The Forgotten Sirenian: Our Quest to Learn Everything about the African Manatee

Latest update March 7, 2019 Started on December 4, 2018

We’re setting out to not only determine all threats to African manatees in 5 countries, but to learn as much as we can about their biology, ecology and their cultural importance throughout Africa. Follow along with us!

December 4, 2018
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In The Field

After following the Faleme River as far as roads and sand tracks would allow (it flows from Guinea to meet the Senegal River mostly through wilderness areas that create the eastern boundary of Niokolo-Koba National Park), we headed to Tambacounda on the worst road I’ve ever been on in Africa. The road from Kidira to Tambacounda really isn’t a road at all, but a series of potholes in dirt and the remaining few pieces of asphalt after the road had completely deteriorated under the weight of thousands of overloaded tractor trailers coming from Mali and headed to Dakar. For five hours we crawled along behind countless giant fuel and 24-wheeler trucks piled over 2 stories high with supplies, which swayed violently as they rocked up and down in the potholes. The only benefit of our slow pace was that we saw a jackal, a wild cat, and a troop of baboons as darkness fell.

After Tambacounda we continued to Gouloumbou, where the Gambia River in Senegal (which originates in the mountains of Guinea) flows into The Gambia. We followed the Gambia River upriver for most of its 472 km / 300 miles in Senegal, starting in Gouloumbou. At this time of year, the water was very low, but water marks on the bridges crossing the river attest to it’s rise of at least 100 feet here in the rainy season. We went to see the village chief, but he was away, so we spoke to a young man who isn’t a fisherman but lives there and told us the fishermen catch manatees in the rainy season using specialized nets. He said they catch approximately three per year and the meat is cut up and shipped to Mbour and Dakar for sale. He offered to take photos the next time a manatee is caught. This is the kind of proof we need to start investigating illegal hunting, and it’s the first time on this trip I’ve heard about poaching at all. Because this man is not a fisherman himself, he wasn’t afraid to tell us what is going on there. Ironically, there’s a Water and Forestry office in this town: manatees are fully protected by law in Senegal and Water and Forestry is supposed to enforce the law. It appears they may not be cracking down on the poaching.

After Gouloumbou, we went to Wassadou, which sits at the northern border of Niokolo-Koba National Park. We took a late afternoon boat trip on the river, mostly to see habitat and ask about manatees, since again the water was too low to expect manatees to be here at this time of year. We saw hippos, baboons and lots of birds, and our boat driver said manatees were only seen rarely passing through in the rainy season. Although the place we stayed was an ecotourism lodge, they didn’t know much about manatees in the area, but after exchanging contact information I hope they may be more watchful for them in the future and report sightings to us when they have them. Our project checks in with contacts monthly, to help gather information in case they don’t call us, and when people start expecting us to call, they are more likely to more accurately remember dates and times of manatee sightings.

Traveling further upriver to Mako, we found the river to be shallow but to have some deeper pools. We stayed at a lodge on the river here, and the manager became very excited when I told him I’m studying manatees, because he had seen two last September at the edge of the river right in front of the lodge. He said one of them raised it’s head out of the water to look at him, and he felt it was “almost human”. Given that this lodge is a minimum of 715 km / 444 miles from the mouth of the Gambia River at the Atlantic Ocean, and even 285 km / 177 miles from the Gambia / Senegal border, as well as the fact that manatees don’t usually migrate or move more than a couple hundred miles in their home ranges, I’m starting to wonder if there might be an upriver population of manatees in the Gambia River. This is something I hadn’t considered before, but now that I have proof that they are this far upriver, it’s exciting to contemplate! The only way to prove it would be to collect a small piece of skin for any dead or rescued manatees from this region and run DNA analyses, so for now I’ll have to wait until samples become available (not that I want any manatees to die!). There are separate manatee populations in the Senegal and Niger Rivers, so it would be cool to find another riverine population here someday!

After Mako we went south to Kedougou, our southernmost stop on this trip. Water marks and cliff edges along the river here prove there would be plenty of water for manatees here in the rainy season. Only a few miles from here the Gambia River flows out from the mountains in Guinea. Next time I hope to return in the rainy season and follow the river across the border to see if (and how far upriver) people there have seen manatees there as well. There are also Gambia River tributaries in Senegal we didn’t have time to follow on this trip- the Sandougou, Neiri Ko, Koulountou and Niokolo-Koba Rivers. So there’s lots more work to be done, but this reconnaissance trip of the upper Gambia River has given me some great places to start.

Photos: Two young boys give perspective to the high water marks on the bridge at Gouloumbou; a hippo in the river at Wassadou where manatees swim by in the rainy season; ladies washing clothes in the shallow dry season Gambia River in Mako, and the Gambia River at sunset south of Mako.

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After a few days in Bakel, we drove south along the river to Ballou, a remote village that has the distinction of sitting at the junction of the Senegal and Faleme Rivers, where Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania all meet. I was interested to go there because manatee researchers in the past have suspected they are in the Faleme River, but no one has ever gone there before to ask the local people if they are there. When we got to Ballou, after a long, dusty drive down a dirt road, we found the village chief and, as is customary in most parts of West and Central Africa, we told him about our study and asked him for permission to talk to people in the village. The chief was very enthusiastic and offered to take out us to the river junction, since it’s on a farmer’s private land. On the way there he told us they do see manatees in the Faleme, but only in the rainy season when the water rises. He told us there’s a local saying that when you see the manatees going up the Faleme, they are going to bring the rainwater back downstream with them! I love this explanation for their seasonal migration.

When we got to the river, I could see why manatees are only here in the rainy season, there were only inches of water in it at this time of year. I found three species of freshwater mussels/clams and a snail that I collected. I wondered if some manatees might live further upriver in the Faleme year-round, even if they were cut off from the Senegal River during the dry season.

So we continued driving and 46 km later we reached Kidira in the late afternoon. We’ve now said goodbye to the Senegal River, which has passed into Mali at Ballou, and we’re following the Faleme. After 2 weeks on the Senegal River I find it’s hard to leave it. At Kidira we walked down to the river, which was very shallow, less than 2 feet deep in most places. We met an older fisherman, Mr. Kenta, who was setting his net for the evening. He said he remembers manatees there as a boy, but they disappeared from the area years ago. He says chemicals in the river from mining upstream have killed off all the big fish, and now there are only little ones left. It’s heartbreaking to think that he’s still eating these fish, knowing there are chemicals strong enough to kill bigger fish. Peace Corps volunteers are told not to swim in rivers in this region due to the high levels of mercury in the water dumped by mining operations. As for the manatees, with the very shallow water I’m sure they aren’t here at this time of year, and perhaps they stay away from this area now, no longer migrating this far up the river in the rainy season to bring the water back downstream to Ballou.

Photo 1: standing in Senegal at the convergence of the Senegal River (blue in the background) and the Faleme River (muddy river closer to me). The land across the river is Mauritania, and the point of land over my left shoulder is Mali. This is the closest you can come to standing in the 3 countries at once! Photo 2: snails and three species of freshwater mollusk shells found at the Faleme river’s edge in Ballou- the two larger shells are Aspatharia dahomeyensis and Coelatura aegyptiaca, species I already proved that manatees eat using stable isotope analyses, but the tiniest shell is new to me. Photo 3: Mr. Kenta setting his net in the Faleme River in Kidira.

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Bakel sits on a hill overlooking the Senegal River, it’s 200-year-old colonial fort (now the offices of the local government) perched on one of the highest points. I wonder if soldiers here ever saw manatees in the river below as they walked along these walls. Our first day in Bakel we went there to meet with the local fisheries ministry representative, who gave us great information about people to talk to in villages north of the city, where a huge floodplain holds water year-round. This was exactly the place I had seen on Google Earth before the trip and wanted to explore, so the contacts I got from the fisheries office were very helpful.

Bakel is also the southernmost point any of my satellite tagged manatees traveled in the Senegal River in 2009: a female tagged manatee came here three times on her trips up and down the river, but never stayed more than a couple days once she arrived. I’m hoping to figure out what attracted her here and why she didn’t stay.

As we headed out of town along the river, one thing we quickly realized is that most people here speak Soninke, a tribal language that neither Tomas nor I speak. Luckily, we were able to figure out that “manatee” is pronounced “leewongé” (spelled phonetically) in Soninke, so armed with that word and lots of hand gesturing towards the river we were able to ask people if they knew about manatees. All of them did.

At Diawara, we met with Issa Boso Farota, the president of the Diawara fisheries cooperative, who had lots of information about manatees. He told us manatees go into the flooded corn fields at the edge of the river to eat the plants at the beginning of the rainy season, and that they take fish from nets in the river throughout the year. He also said they eat the freshwater shellfish, which I have seen in other parts of the river.

Mr. Farota took us out to the river to show us the entrance of the large tributary (now dry until the rains begin again) that fills with water up to 15 feet deep that flows into the enormous inland floodplain every rainy season. He said manatees used to use this tributary to enter the large floodplain (which he distinguished as five different lakes) but that there’s a place in the tributary that’s filled in with sand and made it too shallow for them to pass through, so they still come into the tributary, but they can’t get to the floodplain/lakes for the past ten years or so. Later, when I looked at Google Earth, I found the cause of the siltation: construction of homes and walls along the tributary since 2007 have caused sand to build up in the waterway. This made me think about other flood season places that manatees may no longer be able to access, and a Google Earth search showed flood areas south of Bakel that have now been turned into industrial agricultural fields, channelizing the water from the river into narrow irrigation canals and destroying the habitat manatees could have accessed in the past.

We visited the floodplain at Diawara as well, and I can imagine it would be a paradise for manatees…with year-round water it’s full of grasses, water lilies and other plants they eat. If they can’t reach places like this, they have to search elsewhere for food, and if floodplains are being turned into farms, they have less places to access food in this very dry region. The satellite tagged manatee in 2009 came to this area, perhaps hoping to get into the flooded lakes, but it was the dry season so there would’ve been no waterway connection from the main river. Perhaps her trips up and down the river were searches for feeding area access after she was released from the tributary where we rescued her.

One other thing that struck me about the people I spoke to in Diawara and Bakel were the stories they recounted about manatees. Again and again I was told that manatees approach humans at the edge of the river, that people have specific songs they sing to them, that people think manatees have human attributes (like breasts), and that they raise their head out of the water at sunrise and sunset to look at the sun. They also told me that these human-like characteristics are the reason why people don’t hunt them, because they feel they are too close to humans. So perhaps the manatees’ curiosity to approach people (for whatever reason they do) has led people here to feel a bond with them. Can’t argue with that!

Photos: The fort at Bakel overlooking the Senegal River; a view of Mauritania across the Senegal River and the green floodplain at river's edge south of Bakel; me with the president of the Diawara fisheries cooperative at the large lake that was accessible to manatees until a few years ago; and the dry tributary that leads to the floodplain in the rainy season

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The day we left Kanel a huge dust storm blew up, and we were following a dirt road along the river, so it was slow going. Winds were gusting strongly, dust was in every crevice in our car, and even coating the eyelashes of people we spoke to as we stopped in each village. It was hard for us to stay out of our car for long, but we found the local people were going about their business as normal- boys playing in yards, women walking with buckets of water on their heads. I guess when you live out here, these storms are normal.

We made our way to the Waounde dam, which sits on a tributary mouth right on the Senegal River. Several people have told us as the water is released from the Manatali Dam in Mali in the rainy season, it flows north almost like a low tidal wave, turning the river from blue to brown, and manatees follow closely behind. They say manatees enter the tributary at Waounde as water flows over the dam there and spreads out on the floodplain that stretches ~55 km northward. In the old days they used to swim out the north end at the Navel tributary, but now the dam there makes that difficult and sometimes they can’t get out so they stay in places like Wendou Kanel until the following year. It’s becoming clear to me that these dams have altered the manatees’ migration patterns, but how it’s affecting their survival is unknown.

As we drove further south towards Bakel, the flat landscape we’re so used to in most of Senegal began to change to green rolling hills and rocky areas with baobab trees. Near Dembancane we checked out a large flooded area but were told it’s too shallow for manatees and they don’t go in it. The floodplain here is so immense, with so many channels and tributaries, that local knowledge is imperative to know where manatees go, and where they don’t.

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At Kanel we spent a couple days visiting known manatee sites with our colleague Moutar, who I haven’t seen since I was last out here, seven years ago. Moutar is a fisherman, but he’s always had a special interest in manatees, and has reported to us when they’ve become trapped in marshy areas as the water recedes or when carcasses turn up. There are two places where manatees often get trapped away from the river during the dry season, but both often have enough water and food resources for them to remain there until the waters flood again the following rainy season. These places are Wendou Kanel, a huge seasonal lake that is ~20 km long by ~12 km wide, spanning from Navel south to Kanel, and Patouwel, a long tributary that connects Wendou Kanel to a channel back out to the main river at Waounde, ~35 km to the south. In both places, manatees spend the dry season stealing fish from nets, much to the chagrin of local fishermen, and eating plentiful freshwater mussels found in the mud. In fact, years ago Patouwel is where I first came to believe manatees really were taking fish from nets, because unlike other places where fishermen reported it, there are no other possible carnivores like turtles or crocodiles that could be responsible for it… only manatees. So I collected fish and mollusks here and used stable isotope analyses to prove manatees are eating these foods.

At Wendou Kanel and Patouwel this year is different, Moutar tells us, because the manatees haven’t stayed in Wendou Kanel, but have preferred to stay in a part of the floodplain further north towards Navel. And no manatees stayed at Patouwel this year, meaning no competition for the fishermen. We visited both places anyway, and I spoke to fishermen about the species of fish that manatees take from their nets when they’re around. They seem to prefer catfish because of their lack of scales, and they suck the flesh off the body, leaving the spiny head in the net. They do eat other fish as well, and they showed me three species I haven’t recorded before, so my list of fish manatees eat is growing. At Wendou Kanel I also saw this strange grey growths on some sticks by the lake- if I was by the ocean I’d say it is some sort of glass sponge, but I’m hundreds of miles inland and have no idea what it is. I collected several to ask colleagues about…and fishermen told me manatees eat these as well.

While talking to one fisherman, Aruna, the subject of manatees coming near shore when people are bathing came up again. He recounted a story I’ve heard over the years all across West and Central Africa: there once was a young girl bathing nude by the river, and her father-in-law came (in some versions of the story he was a prince instead) and she was embarrassed, so she dove into the river and became a manatee. Aruna then told me two years ago he was standing in the water near shore, when he felt a manatee touch his foot with its nose. Surprised and freaked out, he ran out of the water, only to see the nose surface to breathe just after. He then said he thinks manatees come to visit the people because since he knows from the legend that manatees were once human, he thinks they miss the company of people or maybe of being human themselves, so they come to visit people at the water’s edge. I’ve always thought they were just curious, but I love this explanation!

Photos: In Kanel, Moutar (center) and I visited the Water and Forestry office and I presented the Captain there with posters I had made focusing on enforcing laws to protect African manatees. Remaining photos are fish species and the strange grey growths I collected at Wendou Kanel to analyze as part of my manatee feeding ecology study, a fisherman at Patouwel (all the white specks in the water are net floats), and 3 catfish species at Patouwel that manatees eat.

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This morning we visited the regional office of the Senegal Fisheries Ministry and the director, Mr. Mane, had lots of good information about manatees to share, including their rescue last July of two manatees stranded as waters in a tributary receded, and reports of two dead manatees- one from last October and one only three days ago. We had a great discussion about coordinating manatee work in the future, and then he and two of his staff took me to the place where they found the dead manatee last October, just below the Navel dam. Unfortunately, it was no longer there (the carcass was probably scavenged or washed downstream long ago), but they did have photos and video of it that suggested to me it may have been killed in the dam and washed out when the doors were opened. After exchanging contact information and photos, we drove south along the river to the village of Oudabere, where Mr. Mane had already contacted a colleague to take us to the manatee carcass that had been reported three days ago.

It turned out to be a long, hot, hike from the car across a floodplain, a pasture and then a huge sandy beach along the river to reach the carcass, which had floated ~8 km north from the location it had originally been reported in. The large, bloated carcass was beached about 25 feet from the shore, but when I tried to wade out to it, I immediately sank in mud up to my knees. So we found a small pirogue and paddled out to it, but trying to cut into the floating carcass from the rocking tiny canoe proved more difficult that I expected and it’s a miracle I didn’t tip myself right into the carcass! I was able to collect some basic measurements, take photos and some samples for my population genetics and feeding ecology studies. I couldn’t determine why it died, but fortunately there were no signs of human interaction (hunting, bycatch, etc.). I would’ve like to have collected the skull, but we didn’t have anything to put the head in, and we were a long walk from the vehicle, so unfortunately it wasn’t possible. When I got back to my computer I discovered it was the second longest manatee ever measured in Senegal.

Photos: Fisheries Dept. staff looking for the October 2018 manatee carcass below the Navel dam, Tomas and our fisheries guide Moussa hiking to the carcass at Oudabere, Moussa and I getting ready to measure the carcass from the pirogue, and acrobatics in the canoe while trying to cut a small piece of the manatee’s tail for a genetic sample.

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We had to get off the road for a few days during Senegal’s presidential election (travel is not allowed on election day), so we stopped in the desert town of Ourosogui. It was really nice to get out of the car after bumping along on the terrible road for 9 days. While we enjoyed showers and air conditioning at our hotel, we also visited the local Water and Forestry office to meet with the regional director, we met Gabrielle, a Peace Corps volunteer working to start a plastic recycling plant in nearby Matam, and we visited the Navel dam south of Matam. The dam was constructed in 2008 and in its first year caused many manatees to become trapped as the water receded in the dry season. Manatees have used this tributary to swim out onto the floodplain during the rainy season for as long as anyone can remember, but the year the Navel dam was built they were suddenly prevented from returning to the river at the end of the rainy season. Seven manatees were rescued and I satellite tagged three of them, then followed their movements remotely as they traveled the Senegal River for months afterwards. Sadly, the dam also killed three manatees that year when they got trapped up against grilles over the dam gates and drowned. After that we got the people who control the dam to remove the grates.

While in the area we also visited another dam, Diamel, north of Matam. There have never been reports of manatees trapped behind this dam, but I wanted to see it anyway. Perhaps there’s nothing interesting for manatees to access upstream of this dam, but it’s good to understand what it looks like in case that ever changes. We followed the river a short way north to where one of the tagged manatee spent time just after she was rescued from the Navel tributary, but we couldn’t see anything particularly interesting (from a manatee’s perspective) about the river there. Three ladies told us manatees did pass through and people see them, but they don’t stay. Several other men refused to speak to us; in this highly religious Muslim region men often don’t want to speak to a woman or shake my hand, but it was surprising they wouldn’t even speak to Tomas…guilty by association, apparently. We always try to be respectful because it’s a very different world out here.

Photos: The poor road on the way to Oursogui, the dam at Navel, the view from the Diamel dam out to the main river

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Our next stop was Salde, where we met up with Peace Corps volunteer Cyrette and spent the morning walking along the river interviewing people about manatees. We first met a guy working at an aquaculture cage where he’s raising Tilapia, and another fisherman fishing with a hook and line nearby. They told us manatees are here year-round and take fish from hooks and nets, but as in other places they said no one retaliates against them for doing so. The aquaculture guy told me his grandfather was considered a type of shaman who could talk to water spirits, and he originally came to this village at the request of local people to rid the area of bad spirits and keep only the good spirits, which included the manatees as good/positive water spirits. Later and further down the river, we met some women washing clothes and when we asked about manatees, they said they sometimes come close to shore while they’re washing, and the women sing to them!

