kate west

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.

Investigating the West African seahorse trade

By Kate West

Finally, after months of preparation, I have arrived in Senegal. My task: to investigate the fast-growing seahorse trade in West Africa. Hippocampus algiricus, the West African seahorse, is classed as Data Deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), having rarely been studied before. My aim is to gain as much information about the species' biology, as well as to gather quantitative information about the trade of the species. This will ultimately help to make the West African seahorse trade more sustainable. I will spend five weeks in Senegal and a week in Guinea.

Keen to get started as soon as possible, I meet with Cheikh Fall, a fisheries inspector and my research assistant, soon after my arrival. Given the nature of trade work, I’ve been feeling a little anxious about how fishers and traders will react to my probing questions about the trade of specialist marine products. When I meet Cheikh, a tall, smiling man, my fears are quickly put to rest. After a chat about logistics and the overall project, Cheikh produces a long list of people he has already started to contact in the port. I feel encouraged already.

The following day we meet with a wholesaler in Dakar, Senegal’s largest city. We pass through a shifty looking back alley near the port, where shark fins and swim bladders lay drying in the sun. Our contact views us suspiciously but informs us that he does indeed sell seahorses, and from this tiny piece of information, we develop new leads for our investigation at the port.

The next time we visit the port, to meet another wholesaler, the shark fins are gone and in their place we find something that, for our purposes, is even more interesting — pipefish, a seahorse relative. As I begin to inspect the dried specimens, an elderly man appears with a handful of dried seahorses. I can't believe my luck. After some haggling over the price, we bring the specimens with us into the port of Dakar. 

Cheikh informs me that there are a number of Chinese vessels docked here at the port — seahorses are in important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), commonly used as a tonic to treat many different health problems. Project Seahorse has been working for many years to make the trade in seahorse for TCM more sustainable, and my research here in West Africa will help to fill some of the gaps in our current knowledge about which species are traded and in what volumes.

We enter a dimly lit office next to the quay where we encounter several Chinese traders. In Wolof and French we explain our quest to the owner of one of the Chinese fishing vessels. Immediately the man becomes very excited and asks whether he can buy some seahorses from me! I explain that I am studying seahorses, not trading them, and he seems a little disappointed. When I ask why he wants them, he makes a gesture to Cheikh to indicate that they are used to enhance virility. Cheikh laughs. 

Outside on the quayside, we see that one of the Chinese vessels is unloading. We make our approach. Here our reception is not so warmly received. I am told not to take pictures. However, as we leave one of the fishermen slips a 'petit cadeux' into my hand — another seahorse, evidence of their catch.

After spending most of the rest of the day talking to fishing boat captains, we meet with another wholesaler. Sitting in a dark room down a dusty road, I finally see something familiar, the logo of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, the international body that regulates the trade in seahorses and other threatened animal and plant species. I ask him about regulations here in Senegal, and the wholesaler explains that all the seahorses are shipped to Hong Kong and that there is a quota managed by the Ministry of "Eaux et Foret" — water and forests. 

Following this lead, we visit to the Ministry the next day, where I ask about this quota. Excitingly, we are shown the official export records dating back to 2004, when all seahorse species were first listed under CITES. These data will be extremely useful.  Many types of data are needed to paint the most accurate picture of wildlife trade, as all data sources have omissions and errors, and it is helpful and encouraging that the Ministry is willing to share their export records with us. 

The next part of the journey takes us away from the fast pace of Dakar to fishing villages further south. Our first stop is the large fishing village of Joal. Here, around 3,000 pirogues depart every day to fish for cuttlefish, squid, sol, etc. This truly impressive sight was featured in "The End of the Line,” a documentary that highlights the problem of rapidly depleting fish stocks around the world. Karim Sall, appointed president of the local marine protected area and deputy town mayor, acts as our guide. 

As the pirogues unload in the dusk I notice a huge cart of what looked like rotting molluscs. Karim explains that these had been on a pirogue for 10-14 days, and, having been the first catch of the trip, twould have been sitting in the sun. Where previously these sub-par mollusks would not have been considered fit for consumption, they now serve as food for the Senegalese population. Meanwhile the fresher, iced catches are shipped to meet the demands of Western and Asian countries. I have observed examples of this time and time again – fishing efforts being doubled to meet ever-growing global demand, with diminishing results.

I leave Joal feeling like there is a lot to be learned from these examples, not just in terms of the seahorse trade but for all aspects of marine conservation.

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