Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
In the Water & On the Ground: Doing Real Work for Aquatic Conservation in West Africa

In the Water & On the Ground: Doing Real Work for Aquatic Conservation in West Africa

With Dr. Lucy Keith-Diagne and Diana Seck of African Aquatic Conservation Fund

Key topics:

  • Marine mammal conservation (and some mention of sea turtles!) in Senegal

  • Establishing a small nonprofit for sustained local work on conservation

  • Approaches to sustainable and effective conservation training

  • Need for career opportunities (and funding) in conservation for local researchers

  • Need for greater inclusivity in the global marine mammal conservation community

  • How opportunities for networking lead to collaborative projects

  • Regional work on aquatic conservation in West and Central Africa



Hello, everyone…back from the dead, just in time for Halloween, it’s… Conservation Realist, Episode 14!

I’m Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty, and I’ve had some time management issues, in that I’ve had too little time for everything I’ve been needing to manage lately. Since this is my fun side project, but it’s a side project that takes quite a bit of work, it’s been pushed into dormancy for a bit.

I appreciate you still being with me, and I’m very excited to share this interview with Dr. Lucy Keith-Diagne and Diana Seck of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund (AACF). They primarily work in Senegal, though they also are very involved in several regional efforts in West and Central Africa as well. I’ve never been to that part of Africa – I’ve barely been to Africa at all – but I dream of getting to spend time there, perhaps as a visitor of AACF one day?

Diana Seck photographing Atlantic humpback dolphins in Delta Saloum, Senegal

That’s actually how I came to meet Lucy, at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona in 2019. I had asked folks in my network about connecting with people in West Africa, because I sort of had my eye there as the next region I’d try to do some work in, and I was pointed in Lucy’s direction. Conveniently, she ended up being the moderator for the Human Dimensions Session in which I was presenting. And though, in this conversation, she shared that she felt so embarrassed by what happened (you’ll get to hear it in the interview itself), I want to emphasize that it was absolutely not her fault and that I was genuinely glad she was the moderator and that I had a chance to chat with her before and after the session.

When I approached her for this podcast, she kindly agreed, despite being remarkably busy and encountering some “strange strandings” that kept her extra busy. She also requested that her research assistant, Diana Seck, join, and of course I was happy with that!

Dr. Lucy Keith-Diagne, Executive Director of AACF
Diana Seck on a survey for Atlantic humpback dolphins in Delta Saloum, Senegal

So, let’s hear a clip from the Green Touch by Soe Moe Thwin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min from Myanmar, and dive in. Enjoy!



T: How are you doing?

L: We're good. We just had a three-day weekend for the holiday, the end of Ramadan holiday, and we were just saying we could use another three days!

T: Yeah. Well, for those who observe, it's actually not quite a, it's not a big vacation, though, if you're having the cooking and everything, right?

L: So yeah, this one did all the cooking - I was the lucky recipient!

T: Well, thank you for your time today. As I've mentioned, Diana, I met Lucy at a conference, the last conference I went to, in Barcelona in 2019. And I remember people telling me, oh, you should try to meet Lucy, because I was interested in learning more about work in West Africa, because I've never been there. But from what I've heard, there's some interesting things going on with bycatch, for example. So yeah, that's how I met Lucy. And I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you and the African Aquatic Conservation Foundation –

L: Fund

T: Fund, fund.. Sorry, I always get “fund” and “foundation” mixed up. I'm really interested to hear more about what AACF does. So thanks for your time.

L: No problem, yeah! Well, thank you for being so generous. But the true story is, unfortunately, I was the moderator for her session at the conference and they gave me the wrong time slot for her talk. And I tried to cut her off because I thought she had a speed talk, which is only five minutes, but she had a full talk! And so I got up and she's like, “I have a full talk!” And I was so horrified.

I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole.

T: Well, it wasn't your fault at all.

L: No, no. And Frances apologized later, although I don't think it was her fault either. It was just literally someone typed up the wrong thing on the piece of paper in front of me. Anyway, I have not moderated since.

T: Well, you know, the truth of it is I was actually originally given a speed talk, and I was...

L: Okay, and then they changed it.

T: Well, I changed it because I know the conference. I know the Human Dimensions session. I know I'm one of the few people actually doing Human Dimensions work in the field. I was co-chair of the Human Dimensions part of the conference some years prior. And I was like, I know this is a full talk. Like, I know. And I was talking to Louisa Ponnampalam in Malaysia, and she was like, “You should email them - you deserve a full talk, I know your work is good.”

So I was like, “I don't know.” She's like, “You should email them!” And I did. And they're like, “Oh, okay.” So, it had been a speed talk at one point and then they changed it. And it turned out it was one of the few actually human dimensions talks. So I'm glad I fought for that.

L: Yeah. But Barcelona was a nice conference. The last non-hybrid conference we'll probably ever see. But anyway. I think hybrid's good, but there was a big learning curve in Florida. You're lucky you missed it.

T: Oh, really? Okay, okay.

So, I'm very, kind of on a very surficial way, familiar with the work you're doing over there with AACF, and I follow the Facebook page and everything, but I'd love to hear more about what you as an organization do.

L: Sure, okay. Well, so we started in 2014 and the organization was basically born out of my husband and I both doing research, me with marine mammals and him with turtles, and we were in the U.S. at the time. I was finishing my PhD, which I did very late in life, and working for another nonprofit and just it wasn't working well.

And so we decided that we just needed to start our own where we were sort of luring control of our destiny and our funding. And so, I said, I think we can do this. I was a bit naive back then. That was before I spent a year and a half of my life after my dissertation, getting this organization up and running and filing non-profit paperwork and understanding non-profit accounting and a lot of trial and error while also trying to get back to fieldwork.