This brings up something I’ve been wanting to write about. Several times over the years I’ve heard reports of people saying that manatees come close to shore when kids are playing in the water or women are washing dishes or clothes. Kids have told me manatees play with them when they are swimming! Other than manatees’ natural curiosity or searching for food scraps from dishes being washed, I’m not sure why they would do this. It’s something I’ve really wanted to see for myself and I still have yet to witness it, but several times on this trip so far people have told me manatees come close to them at the shoreline and hang out near people. But the ladies here in Salde are the first to tell me they sing to the manatees. I love that!

After Salde we drove to a small village called Ganguel, where the Senegal River, flowing north, splits into the two branches that rejoin at Dagana. As I suspected, fishermen here report that manatees hang out in the junction of the rivers… this gives them options to move in different directions if they feel threatened. In this area the fishermen don’t use nets because they say there’s a regulation forbidding it, that goes back to the days before Senegal’s independence in 1960. They use long lines with lots of hooks, called dolinka, and he said the manatees take fish from them, but that the impact “isn’t too bad”. Again I found that fishermen in many parts of the river see manatees stealing fish from their nets as just part of life.

As we walked along the bank of the river at the junction of the branches, Tomas found several clumps of large oysters. We were really surprised to find oysters so far inland, I had always assumed they needed saltwater to survive. We collected some to test with my manatee stable isotope samples to see if they are eating them.

Photos: Cyrette and I at the Tilapia fish cage on the Senegal River, a quiet grassy spot perfect for manatees on the Doue, the split of the two branches of the Senegal River at Ganguel, and large oysters found in the mud at Ganguel.

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We camped on the Doue branch of the river for two nights near the village of Fonde Gande and I watched for manatees until it got dark, by the full moon, and in the mornings, and I saw fish jumping and quite a few cool bird species, but no manatees. I was hoping that since one of the manatees I had tagged in 2009 spent 4 months in this area, that he or his friends might show themselves, but it’s clear I’m going to need to use equipment like an underwater drone and/or side scanning sonar next time to better find their hiding places.

At Fonde Gande the shoreline is unique in this region in that it has a large sandy area with small, lumpy hillocks of grass instead of a flat beach area. There are also areas of dense aquatic plants just south of the village, in a place that several fishermen told me is a manatee hangout. People report seeing manatees here year round- some said they see them more in the dry season, others in the rainy. Fishermen reported manatees taking fish from their hooks and nets, and one man said 11-12 years ago one got caught in a net alive, so they asked the nearest Water and Forestry Dept. officer (the equivalent of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the USA) what to do. He said if the manatee was alive to release it, but if it was dead they could eat it! Luckily the manatee was alive, so they released it. I made a note in my logbook to talk to Water and Forestry staff in my next training session about not telling the public they can eat a protected species, because this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that field officers have told people to eat manatees that died.

Later that afternoon as I was walking along the river, I came down an embankment and slipped on some large seeds under a tree and fell, banging my knee up pretty badly and snapping the zoom lens right off my camera! I hobbled back to the main part of the village and a nice kid was able to find me some ice for my knee, but the lens is completely destroyed. The camera itself seems to be ok and I have a smaller lens, but any chance of good manatee photos on this trip is likely over, which is really frustrating!

And of course, as we were driving out of Fonde Gande, we stopped at the “manatee hangout” area and I finally saw a manatee! It surfaced briefly for a breath, then rolled back under the water and disappeared. I’m happy to finally see one, and hope there will be others, but of course I couldn’t get a photo.

Photos (click to enlarge): Campsite on the Doue, watching for manatees from my tent, the shoreline at Fonde Gande, and my broken zoom lens

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Thanks for the update! Enjoying your missives.

Up to now I’ve been horribly remiss in mentioning that I’m on this survey trip with my husband and fieldwork partner, Tomas Diagne. Tomas is an African turtle expert, but there are few turtles in the Senegal River and he’s mostly come on this trip to help me interview people in local languages I don’t speak- Wolof and Pulaar. Out here many people don’t speak French, and I’m incredibly grateful for him taking the time to help me with the numerous daily interviews that are helping me understand where manatees are, what they’re eating and doing in different parts of the river, etc.

After Podor we headed to Ndioum, the next large town near the three river tributaries. Once again, we interviewed people along each part of the divided river, and again we were told manatees are seen in each. As in the other places I’ve visited, people report manatees taking fish from nets but rarely getting entangled or caught in them, and there appears to not be any illegal hunting in this region. So far everyone I’ve asked about any manatee hunting emphatically tells me that it doesn’t occur here because “it’s not part of our culture” and/or “Water and Forestry will arrest us”. It’s a refreshing change from most other places I’ve worked in Africa.

