Of crocodiles and medicine men

By Kate West

Photo: Kate West/Project Seahorse

Photo: Kate West/Project Seahorse

As my plane jolted onto the rutted tarmac, I looked out of the window to find mangroves stretching for kilometres, mango trees everywhere, and, for the first time in nearly a month, green grass. I removed my scarf, anticipating the humidity that would hit me as I stepped off the plane and into the next stage of my adventure: the West African nation of Guinea-Conakry. 

Two days later I woke at 6:30 to the pounding sound of rain. The rainy season had begun. Being from Wales I'm no stranger to rain, but this was weather on a totally different scale. On the way to Medina Market in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, our vehicle struggled through thigh-deep water past a taxi man wrestling to free his goods-laden car.

Wishing I had brought welly boots, we moved cautiously through the discarded vegetables and fish carcasses that carpeted the market floor. My assistant, Soumah, swiftly led the way, her beautiful white and blue traditional dress remaining miraculously unsoiled. 

As we moved deeper inside the market, scurrying through a maze of two-foot-wide avenues that branched off repeatedly, I felt as though I had entered a labyrinth. Keeping up with Soumah was hard enough without also having to avoid the channel of water that ran underneath us and the traffic of young boys and women carrying heavy loads on their heads. Finally we came to a halt where one of the paths widened and opened up to a series of stalls. These were owned by Haoussa, traditional medicine men who descend from people who had come for Niger and Nigeria. 

Moth-eaten scraps of fur were hung up next to bones and horns of varying shapes and colours. In a bucket on the floor several sickly-looking terrapins swam around slowly. Each time we asked cautiously about the seahorses, we were passed on to the neighbouring stall. After much reassurance one young medicine trader finally spoke to us, explaining that the traders were scared. A few months before, some Europeans had come asking to buy big cat skins. One of the stall owners went inland to make enquiries on their behalf. Upon his return he was apparently jailed for three months and a huge fine (about US $2000, more than the average Guinean makes in three or four years). It emerged later that the European men had reported the trader to local anti-poaching authorities. 

Though I feel very strongly that the illegal trade in endangered species must be stopped, I also felt very sorry for this man. As one of the older Haoussa rightly pointed out, what had the arrest of one trader achieved? His family was left without an income and a huge fine to bear, and what impact would that have on the poachers or the demand from the West and from Asia for such products? Change requires meaningful collaboration between researchers, national governments, and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Authorities.

The following day, we ventured 40km outside of bustle of Conakry to the small fishing village of Dubreka. The village is next to an estuary which leads into mangroves and eventually the sea, which is about eight kilometres downstream. When we arrived, most of the fishers were still out at sea. While we waited, I spoke to a retired fisher who now used his pirogue to take the occasional tourist out onto the estuary. He had never caught a seahorse, but told a story of a far more menacing creature. Last year a young girl had been taken from the banks of the river and eaten by a crocodile. At first I thought it might be an old wives’ tale he told to entertain tourists. However, many other people in the village confirmed it. 

As the fishers began to return, the rain began again. We huddled under a large lean-to among men mending fishing nets and women selling bottles of homemade juice and mangos. Here fisher after fisher told us the same answer, they had never found seahorses in their nets, many didn't even recognise the seahorse at all. Those who did know them kept telling us they could be found on the large fishing vessels in the port. We left Dubreka without any physical sign of a seahorse but again made aware of the terrible challenges that impoverished peoples face.

Kate West is undertaking this trade and biological research as part of her Master of Science degree at Imperial College London (UK). Her work is supervised by Amanda Vincent (Director of Project Seahorse, based at UBC), Chris Ransom (West and North Africa Programme Manager, Zoological Society of London) and Pia Orr (Research Associate, Imperial College London). Kate's research is generously supported by an Erasmus Darwin Barlow Expedition Grant and by the People's Trust for Endangered Species. Further support for our West African work comes from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.