So it was a bit of a baptism by fire, but I'm really glad that we did it. We felt that there was sort of a void in aquatic wildlife in Africa. Not to say that there aren't, there are quite a few sea turtle programs around in West and Central Africa. Not many marine mammal people - I mean, I can count them on probably two hands for sure, the number of organizations that are doing marine mammal work in West and Central Africa.

And we just felt like it was time for us to sort of take control of what we really wanted to do. So we set it up. And it's grown a bit in the last few years. We took on two researchers. One, Sal Cerchio, who does acoustics work primarily in Madagascar - Sal's an amazing researcher, really good scientist, but also he brings us the other side of the continent with his work in Madagascar. So that's nice. And he's now started some projects in Senegal as well.

And then Dr. Angela Formia, who's a sea turtle person, who we, both Tomas and I have known longer than we've known each other, in fact. Tomás and Angela met each other many, many years ago when she came to a conference in Senegal for sea turtles. Then I met her when I first started working in Gabon in 2006, and we became friends. And so she joined us last year. So it's a nice growth, really.

So we're still a small organization, we have probably less than 10 full-time employees. But we have people like Diana, who's my research assistant, and Awa Wade, who's Tomas' research assistant, and Sal has several Malagasy research assistants as well. But we're still, we're still small.

T: And what are the types of activities that you all do?

L: So we have four programs, the African manatee program, which is led by me, not surprisingly. And that program does work in many countries, not just Senegal. My main projects have been, for quite a while now, trying to determine populations of African manatees throughout their 21 country range, because when I first started working with African manatees back in 2006, I realized, here's this species that lives in 21 countries - they're hard to see, they're heavily hunted, and we don't know how many there are. And there's this sort of guesstimate of 10,000, but we don't even know where distinct populations are.

And it was actually one of my advisors, Bob Bondi, after my first couple of years in Africa said to me, “You know, Lucy, you could spend the next 35 years in a boat and not learn as much about manatees as you would doing genetics.”

And I was like, “Yeah, but I'm terrible… I'm clumsy, I break things in the lab.

You don't want me in a lab!”

And he said, “No, you're going to do this.”

So that's what I ended up doing my PhD on. And he was right, of course. So, my plan has been for some time to understand where these distinct populations are.

And through my PhD work and some subsequent work, I've defined the first four, which encompass the whole range, but they're very large. Well, two are large. One is from coastal Senegal down to at least Guinea, the country of Guinea, and then the other one starts in Cote d'Ivoire and goes all the way around the corner of Africa, if you will, in the Gulf of Guinea, down through Gabon and into the Congos.

Those are enormous and we do expect them to be broken into smaller populations once we get more samples from some of these countries, but it's incredibly difficult to get those.

So anyway, I digress. The African Manatee Program has the genetics aspect,

I have a feeding ecology study because I found out early on that manatees don't just eat plants here, they also eat fish and mollusks, which is unlike any other sirenian. They regularly eat them. I mean, there is some evidence that dugongs and even the Florida manatees occasionally will eat a mollusk or fish remains, but here in Africa, they are targeting them as a food source. And it's different based on each country.

And then my other main project is a threat assessment study that's focused in five countries. That was sort of born out of the government people that I would go to and say, “you're not enforcing these laws.” And they said, “Well, you can't prove to us how many manatees are really dying.” So I said, “Okay, I will.”

So we went out, myself and nine other colleagues, and started documenting every single manatee that dies in five countries. That's been a huge project.

That was part of my Pew Marine Fellowship that I got in 2017. So those are some of the manatee program. There's other smaller things as well, an age determination study using ear bones and some other smaller projects as well.

But those are the sort of bigger parts.

Then we have the African Chelonian Institute, which is Tomas's program that is basically all African turtles. And so his real love is freshwater turtles and tortoises, but he has a sea turtle part of that as well. They're doing everything from looking at illegal hunting of sea turtles, which is a huge problem here in central Senegal, to nest monitoring, etc. And then freshwater turtles

in Africa are so poorly known that there are probably undiscovered species.

And even for the known species, they don't know things like their entire distributions, or what they do, what kind of food do they eat, etc. And tortoises. So that's the African Chelonian Institute.

Then with Sal, we created an African cetaceans program. Well, it was starting at the same time Sal showed up because we had taken on a project with Atlantic humpback dolphins, which Diana can tell you a lot more about than me.

That was born out of the Barcelona conference: there was a meeting saying that it's one of the top five endangered dolphins in the world, and we should be doing something. That was Tim Collins and Caroline Weir led that meeting, and then that quickly grew into the Consortium for the Conservation of the Atlantic humpback dolphin. And we are the Senegal arm of that, so we lead the research for that species in Senegal, which is the photo ID, acoustics, and genetics work.

But Sal, of course, then brought his own acoustics work with Madagascar, and then he started an offshore large whale project here in Senegal. So that's African cetaceans.

And the fourth project is the Senegal Stranding Network, which we administer and lead, myself, Tomas, and our colleague, Wim Mullié, to document every stranded cetacean and sea turtle in Senegal, which is a big job.

And then Angela brought with her, she's the lead for what we call the West African Sea Turtle Program, and she's more regional. She's working primarily in Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Equatorial Guinea, but she sort of dovetails in there with Tomas' African Chelonian Institute in a more regional way. That's what we're doing.

T: Is that it? Haha!

L: I know someone asked me to take on shark work the other day and I said, are you trying to kill me? Because we don't have the bandwidth anymore.

T: I know. I mean, once you get out there and start, I mean, just from my experience in parts of the Philippines and in Myanmar, where there's been very little research, the more you learn, you're like, well, no one's working on this.

Someone's got to work on this! But then you also have to be realistic about

what can be done.

L: I mean we get emails all the time, like, oh, can you help us with jellyfish? Can you help us with seahorses? And I'm like, if you come here, I'd be extremely happy to introduce you to the people we work with and we even have a dormitory style office We're with rooms where people can stay But we cannot take on those projects We just have too much on our plate. No one's taken me up on it yet, but I wish they would because there is a lot to do here that's not being done.

T: Yeah. And Diana [pronounced dee-ana], I wanted to apologize.

I called you Diana [like die-ana]  at the beginning, forgetting that the pronunciation would be different. But yeah, I'm glad to correct that.

So Diana, I'm interested in how you came to know about AACF and how you started working with Lucy and the team.

D: Oh, I was doing my master program in UCAD (Universite Cheikh Anta Diop) in Senegal, in fisheries and aquaculture. Then I got an email from them saying there is a job offer. And then I read it and I said, yeah, why not? I can do that!

But at that moment, I was in charge of recruitment in a call center in Senegal and doing my master's at the same time. So I just decided to try.

L: She had no marine mammal background when she started.

T: Wow, that's so cool. Were you interested in marine mammals at all?

D: Yeah, I was interested in everything about the nature. So yeah! But I didn't know that we have dolphins in Senegal before that, so that was a big start for me.

T: That's so cool. I have some younger colleagues in Myanmar who are the same, who had no idea that there were dolphins or porpoises just off the coast from where they grew up. So that's so cool that you got to learn about it.

So what was the experience like for you? Learning how to study marine mammals with no background, learning about these animals that you didn't realize were off the coast - how did that feel?

D: Yeah, it's, it's crazy for me. It's like a movie. And I feel like lucky to get in this, in AACF first and second in the to start when they start the project with the CCAHD (Consortium for the Conservation of the Atlantic Humpback Dolphin). So I was lucky to be involved.

And I'm learning too much every day, every time, every single survey, I'm learning something new. And now I'm doing my master’s program in Algarve for the identification, and that's great.

T: That's really great.

L: So I just want to interject a little story that right after she started - literally, I hired her in the end of June - we went on our first humpback dolphin survey, like two weeks later. So, I sort of threw her into it. And we went out on the boat and the first day it was really kind of windy and rough and we're in this small pirogue out there and she thought we were gonna die. She was sure we were gonna drown, and she says, “Is this normal?!” and I'm like, “…Yeah pretty much! But you're not gonna die today, I can promise you that!” And then literally like one day later, when we saw dolphins, she was pretty much crying saying, “Oh, I can't believe this is my job! People pay thousands of dollars to do this on vacation, and this is my job!”

T: That's so cool.

D: Yeah, I couldn’t believe that!

L: That's when I knew she was gonna be a good fit.

T: Yeah, that's a good sign. That's a really good sign. And Lucy, how did you start working in the region? Was it you just happened to be your PhD research or…

L: No, it's thanks to another Marine Mammal Conference in 2007 in San Diego.

I had been working with manatees in Florida for a while and I think the background of all that is that I was always impressed by people that I met who came from other parts of the world to Florida to, for example, build their telemetry gear at the USGS Federal Manatee Lab. There were people from Brazil and I don't know, just all over, there were Dugong people coming and Miriam Mamontel coming.

So, I just thought, wow, these guys are trying to do something really cool on a shoestring budget, and they're trying to learn about their manatees. And so then fast forward to 2007, I was at the Marine Mammal Conference in San Diego, and Martha Wells asked me if I wanted to come to lunch with her and her friend from the Franciscana Dolphin Project, Martin Mendez, and I said, sure, okay, I'll come. And Martin brought a guy and we didn't know who this guy was.

And he's sitting across the table.

And somebody said, Well, what do you do? And he literally said, Well, I study humpback whales in Gabon, West Africa, but you know what I've got to find? I got to find a manatee biologist because they're supposed to be rare. But every day when we're leaving in the lagoon, we see these manatees and I just got to find people who count them or whatever they do.

And I said, “I do that!”

T: “I know someone who can help with that!”

L: And I'm trying to get my business card out of my wallet, I kind of fumbled and the entire contents of my wallet went flying across the table. And I was totally embarrassed. I give this guy my card. And, um, and I thought, Oh, yeah, okay, I'll never hear from this person.

And then like, six weeks later, I got an email from him saying, “If you’re serious and really want to do this, let’s write a proposal!” And I said “Okay!” and the next thing I know, the following September I’m on a plane to Gabon, trying to dredge up my high school French. I went there for two months to try to find some manatees and - that was my biggest fear, that I was going to go all this way and I wasn't going to find one - but I did actually find them reasonably quickly. And I realized there's just nothing being done in Africa right now.

You know, Buddy Powell, who was my boss at the time, had done a lot of work in the 80s and 90s. But then he left and went back to Florida and has a long term project in Belize. And he had trained a couple people, but they were getting older and retiring. And so, long story short, there was nobody really doing much.

And so I remember feeling like, wow, this is so amazing. There's so much opportunity, just in the country of Gabon, but then sort of feeling, wow, this is overwhelming. There's no way that I can really do all of this. We've got to find Africans who want to do this.

So the following year, just by, I don't know if it was luck or chance, but,

Dr. Ofori-Danson at the University of Ghana received and led an Earthwatch program to train Africans in African manatee research and they invited me to come train people. So we did these two-week workshops in 2008 and 2009. Coincidentally, I met this guy from Senegal in 2008, who was one of the trainees, who invited me to come to Senegal the following winter because the manatees got trapped behind an agricultural dam. I came to Senegal and we rescued the mantis, we put the first satellite tags on them, and long story short, I married the guy!

So that's how that all happened.

But anyway, the Ghana workshops were amazing because I met people from all these different countries and I'd ask them, what do you need? And they'd say, “Well, I feel so alone, I'm the only person in my country that wants to start something with manatees -  I don't have any information, I don't have a way to communicate.”

And so I started a Yahoo group, actually, back in the day where so that everybody could communicate and share information and share news. I mean, those are obsolete now with social media, we don't really need them anymore. But at the time, it was nice, because there was a safe space where people could ask questions and talk about what they wanted to do.

So slowly but surely, once the Earthwatch program ended - they funded it for two years and then they said, we're done - I said, Well, no, we're not done, we have so many more people that we should be training. And so I went out and started raising my own money to lead training workshops. I did a few more two-week training workshops and then sort of realized, two weeks is not really enough for people to have enough time to really learn the subject and be able to go back to their home country and do it as a career. I mean, they need more time.

And so I moved away from those and into investing more time in graduate students and also, so then in 2013 I guess it was, I did a program called Mentor Manatee, which was a two-year program… it might have been three, it was three, actually. And we selected people from different countries who came every six months to a workshop. In between those workshops, they had a little bit of money to do their own independent project with me guiding them.

And we talked about how to manage a budget and how to fundraise and how to do a scientific poster, how to do a presentation, things that their universities generally don't teach here.

It was a great program actually. And it was funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We had eight people and every single one of them are still in some kind of wildlife conservation and most of them are still doing something relative to manatees. One person is in Kenya working with elephants now, and one person was focused more on education programs than actual science research, but she was an amazing, actually, education person. Everyone else, I think, is still working with manatees, if I think about it. So that program was really successful.

And now I sort of recreated that in Guinea for a two-year program that's currently going, where we're training Guinean fellows how to do manatee research.

T: That's very cool. And it resonates a lot with the less extensive experience I've had in Myanmar, also trying to build up local research capacity, I think, in a meaningful way, which is very hard to do over a kind of a limited period of time. So I'll have to chat with you more in depth at some point about that, for sure.

And Diana, as someone who is from the region, what was your experience like learning how to do research and now getting your master's? And what was it about AACF that helped you kind of build not just the skills, but also the interest and confidence to keep doing this work?

D: Yeah, I would say that at the beginning, that was just a job opportunity. But then when you are involved and then learning for new stuff, you think that I can do more than I'm doing now. And you're learning new stuff. And honestly, it's also there is no one around to do it, so it's like, I'm the only research assistant in Senegal doing marine mammal stuff. So it's like every day a new opportunity, new ideas from Lucy and from Gianna Minton with the CCAHD also. So it's capacity building and new career plan also.

T: Do you feel that other young people in Senegal, for example, is there an interest in doing environmental work? Do the youth have an idea of ever pursuing environmental work as a career?

D: Yeah, sure! A lot of my friends on Facebook are all the time asking for opportunities - mostly job opportunities, but also the friends that I share the same class at the university want to do something like this also.

L: There's a lot of people here who want to have jobs in conservation or fisheries even. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of jobs. And the fisheries jobs with the government is really – we were just talking about this before we got on the call with you – there are fisheries jobs, but they don't do anything. They sit at their desk all day, like pushing paper, and there's not really anything meaningful happening, which is really actually tragic considering the state of fisheries in Senegal.

But our little organization's already hired five people from the university program where we hired Diana from - she's one of five, well, one was a master's student, the other ones are all employees. And every time Tomas and I give our lectures there, which is annually, we have at least three or four people come up to us saying, can we do a master's degree or PhD with you?

We have way more interest than we can accommodate. And I wish that we could accommodate more, and that's something we're working towards, but there is a lot of interest. And we recently also signed an MOU with the biology department at the same university, which is the biggest one in Senegal. And I mean, there's, I don't know how many students are in that university, but thousands upon thousands

D: 75,000 students

L: And the biology department, they have the most well-respected veterinary school in West Africa there, and the school of fisheries. There's so many young, enthusiastic people there, but not a lot of opportunity for them once they graduate.

T: And that's kind of the motivation behind that question, is this is something I've noticed is, again, going back to especially Myanmar, so much interest among young people and wanting to do something for the environment, but not knowing where to start, not having a place where they can even really learn about it.

And I suspect that in Senegal, there's more opportunities to learn about it in school, perhaps – in Myanmar, the education system is pretty restricted.

But even once we had our team of interns from my work there, and they were enthusiastic and learned a lot. And unfortunately, there's not much for them to do afterward.

And that's a heartbreaking part, like in Senegal, having all this interest and enthusiasm, and like nowhere to channel it. It's a larger scale problem. I don't know how that would be fixed unless some of the large conservation organizations are somehow really able to step up their hiring power? I don't know.

L: Well, we don't even have many of those here. And I mean, I don't know, I might be quite jaded at this point, but the larger NGOs often… I don't see a lot of on-the-ground change happening with a lot of them here in Africa.

there's a lot of overheads, there's a lot of money going to their main offices and to their expat staff, rather than their African staff. So they'll sometimes support smaller local NGOs, and then take credit for all their work.

So I just have a very jaded view of some of these larger NGOs. I mean, obviously, we're a small NGO, but I feel like the smaller NGOs that I know are doing more on-the-ground, really, than the larger ones because we're just getting our hands dirty and have more time in the field than a lot of these other ones.

Not to say that there aren't exceptions for sure, but I just don't know that I think larger NGOs are really the answer.

I wish that the government wildlife agencies would actually do the jobs that they are tasked with, because there's so much that does not happen here. Enforcement of laws for wildlife, enforcement of protected areas, those are two huge things that we deal with every single day. And they have the capacity and they just don't do it. I mean, that's pretty much criminal at this point.

T: So it's not a funding issue at that level?

