Student Blog: Conservation work with Project Wild Gambia

May 2022

Image for press release
(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

In April 2022, nine undergraduate and postgraduate animal management and science students travelled to West Africa for two weeks of conservation work with Project Wild Gambia. They accompanied by staff member Dr Jarmila Bone.

Within a day of visiting Gambia, they viewed dozens of endangered species and learnt about the importance of eco tourism. Here's their diary of events:

Day 1

Senegambia Hotel

We had settled in at our home for the next two weeks (the Baobab) the night before.

On the first full day of our Gambian adventure, we stopped off at the Senegambia holiday resort which runs an eco-tourism program. This gave us an idea of how ecotourism can benefit Endangered species as well as the local community.

The hotel provided a safe place for critically endangered hooded vultures while educating the visitors about the importance of this species.

It was such a privilege being able to get close to these incredible birds and watch them interact with each other. Their wingspans were huge and they frequently flew just past our heads, giving us a real sense of how big they were.

The guide talked to us about threats to this species and how they can be conserved. The hotel also attracted many other species of birds such as cattle egrets and yellow-billed kites which were also stunning to see.

We arrived in time for the feeding demonstration which created a real surge of energy among the birds. The kites were especially agile and dived down to catch the food thrown into the air. It was an amazing experience!

Kotu Creek

After this, we went to the Kotu Creek bird-watching site where we stood on a bridge overlooking the river.

We saw a large variety of bird species such as the pied kingfisher, greenshank, and bulbul. The colours and features of the birds were unlike anything in the UK and it was great to watch them in their natural habitat!

As it was coming up to lunchtime we headed towards the beach where we got to meet some local women who made us delicious fruit plates and we helped haul in their fishing nets.

We saw the catch which consisted of a pufferfish and a crab. Unfortunately, it was a very small catch for the efforts of 20 men, but the fishermen mentioned that their catches often varied in size and sometimes they caught nothing, yet they remained thankful for what they got.

Katchikally Crocodile Pool

After chatting to the locals we headed to the Kachikally Crocodile Pool, home to the West African crocodile, a recently discovered separate species from the Nile crocodile.

On the way in we were excited to spot some endangered red colobus monkeys, as well as the more common green monkey. Kachikally is a sacred site believed to increase female fertility if women bathe in the crocodile-infested waters... We were so lucky to get such close encounters!

These crocodiles live in very close proximity to the village and are free to come and go as they please, and do so in the village drains! Thankfully, the pool guards feed the crocs regularly to keep them relaxed and prevent their need to hunt.

While we were at the croc pool we saw loads of interesting and beautiful birds including the giant kingfisher (the biggest kingfisher in the world), the blue-breasted kingfisher, and some stunning village weavers.

Talented Musicians

At the end of an incredible day, we headed to the strip to get a taste of the local cuisine and enjoy the lively music scene. There was a private event with incredibly talented local drummers, energetic dancing and the best atmosphere!

Day 2

Beach

Today we went to the beach just across the road from the hotel. The long stretch of beach is fairly empty with a nature reserve boarding it. On our way to the beach we saw green monkeys swinging in the palm trees above us. You can also see the remains of pufferfish, jellyfish and turtles that have washed up. Some of us cooled down in the water while the local boys played with us.

Unsurveyed Forests

We got back to the hotel and had a quick lunch then went out to two unserveyed community forests. Here we set up camera traps to see what wildlife lives in the forests as they haven't been researched before, hopefully finding some rare and indicator species.

We were very keen on seeing genets, a small carnivore similar to a cat. While we walked through the forests, we saw massive termite mounds and heard all different birds.

PWG has been asked to help advise on the management of the two forests to create ecotourism reserves, increasing the quality of the forest and the number of species present as well as providing an income to the poor nearby villages.

Once we'd finished setting them up it was getting late so we headed back to the hotel. On the way back we managed to see several bush babies and a genet using eyeshine surveys from the cars!

A few days later we checked the camera trap videos which captured civets, adult and even baby genets, African goshawk, greenmonkeys, huge Gambian jumping rats (as big as a cat and famously used for landmine detection)!

