The land of genies at the gate of Dakar, a sanctuary for the red-billed tropicbird

On a misty morning in the Capital City of Senegal bathing in a mild climate, the sunlight is late to shine. With a population of 3 million inhabitants, Dakar suffocates under clouds of pollution. Yet, this is where is located, 3 km off the big city’s coast, the Madeleine Islands National Park, a rocky and paradisiacal small island for birds.


These difficult-to-access islands provide an exceptional haven for seabirds. Indeed, with very little disturbance from human beings, the 23 hectare-Madeline islands are used by seabirds as a suitable reproductive site. Among species present are not only common species along Senegal’s coastline but also a few species seldom found on the continent (such as brown boobies, bridled terns and red-billed tropicbirds).


An appointment has been arranged at the Head Office of the Park, located in the Soumbedioune bay of fishermen on the Dakar cliff. Two students in animal biology at the Cheikh Anta Diop University, Abdou Karim Houmenou and Ngone Diop, who benefit from BirdLife International’s support under its project Alcyon, meet up with Alpha Coumbassa, the Park’s ecological monitoring officer, to make it to the enchanting park after half an hour of navigation.


The purpose of the Alcyon project is to identify marine bird and biodiversity important areas (BIAs) as well as to support the ecological monitoring and the study of seabirds on the island. Birds, especially red-billed tropicbirds and cormorants, have been the subject of observation schemes to learn about their feeding areas, migration routes, the evolution of their island population and their behaviour.


Immediately after landing, the two young scientists tune their binoculars and start looking around the rocks for the red-billed tropicbird (Phaeton aethereus mesonauta), the main subject of their research work. This bird is easily identifiable from its tail with two long central rectrices, its robust body and powerful beak.


« The first time I went to the island, I was terrified during the crossing on the boat, and we left late in the evening. I was wondering what I was doing there. But, today it is fun going to sea and finding myself again on these islands, where I do research on the birds that I want to protect”, confides the female PhD. student.


Birds mate from September onwards to reproduce themselves. The female bird nests directly on the ground, in a rocky cavity or on a hillside, and lays only one egg. After hatching, the young bird remains in the nest for a hundred days during which it is fed alternately by its two parents. Here we are at the end of March, with a few young birds already robust, and it will not be a long time before they leave the nest to go and discover the ocean.


The young researchers still have time to carry on with their work by taking a thorough look at each of the nesting areas of the red-billed tropicbird. With great gentleness, Ngoné delicately catches, weighs, measures and rings the young birds before putting them back in the nest. Blood samples are taken from a few of them in order to establish their food diet. Adult birds are equipped with GPS and GLS devices to trace their movements.


Seen by the Lebou community (an ethnic group of fishermen of Senegal) as the abode of their guardian spirits, the island of Ndeuk Daour and its surroundings are respected, with all rituals performed in a way that does not harm in the least the environment. There is a need, however, to remain vigilant as, in spite of this mystical protection, this fragile sanctuary is being endangered by the pressure exerted by man. “The park wardens must constantly watch for fishermen coming often too close to the island, although fishing is forbidden at less than 50 metres off the coast. Land-based visitors, who must necessarily be accompanied by a guide, do not always respect birds’ privacy” says Lieutenant Coumbassa.

“My close relations do not want to grasp the significance of birds and nature, but will understand me better through the work that I will produce”, confesses Karim when leaving the island after several hours of prospecting. “I want to become a renowned ornithologist for my country. It is a matter of looking for it and working towards it. Why not me?”.


By Blandine Mélis, Birdlife International

Photo credit: B. Melis