L: Well, they'll tell you it is and probably they don't get as much money from the government as some of the other departments, certainly like the Department of Defense or something, but I'm sure that they all get decent budgets, but there's a lot of corruption that happens, unfortunately. We're not the worst country by far (I mean, you don't want to go to Nigeria at all), but, you know, it happens.

For a perfect example, we work a lot with marine protected areas and national parks here in Senegal, and we're basically constantly asked for money: well, you must pay the boat fuel and we need you to pay our staff and we need this and that. And, you're a huge government agency and you're asking this dinky little NGO to pay these things that really are your responsibility. And it's just how it is: we want to get our work done, so we have to contribute to those things.

I don't mind if people actually do come and do the work. And we have several marine protected areas that are really enthusiastic and the people are very hardworking and those are the ones we tend to want to work with more. But yes, it's challenging for sure.

T: Yeah, it sounds like it. And again, I have no on-the-ground experience at all with West Africa, so I'd love to hear more, apart from government agencies not implementing their mandates: what's the marine conservation context like out there? You've mentioned relatively sparse data and hunting of megafauna, but what's... I know it's a big question, but...

L: Yeah, I mean... there's so much work to be done in the marine realm here because there's so much we still have to learn. There's not a lot of study that happens in the marine realm. There's certainly a lot of resource use and particularly overfishing. But, for example, our training network has documented two marine mammal species that have never previously been documented in Senegal. Marine mammals!

T: Big animals!

L: And we're just about to publish that with a bunch of other data on things like bycatch that is a chronic problem here. But my point is, I think there's a lot of things that we don't know. There's, for example, a guitarfish that was documented from two specimens in a museum in Paris. They're from Mauritania, the country next door, not Senegal, but they're the only known specimens of that species. And so, we've tried to go around talking to fishermen, do you see this here? And they say, yes, but a lot of these guys look alike, these species, so we need to see one that they caught - we haven't done that yet. But I guess my point is that there are species that could be going extinct before we even know that they're there.

The Black-chinned guitarfish is a critically endangered species that's being pulled up in every illegal beach scene in Senegal. We see them all the time.

And people don't know, they don't care, they're going to eat it, they're going to eat up whatever they catch. And they'll say, well, because their fish stocks are declining.

Well, yes, they are because no one's managing your fish stocks.

So, it's a very challenging situation. I mean, I don't mean to be all doom and gloom, but it's really dire here. We literally just did an interview with Voice of America about the monofilament nets, which are illegal but still in wide use in Senegal. And one of the other people interviewed for this story was the director of the Ministry of Fisheries for Senegal, who literally said in the interview, “Well, we don't see the impact of monofilament net because we still have fish.”

Are you kidding me?! So you're going to wait till the last fish is gone and then you're going to decide they're a problem? Yeah, that's what we're up against. So we just sort of try to find our bright spots of hope.

The good news is that Senegal actually has, as far as I can tell, quite a healthy manatee population. In fact, we have two. We are one of the few countries that has two very distinct populations: the Senegal River population is totally distinct from the coastal population. And they will never meet because of the dam at the mouth of the Senegal River that was built in 1986 that cut off their access to the sea.

But that's fine. They have plenty of food. And in fact, the Senegal River habitat for them is longer than the state of Florida. So they have plenty of territory there.

And then the humpback dolphins is another huge bright spot for us because we believe that we may have the largest population of the species here in Senegal.

And that has to do with the mangrove habitat that they live in. We find them 15, 20 kilometers inland up in these mangrove channels. Yeah, they don't live in the sea!

Now, they have been in the past documented in the ocean, but we are not currently documenting them in the ocean. It doesn't mean they never go there, but we're just not finding them there.

Well, the population here: when we go out to do photo ID, for example, we see groups of 35 animals.

T: Of humpback dolphins?!

L: Yeah! So in countries like Benin and Congo, there may be 15 to 30 animals overall in the population, and we're seeing like two groups of 30 in a single day.

And then we know that, in this large Delta de Saloum landscape where they are,

that we're certainly not seeing them all because in the previous week we've seen another bunch of large groups in the southern part, for example.

So Diana's job, which is a great one, is that she's developing the first photo ID catalog for the species. And this is not only exciting for Senegal, but it's also going to be the template and the model for all the other African countries that haven't started yet. So she's setting that up and she's had some great instruction and mentorship from Gianna Minton and Emma Longden at University of St.

Andrews who have been helping her to do that.

For us, it's really exciting because we're starting to recognize individual animals and we're starting to feel like in a few years we might have some life history information about them. But again, the numbers are big compared to other countries.

T: That's fantastic. And so are the mangroves in pretty good condition in Senegal?

L: In that place they are. There's some villages, but there's not any large cities, there's not any industry – it's a World Heritage site, there's a lot of ecotourism, a lot of sport fishing, so it's a place that Senegal wants to preserve as a natural area. It's a Ramsar site – I mean, it's got every designation you can think of. So within Delta Saloum there's one National Park and what is there, four or five, four marine protected areas. So almost everything in there is under some sort of protection.

And I will say that, although I feel like the marine protected areas could be slightly better enforced, they are reasonably well-enforced because they're of manageable size in that area. And also because the conservators that we work with are motivated and they're really interested in the wildlife and just really good people to work with.

I feel like we are so fortunate because the dolphins living in this mangrove habitat is quite different from the other countries, where they live in near-shore ocean in very rough dynamic waves and it's hard for people – they either have to walk down the beach or they have to be out in a boat in the waves trying to get photos, and we are in these flat calm waters and dolphins come right up to the boat and we just have the best of all worlds here. We know that there probably is some bycatch that's happening. We have had a few reports of carcasses and so we need to sensitize people that they have to protect these guys that are critically endangered.

