The manatee and the Mami Wata legend

Has the manatee become a legendary animal because it is very secretive? Or is it that it sighs rather than breathes on the surface of the water? As far back as in Ancient Greece, where it has since disappeared, the manatee inspired the mythology of the mermaids, fabulous half-woman half-fish creatures to which sailors could not possibly resist. In Africa too, from Angola to Senegal, the Manatee provides a source for the myth of Mami Wata, the Mother of waters to whom fishermen should offer sacrifices in order to calm the waves and make a good catch. The origin of the manatee is explained by many legends, such as the one about a young woman who was bathing on the riverbank when come upon by a hunter; to hide her nakedness, she threw herself in the water to later turn into a manatee.

The West African manatee belongs to the family of sirenians, consisting of 6 different species. Its essentially herbivorous diet is what makes it different from other marine mammals, being referred to in some cases as the sea cow of fish-cow. Round-headed with a muzzle and fleshy lips, the manatee feeds itself on aquatic plant in river fresh waters or estuaries populated with mangroves and grass beds. It is often led by its greed to cross paddy filed dikes in search for food, at the big detriment of farmers. The manatee does not refrain either from picking a few fishes from fishermen’s nets or eating shellfishes by crushing them with its powerful jaws. Its cylindrical body, which can be 3.5 metre long and weigh up to 800 kgs, is covered with fine hairs serving to detect vibrations in the generally troubled waters where it lives.

Like other species of the same family, the West African manatee is threatened. It is often caught for the purpose of traditional rituals. This is when it is subject to hunting from a hide at marine freshwater sources where it comes to quench its thirst. Only initiated people can hunt and cut up the manatee, otherwise they run the risk of becoming impotent, which in a way helps to limit catches and indirectly protect this species.

Nowadays, the main threats faced by manatees are the degradation of their habitats and the nets of artisanal fishermen. The construction of the Diama dam and other smaller bridges on the Senegal River now hinders their mobility, depending on the pattern of rises in the water level, as they find themselves trapped when flooded areas dry up. The local extinction of mangroves is also highly detrimental to the manatee. Its secretive behaviour makes it difficult to carry out research operations and, as a result, accurately assess the number of individuals of its population. Although provided with limited resources, scientists successfully tagged a few individuals with satellite beacons and were able to document their movement on a section of the Senegal River.

The creation of many marine protected areas (MPAs) across the sub-region and the implementation of environmental education actions are critical factors for the survival of the manatee species, in addition to being enlisted in Annex I of the Washington Convention on the trade in endangered species. Indeed, the recent observation of a group of about fifteen individuals on the Casamance River or in the Bijagos archipelago gives reason to hope that there is a better future for this flagship species both on the cultural and natural plane.

PRCM’s partners commit themselves:

In addition to the numerous MPAs which provide protection to the manatee within RAMPAO, the partners of PRCM keep taking actions:

  • CBD-Habitat and Oceanium have rescued and tagged individuals trapped in dams on the Senegal River;
  • Wetlands International has mobilized state and non-governmental actors in the region to develop national and regional plans of action on the conservation of the manatee species;
  • National authorities of PRCM member countries in charge of nature protection or fisheries have put in place regulations for the full protection of manatees.

​(Photo description)

OCaught in the waters of Guinea Bissau, these two manatees were taken to Japan on a special flight, and are now part of the Toba Aquarium, where they gave birth to an offspring