Scientists and environmental managers recently gathered virtually to discuss conservation of the African manatee, an elusive and little-studied species found in 21 nations. The species is considered vulnerable to extinction with fewer than 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild because of several threats, including entanglement in fishing equipment, poaching, and habitat loss.
The four-day conference was convened by Senegal-based 2017 Pew marine fellow Lucy Keith-Diagne, a global expert on African manatee conservation. It brought together more than 75 specialists to exchange research findings and lessons from the field—including 2014 Pew fellow Louisa Ponnampalam, who shared experiences working with dugongs, a species closely related to the African manatee, and 2000 Pew fellow James “Buddy” Powell, who studied African manatees in the 1980s and early 1990s and provided a historical perspective on current research efforts.
This interview with Keith-Diagne, about the meeting and her own conservation story, has been edited for clarity and length.
A: There are many people doing amazing work in this field with limited resources, so the First African Manatee Symposium was partly meant as a showcase for the research and partly to bring researchers together virtually to meet, form collaborations, and think about what we need to accomplish in the next 10 years.
We had people from 17 countries, including 11 African nations, as well as one attendee from Malaysia and one from Brazil. It was exciting to see researchers from different countries and regions exchanging ideas. As a follow-up, we plan to start a series of spinoff virtual meetings, lectures, and webinars covering specific topics, like genetics, the illegal wildlife trade, and grant writing.
A: I first learned about manatees in seventh grade in New Jersey, and I thought they were so cool! I came home and told my parents that I was going to save manatees when I grew up. We still laugh about that!
A: Fast forward to 2005. I was running a research field station for Florida manatees in Port Charlotte, Florida, and I was interested in expanding my work abroad. While at a conference, I met a whale researcher who mentioned that he often saw manatees in Gabon’s lagoons while boating out to sea, and he wanted someone to come study them. We raised some funds, and I made my first trip to Gabon in 2006. As soon as I started working in Gabon, I fell in love with Africa and was fascinated by the secretive African manatee. I was hooked!
A: In 2007, I went to Angola to study manatees in the lower Congo River, and then I was asked to lead training workshops for African manatee researchers in Ghana in 2008 and 2009. Everything grew from there. Buddy Powell, my boss at the time, had studied African manatees in several countries in the 1980s and early 1990s, but after that only two people continued with research projects. By the time I arrived, many people were eager for training to start their own African manatee projects, so I made training a priority in addition to my research.
A: Florida manatee research and dugong research are both about 40 years ahead of where we are with African manatees. In Florida there are roughly 500 people working with manatees as researchers, managers, law enforcement, rehabilitation facilities, and educators. African manatees, on the other hand, are spread over a geographic range the size of the entire continental U.S., with only about 35 people working with the species. On top of that, almost all of these researchers are part time because they have other jobs.
Because the manatees are so secretive and elusive, it’s hard for people to engage with them and therefore to care about protecting them. But the good news is that in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of people starting research with African manatees.
A: The Pew marine fellowship has allowed me to lead a much-needed multicountry project to address threats to the species. Pew also supported the symposium. And Pew is excellent at sharing and promoting my work to a much larger audience, which has helped me convey the urgency of our need to protect African manatees.
The fellowship has increased opportunities for me to work with other Pew fellows, such as Louisa Ponnampalam, who studies dugongs in Malaysia and faces similar challenges in her work as we do in Africa, and Rima Jabado, who is studying sharks and wedgefish in Senegal. We all share information about each other’s species gained during our fieldwork.
Lastly, but certainly not least, I’ll be able to buy my first field vehicle with support from my Pew fellowship. That’ll help me respond to manatee strandings and other calls in Senegal more quickly.
A: I hope we can continue to increase the number of researchers working with the species. We still have several countries where no one is working or there’s a single researcher without much support. I’d like us to develop more collaborative projects between countries and regions to pool our resources for greater impact. And we need to attract larger funding sources to support African researchers so our work can continue without interruption.
A: We need to increase awareness of African manatees’ protected status and encourage the enforcement of laws to protect them. These laws exist in 21 countries, but enforcement is sparse to nonexistent.
Additionally, we need to build rehabilitation centers to care for injured or orphaned African manatees. And as we identify important habitat areas for manatees, we also need to develop more protected areas.
A: These goals are all achievable, especially with the motivated group of researchers that are now beginning to lead work in their countries and training others. My personal goal is to leave a sustainable network of African manatee researchers and conservationists to carry on the work long after my field research days are over.