Resuscitating the Sahel: AWI Helping Wildlife Return to Senegal

With very few exceptions, Africa’s Sahel—a strip of Africa that lies just south of the Sahara Desert—is a barren, devastated place populated largely by semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen who keep watch over far too many sickly, skinny cows. It suffers from desertification, the direct result of massive overgrazing in a fragile and arid ecosystem.

Hungry livestock forage vigorously, desperate to glean the slightest morsels of nutrition from an increasingly depleted landscape. They often eat any plant right down to the ground level, leaving little prospect for it to regenerate. The exposed soil then quickly dries out and is swept away by the wind, sometimes creating enormous dust storms. Native wildlife also suffer. Their numbers are greatly diminished and several species have become locally extinct.

The Sahel is a story of tragedy. But there is a way out. And AWI is partnering with Senegal National Parks (SNP) to turn the story around.

Life on the Sahel wasn’t always like this. Under natural conditions, the arid ecosystem provided reasonably well for the people, their livestock, and the wildlife who shared this enormous landscape—and it is enormous: about 500 miles wide, stretching 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. In times past, water was the principal limiting factor. A herdsman knew he could keep only as many cows as the available water permitted. If seasonal rains produced water for only 20 cows, he could not keep 100. And the local vegetation did not have to bear the impact of 100 voracious grazers.

Wildlife fit into this system quite well, since all species that naturally inhabit the Sahel are very well adapted to this environment. Giraffes, for example, prefer to eat moisture-rich leaves from the thorny umbrella tree (Acacia tortilis) that is relatively common across the Sahel. A well-fed giraffe has hardly any need of free-standing drinking water. Neither does the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), the dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas), or the dama gazelle (Gazella dama). All these and others have metabolisms that conserve water very well, and anatomies that are superb for dissipating heat.

Then came an era when kind-hearted people wanted to help diminish poverty on the Sahel. But they discovered the Fulani do not measure their wealth in money, mansions, or jewelry. They count their wealth in the number of cattle they own. A Fulani herdsman who owns 100 cows is much wealthier than one who owns only 20. Aid organizations reasoned that if you want to help a Fulani herdsman escape poverty, give him more cows.

To provide access to the ocean of water that lies only 50 or 100 feet beneath the surface, bore holes and wells were dug. Many projects dug many wells, and by four or five decades ago, water ceased to be the limiting factor for life on the Sahel. Vegetation quickly assumed that function.

With abundant water, a herdsman could keep as many cows as there was grass to feed them. This newfound abundance proved illusory, however. In fact, the additional cows contributed to a downward spiral that resulted in vast stretches of the Sahel becoming denuded and desertified.

The solution is just as obvious: Reverse course. Today, AWI is working with SNP to demonstrate how this barren and sorrowful landscape can reclaim its former vitality and joy. We are implementing gentle and incremental measures designed to benefit everyone who lives on this land—wildlife, livestock, and people. Our partnership seeks to restore the harmony that had once guided the dynamics of life in this part of the world.

SNP is a formidable partner. Since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, SNP has diligently managed five national parks and another five fauna reserves, sometimes under enormous stress and in the midst of great tragedy. Dozens of rangers have lost their lives in defense of wildlife in this West African nation. Parfait Mane, a Senegalese park ranger, literally died in the arms of former SNP director Souleye Ndiaye after he was shot in a battle with a poaching gang in Niokolo-Koba National Park. But SNP has kept its resolve, and since independence, Senegal has not lost a single wild animal species to extinction.

We are working in the Ferlo, a region in the remote northeast corner of Senegal—the most arid and impoverished part of the country. Senegal’s government has transferred responsibility for more than 1,500 square miles to SNP with simple instructions: Revive this ecosystem according to guidelines established by the Biosphere Reserve program of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These instructions were issued with the stroke of a pen in an air conditioned government office in Dakar. Nobody mentioned a word about budget or technical support.

But good deeds sometimes do not depend initially upon budget and technical support as much as they rely upon clear thinking and good will. These can then attract the necessary budget and technical support.

The project’s basic concept is well defined, and initial goals have been accomplished. From the start, we understand that nature must benefit, the Fulani community must benefit, and the livestock must benefit, and this must be accomplished in a benevolent manner that will attract the interest of the neighbors. We want those neighbors to be keen on copying our example, and be part of a sequence of projects that can help to resuscitate the Sahel.

A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve generally contains a fully protected core that is reserved exclusively for nature. This area is inhabited only by native wildlife and native vegetation. This is a wilderness area with maximum emphasis on restoring and protecting natural ecological dynamics.

Surrounding the core is a buffer zone—a transition area that protects the core from having a hard border with disruptive human activities. In the Ferlo buffer zone, Fulani herdsmen will be invited to bring a strictly limited number of healthy livestock to graze on a rehabilitated and well-vegetated savanna. They will be sharing this area with the antelopes and gazelles and ostriches, just as their ancestors did only a few generations ago. Here, they can learn that life is much more pleasant with 20 healthy cows on a wholesome habitat than with 100 sickly cows on a wasteland, and indeed this should be the situation that they bequeath to their children.

