I’d like to write about the Gambian flora and fauna. However, as all our “big 5” were extinct by the end of the slave trade, it is a depressing tale. Hippos still inhabit the river Gambia along with the critically endangered Manatee. There are 100+ crocodiles held at Kachikally crocodile pool in Bakau. If you take the ferry or Pirogue (local fishing canoe) across the river, from Banjul to Barra you may be lucky to spot Dolphins as I have on several occasions. If you travel 4 or 5 hours up country you may be lucky to see Antelope or even Warthogs known locally as bush pigs, but even these are endangered. The slave trade is estimated to have affected something like 15 million people along the West Coast of Africa, Gambia and Senegal being important trading posts for the French and British long after the Portuguese left for more lucrative genocide elsewhere. The West African Rhino was hunted into extinction. The elephant used to be the national symbol of The Gambia. West African Elephants were hunted into extinction. The last Gambian elephant was shot in 1913. The last Giant Eland was shot in 1903. The last Gambian Giraffe died in 1899. At that time Gambia was a British colony, therefore popular with game hunters. What hadn’t been killed during the slave trade era, was decimated by British hunters, including the now extremely endangered West African lion which is no longer found in Gambia.
There are rumours that ex-president Jammeh had a private “zoo” with many animals. At a trade-fair a few years back we saw two of his Hyena stuffed in a metal cage with no water and a fly infested Camel, he had brought to show the locals. No one has ever set foot inside this “zoo”, so I cannot comment on what, if any animals are there, or the conditions they are contained in.
Gambia does have a large population of Green Vervet Monkeys and a smaller population of Western Red Colobus Monkey. But people who value wildlife come to Gambia for the bird life. Gambia has over 500 species of birds. And stunning one
s at that.
Let’s talk about bugs, reptiles etc. not the Leptospira bacterium kind that nearly killed me back in spring ‘17 but the creepy crawly kind a lot of people have phobias of. Africa is renowned for having a large insect population, most of which are very much larger than those found in colder climates. There are estimated to be 41 species of snake in Gambia, of which 9 are venomous: Puff Adders, Cobras, Green Mambas, Vipers, Boa Constrictors, Pythons (Royal and Rock), Sand Snake and Herald Snake. Gambians are very afraid of snakes for two main reasons. There is no anti-venom in Gambia, the nearest being Senegal and they are unable to identify which are venomous and which are harmless. That being so, if a Gambian encounters a snake, it is usually killed immediately. In 7 years, I have only seen one live snake, and that wasn’t alive for long!
Lizards, Geckos and their cousins on the other hand are everywhere. There is not a compound, restaurant or street which is uninhabited by these 4 legged speedsters. Rock Agamas, Lizards with bright yellow tails are everywhere. Cinder’s (local name) that Bongo our dog likes to catch are also very common.
Then there are “Unka’s” I have no idea of their Latin name, but these giant lizards with sticky feet are said to “spit in the food and poison you” according to local beliefs. Gambian beliefs and superstitions is a whole blog post on its own. Up to 12” long, we have Unka’s in our roof space, along with their babies. It took a trip to Abuko nature reserve and a long discussion with the head keeper there, to convince Sol they’re actually harmless and eat mosquitoes, cockroaches and other bugs, which is all good in my book.
Gambia has 2 types of Chameleon and Monitor Lizards which grow up to 2 metres in length. I have seen one in a hotel-grounds and several when out in the bush visiting villages for clothes donations.
And then there are the real nasties. Cockroaches 2” long, mice and giant 2’ long rats which carry the Leptospira bacteria, spiders, scorpions and bugs. Cockroaches feast on faeces, garbage and carrion. They carry Salmonella, Typhoid, Cholera, Leprosy and cause among other diseases gastroenteritis as well as parasitic worm lava. Even before moving to Africa I might have been described as a “clean freak”. I am sure our RGE guests have thought quietly to themselves I spend too much time cleaning our house. Even with all my bleaches, anti-bacterial sprays and a host of other accoutrements that wasn’t enough to stop me getting sick. All it took was for the clean dishes not to be dried and stored immediately for one day; for some 4 legged vermin to pee there and the rest they say is history.
I mentioned everything is bigger in Africa. Look at this locust, and just you wait until you see the rats!
The Gambian Pouched Rat is no ordinary rat. They are not your regular vermin which eat our boxes, and contaminate the clothes donations with their urine. These belong to the same genus as Voles, Hamsters and Gerbils. These are rats on steroids. It weighs between 1 & 1.5 KG and eats termites, insects and palm kernals. Given there are no Palm trees near us, the colony that live next door in an empty piece of land, they must be eating the termites and other vermin that frequent Badjie kunda (Kunda means home or house) on a daily basis. Some Europeans, like our sponsor “Cat”, keeps them as pets. They have an extraordinary sense of smell and have been used all over Africa to detect landmines in war torn countries. These are one smart rodent. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/mar/05/heroic-giant-rats-sniff-out-landmines-in-tanzania
The downside is, they can carry a strain of Monkeypox, to which there is no known cure. Those bred in captivity are likely to be uninfected, but Africa is a different matter. Monkeypox is a viral disease spread by the animals contaminated blood. The virus can spread from the animals’ blood to humans, and thereafter from human to human. It is similar to Smallpox, no treatment and no cure.
When I first saw one of these rats, it was being held by the tail, by one of a group of boys. When questioned, they replied they were going to eat it! The majority of families we support are too poor to afford meat. Fish and ground nut being their main source of protein. Kids being kids seek out what their bodies need. Here, that includes smoking these rats out their burrows, cooking then eating them! I have tried explaining about the risk of disease from the animals’ blood to deaf ears! The critters often come into our compound as we have termites, another source of devastation. Sol won’t touch them! I won’t touch them! Our “son” Demba does the honours.
Insect life continues with spiders and bugs, paper wasps, mango worms, and this amazing arachnid called a Tailless Whip Scorpion. They are harmless to humans, feeding on frogs and insects and other small vertebrae and have a leg span of up to 28”! That’s the size of a very large dinner plate. I know because I had the “pleasure” of meeting one who had thought my bikini pants were a great place to nest!
Giant colourful butterflies adorn our blue African skies. Extremely difficult to photograph by an amateur like me, the only photos I managed to take were in Abene in Senegal of giant winged beauties.
These are Google images.
The photos above are curtesy of Simon Fenton, another accidental African who ran the Little Baobab in Abene Senegal, where we had the pleasure of meeting him in 2016. Simon passed away after a fatal car accident late last month. Rest In Peace Simon.