The thing about that area where the dolphins are is that they're so common and there's so many that people there are just like, “oh yeah, the dolphins,” like they don't know that they're special. They just think they're the dolphins. And so who cares if a few die in a net? And we're like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. These are like the top five, one of the top five species in the world. Which doesn't seem to make an impression on people.

T: Well, that brings me to my next question I'd love to hear. And I'm sure between the two of you, you probably have different experiences. What is it like talking with the communities and engaging with the communities on these issues?

D: Yeah, that was not easy, but that depends on where you are. That was easier, for example, to talk to fishermen in Djifer - they are somewhere in this part that in the inside the de Saloum Delta, and they know more about the humpback dolphin and they know it's protected, they know what bycatch is.

But when you go in the villages and you talk to people that never go to school, they don't know the difference between dolphin in the mangrove and in the ocean. Some of them are only fishing in the mangroves. They just don't know which kind of dolphin we have, what is bycatch and even if they see that, it's difficult for them to tell you, “we are seeing that”, and you will never know if they are eating it or not. So the kind of information that you can have depends on where you are and who you are talking to.

T: Do they seem interested in, like, do they seem to like the animals?

D: Yeah, very, very interested. They seem very interested, and a lot of them want to know more about that.

L: I think by catch is a really hard concept here because you go out, you fish and you eat what you catch. And we do school programs here for primary and secondary schools. And the first question we ask is: what is a protected species?

And they don't know, the kids have no idea. So we have to explain to them it's protected because it's endangered and we want to keep them for the future.

But these are the same kids that, unfortunately – so, we do school programs, and they're so enthusiastic, and then the next weekend, their parents tell them to go out and pull that beach seine, because you'll get the equivalent of $2 a day. And they're out there, pulling an illegal beach seine. So until we can solve a poverty issue, that's a huge problem is that: people can know they're protected, but they need to eat and they're going to eat. So I think, fortunately, the dolphins may not get as caught as often. It doesn't seem like we're seeing lots of bycatch with them.

Sea turtles? Huge, huge problem here with not only bycatch, but targeted sea turtle fisheries. And manatees, a little bit. But I think manatees are accidental for the most part. People know they're protected. But if they catch one, they'll eat it.

So, if we go into a classroom here in Joal, where we are, and we asked 50 primary school kids, “How many of you have eaten a sea turtle?”, every single hand will go up. And if we ask them, “How many of you have eaten a manatee?”, five to eight hands will go up.

We know that education is a long term investment and that we're doing it because we hope that in 20 years, people will care more and not want to eat these guys. But for the humpback dolphins, it's more urgent than that. And we have to really be more vigilant.

But like I say, so far (knock on wood) we've gotten a few reports of carcasses, but not levels that are unsustainable at this point, as far as we can tell. Obviously, we don’t want to lose any, but we’ve had many three or four carcass reports in five years.

T: So, I've only ever worked in countries that I'm not from, so I always enjoy learning from people who do work in their local country. So Diana, I'd love to know, especially since you've learned so much about the animals that are off the coast, do you feel a kind of like national pride? Does that make sense - a kind of natural patriotism?

D: Yeah, of course – I feel that! And yeah, mostly when my own family are asking about my job, friends, people on Facebook – I was telling Lucy, now people are coming to Facebook and asking for advice for what they could study when they when they get the university. So it's just great. And I want to go far and far – as far as possible!

T: Oh, that's fantastic. It seems like you're on the right path!

L: She's a good advocate. So, I had another assistant before Diana, and so I can't call her the very first marine mammal biologist from Senegal, but he is no longer working with marine mammals, sadly. And she's certainly the first female marine mammal biologist from Senegal. And I think it's really important for young kids to see that you can have a job in conservation, you can have a job protecting wildlife. And I just hope that we can inspire other people.

I mean, if I won the lottery, that'd be great because we sure have a lot of way to give people jobs! I mean, there's so much to do here.

T: I mean, I've been kind of hoping for the lottery for myself, but I'll share some some wishes with you! But yeah, that's such a common problem. And I agree with your earlier statement: I think the small NGOs are the ones that are doing the real work, but they're also the ones that have a harder time getting that reliable flow of resources. I really hope that changes somehow, something about the structure of how conservation is funded – that needs to change.

L: Yeah, I think people give to the large NGOs because they've heard the name, but they don't realize how little work on the ground actually happens, at least from where I sit. I mean, it could be different in other parts of the world that I'm not aware of. And as I say, I don't want to stereotype because I've met some fantastic people working for those organizations on the ground.

But what I see is this huge disparity between them and their management in the larger home office, taking the biggest piece of the pie, and the people on the ground aren't really making very much money and are working with small resources. They might as well be working for a small NGO, frankly, because the resources they get are small.

T: I don't want to say too much, because some of those big NGOs hire me in my consulting work! But I echo a lot of those feelings and it's very sensitive to who the project manager is and the given country context, but the smaller NGOs are more responsive, I think. They're more respectful and more inclusive of people who are actually from the area I think (usually). Yeah, I'm really glad that you have AACF there and that you're all doing the work you're doing.

L: Thanks! Well, we try and I've always felt very strongly that people from the countries where we work really should be the people doing the work. I mean, I

generally don't go, for example, to education programs. I want them to see Senegalese people standing up at the front of the room giving that presentation.

Diana was just talking about the interview surveys that we did for the humpback dolphins and I didn't go. That was led by Diana and another Senegalese colleague of ours that went and did that work because I want them to speak the local language. First of all, I don't think they get fully honest answers with me there. They always they're going to say what they think I want to hear.

And secondly, they need to see Senegalese people leading this work. And they are. It's basically their projects. I just manage the incoming money.

