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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs