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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”