Stickman Readers' Submissions January 24th, 2011

Delightful West Africa 5 – Djoudj Birds Sanctuary, Northern Senegal

Idrissa Ndiaye is my guide to the Djoudj birds sanctuary along Senegal river. He charges 40 Euros per day, a steep rate, but he has been to Europe several times. Actually, the ornithologist spent bird watching time on Helgoland, the tiny German island in the North Atlantic, and he speaks very reasonable English as well as German.

"Das. Ist. Ein. Spornkiebitz," he'd explain in German. "Oder. Hier: Ein. Fischreiher. Heißt. Auch. Graureiher." He knows all of the hundreds of different birds by French, English and German names and quite likely he can identify them in five local Senegalese languages as well.

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We see a colony of flamingos on a salty lake shore. The highway-like sound in the distance is the pelican colony, all fishing. By boat, we reach the pelicans, at least 5000 on a tiny dot of land. The pelicans softly landing on the water are a sight to behold. 13 to 15 kilograms they weigh, eating a costly 1.5 kilos of fish per day. They don't worry about our motorboat.

"They like to be in colonies", explains Idrissa. That's handy, as they also like to steal each other's nesting materials.

Only pelicans feeling sick leave the gang. Actually, on the boat trip towards the pelicans settlement we had seen a single pelican sadly paddling all solo on the water. On our return trip, that same lonesome bird is still there in the same bend on the river, looking even more forelorn.

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We also see many of those birds that populate your front yard in Belgium or Italy; Djoudj's flamingos spend the summer in southern France. All these European countries support the Djoudj birds sanctuary financially or with experts.

Idrissa even points out birds flying in from the German state of Northrhine-Westphalia. I was born and raised just there and I can relate very well to my feathered co-Northrhine-Westphalians: I'm a migratory bird like them, annually fleeing the cold, dark Euro winter for a tropical sanctuary, where we eat a lot of fish and never settle or breed.

Around lunchtime, we lie down on a mat in a light acacia forest next to Gainth lake. We only hear the cries of fish eagles, occasional birds splashing into the water and flocks of Pelicans flap-flapping audibly across our shady grove.

Idrissa tells me that he would like to start a travel agency for birders. But the government now demands 8000 Euros for the business licence. "We Senegalese can't pay that", Idrissa shouts. "Europeans can pay and occupy business niches that should have been claimed by locals". He gets seriously worked up; fortunately by now I know that the locals easily let off steam and anger in every direction.

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I had asked Idrissa to not show me every single variety of heron they have, but to also go for attractive landscapes, lakescapes and riverscapes. He has nothing of it. Whenever something chirps, he repeats the call and tells the bird's name in a string of languages. Even when we eat or wait for the boat, he scans the horizon and identifies flying creatures in the distance. The black "Schlangen.Hals.Vogel" (African Darter) swims under water with only the head looking out, like a snake.

I am not a birder. I stayed two nights in the Djoudj bird sanctuary to generally enjoy interesting nature, the Sahel, the marshlands and the Senegal river, forming the border with Mauritania. But my nature dream flops not only of Idrissa's disinterest in topographical beauty: Big parts of the bird sanctuary are artificially flooded. They've built many flood control gates to ensure that no unusual flooding will bring harm to important breeding colonies. The ensuing "lakes" feel decidedly artificial and the dirt roads are built up on dams. Some of the bare land in between, covered in salt that rose up from the ground, looks like the site for an industrial mega project that got abandoned at one crisis or other. Senegal river and Mauritania behind it are completely hidden in thick reed stands.

Still in Djoudj are amazing plants like the Acacias, palm-sized spiders, curious warthogs roam the plains in numbers and lie around dead too; we spot jackalls', vipers', crocodiles' and pythons' traces. Huge birds sit and fly everywhere with nonchalant grace.

Idrissa finds all animals "beautiful", not only the terrifying spiders, but also the warthogs with their blond strand of hair. They are considered pigs by the all-Muslim human population and thus left uneaten. Idrissa also considers the crocodiles "beautiful" we have seen on the boat towards the pelicans: "They never attack people." And the pythons? "Beautiful" too: "Why, they aren't poisonous." But he has seen pythons strangling pelicans and fishermen's sons. I've read that in Nigeria pythons are trained as rat catchers.

Idrissa and I cross the area freely, not following the dusty road. At least sometimes, it feels like the savannah of my imagination, with low shrubs and the odd waterhole – "that's rain water, not salty ground water, important for all animals". Out in the open savannah, with yet another flamingo club graciously cruising the African sky (the V formation makes most of the thermals), it's an eerie feeling especially before sunset. Almost like Africa, I muse.

In the evening, Idrissa takes me to the next village where we have tea with his friend and family. The white man creates astonished faces, but there is no welcoming positive vibe, as so often in South-East Asia or in Northern Kerala (see my reports from there). The kids stand around me silently and one neighbour girl whispers "cadeau" (gift).

We sit in a picnic tent in front of the house. All at the same time, the wife breast-feeds her baby, prepares traditional tea by pouring it many times between various pots and cups and rearranges glowing and burning charcoal with bare hands. We get dry biscuits and dry peanuts that are eaten together. Tea comes in tiny glasses – the tradition requires a slow sequence of three glasses, prepared in three different ways. Before we arrived, I have handed Idrissa 4 Euros for this occasion and he passes them on to the family patron.

Idrissa drinks no tea at all. "I can't sleep after local tea", he says. It is obviously no problem that he refuses the drink.


I had to laugh at that guide who wanted to point out the many varieties of birds to you. It's sort of like tour guides in Thailand who go on and on about the history of the temple when all you really want to know is a bit of basic history such as how old it is and whether it is used for anything these days!

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