Day 3

Pirang-Bonto Forest

On day 3 in The Gambia, we went to Pirang-Bonto forest to set up hair and camera traps with members of the Forest Committee; in the hopes of recording data on the elusive genets.

After meeting our guides, Mariama and Kawsu, we headed into the forest and began by filling the water hole from the nearby well previously installed by PWG. Then, we started preparing hair traps by lining large pvc tubes with double sided tape and baiting them with peanut butter, meat and fish to attract forest mammals.

We also set up camera traps near the tubes to record images and videos of any animals that passed through.

While we were there we saw many interesting species including the Verreaux's eagle owl and a family of baboons, with two babies.

The forest was magnificent, and we learnt more about several endangered species, how to set up hair traps and camera traps, and got first class seats to a spectacular show of natural African wildlife!

Dwarf Crocodiles

We also stopped at the only site known to have dwarf crocodiles in The Gambia - discovered by PWG! Here we conducted eyeshine surveys, confirming their ongoing presence. The PWG attempted to catch some for a headstarting project with the aim to introduce them to further ponds across the country, stabilising their population.

Day 4

Elasmobranch Introduction

The day started with a quick trip to the Ghanatown fishery to check the day's catch. Often critically endangered elasmobranch species are caught so PWG uses this to survey the sea.

On this particular day there were very few fish on the drying racks suggesting a low catch day. However, inside one of the huts we were shown some stingrays and critically endangered black-chinned guitarfish!

With the guitarfish, a measurement from between the eyes to end the snout can be used to determine total body length. This is particularly important as often the fish has already been cut into pieces ready for drying.

The information on declining catch size, species composition etc. previously gathered was the first to demonstrate the collapse of the food supply supporting 400 million people and has been published in a major scientific paper.

It is hard to see such large numbers of these critically endangered sharks being caught but it is often the only way fishermen can make money for their families.

Gunjur Project

After the fishery we headed to the Gunjur Project; an organisation which strives for responsible tourism. The Gunjur Project Lodge was based in a beautiful area of The Gambia, making it a perfect place to stay.

Supporting this project by staying there allows them to give back to the communities and continue their development. On site they now have a classroom which allows local children and adults to come and learn various skills such as reading and writing.

It was really nice to hear from the founders about how they set up the project itself and why they're helping the community around them.

Kartong Reptile Farm

After visiting Gunjur we then headed to Kartong Reptile Farm. The Reptile Farm was started with the aim of educating locals about different species and explaining that not all are harmful.

Many Gambian locals kill reptile species as they believe even geckos are venomous. The owner's 12 year old daughter showed us around and was absolutely amazing. She had so much knowledge and experience with all different species and she taught us a lot!

We were able to see so many different snake species e.g. the huge rock python, royal python, venomous puff adder and cobras as well as some tortoises, crocodiles and a monitor lizard.

River Allehein

The final stop of the day was the River Allehein - the border of The Gambia and Senegal. Here we did some bird watching and had our first sighting of a goliath heron; the largest species of heron and pelicans! It was amazing to see the variety of birds around a small section of the river.

Day 5

Abuko

On day 5 we headed to Abuko nature reserve - the largest ecotourism attraction in The Gambia. This was the Gambia's first wildlife reserve and is now a very popular tourist attraction.

We started by heading to the education centre where we used the lookout to search for animals. Here we saw a purple heron stalking at the edge of the water and just behind it we spotted the tail of a crocodile!

After watching some birds we headed off on one of the trails through the reserve in search of more species.

On this walk we stumbled across a group of green monkeys which watched us with much curiosity and shortly after we saw a pair of Guinea turacos. This was a very special experience as they are particularly rare to see compared to other bird species in The Gambia!

The path we took led to the animal orphanage within the reserve. Here they had some caged baboons, patas monkeys and a pair of hyenas. It was unclear the true reason why those particular animals were there and if they would be released in the future.

The trip to Abuko showed us a different style of wildlife conservation which was highly different to the conservation we had been a part of.

Day 6

Jinak

We then travelled to Jinak, an island on the North bank of The Gambia river, for an overnight stay. The journey began with a car ride to Banjul, then onto a ferry to cross the river. By midday, we were all feeling the effects of the heat but we enjoyed a peaceful ferry crossing, birdwatching and relaxing.

