Conservation Science in the Desert

Expedition to the beautiful Mauritania

In West-Africa lies a large country that probably not many Europeans ever heard about, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I had the privilege to travel to the biggest national park of Mauritania, as you might expect from me by now, for a shark related study (yes, sand sharks..).

The Country
Nowadays the name, The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, would possibly scare off many Western travelers considering the continued threat of Islamic extremists in Western countries from elsewhere in the world. This, together with the fact that the Dutch Foreign Ministry issues a somewhat alarming advice to travelers planning to visit this part of the Sahel region, doesn’t give a potential travelers a positive image of this country and a lot of them will leave Mauritania for what it is.

To my personal experience this is all nonsense. I am not saying that everybody should go take their bags and travel to Mauritania, because I know that’s not what you’re going to do. However, I want to and have to do justice by the beauty of the country and the experiences that the people of Mauritania have given me in just over 2 weeks.

First, a little on the country itself. For your reference, Mauritania is located to the North of Senegal, South of Western Sahara and on its Southeastern border lies Mali.  With just over 3 million people and over 25 times the size of The Netherlands, Mauritania is not really a densely populated country to say the least. The capital Nouakchott (pronounced as Newakshot) is located on the coast with the Atlantic Ocean and has an estimated population of 960,000 (est. 2013, although more recent records state its somewhere between 1 to 2 million people). A vast majority of the country is covered by desert, which will of course will not come as a surprise to you given the fact that Mauritania is part of the semiarid Sahel region. Mauritania was considered the center of the Berber region in the 11th and 12th centuries. Islam was established in the region and later nomads of Arabic tribes dominated the region. France established several trading posts along the Atlantic Coast of Mauritania and the country used to be a French colony since 1920. The native people of Mauritania used to have a nomadic lifestyle up until the 1950’s, but after severe droughts in the region, people started to settle in villages and cities. In 1961 Mauritania got full independence from France.

Most used languages are Arabic and French, which meant my most used language for these weeks would be a creative mix of English, sign language and the one or two words of French that I remembered from high school. Okay, let’s increase that a bit to three or four words (and one of them is requin).. Anyway, challenge accepted!


The Mission
I got the opportunity to join an expedition to the Banc d’Arguin National Park (Parc National du Banc d’Arguin; PNBA) for the World Wildlife Fund in cooperation with the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). The university, together with another Dutch research institute (NIOZ), have been doing research in this national park for a long time. The reason why scientists are so interested in the Banc d’Arguin is that it closely resembles the original state of our own Wadden Sea, where both institutes also have been conducting scientific studies for a long time. What makes it even a better study site is that the migratory birds that we find on our mudflats in the Wadden Sea in summer, leave during the Northern winter to spend their time on the much warmer Banc d’Arguin in West-Africa. This national park is the perfect opportunity to  study an ecosystem that resembles one of our own, but that still appears to have all the trophic levels (i.e. big predators) and healthy sea grass beds. Among scientists and conservationists who have interest in the park there was some major concern about the predatory trophic level, as they saw that sharks and rays were being fished by local Imraguen (regional tribe) fishermen at large numbers, and that is where I came in. My job was to talk to people within the park to find out how the fisheries for sharks and rays are structured, what and who drives the market and what the possible conservation measures could be to preserve the elasmobranch populations of the Banc d’Arguin.


The Expedition
So the expedition started off at 13th of May and we had some interdisciplinary missions. For me the main thing was clear and I got the help of Prof. dr. Han Olff (Professor of Community and Conservation Ecology, University of Groningen), and two of his Mauritanian PhD. students Hacen and Sidi Yahya. Within 2.5 weeks (until the end of May) we had to do experiments for the two Phd. studies, and do the interviews and visit nearby villages within the PNBA. Complicated, but the best way to learn as much about the park as possible within the given time frame. Especially because the people I was with know the PNBA better than anyone else.

So after flying over the Sahara for a couple of hours suddenly these small concrete blocks appear in what looks like the middle of the desert. The plane starts to descent and I know that its my destination, Nouakchott. Given the time that I had to prepare this trip (I know that I was going ± 3 weeks prior to the trip), I didn’t really know what to expect. The arrivals at Nouakchott is a bit chaotic to say the least, more like a market where you feel everyone wants to help you with taking your suitcases off the belt (the belt looked and sounded a bit like somebody was manually rotating it). Once we collected all our suitcases and bags, we had to go through customs (or military), which check mainly if you’re not bringing in alcohol into the Islamic country. Once we cleared customs, Hacen was waiting for us to drive us to our hotel. That day we visited the house of Sidi Yahya’s family and had a quick cup of tea (which normally lasts a couple of hours according to Arabic traditions) and we had an appointment with an UN official about our plans in the Banc d’Arguin. The next morning we packed our bags again, loaded them on two 4×4 trucks together with a lot of boxes and bags full of supplies and we left for the small village of Iwik. Driving through the capitol I quickly saw the beauty of the Arabic culture, nearly all men are dressed in a “boubou” with a white or black turban. The women were all dressed in what is called a “mulafa”, which covers the whole body as well as the head. Even in the capitol you can’t escape from the sand, literally everywhere you look you can find sand (a walk on the side of the road actually feels like a walk on the beach!). To make it even more Arabic, you see camels and donkey’s in the middle of the city!

