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Counting birds for better conservation of wetlands in Senegal

Millions of people depend on the major Sahelian wetlands to meet their food and financial needs. These ecosystems are home to a multitude of waterbirds – migratory and resident – and provide essential livelihoods and services to local communities.

However, climate change, water and agricultural developments, and the intensive exploitation of the natural resources are contributing to the degradation and disappearance of the wetlands. The resulting dramatic changes in habitats have a major impact on the waterbird populations in the Sahel, and the impacts of hunting have yet to be assessed. These populations have already declined by 40 percent between 1960 and 2000. If the waterbirds were to disappear from this region, many rural communities would be deprived of an important source of protein.

Astou Sané actively participates in counting waterbirds in Senegal's Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary
Astou Sané actively participates in counting waterbirds in Senegal's Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.
© FAO/David Mansell-Moullin

At dawn, the water here in Senegal glimmers with orange reflections. Astou, a young ecologist, is in the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary to take part in the annual waterbird count. Her excitement is evident as she's been waiting for this moment for over a year. For the third year in a row, FAO and its partners are supporting this important biodiversity monitoring activity through the RESSOURCE* project co-funded by the European Union and the French Facility for Global Environment.

Astou's gaze shifts from keeping an eye on the sky above down to earth, where she holds a notepad and pencil in hand. She speaks enthusiastically about her passion for the environment. “Ornithology is a profession that's not so well known among women,” she says. “Yet, managing wetlands and the waterbirds they protect concerns us all.” Woman can play a key role in conservation in Senegal. “We live in a society where women are central to child-rearing. As mothers, they can pass on their interest in the environment from generation to generation,” says Astou.

Ornithology is a profession that's not so well known among women...Yet, managing wetlands and the waterbirds they protect concerns us all.

Astou Sané

She left her native Dakar for the first time in 2015, heading to the city of Saint-Louis in Senegal’s River Delta region. “I'll always remember the first time I saw a great egret. I was in such awe.”

Historically, this delta offers local communities abundant resources, such as fisheries and fertile soils apt for agriculture. Above all, the region is replete with waterbirds that are essential to ecosystem health. However, climate change, invasive aquatic plants and agricultural development threaten the fragile wetlands of this oasis.

Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary
Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary observation point ©FAO/David Mansell-Moullin
Bruno Portier
Senegal River Delta
Senegal River Delta © FAO/David Mansell-Moullin
FAO / Bruno Portier

A paradise for migratory birds, the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary is a vital one for waterbird conservation activity. Moreover, a number of these species contribute to food security in some rural communities in the Sahel.

Greeted on the spot by a flock of birds, Astou understands the importance of monitoring activities. “Counts are extremely important because they tell us about the conservation status of waterbird populations,” she says. In January 2019, Astou helped count more than 400 000 waterbirds in the sanctuary. “It's not the first time I've been involved, but every time it gives me a new sensation,” she comments.

Counts are extremely important because they tell us about the conservation status of waterbird populations.

Astou Sané

The results of these counts make an invaluable contribution at the local, national as well as international level. This is because they allow the tracking of seasonal fluctuations and long-term trends for the enumerated species. Waterbird populations in the Sahel are estimated to have fallen by 40 percent between 1960 and 2000. This is due to multiple factors, including habitat changes. The training of young people like Astou in waterbird counting techniques and wetland management is part of the local capacity-building activities spearheaded by the RESSOURCE project. This training helps ensure a sustainable future for Senegal. With the same goal in mind, the project also supports integrating educational modules on waterbird identification and monitoring techniques into African universities. Skill-transfer is really at the heart of the project's mandate.

During the count, Astou was entrusted with the important task of recording the number of waterbirds sighted
During the count, Astou was entrusted with the important task of recording the number of waterbirds sighted
© FAO/David Mansell-Moullin
Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary
© FAO/Bruno Portier

“Throughout the Senegal River Delta, we're facing a drastic decrease in water availability. For this reason, the RESSOURCE Project has started up at just the right moment, offering a positive response to climate change,” Astou affirms. Decreasing water levels in the wetlands inevitably means fewer waterbirds come there.

However, the future of the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary remains very promising. This is because “there's a political will to preserve this internationally important site,” as Astou observes. But, it’s not the only park benefiting from the project. Between 2017 and 2021, the RESSOURCE project will improve the sustainable use of natural resources, particularly linked to waterbirds, in the wetlands of four other Saharan countries: Egypt, Mali, Chad and the Sudan. The project also contributes to the overall thinking on the link between wild meat and food security. This connection represents the Sahelian component of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, an initiative of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.

The RESSOURCE project is co-funded by the EU and the French Facility for Global Environment.

*“RESSOURCE”, the project name, is an acronym for the project’s title in French "Renforcement d’expertise au Sahara sur les oiseaux et leur utilisation rationnelle en faveur des communautés et de leur environnement" which means: “Strengthening expertise on birds in the Southern Sahara region and promoting their rational use in favour of communities and their natural environment”.