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.
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.
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.