T: As someone who was raised American and I've only worked in other countries, I was thinking in an ideal world, someone like me wouldn't be doing this. You want to try to fade it out so that local researchers are already doing the research and having those opportunities, so that an American coming in is more of an anomaly than the norm.

L: Well, or just build a legacy for that to be. I mean, that's something that's happened in the last few years, Tomás and I started AACF as sort of a way to do our work. And then along the way somewhere, we realized that we want this organization and its work to continue when we hopefully retire someday. And that changes your perspective a bit, because you have to think about: how are we going to make it sustainable over the long term? How are we going to raise an endowment, for example, to this organization and who are we going to turn it over to? And I would like to turn it over to an African person to run it. It's the African Aquatic Conservation Fund. I would like the next person to just be someone who is African. I mean, Tomas is African, but he also wants to retire someday!

I think we have a really good team here and I hope that we can build on that and keep a long-term good team so that we can just keep doing what we're doing.

T: Absolutely. Along those lines of wanting to build a sustained organization and transfer it over to more and more local leadership: part of that is having access to the international conservation community, which it sounds like AACF does already. But one thing I've thought a lot about is how accessible (or not) international conferences are, international publishing, etc. So I'd love to hear either of your thoughts on what are some of the challenges and opportunities for making those links stronger between African researchers and the international, very western-dominated community.

L: Yeah, that's tough because, like, for example, Senegal is a Francophone country and most of the literature is in English. So there's small challenges like that.

But I would say in terms of conferences, I think one great thing that came out of the pandemic is the fact that most conferences, including the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM), will now always be hybrid. We've crossed that bridge and we're not going back because, in fact, at the last conference, we had many more attendees online than we did in person.

And as conservationists, not spending the carbon credits on your plane trip and things like that are also important to us. I think that the world has become a bit more accessible because of the pandemic.

I still, though, see that we need to have more support for colleagues in developing countries. There's very few marine mammal biologists in Africa overall, except for places like South Africa and maybe a little bit more in East Africa, but West and Central are highly neglected and I hope that we can create more opportunities.

I'm actually the chair of the International Relations Committee for SMM and we're working on a program, myself and Eduardo Secchi, to have a almost like a scholarship program where people can, like, come to our organization and do an internship or come to Aristide Takoukam’s organization (African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization) in Cameroon to do an internship, where we offer these opportunities for Africans to come learn from us and what our organizations are doing so that they can then go home and bring that.

So it's sort of a different kind of mentorship than a traditional graduate student, but I like it. I mean, we have an intern program here. Most of our interns so far, though, have been people from other countries, Western countries. And we've had a couple Senegalese interns, but I'd like to develop it more for Senegalese interns and other African interns, because they're the ones that really need it and need to be able to if they're that excited to do the work, then we should be empowering them so they can go home and do it in their own countries.

I think there are definitely challenges. I mean, it's 2023 and Marine Mammal Science the journal is just now thinking about having a translation option for non-native English speakers in English and Spanish. And we're going to do that and I think that's fantastic. But think how long that took - it's 2023! And it's only been in English. And in fact, the journal itself will only be in English. But for we're talking about having, I think the abstracts will potentially be in either French or Spanish and English. And then there'll be writing help for people who are non-native speakers.

But I hope we can get to a place where there will be actual translation to other languages, so that Francophone speakers, for example, or Spanish speakers have more opportunities to read that kind of literature.

T: So Diana, how many languages do you speak then? You speak English and French and...

D: And Wolof, my native language.

T: Okay, so you have three languages. Wow.

D: But two years ago, I was not speaking English fluently like that. I had to learn with Lucy.

L: Her English was not bad, though. When I interviewed for her position, one of the requirements was English fluency, because – not only for me, but interacting with our colleagues who don't speak French. Diana was the only person who made it through the entire interview in English. Everybody else told me that they had good English and then they didn't understand my questions in English.

So, her English is great and yeah, probably has come a ways.

T: Well, a lot of it is practice and confidence, too. But I just want to say I appreciate that you speak the three languages well enough to operate in a professional setting.

D: Thank you.

T: That's really impressive to me.

L: And she went to Portugal for her master's, but I don't know if you learned Portuguese.

D: No, I didn't have time!

T: Yeah, when you're doing your master's, you have other things you're focusing on!

L: I think the classes were taught in English anyway…

D: Except the time that the teacher forgot that there is other people in the classroom and they start speaking Portuguese for a while and then we just say, “…hi, we are here!”

T: Oh my goodness. And you can tell me if this is too personal, Diana, but some of my friends in Asia who study marine mammals, their families are like, what are you doing? What are you doing with your life? They don't understand.

It sounds like you mentioned earlier, your friends and family are very curious and interested. Is it kind of a strange career for them?

D: Yeah, even before AACF, when I decided to do agronomy at the university, learning aquaculture and fisheries, at that time, people were thinking that I'm crazy because they didn't understand why I decided to learn that. But with AACF it's different, because now I can show what I'm doing instead of explaining. I just can show you what I'm doing. And I think I'm starting to change their mentality. But at the beginning, that was not, that was not easy to make them understand.

L: Yeah, I think they probably just thought, Oh, this is some crazy expat thing.

And lucky her, she got this job with these crazy expats. But like, they don't, they don't understand how someone can get paid to study a dolphin. That's just…beyond!

D: And sometimes people think also I'm all the time on vacation!

L: Oh, yeah. They think me too. People constantly ask me here how my vacation is going. And I'm like, I'm not on vacation - trust me!

T: That's funny.

L: But all white people are always on vacation here, because they don't have to work because we're all multi millionaires, according to everyone in Senegal.