At present, the Senegal project has an “exclosure” fence surrounding 1,200 hectares (about 4.6 square miles) of rehabilitated habitat in the Ferlo. The fence is called an exclosure because its principal intention is to keep livestock out. Within the fence, SNP is working on habitat rehabilitation and endangered species reintroduction. Present plans intend to expand this exclosure first to 5,000 hectares (about 20 square miles), and ultimately to 84,000 hectares (about 324 square miles)—large enough for a modest national park.

Habitat rehabilitation inside the fence primarily involves just letting the earth rest and catch its breath. Even experienced field biologists are commonly surprised by how well a savanna habitat like the Ferlo can bounce back simply by protecting it from the constant burden of livestock. Three or four years of protection and a modest measure of seasonal rains result in native vegetation recolonizing much of the barren landscape. Park rangers can help a bit by planting specific vegetation, clearing and maintaining fire breaks, and engaging in various other management activities. Of course, full rehabilitation will take longer. That critical layer of topsoil must be reconstituted before some native plants can return. But major progress can be accomplished within five years.

Today, a mix of extant and reintroduced native wild species live in Ferlo’s rehabilitated habitats. Ostriches, jackals, patas monkeys, warthogs, and red-fronted gazelles have always survived here—albeit in greatly diminished numbers. But species such as the scimitar-horned oryx and the dorcas and dama gazelles were targeted too intensely and were locally exterminated. Working with partners from Spain, France, and Israel, the Senegalese have received founder populations of these lost animals, and are in the process of restoring them to their native land. The scimitar-horned oryx reintroduction has been particularly successful. Starting with only eight individuals 18 years ago, the Senegalese have grown this to a population of 330.

AWI is helping Senegal with two important next steps: (1) improvement and expansion of the core area and (2) community relations.

For the core area, we’re looking at making improvements to the existing fence, and more than doubling the protected area. The existing fence needs improving because warthogs have been burrowing under it to dine on the attractive vegetation within. No problem. They are welcome. But the jackals and hyenas in the area have discovered the warthog excavations and found them convenient for gaining access themselves. That is a problem. These carnivores have started preying on young gazelles, including the highly endangered dama gazelles.

Under natural conditions, predation is part of the ecological dynamics of any habitat. But right now, with certain populations so low, it is important to provide them with extra protection until they are robust enough to withstand natural predation. Until then, we’ll shelter the gazelles behind a fence that has a concrete footing that should stymie the burrowing of the warthogs.

The protected core area is close to the Fulani village of Katane. At present, a single well provides water for both the village’s livestock and the wildlife on the other side of the fence. A common pool straddles the exclosure fence and SNP is a bit nervous about letting wildlife get so close to sickly cows. We need to separate them. This will be done by building a water tower that holds about 150 tons of water. That volume of water will provide pressure to the water pipes to help push water to concrete drinking troughs separated by several hundred yards: one trough for the livestock and one for the wildlife. The troughs will be elevated, just high enough for the animals to drink from without being able to step into them.

True, the wild animals really do not need the water tower and can survive without access to open water. However, that access is nevertheless beneficial at this stage of the project. Good hydration and good nutrition are factors that contribute to a good birth rate. So until the numbers of these endangered animals climb to the point where they can sustain the higher stress of life in a truly natural environment, we’ll continue to provide certain extra benefits that will help them recover.

The water tower will also help us divert a few gallons each day to a community “fertigation” vegetable garden. Fertigation is a highly disciplined system that works well in small-scale garden projects. A small amount of fertilizer is dissolved in irrigation water and trickled into a network of plastic hoses that deliver the mixture in precise amounts to individual plants. It’s practical and cost effective. The half-acre garden will be managed and operated by the village’s women’s cooperative to produce a small surplus of peppers, tomatoes, onions, and other crops that can be sold to neighboring villages. This will produce some cash to cover other village expenses. Hopefully, neighboring Fulani clans will see the benefits soon enough and want their own rehabilitated habitats and productive vegetable gardens.

The intent is to bring the Ferlo back into the habitable part of the world—to re-establish the old order, which provided more clement conditions for people, livestock, and wildlife. It is going in that direction: Even today, Fulani herdsmen often gaze across the fence line and see the flourishing habitat inside. They know their villages should be thriving like that. They already understand that there are too many livestock and that continued breeding will not create more wealth. To the contrary, it will create more misery.

One aging herdsman stared intently across the fence line and caught sight of a few scimitar-horned oryxes grazing peacefully. “Rimu” he said. That was the name his grandfather’s generation had for this antelope that had been killed off by trophy hunters and disappeared from their midst nearly a century ago.

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