SPECIAL REPORT: Saved from being eaten by fishermen, one animal draws global attention to Nigeria

Dr. Lucy Diagne conducting necropsy (animal version of  autopsy) on AkwaCross. Photo credit:  Mrs. Idorenyin Gideon
Dr. Lucy Diagne conducting necropsy (animal version of autopsy) on AkwaCross. Photo credit: Mrs. Idorenyin Gideon

In October last year, an American researcher and biodiversity conservationist, Lucy Diagne, hurriedly flew from her base in Senegal into Akwa Ibom state, in South-South Nigeria.

Mrs. Diagne’s trip was part of an emergency global effort to save a baby manatee rescued from local fishermen who wanted to enrich their soup-pots with the poor little animal.

Edem Eniang, the man who led other Nigerian conservationists to buy it off their hands, understood how priceless it was to save the manatee calf.

The marine mammal is among the world’s endangered species.

Besides, “the African manatee is the one species that we know the least about,” says Manatee-world.com, a website devoted to the animal.

“In fact, even getting photos of them is hard. You won’t find too many of them compiled even from those researchers that are quite fascinated with the African Manatee.”

AkwaCross being fed inside a fish pond. Photo credit: Dr. Lucy Diagne

Mr. Eniang said the baby manatee “was standing in a little well, (and) couldn’t move its body, and was dehydrated” when he found it where it was kept in captivity.

Mr. Eniang, a senior lecturer at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, who specialises in Wildlife Resources Management, wasn’t this lucky in 2013.

Before he could get to the scene where a giant manatee was caught in the Calabar-Itu River, the animal had died from wound sustained from the harpoon, a spear-like device, used in hunting it.

He was somehow able to take some scientific records of the manatee, said to have been about 3.9 metres long and weighed over 500 kg, almost the weight of two local cows.

Dr. Lucy Diagne taking samples from the dead manatee – AkwaCross. Photo credit: Cletus Ukpong

The poor animal was later butchered, and sold in bits to locals who had a great day feasting on it.

The rescued calf, which attracted Mrs. Diagne to Akwa Ibom was just about one month old. Mrs Eniang named it AkwaCross – the acronym for the neigbouring states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River – because it was caught in the Calabar-Itu River which divides the two states.

Immediately Mrs Diagne got information from Mr. Eniang about AkwaCross, she thought the calf wouldn’t survive except it was kept inside a special facility that could sustain it. But such specially-built facility wasn’t available in Akwa Ibom or anywhere else in Nigeria.

The calf couldn’t also be released back into the river, according to Mr. Eniang, because “there were so many (fishing) nets and manatee traps, and the mother couldn’t be found.”

Fisheries by-catch is one of the biggest threats to manatee population, globally, a great number of fishermen around the world unintentionally harvest manatees trapped in their fishing nets.

And so the African Aquatic Conservation Fund, in which Mrs Diagne is the Executive Director, with headquarters in the United States, stepped in, and began the search for a comfortable home for AkwaCross.

Luckily, two aquariums – one in South Africa, and another in Puerto Rico – showed interest.

The AACF, according to the information it posted on its Facebook page, began talking with the Nigerian authorities on how to move the manatee out of the country.

Meanwhile, at Mr. Eniang’s private home, somewhere in the outskirt of Uyo, where the manatee was put in a 2.4 by 4.5 metres pond originally built for catfish. It wasn’t easy getting it to take the feed and the supplements sent in as donations from Jonathan Perez-Rivera, a biodiversity conservationist at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, and Tony Mignucci, at the Centro de Conservation de Manaties de Puerto Rico.

Dr. Lucy Diagne conducting necropsy (animal version of autopsy) on AkwaCross. Photo credit: Mrs. Idorenyin Gideon

For most of the people rendering help at Mr. Eniang’s pond, that was their first time of seeing and also getting this close to a live manatee.

Mr. Eniang had to put them through training sessions, using the how-to-do-it information he got from the university in Puerto Rico.

“It wasn’t an easy thing, but once we knew how to handle the animal we were able to feed it,” the lecturer told PREMIUM TIMES.

Four persons, including Eniang’s 20-year-old daughter, Eunice, were assigned the responsibility of feeding AkwaCross.

“We first give it multi-vitamin in the morning, before the milk. We grind the multi-vitamin, and dissolved it in a milligram of warm water,” Eunice said.

“After feeding it with the multi-vitamin, we mix the milk, Similac, into 300 milligram of warm water.

“There’s water that the white people gave us to mix with the feed; we have the lacatate green water solution, and we also have the calcium solution. We mix it together in the basin, before we prepare the feed, and then we pour it into feeding bottle which we used in feeding the animal.”

Eunice said the manatee could finish three feeding bottles at a time, and is fed like that seven times a day.

On her arrival in Uyo, Mrs. Diagne was introduced to the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Uyo, Comfort Ekpo, in the presence of the then incoming VC, Aniefiok Essien, and other management staff of the school.

Mrs. Ekpo told Mrs Diagne she believed the calf would live.

Front-view of the giant manatee killed in Calabar-Itu River in 2013. Photo credit: Dr. Edem Eniang

One Uniuyo lecturer at the meeting appealed for the establishment of a manatee rehabilitation facility in the school.

Later in the afternoon, Mrs Diagne was taken to see the calf.

She later stayed on to witness how the animal would take its evening meal.

“Yeah, I wanna see the little guy,” she said, as Mr. Eniang, accompanied by other Nigerian conservationists, led her to the mini wildlife park at the back of his house.

“I have come a long way to see the little guy,” Mrs Diagne said, again.
She wore an orange-colour short-sleeves shirt, with a brown combat trouser, and sneakers. She had a blonde hair. She was tall and heavily built. She exuded passion and strength.

Mrs Diagne has a PhD in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida, and is incredibly fascinated with manatees. She has so far spent 18 years on its research and conservation, and was the first person to scientifically prove that manatees eat mollusks and fish as well as plants, making them omnivores, not herbivores.

“I learned about manatees in school when I was 12 years old, went home and told my parents I wanted to save them (my mother loves to tell that story!). I’ve been fascinated with them for a long time, although I also studied seals for many years and really love them too,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.

She linked her fascination with manatees to the animals’ ability to navigate through muddy water to specific areas over large distances, and return to the same places year after year.

“How do they do it? Their eyesights are poor and the water is opaque, so how do they cover these large distances and return to the exact same places? Nobody knows. People say they are stupid and slow, but they are excellent navigators. And their intelligence is believed to be similar to dolphins, so they aren’t stupid.”

Mrs Diagne currently trains and leads a network of African manatee researchers in 19 countries. She believes the African manatee will only be conserved by Africans who care enough to work to save it in their countries.

The locals celebrating the killing of a giant manatee in Calabar-Itu Rivers in 2013. Photo credits: Dr. Edem Eniang

According to her said African manatee exists in 21 countries, and is believed to be the most heavily hunted, although no one knows how many are killed annually. She mentioned Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cameroon as countries where the hunting of manatee is reported to be worst in Africa.

That evening, just as the sun began to set, Mrs Diagne, Mr. Eniang, and four other persons stood by the pond, chattering for few minutes, while waiting for AkwaCross to come up to the water surface.

“It doesn’t like crowd,” Mr. Eniang whispered to Mrs Diagne. “It has heard noises”.

“See it! See it!” They all shouted at the same time. But the manatee, scared by the many voices, swam underneath again, very quickly.

“Oh, it’s tiny!” Mrs Diagne said. “This guy is new born!”

A young man, wearing water-proof vest, climbed into the pond. With gloves on, he used his hands to search the murky water, for the manatee.

The man grabbed the animal within few minutes, brought the 35kg calf out to the surface, to the cheering of the people.

They handed him a plastic chair to sit on, inside the pond. He held out the manatee with his left hand, while using the right hand to insert feeding bottle into its mouth.

The manatee’s head remained visible, while the rest of the body remained submerged in water.

It was grey in colour. Its mouth resembled that of a cow. It had tiny hairs around the mouth region.

According to Seaworld.org, “Manatees have a large flexible upper lip. Their lips help guide vegetation into the mouth.

“Vibrissae (whiskers) are found on the surface of the upper lip. Each vibrissa is separately attached to nerve endings and has its own supply of blood.”

The calf, held up in an upright position, continued to drink milk from the feeding bottle.

It was a beautiful sight to behold – a baby manatee being fed, not by its mother, but by humans! It encapsulated the dream of every biodiversity conservationist, of a peaceful bond between man and animal, between the hunter and the hunted.

“It shouldn’t be drinking straight-up,” Mrs. Diagne said to the man who was feeding the manatee. “When it is with the mum, it feeds side-west.”

“Yeah, like that,” Mrs Diagne said, as the man bent the animal a little downward.

“This might just be my first Nigerian sample for genetic research,” Mrs Diagne said, with a smile.

The next day would be a busy one. AkwaCross would have to go through detailed examination, some samples would be taken from it for genetic research, its heart-rate and body temperature would be taken, and its length and weight measured, and so on.

Because of the dearth of information, generally, on African manatee, AkwaCross provided a good opportunity for Mrs. Diagne.

She and the local Nigerian team assembled the next morning, at about 8a.m, at Mr. Eniang’s place for the procedure.

While taking them through a brief lecture on the process it would take, Mrs Diagne assured the team that manatee could survive pretty outside the water.

“Someone needs to help us monitor its breathing,” she said. “Manatees don’t know when they are out of water; they still raise their head to breathe, they still think they are inside the water.”

AkwaCross was pulled out from the pond, and brought under the shade where the procedure was to take place.

Mrs Diagne began touching the animal, while explaining some of its body parts to the team. She suddenly stopped, bowed her head, and then sighed.

“Oh, no! I don’t know,” she said. It was a sad tone.

She sighed again.

“It’s off!” One of the Uniuyo lecturers injected.

At that point, the painful truth became obvious to everyone: AkwaCross was dead!

“It’s a shame,” Mrs. Diagne said. “I can’t believe this.

“It went through a lot of trauma, being captured and put in a well…. Like I said, it might not have been doing well from the start, but from the surface, it might look okay.”

Mr. Eniang, too shocked to utter a word, folded his arms across his chest, and was gazing at the lifeless body of baby AkwaCross on the floor.

Everyone was downcast, and Mrs Diagne kept telling them that it wasn’t their fault.

“It was looking absolutely fine to me last night…. You guys didn’t do anything wrong.”

People around the world who were following AkwaCross’ progress through the AACF Facebook page felt sad as well.

Mrs Diagne was smart enough to quickly reset everyone’s mood; the team began to probe what actually killed the baby manatee, and few minutes into necropsy, it was discovered that it died of dehydration.

She used the session to teach the team about manatee – their anatomy, habitat, their significant life cycle, and what could be done to protect and conserve them.

“They eat water weeds, they keep the water ways clear, and their faeces feed baby fish, and everybody wants to eat fish. Manatees are part of life cycle, they help the fish.

Dr. Edem Eniang taking scientific measurements of a giant manatee killed in Calabar-Itu Rivers in 2013. Photo credits: Mr. Edwin Egwali

“At Senegal, we declared a wildlife refuge for manatee and other aquatic animals. We worked in partnership with the local communities, and they banned all fishing activities. And the fishermen are now catching the biggest fish just outside the refuge.”

Manatee has the potentials to boost eco-tourism in Nigeria and other African countries, but the people must first learn how to stop hunting them, said Mrs. Diagne.

The next day, Mrs. Diagne took the manatee enlightenment to Uniuyo campus where a handful of lecturers turned up for a one-day seminar arranged by Mr. Eniang.

At the school, some new converts pledged to join the growing campaign for the protection of the African manatees. There were also calls on the government, both at the federal and states, to show more interest and commitment in biodiversity conservation.

Mr. Eniang, whose name is fast becoming synonymous to wildlife conservation in Nigeria, is somewhat happy that AkwaCross didn’t die in vain.

But beyond his love for conservation and the successes he has recorded, Mr. Eniang also symbolises the paradox in the story of conservation in Africa — It was animals in the African wild that his parents hunted, killed, and sold in training him in school.

“This is like a payback for me,” Mr. Eniang said.

“Today, Juliana is going to the university, and I’m not killing animals to send her to school,” he said. “I am going to train her from money made from working for government. My generation will never hunt animals again.

“But how can you plant conservation etiquette in a mind that is hungry? There’s so much hunger in the land, there’s so much challenge for survival. So, nobody will listen to you except you give them an alternative. We need to build that into the conservation plan.”


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  • Abdullah Musa

    Much ado about nothing!
    When humans are killed in millions, when poverty kills through gradual death, when humans cannot get access to medicine, when millions of youths are drugs addicts, there is much hullabaloo about a captured animal.
    A human baby could not afford the milk given to the animal that later died.

    • Bolu

      Lol

      • Abdullah Musa

        Thanks.

    • Spyman29

      Please don’t comment on what you don’t have knowledge about how it works

      • Abdullah Musa

        And my underlying message is thus: human being deserves more attention than an animal.
        And he is not getting it.

        • Holy truth

          U are 100% right bro.

        • Fulani Nomad

          there’s always a need to protect those that can’t protect themselves.