As we left Ndioum, the nice paved road we’ve followed from Richard-Toll came to an end. The government is working to continue paving over the old crumbled road, but for now there’s only a dirt track for the next ~370 kilometers, with huge 18-wheeler trucks, fast-moving caravans of SUVs from Senegal’s presidential campaigns, and local donkey carts all stirring up huge amounts of dust and making travel a bumpy ride, to say the least.

Luckily at Golere we left the main road and traveled a sandy track to the riverside village of Dongui Donbi, a place I visited seven years ago because one of my satellite tagged manatees spent 4 months hanging out in two bends in the river between this village and nearby Fonde Gande. We met the chief of the village, who showed us around and set up a meeting with eight fishermen to discuss manatees in the area. Finally, here they tell me that manatees are frequently seen here in the winter, rather than only in the rainy season! As in many other places, they say manatees take fish from their nets but also eat aquatic plants, but they don’t retaliate against the manatees and simply shrug their shoulders and say they think the manatees don’t take that many fish. One man tells me the last time anyone hunted a manatee there was when he was eight years old- 58 years ago.

While in Dongui Donbi I walked along the river’s edge and found shells from a small freshwater clam species that manatees eat as well as seeing lots of young Tilapia, a fish that manatees suck the flesh off of in fishing nets, and aquatic plants, so I can see why this place is a dry season paradise for them.

Photos (click to enlarge): The end of the good road at Ndioum, Tomas and the chief of Dongui Donbi with a manatee educational poster, juvenile Tilapia and a shell from the freshwater clam Coelatura aegyptiaca.

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After Dagana we headed east to Podor, another city founded in colonial times along the main river, with the two other river branches just south of the city. I learned that the larger of the two branches is called “Doue” after a village located where the river divides. In Podor we met up with two Peace Corps volunteers, Jacqui and Jerome, who kindly showed us around the area and introduced us to a farmer they knew along the river, who not only told us he’d seen a manatee in the river four days ago, but also told us about a “manatee whisperer”, a man in a village further upriver in the Matam region who knows a lot about manatees. I hope I can find him… I’d love to hear what he has to say!

While asking people about manatees at Podor’s main river landing, I happened to meet the Chief of the local Fisheries Ministry Office, Mr. Deme, who turned out to be hugely helpful showing me several rainy season manatee hangout sites and introducing me to local fishermen. One fisherman showed me a wetland area off the Doue where he believes manatees come to give birth every rainy season, because he frequently sees adults with small calves there. The habitat looks right- manatee Moms prefer quiet areas to give birth. This is the first time I’ve heard of any place in the Senegal River thought to be a birthing area, so you can bet I’ll check back here in the rainy season.

In the rainy season the Senegal River expands from approximately .4 km wide (a quarter mile) to over 30 km (18.6 miles) wide in some places, and there are countless floodplains, seasonal lakes, tributaries, etc. for manatees to use for traveling, feeding and mating. It’s hard to imagine the sheer expanse of it all, even being here myself. People describe to me a huge surge of muddy water arriving from upriver (known as “Mbund” in the Wolof language) as water is released from the Manatali dam in Mali at the start of the rainy season, almost as if manatees arrive with a muddy tidal wave. But now the water is blue and relatively clear, yet the manatees are masters of hiding in it. I visited all three river branches in the Podor region and manatees were reported in all of them, although I didn’t see any myself. Most people I’ve interviewed so far say they see manatees during the rainy season, but some see them occasionally during this time of year. So where are they? Still looking…

Photos (click on each to enlarge): Interviewing local fishermen in Podor, a receding floodplain off the Doue gives an idea of the habitat manatees can access in the rainy season, a dried floodplain where manatees spend the rainy season becomes a livestock grazing area in the dry season.

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Heading east along the river today we reached the town of Dagana which still has colonial architecture and a 140-year-old fort. A few years ago, someone was lucky enough to photograph a manatee mating herd in the river here, which is a rare sighting in Africa. Mating herds form when male manatees follow a receptive female and try to mate with her, groups can last for hours or days and they splash around on the surface as males compete to gain access to the female.

We interviewed people in Dagana and several nearby fishing villages. At Gaya, a village well-known for fishermen, I watched several men and young boys pull nets ashore from the river and they told me the type of net they use doesn’t catch manatees accidentally (the mesh size is too small and the cotton material isn’t as entangling as mono-filament). Everyone in this area has seen manatees, but they say they’re more regularly seen in the rainy season, when a huge surge of water is released from the Manatali Dam in Mali and flows down the Senegal River Valley and out onto an enormous floodplain. Manatees take advantage of this, swimming out onto the floodplain where they can eat freshly sprouted grasses and even leaves from partially submerged trees. Because of this, as well as the prevalence of mating herds at that time of year, people tend to see them more often. But I’m here in the dry season to try to understand where they go in the river when it’s not flooded.

In southeastern Senegal the river splits into three branches that snake northward across the desert landscape for hundreds of miles and rejoin here in Dagana. So my job for the next few days will be to interview people all along the three branches of the river and look for the elusive manatees along the way. Tonight we found a nice little hotel by one branch of the river with a brand new swimming pool that was finished 3 weeks ago! I think I just found my perfect spot to watch for manatees in the desert heat!