The ferry docked in Barra and we got into open top jeeps to drive through Niumi National Park. Despite the Saharan winds (as hot as a hairdryer!) we stood up and made the most of the scenery, even spotting patas monkeys.

Once we arrived, we got into canoes to cross another river surrounded by mangroves. On the other side we were greeted by Jinak residents. They were all really happy to see us, especially the children who were very excited to meet 'toubabs' (the Mandinka word for ghost, an inoffensive word used to refer to white people).

We then walked across the island to the Feel Free Lodge - our accommodation for the night. The walk felt even longer with the extreme heat, but the local kids kept us company along the way - we taught them ABBA songs and they showed us native fruits such as baobab.

Our accommodation had the most amazing, endless, private beach that we used to cool down after our long travels.

After we settled into our accommodation we walked back to the river to begin our cruise looking for the critically endangered Atlantic humpback dolphins.

The view on the boat trip was spectacular but we didn't see the dolphins (as expected when there's less than 1500 in the world)! This didn't phase us as there were many impressive birds to watch instead such as the goliath heron. It was also interesting to learn about the locals' way of life, growing oysters amongst the mangroves.

Upon arriving back at the lodge, we were met with an amazing buffet meal of vegetable and butterfish curry. Now that the sun had gone down, it was time for a night walk to see what wildlife we could find.

Using torches we looked for the eye shine of bush babies in the trees, as well as finding many owl species and a very exciting unidentified medium sized mammal before heading back to the lodge for a bonfire!

This was a very beautiful and relaxing way to end the day, enjoying a drink around the fire, listening to and playing the bongo drums.

Day 7

Jinak

We began by waking up in the lodge and relaxing on the beach before breakfast. The island is so secluded due to the challenging journey that we saw just two other toubabs in our time here.

Other than our accommodation there is one other and ours was a further trek, allowing for a real immersive African and cultural experience!

We then spent a few hours on the boat with the beautiful scenery which was a great experience. We then set off for the journey back to our hotel, which was difficult in the sun but worth it to see Jinak island, its people and wildlife!

We ended the day by going to the Senegambia 'strip' for dinner and live music. We went to the Wild Monkey restaurant that had local dance performances and encouraged toubabs to get involved. After a while a few of us got up and joined in.

Day 8

Markets

The market is a place packed tightly with stalls, selling mostly produce as we entered down the first street. A large van had some difficulty navigating its way through the mixture of stalls, baskets of fruit and vegetables and the contra flow of people.

At first glance it seemed disordered, yet this layout and the way queues of people move through each other is for this place the most efficient setup for this kind of commerce.

We moved into a semi-indoor concrete building complex, this place filled with fabrics, clothes and accessories. A clothes seller started up a conversation and followed us for a while. This was a friendly way to convince someone to buy his goods. He eventually made good profit from the group! His fabrics had fantastic patterns and vibrant colours.

We emerged from the tightly packed stalls to find the main road, and headed up some stairs to a rooftop bar. It provided good shade and refreshments.

We left the market, having (perhaps reassuringly) not found any signs of illegal pet trading. Exotics animals are sometimes kept in cages. Those animals are prohibited by law from being captured and anyone caught crossing some borders with these illegal 'goods' find themselves charged for the crime. However, this continues as the borders are not always watertight.

We did find evidence of the illegal use of rosewood and some banned animal shell products. Evidence can be recorded by disguising photography as tourists taking group photos or selfies (the product visible in the corner of a photo will do).

In these cases, enquiries should be made as to the source of the products, but the sellers themselves seldom know truly, they are only the final stage in the supply chain from production to customer. Most do not know of the illegality of some of their products. Lack of awareness can always be changed.

Some further investigation is needed to discover the extent of underground trading in illegal goods and protected animal species. This must be stopped worldwide, but for now we made a start!

The group moved on to a Senegambia craft market with woodwork and woven baskets, paintings and jewellery. We were enthusiastically encouraged by the sellers to inspect the wares.

We found some men playing Oware - a board game in the pebble-and-well family of games (Mancala). The men offered to teach us how to play. It was an easy game to learn and fast to complete. Some group members bought sets of this game to play at home.

In the evening, we celebrated the birthday of a member of the group with cake, drinks and a beach bonfire!