50 km North of the capital we stopped at a place called Belawakh, a place where sharks and rays caught in the region are dried and packed for transport to other countries. I won’t go into details about the shark trade and fisheries of Mauritania in this blog, but will post the report I will write for the WWF and their international shark project after it is finished. The only thing I want to say about it now is that I’ve never seen someone cutting off the fins of a shark.. until this day. Just for a soup in Asia.


After our visit to Belawakh, we continued our trip through the desert. Surprisingly for 4 hours of the 5-hour drive this involved driving on good, asphalt roads to the village of Chami. In Chami we left the asphalt road and drove straight into the desert for the the last hour before we reached Poste d’Iwik, the station of the national park in Iwik. We were welcomed by the crew of the station, who were very happy to see us and within an hour we were drinking our first glass of tea with them. Compared to our Western living standards, the station is a bit primitive to say the least. No running water, limited electricity as the station is completely solar powered and 1 hour away from the closest telephone network (only a satphone for emergencies). Surprisingly, the station communicates with Nouakchott and nearby villages by radio communication and in the radio house (± 200 m away from the station) a satellite disc receives a WiFi signal from Nouakchott. However, the disc broke down three days into the expedition, which disconnected us from the rest of the world. Great way to experience the desert for the first time!

One of the coolest things about the stations is that we had three golden jackals (Canis aureus) living around the station. During daylight hours they were very, very skittish, but at night they would easily come within 3 meters from us, attracting by the leftovers of our diner that the crew would put outside for them. Walking through the desert to the radio house late at night to connect to the internet, I could see their eyes reflecting the light coming from my headlamp as they checked me out from a short distance. Such cool animals!

The first week of the expedition we investigated the drying pits of Iwik and Ten-Alloul and spoke with people involved in the trade of sharks and rays within the national park. Drying pits are big holes in the sand ranging from 2.5 m2 to 12 m2 of which the walls are wrapped with plastic sheets. The catch (sharks, rays or catfish) are, once gutted and finned (for sharks and guitarfish), thrown into the pits with sand or a minimum amount of salt and left to dry for up to a month. Once dried the meat and fins are each exported to different countries for different markets. It is a very sad sign to see the amounts that are caught by these local fishermen and it becomes imminently clear that these traditional fisheries are far from sustainable. The interviews we did with locals from the villages mainly involved drinking tea and discussing very interesting aspects of the fisheries, while communicating with the help of translators. The second week of the expedition involved talking to more people from the trade in Iwik and with representatives of the villages of Tessot and Arkeiss. During the whole expedition we conducted field work on the mudflats and sea grass beds to establish experiments for one of the PhD studies.

At the end of the expedition and back in Nouakchott, we did an interview on the Guedj Market, which appeared to be the end of the market chain in Mauritania. From there the products are exported to different countries and follow different routes.


The Experiences and the Result
I know this is a very brief description of what I experienced in this extraordinary country during this expedition. I became deeply interested in the Arabic and Mauritanian culture, tea, people and of course, nature. Although communicating with a large part of the crew of the station involved only basic English and French words, I think I’ve never felt so welcome while traveling abroad right from the start. However, this language barrier also prevented me to get to know even more about the Mauritanian people, their religion and their culture, but I guess if I ever return I will have to work on my French a bit more.

The result from our investigation is however a sad, I saw 13 new species of elasmobranchs (i.e. sharks and rays; of which at least 2 shark species are endemic to West-Africa), but this is the first trip during which I did not see any sharks or rays alive. I saw someone cutting off the fins of a shark right before my eyes just for a bowl of soup 12.000 kilometers away, which makes you realize what the problem exactly is. Strangely it motivates you, it motivates to do something about the unsustainable exploitation of these species in a very, very special ecosystem.

To end on a positive note, this expedition was extremely successful given the time I had to prepare it. I would like to thank all the amazing people that I’ve met along the way, especially the crew with whom I stayed and worked at Poste d’Iwik. The PNBA management for allowing us to undertake the expedition. And of course Han, Hacen, Sidi Yahya and Reinier (WWF Netherlands), thank you for showing me the beautiful Mauritania, the Banc d’Arguin and giving me the opportunity to join this awesome expedition. See you all soon!

As stated before, I will be writing a report on this expedition starting in the beginning of August. Once the report is finished I will share more details on my findings and on the expedition in a new blog post. If you have questions before that time, please contact me.
All photographs in this post are copyrighted, ask me for permission to use them.