SAVING SEAHORSES

West African seahorse discovery

Every year, as part of our pioneering work on seahorses, Project Seahorse seeks out new frontiers in the study of these important animals. This year, our team investigated a little-known seahorse species in West Africa and documented the burgeoning international trade there.

 
 
The bustling fishing port of Joal, Senegal. Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor 

The bustling fishing port of Joal, Senegal. Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor 

As part of this joint investigation with Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), researcher Kate West spent several months visiting fishing ports in Senegal and Guinea-Conakry. She interviewed customs agents and traders, studied export logbooks, traveled with local fishers, and collected seahorse samples.

“The first thing that struck me when I visited places like Joal [one of West Africa’s busiest ports] was the number of people buying and selling this species we know so little about,” says West, who undertook the study as part of her graduate work. “There’s a real sense of urgency to our work here.”

What emerged from her fieldwork and the analysis done by our research team was the first-ever portrait of an unstudied endemic species, the West African seahorse (Hippocampus algiricus), and of the rapidly growing inter-continental trade in this and another species, the short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus).

 
 

 

"The number of seahorses in trade
in West Africa has risen dramatically
over the past few years, to exports
of about 600,000 animals every year.”

 

While on a dive with local fishers, West captured the first-ever video footage of a West African seahorse. It was broadcast by international media, including National Geographic, the Guardian, and Sky News. It became one of the Guardian’s “10 Most-Watched Environmental Videos” of 2012. You can view it here.

 

 
 


“In recent years, the West African seahorse has become highly sought, along with many other seahorse species,” says Dr. Amanda Vincent, director of Project Seahorse and one of West’s advisers. “Our fieldwork — the first ever study of this species — is revealing the fishing and trade pressures they face.”

The number of seahorses in trade in West Africa has risen dramatically over the past few years, to exports of about 600,000 animals every year. They are used primarily for traditional Chinese medicine.

West’s fieldwork is the first phase of a multi-year project that will increase our knowledge of the West African seahorse and help to ensure that their populations survive and thrive.

“Our findings will be shared with the Senegalese and other governments so they can meet their CITES obligations to make their seahorse trade sustainable,” explains Vincent.