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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Celebrating Manatee Awareness Month

African manatee
A young manatee swims in Gabon. Photo by Lucy Keith Diagne

Did you know that November is Manatee Awareness Month? These gentle, slow-moving marine mammals have endeared themselves to generations and long inspired tales of the sea. Early explorers of the ocean once mistook manatees for young women, fueling legends of mermaids.  In several African countries, a manatee may be known as a “mamiwata” a name given to a spirit believed to be embodied by the manatee.

Through our International Affairs Africa Regional Program, we’re working to conserve African manatees, which inhabit 21 countries in Africa.

African manatees (Trichechus senegalensis) are hunted for their meat and are caught incidentally in fishing nets.  Threats to the species are rising because manatees are a preferred bushmeat species and wildlife laws designed to protect manatees are not well-enforced. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) predicts that African manatee populations will decline by one-third or more within the next century.

African manatee habitaat
Manatee habitat in Nigeria. Photo by Lucy Keith Diagne

To combat these threats, in 2014 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on a project with the non-governmental organizations Sea to Shore Alliance and African Aquatic Conservation Fund (AACF) to develop a network of emerging African manatee conservationists and provide training in manatee field research techniques. The purpose of this project is to contribute to conservation actions for African manatees. This work complements the African Manatee Project, which has trained more than 90 African biologists from 19 countries to date.

The MENTOR-Manatee team of fellows. Photo by Lucy Keith Diagne

This two-year project is part of the Service’s MENTOR initiative which focuses on developing strong, transdisciplinary teams of emerging conservationists to tackle critical conservation challenges. The MENTOR-Manatee team, led by the world’s leading African manatee expert, Dr. Lucy Keith Diagne, is made up of eight conservationists from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon.

As part of their fellowship, the team will collect data on manatees including number of fishing nets damaged by manatees, fish species eaten by manatees, and number of manatees hunted for bushmeat or incidentally captured in fishing nets. The information the fellows collect will be compiled and used for future conservation actions for manatees.

All manatee species are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, in addition to being listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  African manatees are one of the least studied and least understood marine mammals in the world. In fact, in 2013 African manatees were uplisted from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, which means this species is among the most endangered CITES-listed animals and plants. 

Direct conservation initiatives like MENTOR-Manatee, which provide training for future African conservation leaders, are integral to help identify and tackle both current and future threats facing manatee populations. In the words of the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Help us spread the word about Manatee Awareness Month by liking the African Aquatic Conservation Fund (AACF) on Facebook and following the “In Search of Mamiwata” blog by AACF and MENTOR-Manatee coordinator, Dr. Lucy Keith Diagne.

**Note: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps to conserve all three recognized manatee species: the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), the African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) and the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis). In Florida, the North Florida Ecological Services Office coordinates manatee recovery activities and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge protects more than 600 manatees known to winter in its sanctuaries.  We encourage you to learn about all manatees this Manatee Awareness Month!

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