Photos: Mating manatees in the Senegal River (photo courtesy of the Senegal River Basin Authority), the historic quay at Dagana, fishermen pulling in their net at Gaya, the pool view in Mbantou.

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Our first stop on our eastern Senegal manatee survey was the Tahouey Dam in Richard-Toll, which controls water entering from the Senegal River into Lake Guiers. The lake is the largest in Senegal and supplies the drinking water for the capital Dakar, as well as many other cities and towns in northern Senegal. Manatees live in both the Senegal River as well as Lake Guiers, and before the dam was built around 1980, they would travel in to the lake during the rainy season as the water rose, and return to the river in the dry season as the lake level fell. Now the dam keeps the lake’s water level high year-round, so many manatees appear to stay all year, but a few others still come and go from the river.

Over the past couple years in the fall we’ve gotten reports of five dead manatees in the dam, so I met with Mr. Yagui, the man in charge of controlling the dam gates, to understand what’s killing them and how we can stop it. Unfortunately, dams kill manatees throughout Africa, by trapping them in dam structures such as gates, by having grilles/bars in the openings that manatees can’t pass through, or from entrapment behind dams keeping them from accessing food or deeper water during dry seasons. Manatees caught behind dams are also more susceptible to being killed by hunters because they have limited space to flee.

On a sunny morning at the Tahouey Dam, Mr. Yagui told me the large gates are open most of the year and manatees are able to pass through them, but during the height of the rainy season in August and September, the water flow from the river becomes too strong, so the gates are closed to prevent flooding in the lake. During those times, the only way through is a narrow opening in the center of the dam between the larger doors (shown by the red arrow in my photo below) and this is too narrow for larger manatees to pass through, so they get stuck and drown.

We walked out onto the dam so I could see the opening, and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a dam before, but the good news is Mr. Yagui believes his bosses would be willing to add a grate to keep manatees from entering the narrow space. He’s also agreed to record whenever they see manatees near or passing through the dam so we can get an idea of how many move in and out of the lake and at which times of the year. So I’ll talk with the people at the main office in St. Louis, although on this trip I’ve already passed their location, so I’ll plan to meet with them after this survey. Things take time here and I'd like them to get a grate installed before the next rainy season.

Photos: The dam with an arrow showing the narrow opening in the middle, view northward from the Tahouey Dam to the Senegal River (beyond the boat), and the narrow opening seen from the front of the dam with Mr. Yagui.

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We’re heading out to start our manatee fieldwork along the Senegal River. It’s hard to believe manatees live there, because the Senegal River is in the Sahel, the transition zone between the wetter zones of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahara Desert. Imagine driving for hours through sand storms blowing across the road, passing only the occasional village or camel caravan, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of where we’re headed. After driving through this landscape it’s shocking to come to the river’s edge and find manatees! This was my experience when I first came to Senegal in 2009 to rescue manatees trapped behind an agricultural dam in Matam, on the eastern Senegal border with Mali. It took us 16 hours to drive there from Dakar, but fortunately since then the main road has been greatly improved. This trip, however, we’ll be mostly off the main road, looking along the river’s edge for manatees and talking to people about them. We’re looking for manatee “hotspots” where they're frequently seen, important habitat, as well as threats. These manatees are probably living at the very edge of their capability in this very hot zone in a shallow, muddy river with few aquatic plants. At this time of year (the dry season) the river will be low, and manatees will hopefully be easier to find than during the rainy season when the Senegal River expands from .4 km wide or less, to ~30 km wide in some places!

It’s been a long wait to get to this point. We were originally supposed to leave 3 weeks ago, but we had car trouble that has taken awhile to resolve, including waiting for the regional Dept. of Motor Vehicles to issue our new registration and license plates. Sometimes fieldwork can be delayed for the most mundane reasons! In this hot and dry desert country we don’t take chances with car problems, so we’ve worked to get everything fixed and in order.

In the meantime, we’ve been checking and packing all our supplies: field equipment including cameras, binoculars, a Go Pro, a depth sounder to check the depth of the river wherever we are, GPS, lots of extra batteries, mask/snorkel/fins, and a necropsy kit in case we find any dead manatees along the way (we hope not, but finding them is rare and we need to be ready to collect valuable samples). Sadly, we discovered that after many years in the heat, our spotlight batteries will no longer recharge, which means no night spotting on this trip. We’ve also packed lots of other supplies like a shovel, tire repair kit, air pump, tents, sunscreen and LOTS of food and water. Aside from collecting scientific data, we hope to talk to people about the importance of protecting manatees, so we’re bringing educational supplies to give out, including our African manatee coloring books, stickers, posters and t-shirts.

