The African Sahel was once an idyllic landscape. Its grassy plains sprawled across 2.2 million square miles of Africa, from Senegal on the Atlantic all the way to the Sudan on the Red Sea. People and wildlife lived in relative harmony on this landscape for tens of thousands of years. In Senegal, where Friends of Animals (FoA) is now partnered with the National Parks Directorate, the Sahel is known locally as the Ferlo.
The Ferlo, as with the rest of the Sahel, was a pristine semi-arid prairie landscape, just south of the intense Sahara. The people here were (and still are) mostly ethnic Fulani, traditional herdsmen with cattle, goats and sheep.
Traditionally, the numbers of their livestock were kept in check by the amount of water made available by the limited amount of rain that fell each year from July to September. In many places, depressions and basins in the undulating topography created seasonal ponds that held much of this rainwater well into the dry season. In a few places, there were ponds that continued to hold some water until the following year’s seasonal rains replenished them.
But a family could keep no more livestock than the available water could support. Anyone trying to keep 100 cows in a region that had water for only 50 would face a crisis and much misery.
Water was the “limiting factor” for life.
In recent decades, however, some aid agencies were determined to “help” the herdsmen by providing more water. They knew that water had been collecting for many centuries in the great underground reservoirs across the entire Sahel. All they needed to do was sink a good number of boreholes, and there would be plenty of water for everyone.
They did just that.
A DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Water ceased to be the “limiting factor” for life on the Sahel. It was replaced in that function by vegetation, which became the new limiting factor. A family could now keep as many livestock as they had grasses and shrubs to feed them.
Nearly everywhere, this dynamic was pushed to the limit.
Herds grew dramatically in size and soon started to over-graze the landscape, exposing the soil to the intense direct heat of the sun, which dried it out. A bit of wind lifted the dust and carried it away.
Much of this dust sifted into the lower-lying areas, where the seasonal ponds were located. Settling upon the waters, the dust became mud and sank, making the ponds increasingly shallow. Eventually, those ponds could not hold water into the dry season as well as they previously had.
The forces of wind erosion also carried desiccated livestock manure into the ponds, contaminating them with heavy loads of nutrients that stimulated eutrophication.
Matters got worse; the gradual desertification of the Sahel, including the Ferlo, slipped into the dynamics of global climate change. Temperatures now soar to 50 degrees Centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The annual rains have diminished. The winds have gotten stronger. Life becomes more desperate.
It is a downward spiral that imposes an enormous burden on humans, farm animals and wildlife. Songbirds who have wintered in Africa must fly back to Europe in March and April—but with the ponds drying out earlier than that, they do not have much to drink before flying north across the waterless Sahara.
Who dares to guess the number of fatalities they suffer? It must be in the millions. Local wildlife suffers. Farm animals have stolen their food. Silted and contaminated ponds have stolen their water.
SEEDS OF CHANGE
The Fulani understand that things must change, or their children will inherit an uninhabitable wasteland of extreme poverty and suffering. They understand over-grazing is a fundamental contributor to the situation.
But they are unwilling to reduce the size of their herds without an alternative to replace them.
FoA has partnered with Senegal’s National Parks Directorate to address this challenge. We are offering an excellent alternative by creating village vegetable gardens as new sources of nutrition.
Not only do these productive gardens provide more balanced diets, they will mean fewer animals subjected to the cruelty and trauma of being raised for food. And fewer livestock on the landscape will diminish the negative impacts of over-grazing and excessive pumping of village wells.
This will provide opportunities for habitat rehabilitation and the possibility of restoring the Ferlo to the pleasant landscapes of years gone by Senegal’s Water and Forest Directorate and the United Nation’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are also partners in this project—the latter has declared the Ferlo a “Biosphere Reserve.”
The government of Senegal has charged the National Parks Directorate to rehabilitate all 8,000 square miles of the Ferlo (an area the size of New Jersey) according to UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve guidelines. FoA’s task is enormous, but the fruits of success are highly gratifying.
Ultimately, our success is a matter of changing attitudes. Today, sheer numbers of cattle owned are the principal indicators of wealth and status of people in this region. Our cooperative efforts aim to expand from this narrow perspective.
Humans create unspeakable misery wherever they turn other animals into consumer goods. Wealth can instead be measured in a stable and flourishing environment, free of the dust storms linked to over-grazing.
Wealth can be measured in a happy and healthy community, in drinking water that is not contaminated, in healthy children being educated and in abundant and productive village gardens. Our partnership has identified nine communities adjacent to the 12,500-acre Ferlo North Wildlife Reserve.
This is where we are planting our gardens.
These nine villages, together, are inhabited by 6,716 residents who keep about 4,450 cows and about 19,500 goats and sheep. In each community, we partner with the village Women’s Cooperative. They’re the ones who hold the keys to important decision making.
The Women’s Cooperatives appreciate the long-term consequences of the status quo. They understand the need to improve nutrition. They embrace the benefits of having friendly ongoing relations with the park rangers in the neighboring wildlife reserve. They welcome the rangers’ efforts to provide training in gardening and in water management.
Benevolence and cooperation are becoming increasingly welcomed concepts. It is important to distinguish between the cattle and the smaller ruminants. Cattle are the region’s “wealth”—cattle are their prestige. A family with 100 cows has greater prestige than a family with only 20. This is a traditional accounting in a conservative community. Goats and sheep, however, don’t confer much prestige.
They are kept mostly as a source of food.
Every school child in the Ferlo really must learn that it takes about 1,800 gallons of precious water to raise one pound of beef, and about 1,250 gallons of water to raise a pound of sheep or goat. That’s a lot of water that must be pumped out of a gradually depleting well. And what will happen when the well runs dry?
Those same school children should also learn that it takes but 257 gallons of water to raise a pound of soybeans, only 60 gallons to raise a pound of potatoes, and just 43 gallons to raise a pound of eggplant. And their parents must learn the same lesson.
But our gardens will be even more water efficient. That’s because we’re using dripper irrigation, which is very parsimonious with each drop of water, delivering it via a network of carefully designed tubes to each of the individual plants that need hydration.
First gardens are already growing in the communities of Katane and Ranerou, and the villagers are developing a healthy taste for peppers and onions and tomatoes. And with each pound of potatoes and carrots we put on a family’s table, there is less excuse for the trauma of flesh.
This is part of a grander intention to stimulate a more benevolent relationship with the land and wildlife across the Senegalese Ferlo. Proactive habitat restoration will benefit wildlife, and relations between Ferlo North Wildlife Reserve and the nine villages along its periphery can seek ever greater harmony and friendly relations.
Serigne Modou Mamoune Fall is the curator of Ferlo North Wildlife Reserve, Souleye Ndiaye is the retired director of Senegal National Parks, Rony Malka is the retired deputy director and head of Law Enforcement at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and Bill Clark is a retired INPA warden and current FoA senior policy advisor.