 kilograms. When sold at market for $2 per kilogram that is a lot of money in a poor country like Senegal.

The manatees are protected by national laws in every country where they are found. And yet, the lack of enforcement and education means the numbers of manatees are still believed to be decreasing.

Momar Sow oversees a manatee conservation project across six West African countries with the non-profit group Wetlands.

"Fortunately, in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, they have a traditional respect for these species," said Sow. "It is very rare to find young hunters. Most of them are old. There has been a degradation of traditional rules given to young boys. This is a luck for us. They didn't disseminate the tradition of how to kill manatee."

Protecting biodiversity

Bienvenue Sambo is a professor and researcher at the Institute for Science and the Environment at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. He said African manatees are an important part of biodiversity.

If the manatees are lost, Sambo said there will be a gap in the ecosystem. We don't know the virtues of every species, he said, so if we want to keep ourselves in the realm of sustainability, we need to protect them.

In the developing world, Sambo said, it is hard to convince someone who does not have enough to eat that they should help preserve a species for future generations.

L'Oceanium is protecting 22 manatees in the southern Casamance region, and is working with other communities to build ecotourism sights where tourists pay to see manatees in the wild.

Haida said if the environment allows people to make money, then they will have incentive to protect their environment.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More