I’m so excited to get going after all the planning! My genetics work has already shown that African manatees in the Senegal River are a different population from those along the coast, and my feeding study showed that they eat freshwater mussels, clams and fish in addition to plants. I’ve also heard stories from many people in this region that manatees have been known to play with children at the river’s edge, which I hope to see for myself. There’s so much to learn about these secretive sirenians! More soon~

Photos: Sandstorm on the main road in eastern Senegal, the Senegal River in the dry season, and some of the gear we're bringing

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As we get started, I thought I'd share a bit about my background... I’m from Massachusetts, USA but I’ve spent most of the past 12 years in Africa and I’m based in Senegal. I’ve spent the past 30 years conducting field research with marine mammals around the world, including 20 years working with manatees. I began studying African manatees in Gabon in 2006 and spent several years doing distribution studies all around that country. I started my current work in Senegal in 2009, and with collaborators I’m also studying African manatees in 6 other countries. I’m greatly concerned about the high levels of threats facing this species which include intense illegal hunting for manatee “bushmeat”, fisheries bycatch, isolation of populations due to dams, and habitat loss due to human development. I began research studies (all still ongoing) including:

  • the first range-wide genetics study of the species which has identified four populations to date
  • the first feeding ecology study to define African manatee diet (using stable isotopes) which indicated that they regularly consume mollusks (mussels and clams) and fish in addition to plants (this is big news in the manatee world because most people think of them as strict herbivores)
  • the first satellite tracking study
  • the first longevity study which indicates that African manatees can live at least 39 years. Florida manatees have been shown to live over 60 years, and we suspect as we get more samples, we’ll find out African manatees are very long-lived as well.

I also began the first alternative livelihood programs for former manatee hunters in Senegal, Nigeria and Mali. In addition, when I started working in Africa, I quickly realized that with such an enormous range, many more Africans needed to be inspired to study and conserve manatees if the species is to survive the numerous threats it's facing. So, in 2008 I initiated a collaborative network for manatee fieldwork and conservation which now has members in 19 African countries. Since that year I’ve also trained over 90 African biologists in manatee field techniques and conservation planning, and I currently have three doctoral students and a Masters student studying African manatee threats, genetics, diet, and habitat use. In 2016, with nine African colleagues from five countries, we began threat assessments to accurately document numbers of manatees captured and killed for the first time, with the hope that by having that information, providing it to wildlife law enforcement agencies, and publicizing it, we can stop it. We realize it’s an enormous challenge, but we’re all dedicated to trying to do something to conserve this unique animal for the long-term. I look forward to sharing my work adventures with you here!

The photo below is me with an orphan calf manatee called Victor that we raised in a lagoon enclosure in Gabon. He was successfully released back to the wild in 2013.

Expedition Background

Did you know there are manatees in Africa? Most people outside of the countries where African manatees live are unaware that this secretive creature, a cousin of manatees in Florida, even exists. The African manatee is one of the least understood marine mammals in the world and they are the least studied large mammal in Africa. They are found in freshwater and marine systems along the African Atlantic coast between Senegal and Angola, and in the interior countries of Mali, Niger, and Chad. The range of the species is larger than the United States and their habitats very widely from rivers in the desert at the edge of the Sahara, to lush Central African rainforests, to mangrove estuaries and offshore islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

African manatees face significant threats throughout their 21-country range, and the lack of basic knowledge on their distribution, abundance, biology, and ecology is a great hindrance to their conservation. Despite existing protection laws in all range countries, the species is hunted in most places it occurs and the manatee bushmeat trade is well known throughout Africa. Accurate numbers of manatees poached and sold have almost never been recorded, so there is no information available to pressure wildlife law enforcement agencies to administer the laws meant to protect them. The countries where this species occurs are some of the poorest in the world, and hunting pressure is also expected to increase as fisheries decrease. Fisheries are expanding both on local scales as more people inhabit coastal zones, and as industrial fishing from developed countries sharply increases in Africa. African manatees are also caught incidentally as by-catch, particularly in artisanal fisheries, but documented records are few and the scale of this threat needs to be quantified. Dams and rapidly increasing coastal development are also threatening and destroying vital habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and seagrass beds. African manatees, which require healthy aquatic and marine habitats to survive, are ecosystem sentinels.

Together with eight African colleagues and one American graduate student who will be introduced along the way, I’m leading the first year-round threat assessments for the African manatee in five West and Central African countries: Senegal, The Gambia, Nigeria, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We will quantify threats in each country and document numbers of manatees killed so that we can provide evidence to, and work with, governments, international organizations, and conventions to find practical, viable, and sustainable conservation solutions. I will also train researchers in countries where there has been little or no African manatee conservation in the past. Additionally, there is very little baseline knowledge about African manatees, so we are addressing this through focused population genetics, ecology, and health studies. We will share our results widely with government and other wildlife law enforcement agencies, local communities and others who are committed to helping conserve this enigmatic species.

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Thanks Ariel! There's still African manatee work going on in Gabon, but it's now led by my graduate student Christy as well as the great team from OELO, so I'm not working there myself as much anymore. The good news is manatees are doing pretty well in Gabon and have fewer threats, so I'm focusing now on countries where threats are higher and/or where less is known about them.

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