Saving the Manatee: A Conservation Mission to save Africa’s Sea Mammals

Manatee_Senegal
African manatees are classed as a vulnerable species and are on the IUCN Red List. Photograph: Lucy Keith-Diagne/African Aquatic Conservation Fund

In many African countries, from Senegal down to Angola, the manatee is known as Mamy-Wata or the Sirena or a water spirit. It is a sea creature which can also be found in lakes, as well as on the ocean. There is a lot of myths surrounding the creature, and how difficult they are to find. There is also a lot of ideas surrounding their use in local medicines, with a high demand coming from Asia, to the point that they have now become endangered. This article on conservation efforts to save the manatee is from The Guardian. Enjoy!

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Once branded ‘rogue animals’, the elusive creatures were on the brink of extinction, but hope is rising for their survival

… For the past 14 years Keith-Diagne has been on a mission to protect the African manatee. There are an estimated 10,000 left, spread across 21 African countries, from the coast of Senegal down to Angola and inland to Chad. …

African manatees are classified as a vulnerable species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. They face many threats, including entanglement in fishing nets and entrapment in dams. In some countries they are heavily poached.

… The animals are so elusive that many locals know them only from myths. In countries such as Senegal, where the animals are revered as auspicious water spirits, poaching is rare. But dams still pose a major threat: the cumbersome mammals can get trapped in narrow passageways and drown.

Manatee_Map in Africa
Approximate distribution of the manatee in Africa

Keith-Diagne said local dam authorities have been receptive to her proposed modifications of the structures. Politicians have also come on board. In 2014, her husband, Tomas Diagne, also a biologist, successfully petitioned the government to set aside 275 hectares (679 acres) for an aquatic reserve. The area is now home to an estimated 100 manatees as well as hundreds of Adanson’s mud turtles – a species unique to the local lake. The couple are also helping the surrounding communities to develop an ecotourism industry.

Keith-Diagne’s conservation work has extended into other parts of Africa. With the help of a Pew Marine fellowship, she formed a network of nine biologists in Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo to document every manatee captured or killed over three years. The project has already identified one clear trend: Nigeria is a leader in manatee mortality.

Hunters can make up to $2,000 (£1,626) from a single catch in the country, where manatee meat is said to be beneficial for diabetics and their oil is thought to be cholesterol-free. In addition, their penises are believed to cure impotence, their ear bones to ward off bullets, and eyes believed to possess magical powers. The faeces left over in manatee intestines are dried and used to mend broken bones.

According to Nigerian myth, upon encountering a human, a manatee will tickle them until they laugh so hard they drown.

Rumours of manatees breaking fishing nets and capsizing canoes led to their classification as a “rogue animal” in the 1970s – an official classification for animals that threaten human livelihoods, such as crocodiles and hippopotami.

Manatee
The manatee

… [Edem] Eniang, [a professor of wildlife resource management at the University of Uyo in Nigeria] and his team often go undercover, posing as buyers to keep tabs on poachers and document manatee killings. They visit schools to teach the importance of conservation and they run TV and radio information campaigns. Such campaigns can and have made a difference. In Cameroon, education and awareness initiatives have pushed manatee hunting to its lowest level.

Aristide Takoukam, the director of the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation in Cameroon, gives frequent presentations at schools and organises field trips to Lake Ossa, a wildlife reserve created in 1948.

I want to teach them to see nature in a different way than their parents,” he says. “I want to show them that in animals, they can also find beauty.”

He also trains fishermen in how to make a living from bee farming and soap making instead of manatee hunting and with the help of an American ecotourism expert, is developing an industry around manatee sightseeing, complete with lakeside bungalows, kayaking and bird watching.

I want to show them that a manatee is worth more alive than dead,” he says. …

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