Saving the African Manatee

Lucy Keith Diagne (right) enjoying manatee arts in  Dizangue

By Eric Kaba Tah

The African manatee is silently racing towards extinction as threats to its survival keep growing by the day. Unfortunately, current conservation efforts are still struggling to keep up with the pace of these threats, but the tide may be turning, as two dedicated marine biologists, with the support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are standing up for the elusive species that is also called “Mami Wata” in Cameroon.

The two marine biologists, Aristide Takoukam, a PhD student and Lucy Keith Diagne, an American biologist sat discussing, as rain poured outside. They looked lively and smiled profusely when I made a sudden entrance into the circular African-styled building. I had travelled to Dizangue to meet Lucy and we greeted each other as I joined them  to listen to biology and most especially to the long tale of the African manatee.

The African manatee is one of the least studied mammal species on the continent, and these two researchers, who look the perfect fit for the manatee research job they were undertaking in the coastal regions of the country, equally looked so lonely, that  I thought, maybe, these are the only  two people caring about the future of the African manatee in this country. They have a lot to do. They explained to me some of the problems. Aristide said, “There are two major direct threats,  manatees are facing. Firstly, poaching by some people who intentionally go to manatee habitats, kill them to sell as meat and for medicinal purposes”. He paused, then continued, “There is also accidental capture, with fishermen setting their fishing nets to capture fish but at the end, manatees are caught in the nets.”

The fisherman and the manatee have  a strange relationship. Fishermen accuse manatees of eating fish from their nets, whereas manatees mean no harm to fishermen. As Lucy lamented, they are even oblivious to the presence of fishermen, especially when they concentrate on mating. All male manatees have in their mind is the female and a hot pursuit of her favours in a flurry of agility. But because fishermen believe that manatees do eat the fish they capture in their nets, they really dislike them. Aristide says such accusations are yet to be scientifically proven in Cameroon. This one-sided rivalry  has only one winner, the fisherman who kills the manatee as an attempt to inflict revenge.

There are indirect threats facing the manatee as well. Like with many wildlife species today, their habitat is destroyed by humans,  in this case by fishermen. This compels the manatee to migrate to new habitats. Around the Lake Ossa area near Dizangue where our marine biologists are doing their research, catfish is hunted,  and bamboos popularly called “Chinese bamboos” are used to build traps in manatees habitats, obstructing their peaceful presence, accelerating sedimentation that reduces water depth and forcing the manatees to abandon these habitats.

Water pollution is also emerging as a major threat to manatees’ habitats.  The area is home to rubber tree plantations that use fertilizers to grow the trees and it is feared that the fertilizers drain into the lake impacting the chemical composition of the water. Potentially this may be dangerous, negatively affecting the whole water environment, and also manatees. Suspicious chemicals are also used by fishermen to kill fish in the lake and this may also have the same effect as the fertilizers. The negative consequences have not been routinely monitored and determined but they remain a huge source of concern to biologists.

In an attempt to address some of the threats facing the manatees, the  Conference of Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora – CITES, held in Bangkok in Thailand in March 2013, took a significant decision and unanimously agreed to re-classify the West African Manatee from Appendix II to Appendix I. Appendix I gives stricter protection to animals than Appendix II.

Cameroon, like many countries along the Gulf of Guinea, is home to the African manatee that is popularly known in the country as Lamatin or Mami Wata. These countries were expected to raise conservation levels for the African manatee following the CITES decision but that seems to be a far cry and  three years along the line, not a lot has changed. This may explain why many consider the Mentor Manatee Fellowship Programme sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, led by Lucy, as a welcome measure.

African manatee, compared to many other  species facing similar threats, is barely attracting the attention of conservationist and researchers. Not a lot is known about this marine mammal species.  Appropriate conservation initiatives are formulated on the basis of results of solid scientific studies. Conservationists give a number of reasons for the severely limited number of studies on manatees,  including difficulties in accessing their natural habitats, their elusive nature, the near absence of long term commitment, limited funding and logistic. The Mentor Manatee Fellowship Programme grouping 8 research fellows looks to be a step in the right direction as it addresses some of these issues.

The programme started in  2014 and  is hosted by the Dizangue-based African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation (AMMCO). It seeks to train young African manatee conservationists and  researchers in Central Africa. Lucy Keith Diagne,   the Executive Director of African Aquatic Conservation Fund (AACF) and leader of the network of manatee researchers in 19 African countries, says: “This group of 8 was selected from a pool of applicants from Cameroon, Gabon and DRC. They are all conducting an individual manatee research and education projects. Besides, we also have two team projects, one for documenting the hunting and bushmeat trade and also accidental by-catch of African manatees, and the second is to increase sensitization and education programmes on manatee conservation in Central Africa.” The Mentor Manatee Fellows are given capacity building training in areas like adaptive management and project design, dealing with the media, connecting with other conservation initiatives such as wildlife law enforcement and others. This training supplements their academic programmes.

The project looks so lonely, because in the world of conservation  there is a high concentration of initiatives in other areas. Its protagonists call for attention as there is a need for more people to step up and embrace manatee conservation. For example, in spite of the fact that the trafficking of manatees is known in coastal areas, apparently no manatee trafficker has been sent to jail since the 1994 Wildlife Law was passed in Cameroon. The plight of the manatee is therefore very different from other species because threats to its survival are not adequately addressed. Conservation efforts are still to target the species.

As a demonstration of the dire situation, just when I thought I had heard it all on the manatees, one of the manatee mentor fellows from Gabon told me about a more sinister but little known problem manatees are facing - the trafficking in manatee penis. He told me of an illicit trade in manatee penis going on in Lambarene, Gabon, and grieved that it was particularly difficult and dangerous because before poachers kill manatees to cut off their penises, they don’t distinguish whether it is a male or a female, they just kill and check later.

This alone warrants strong action and the intensification of conservation initiatives to save the manatee. Many see the  US sponsored Manatee Mentor Fellowship as a big boost for the species but more still has to be done. A  thorough research to provide knowledge on this evasive species is necessary but this must be accompanied by several other measures, especially a strong reaction from wildlife officials, if we are to save the beautiful Mami Wata. Aristide,  the President and Founder of the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (AMMCO), says the organization is active in this area: “With the support from IUCN through the Programme de Petites Initiatives (PPI), AMMCO  is surveying and mapping the distribution and relative abundance of manatee and  their feeding areas in Lake Ossa. Overlaying the map with the map of fishing activities in the lake allows us to determine preferred fishing zones as they  overlap with manatee zones; in these areas there is a higher risk of by-catch.” With the collaboration of Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) and  ZSL, the areas are gradually set as no-fishing zone and are regularly patrolled to reduce the risk of by-catch. In addition, AMMCO is conducting environmental education in the government high school in Dizangue with the vision of making the future generation to become friends of manatee.

An estimated 10 000 manatees remain in the wild. The manatee species can be found along coastal and estuary habits, coastal lagoons and lower reaches of rivers from Mauritania to Angola. They are facing strong competition from the sea turtles which seem to be more emblematic,  attracting huge attention from the conservation world. When I asked Lucy, why she chose manatees over the sea turtles, she smiled and said: “Well that is what my husband does, he is a turtle biologist, but I actually met him through manatee training, so I have done a little bit of turtle work in my career and he has done a little bit of manatee work and we actually work as a team.” Team effort may be what is required to save the African manatee.