Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Gambia: Niumi National Park
On the weekend after the workshop, Dawda and I traveled to Niumi National Park in the northwest corner of Gambia. On a map it seems relatively close to Banjul, but it turned out to be quite an adventure to get there and back!
About 15 minutes later the driver realized he still needed to put fuel in the car. In Land Rovers the fuel tank is under the front passenger seat, so he got out in the rain and ran around to my side of the car while Dawda and I slid over to the driver side so he could raise my seat and put the gas in.
After about half an hour we arrived at the village of Ginack Niji, which sits in the middle of Niumi National Park. Niumi is basically a long thin peninsula stretching north towards Senegal, with Atlantic Ocean on one side and mangrove channels on the other. Ginack Niji sits along one of the main mangrove channels and is a very peaceful fishing village.
We stayed at a small, rustic lodge called Camera Sambou that's operated by a local guide named Lamin. After we dried off, he suggested we walk into the village to meet with an old manatee hunter there.
Lamin took us to meet Mr. Jammeh and translated from Mandinka to English for me. Mr. Jammeh is (thankfully) retired now, but he hunted manatees, dolphins, and crocodiles for many years in this area. He learned his skills from his grandfather and used a harpoon to kill manatees at springs and in mating herds. He admitted that he thinks there aren't many manatees in the area now, compared to 20 years ago. Apparently there used to be 9 active manatee hunters in this area, but now there is only 1 fisherman who wants to hunt manatees. Mr. Jammeh told me the fisherman is not a true manatee hunter and has only killed 2, and that he thinks the man doesn't have the proper knowledge and skills (more to be thankful for!). In the photo below Mr. Jammeh is holding a photo of a huge Nile crocodile he killed a few years ago. It looked to be about 2.5 m long and when they opened it up they found many of the village's chickens inside!
After the interview I walked along the shore checking out the different plant species... there are 3 mangrove species here (for those of you who are interested, they are Rhizophora harrisonii, R. mangle, and Avicennia germinans). Red mangroves grow closer to the water and have long prop roots whereas white mangroves (higher up on the beach in the photo below) tend to grow further from the waterline. At high tide manatees can access all species here and they probably also hide among the mangroves roots.
There are also quite a few estuarine clam species and oysters here, so it seems like this area is a giant manatee buffet. Oysters grow on mangrove roots and are also harvested by the local people. We saw some oyster aquaculture in the river as well.
Behind the mangroves were some beautiful giant baobab trees...
On Sunday morning Lamin took us out on the river to survey several nearby manatee springs. Although we searched for manatees all along the way, we didn't see any. Not surprisingly, they seem very shy here.
We went to a beautiful area of the river that was remote (no villages nearby) and off limits for fishermen because it's within national park boundaries, so apparently few people come here. Lamin told us that on sunny afternoons, many large crocs can be seen basking on this beach.
Lamin showed us the main manatee spring where Mr. Jammeh used to hunt. Lamin has also seen manatees here several years ago when he brought British tourists and they waited til about 8pm at night. The springs are tiny and nothing is visible at the surface of the water... they don't produce a boil or bubbles that can be seen, so they are only known by where manatees and fish are found.
A better view of the main manatee spring which is just under the mangrove branch....
Using environmental sampling equiment Dawda and I could detect the springs by slight changes in depth and salinity.
One spring was marked by a lone palm tree, and I wondered if someone planted it there as a marker because there were no other palms for miles around.
On Sunday afternoon it was time to reverse the trip back to Banjul. We had some difficulty locating a car since most had left earlier in the morning, but we finally found one. All the rain the previous day had swollen several small rivers, so the water came up basically to the windows...
The tide was high again so we had to drive behind the beach until we reached a wider section. We passed this observation tower on the beach that Parks and Wildlife built for monitoring... something like this near manatee springs (along with real protection for manatees so they feel safe to come to the springs) would be perfect for local ecotourism.
Dodging waves and cows we made it back down the beach to Barra, then got to the ferry just as it was about to leave. Missing a ferry means a 2 hour wait until the next one, so we sprinted down the pier and literally jumped on board just as they pulled away from the pier.
The rest of my trip to Gambia was less eventful, and unfortunately too short. I hope to get back there to survey other manatee sites further up the Gambia River, but for now I'm happy to know that the Gambian manatee network is growing.