Worries about water bird paradise
"At first glance, the inner Niger Delta in Mali seems to be fully intact. Only after a second look does it become apparent that the Delta is not so pristine and untouched as it seems," says Alterra researcher Dr Albert Beintema. Together with biologists from Wetlands International, he made several field trips through the Mali wetlands. Besides checking the state of the wetlands including the vegetation and the animals there, such as water birds, they also give the local people advice about management of the natural resources.
Traversing the wetlands by boat and jeep, it became clear to the biologists that most of the area is being used by humans. Beintema: "During the peak flood period, the human population density and land use intensity appear to be very low, but when waters recede all green vegetation is eventually either harvested or grazed. As a result there is no place in the Delta that people do not reach." This situation has had severe repercussions on some of the wildlife. For example the hippopotamus, the plant-eating water-loving giant, has become very rare. And the crocodile has almost vanished from the wetlands.
Birds have been affected also. Several million migratory water birds use the delta as a wintering area, but this has become more and more difficult as many floodplain forests have been destroyed. The white pelican for example no longer nests in the area. The number of mixed nesting colonies of large water birds has been reduced by ninety percent in a few decades.
Beintema and his colleagues are trying to get in touch with the local people who can help restore the natural resources. "In developing countries, nature protection often conflicts with economic progress, but interestingly this is not the case for the inner Niger Delta. Recovery of the floodplain forests has economic advantages and therefore the local people are interested. They profit from the floodplain forests as these have a positive effect on fisheries."
In the past, there were large areas of floodplain forests in the Niger Delta, but these were degraded by severe droughts in the early seventies and the mid-eighties, and also the expansion of agricultural fields. At the moment water levels are high again, which makes regeneration of the forests possible. Beintema: "It will take many years to get the forests back again. We have to explain to all the village chiefs what needs doing. It means less tree cutting for firewood and letting the goats graze in other areas as these hinder forest growth."
In order to protect some threatened species, awareness building will be necessary, believes Beintema. The people should know for example that they are harvesting certain duck species at an unsustainably high level, and that they can help the crowned crane survive by not taking the young birds from the nests.
Children in a canoe in the inner Niger Delta in Mali. Alterra researchers want to convince the local population that conserving nature and wildlife there can lead to economic benefits for them. Photo Alterra