Day 9

Vulture Transects

Today, we conducted transect surveys for the Critically Endangered hooded vultures in the open-air jeeps, which was very exciting. We counted 471 on this one stretch! Hooded vultures are very common in The Gambia despite their global decline so its vital to try and understand why this is.

We stopped off at the beautiful Pirang-Bonto forest and collected the camera trap SD cards. Walking through the beautiful forest and looking up into the dense canopy, we saw the critically endangered red colobus monkeys - what a treat for the last day! 

Once the camera SDs were collected, we drove through Pirang village and stopped to give the children some pens, pencils and sweets.

Day 10

Fisheries

We had already visited Ghanatown, Kartong Beach Side and Kartong River Side on previous days so today's activities concentrated on one of the remaining sites surveyed by Moore et al. between 2011-2018.

Banjul is a vibrant and colourful landing site, full of beautiful wooden boats and bursting with life! The conditions were harsh though, and people were working hard, in the heat of the day, to make a living.

At the site we spent some time taking critically endangered elasmobranch measurements, photographing the catch and determining gender where possible!

Our lunch stop was superb, with a visit to Calypso restaurant at Cape Point where we saw West African crocs being fed a fish lunch, along with some fabulous birds including the funky African spoonbill!

Then we enjoyed a wild swim in the sea with some small waves to play in before heading back to base.

Today was another great day for seeing new bird species and we added the gull-billed tern, crested lark, blue-cheeked bee-eater, black egret, black crake, spur-winged lapwing, painted-snipe and lesser crested tern to our ever expanding list.

We had been competing to see whether undergrads or post-grads spotted more birds. Both groups reached over 100 species.

Day 11

Bijol

Today we travelled to Bijol Islands; a group of uninhabited islands full of a variety of bird species. To get there we travelled across the sea on a small speedboat and after a short (and very wet journey) we arrived on the beautiful islands!

The boat trip alone was great fun and a brilliant experience jetting between all the colourful local fishing boats.

From the outside they might not look like much, as there are no trees or vegetation. But they are home to an immense amount of wildlife. Walking across the islands we were able to see so many birds including the caspian tern, little tern, osprey and great white pelicans.

While walking along the sandy islands we also saw signs of other wildlife: multiple turtle bones, a turtle shel and headl, a washed up pufferfish and butterfish. Although we did not spot any turtles at sea, finding bones indicates that they are still present in this area of The Gambia!

Just off the edge of one of the islands we walked around some rock pools to look for some wildlife. Just in this small area we found different coral species, a stingray and a juvenile butterfish.

The highlight of the trip though had to be walking amongst all the birds on the furthest island and seeing so many species all together in one place. It was amazing to see so many different species and hear all their different calls.

Bijol Islands are definitely worth the visit, especially if you're an avid birdwatcher! However, we do recommend reapplying the sun cream because many of us came back a bit more burnt than when we arrived, despite the cold breeze and clouds.

Day 12

Vulture Transect

It was sadly our last full day of being in the beautiful Gambia. We carried out another vulture transect. counting 509 total vultures this time, making 1000 sightings in total just on the transect surveys!

Horse and Donkey Trust

Next, we drove to The Gambian Horse and Donkey Trust, which is an inspiring, wonderful place that rescues injured donkeys and horses as well as cats and dogs.

They ship donated snaffle bits from UK to The Gambia so that owners of horses and donkeys whose animals are being worked in inappropriate bits are able to swap them for a more comfortable option.

All the workers and vet volunteers were so hard working and are so passionate about all of their animals' welfare. We also got to play with the rescued puppies which was lovely. It was a truly brilliant place and none of us wanted to leave!

When we eventually left, we drove back to the hotel through the busy streets. We did our presentations of our chosen projects and discussed what we found.

We talked about our trip what it had been like to experience a conservation project at the very beginning of the development process. We witnessed how conservation projects may impact the community and the challenges there are for conservationists not only socially but mentally and physically as well.

We then had a lovely meal at '2Rays' together with all the staff, it was a lovely way to end an amazing trip. Until next time, Project Wild Gambia!

For more information on Writtle University College's animal-related courses, go to writtle.ac.uk/animal.