  • Höly Wähala

    Those useless mbong people would eat anything without rejection…
    They eat Dog, cat, rat, pig, guinea pig, hyenas, pytons, snails, snakes, bats, owls and even vultures… Haba!
    Thank God this baby manatee escaped the jaws of a Calabar man, otherwise, Nigeria would not be portrayed in this rare positive light by the global community. Those enclaves where this rare animals dwell should be banned from hunting them, with strict sanctions against anyone caught violating the conservation laws. Left to me, I would ban all calabar clowns from eating anything other than fish and crabs. Niger Delta, always our achili’s tendon… Nonsense!

    • Otile

      Don’t poo poo this conversation now. You are a hater.

    • TrueNja

      U are quick to insult people from other tribes. What type of human are u?

      • Höly Wähala

        Are these people from the Yoruba ethnic group who come here to insult NOI from out of space… find out what type of humans they are first before wondering about me. Anu ohia!

  • Aishat Aliu

    This is to inform the general public that C E M E N T is now sold direct from
    the main factory at the rate of 1,150 Naira per bag for those who are buying
    above 100 bags, this offer is available for both individual and registered
    distributors,please contact sales manager Mr Umar sani on O8O35511166
    for booking and delivery takes two working days.,

  • Rommel

    This animal is the origin of “mamiwata” phenomenon in these parts of the world

  • AFRICANER

    Ndi Ocha na nkori-aka ha di Too much.

  • Abdullah Musa

    And may I suggest you try to understand my underlying message: a human being is more important than animal.

  • MilitaryPolice01

    Look at that man at the right hand side of the topmost picture tapping current, nothing person no go see for this world, na so de conji don circulate the man waste .. chai

    • Hassan Lawal

      …na wa for you o!

    • peaceometer

      Hahaha Hahahahaha,Hahahaha,hahaha Hahahahaha,Hahahaha,hahaha you are right oo ha

      • MilitaryPolice01

        lol no be small thing

  • Christopher Ogbogu

    Manatees has been with us since, remember the grandma story about a water animal that tickles a swimmer in the river and make them drown that is Manatee for you, poverty hunger ignorant all this make our people want to eat everything. its very unfortunate these are gentle and peaceful animal, from the coast to inland waters of our river Niger and Benue not to mention places like Calabar and Akwa Ibom. In 1994 a giant manatee was captured in a village called AFIANKWO on the Niger river in Delta State it was also killed and consumed, we need to sensitize people living around areas were this animals are found that this animals can even provide not only food for them but employement and other good things that come with conservation,protection and tourism. May God help improve our standard of living and end this hunger that makes us want to eat everything and not protect and preserve anything .

    • peaceometer

      Hmn

  • NinjaK

    Manatee?
    Wetin concern Blackman (in his Black environment) with Conservationists?
    A Blackman is only a “Soup Pot Conservationist” biko!

  • Rufus

    you find some around the fresh waters in taraba. Its called Ayu. i ate is once…. delicious, succulent, soft meat. But i really hope they get the chance to multiply.

    • Otile

      Chai, you ate mamiwata.

  • TAWANDA INCOMMUNICADO

    We are eating many species out of existence in Nigeria because the government does not really care about humans what more of animals. When hundreds of Nigerians die en mass within hours on the same location,our president does not even acknowledge it publicly yet we are here talking about animals.

  • Omotolaaraujo

    People must save the species that humans are decimating. Sell them to conservationists if you must.

  • Maria

    I remember a dead whale washed to the coast by the sea and was eaten by hungry Nigerians. What else do you expect from the barbarians?

    • TAWANDA INCOMMUNICADO

      Let’s be precise,Yorubas do that on a regular basis.

      • Maria

        Information available confirmed the eaters were spair part sellers who migrated from the eastern jungle.

        • TAWANDA INCOMMUNICADO

          Nah ! Yorubas eat everything including snakes.

          • Maria

            Yeah eboes eat human flesh…eg Clifford Orji and many otokootos…lol!

          • TAWANDA INCOMMUNICADO

            Story !!

          • Zrad_LoneWolfe

            Yorubas do not eat everything… Yibos and barbarians from the south do.. Snakes, dogs, cats, caterpillar, locust, mantee, human beings etc..

    • Abe Lawrence

      Yoruba can never eat such creature, because they would believe such creature belongs to the Yemoja (a sea goddess) who is believed to be the owner of the sea. Yorubas would be so scared of it and pay respect to it

  • St

    Senators bought 1 car for 36 million Naira in this hard times, yet I think 2 cars can go a long way into conservation. Idiots surrounding themselves with fools