My husband has a similar story with turtles to Diana's story. I mean, he fell in love with turtles and his father was like, no, no, you're getting a real job, you cannot make money with turtles, this is crazy. And so he went to the university and studied agronomy, but ended up starting the turtle village here. I think it took his dad, though, years and years to feel like, okay, my son has a worthwhile career, because he just thought this was a silly little hobby that he was doing.

T: Well, I mean, I know, in Myanmar, the village that we base the boat surveys out of, the village head who we have to get permission for pretty much everything, right? He was always… not giving our team a hard time, but he was just very confused, like: what is this that you're doing? Is this a job? Just going out and following the dolphins? Like you want to hire a fisherman to not fish and to take you to see dolphins? What is this?

L: Yeah, same thing here. Very similar.

T: Well, Diana, I'm glad your family is starting to better understand what you're doing.

Thank you both so much. I'm sorry, we went a little over the time, but I just was so interested to hear from you. It's funny, most of my interviews, I go in with a very targeted topic. But with you two, I was like, I just want to know everything about West Africa and what you do!

So thank you. I really enjoyed learning from you. And I hope we have other opportunities to chat and interact because I really love everything that you were saying. And it only makes me want to come to West Africa more.

L: Well, there's a room here for you if you want to come anytime.

T: All right, fantastic! It's so nice to meet you, Deanna.

D: Thank you. Nice to meet you, too.

L: Well, I hope we'll see you in person at some point…I don't know when. We're going to try hard to go to the Perth conference. I know that's a long way for a lot of people.

T: But yeah, I'm not on the conference circuit so much these days, especially SMM doesn't do human dimensions well. But at the same time, that's another reason that it's good to go.

But yeah, hopefully you don't have too many strange strandings. Well, they're interesting too, but…

L: Well, I mean, as you know, so we're partnering with Smithsonian and they're actually coming in two weeks, and they come once a year for a stranding survey, Charlie Potter and Michael McGowen, which really just is the gift that keeps giving because we love them. And again, that's thanks to a Marine Mammal Conference where they heard my talk about the Senegal stranding network and how we're running out of money, and they basically said, we're going to come and help you. So they do.

But as Michael always says, “I don't want anything to die - but if it does, I'd like:” and he lists out a bunch of specimens that he wants! So we always we learn something new every time. And we have these very different surveys every time. So, we're really happy to be one of the only organizations in all of West Africa doing regular beach surveys. While, yes, we're documenting things that have died, we're also learning about what species are here. We're learning about taxonomy. We're learning about populations through Michael's genetics work. We're just seeing what's out there.

And, we're also learning from Charlie Potter, who has to be, hands down, one of the world's best taxonomic geniuses for marine mammals – I mean, the guy can walk up to a whale skull and tell you from the ear bones what species it is. So, we’re really fortunate that way.

T: That’s wonderful! I hope that visit goes well, and I hope you both keep well, too!

L: You too! Thanks!


I want to thank Lucy and Diana for that wonderful conversation! I don’t know how they manage to do all that they’re involved in, but I’m grateful that they and the whole AACF team do. I do want to briefly highlight that, although the international conservation community – including the Society for Marine Mammalogy – has a LOT of work to do toward being truly diverse and inclusive, this interview showed how many marine mammal experts from the Global North are very generous with their time, expertise, and other resources. It’s a wonderful community on the whole, and if groups like AACF get the support they need (and deserve), it will be a much more vibrant and diverse community in the future.

As ever, thank you for listening, especially given my very erratic posting schedule! If you feel moved to, please like, subscribe, review (positively please!), comment, share, etc. I hope you’re all doing well, and I have a very… let’s say, “haunting”… special little episode brewing for this Halloween!


Dr. Lucy Keith-Diagne is originally from Massachusetts, USA, and is based in Senegal. Lucy has spent the past 34 years conducting field research with marine mammals around the world, including 23 years working with West Indian and African manatees. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from St. Lawrence University in New York, her Master of Science degree in Marine Biology from the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and her PhD from the University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine, where her dissertation research focused on the phylogenetics and feeding ecology of the African manatee. Her interests include threat assessments and mitigation, population genetics, feeding ecology, and behavior. Lucy currently works on African manatee research and conservation projects in six countries and leads a collaborative network for manatee fieldwork and conservation with members in 17 African countries. She also led the first three successful alternative livelihood programs for former manatee hunters in Senegal, Nigeria, and Mali. Lucy also leads the Senegal Stranding Network, and research and conservation projects for the Atlantic Humpback Dolphin in Senegal. She has trained over 100 African biologists in marine mammal field techniques and conservation planning. Lucy was awarded the Manatee Conservation Award by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003, a Pew Marine Fellowship in 2017, and she became a National Geographic Explorer in 2018. Lucy is a member of IUCN Sirenian Specialist Group, a co-Chair of the African Manatee Regional Subgroup, the author of the IUCN Red List Assessment for the African manatee, and a member of the Convention of Migratory Species Scientific Council- Aquatic Mammals and Aquatic Wildmeat Working Groups. 


Diana Seck is a young Senegalese researcher and research assistant at the African Aquatic Conservation Fund. She holds a bachelor's degree in aquaculture from Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Marine Biodiversity, Fisheries, and Conservation at the Faculty of Sciences and Techniques at the University of Algarve, Portugal. Diana has been engaged in conservation work since 2021 and is currently finalizing her Master's thesis, which focuses on creating the first photographic identification catalog for the Atlantic Humpback dolphin, a critically endangered species that is abundant in central coastal Senegal. She also participates in sample collection for genetics and acoustics studies of Atlantic Humpback dolphins in the Saloum Delta, Senegal. Additionally, Diana participates in research and conservation projects for the African manatee in Senegal and Guinea. Diana aspires to build a career in marine mammal conservation, with a particular focus on African cetaceans and the African manatee.

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