CEC member Appolinaire Oussou Lio, geographer and naturalist, reports on recent efforts to save the African manatees of Benin. His NGO lead a mission to Lake Slre to see two manatees that had travelled out of their flooded river and were later trapped in the lake by drought. The author links the event to climate change.
On the 16 of December 2009, the population of Goho in the commune of Seme-Kpodji informed GRABE-BENIN (an NGO) of the death of an African manatee. Going to the site, the team, led by Executive Director Mr. Leonce KPODOZOUNTO, used the opportunity to educate the local communities about the threat to this animal and its river corridors of migration. The scientific name of the manatee is Trichechus senegalensis, the largest mammel of fresh water which migrates the length of the river Ouémé, as well as the lakes that surround it. Often killed by the local population for meat or to be sold at high prices, the manatee is on the verge of extinction.
Four months after the death of the manatee at Goho, the NGO Nature Tropicale alerted us to the presence of a couple of manatees living in the lake Slre. Careful to protect this aquatic animal, the Biodiversity Forum of Benin (a conference focused on the farm school « GRAINE FUTURE » of GRABE-BENIN) was transferred to a nearby location. On Saturday, March 6th 2010, several NGOs focused on preservation of the environment as well as some representatives of the government reunited at Lake Slre to study and reflect on the life of these large and mysterious animals. Many people saw live manatees for the first time. (For me as well, this was a touching moment to care for a live manatee).
Why did we find these two manatees in the Slre Lake ?
Without a doubt, climate change is the cause. How? As a result of changing temperatures, the zones traversed by the river Oueme brought a flood of water, increasing the water level of the lakes. The manatees probably thought, « There is enough water everywhere! We should go further to find food and explore! » What an error, though! They didn’t realize they were at the gate of No Return. The diminishment of water was brutal with the great drought that followed, caused by evaporation.
From time to time, one could cross the river by foot on the riverbed. So if the strong are weakening, what should the weak do? The water level of the lake tragically diminished. Our two friends the manatees were trapped, without a hope of returning to the river Ouémé which would allow them to continue on their route. To confront the dangers, animals often have their own survival strategies. Our two « unfortunate adventurers » decided to solve their problem by crushing the cavities in the depths of the lake to get to more water, and hid their backs as much as possible while waiting for the rain to return.
The manatees: We saved them but…
In canoes filled with men and women, we were followed by the villagers, some of whom walked in the water that barely reached their thighs. A few meters from the refuge of the animals, the canoes were immobilized. It was the beginning of an adventure of the Ecoguards. It took us 15 minutes to find the animals and hold them up to the villagers to see this splendour of nature. We then moved the animals back to their native habit, letting them continue on their natural migration.
And then afterwards? What did we do ?
To protect the space of manatees in the area, we worked with the local communities to create a sustainable plan. We must work with these local communities to educate and develop alternative activities (such as ecotourism) that can replace the poaching of the manatees, thus saving these gentle creatures from rapid extinction.
We have need of your technical expertise and donations to begin a real program to protect African manatees in Benin.