The Saloum Delta is representative of a traditional coastal lifestyle of shellfish gathering and fishing. The site is marked by 218 shellfish mounds, some of them several hundreds metres long, produced by its human inhabitants over the ages. Several of them hold funerary sites (tumuli). The oldest shell mound dates from 400 BC, the creating of tumuli occurred between the 8th and the 16th century.
The area, which is also a Ramsar Convention site, lies within a 180,000-hectare biosphere reserve within the delta of the Saloum, Diombos and Bandiala rivers. Waters comprise 61,000 hectares of the park, intertidal mangroves and saltwater vegetation cover 7,000 hectares, and savanna and forest cover 8,000 hectares. It lies on the East Atlantic Flyway.
Map of Saloum DeltaLoad map
The Land Rover came to a stop. Just ahead a roan antelope emerged from the brush and started to step delicately across our path. I was just pulling out my camera when Maria, our guide, suddenly screeched something about giraffes. The antelope panicked and fled as our driver Amadou gunned the engine and swerved the truck left off the track. I ducked back inside the vehicle as it jounced over the dry earth, breaking through stands of high, brittle grass. Two more Land Rover appeared alongside just as we ploughed to a halt in front of a covey of surprised looking Cape Giraffes. They stared thoughtfully down their noses at us, as though unsure what to make of us. Then, with a switch of their tails they made their decision and, as one, turned and ambled off through the trees.
A bit of an odd review this. It’s a review of a visit to a World Heritage Site that did not go anywhere near any element that got it inscribed in the first place. The Saloum Delta is a decent sized chunk of mangrove creek landscape and a hotspot for West African wildlife, particularly migratory birds. The mangrove creeks of Senegal and Gambia are particularly representative of the landscape of these countries and my partner and I had been converted to enthusiastic bird-spotters on a trio of walks and early-morning boat trips on the south side of the River Gambia. Yet the Saloum Delta is inscribed solely on Cultural grounds. The Unesco website talks about ‘exceptional testimony to a coastal lifestyle’, ‘cultural landscapes… [illustrating] a long period of the history of human settlement along the West African coast’ and ‘an eminent example of traditional human settlement’. Yet I saw none of this. I didn’t see the coast. I didn’t even get my feet wet.
However, I did visit within the inscribed boundaries. The map on the Unesco website shows that there is a mainland section to the park sandwiched between the Bandiara River to the west and the main Karang-Toubakouta road to the east. This is marked as the Forêt de Fathala. This is only 5km from the Gambian border and, for those enjoying a winter break in the Gambian resorts, it offers the easiest access to the World Heritage Sites. Numerous tour agencies off day trips to the Fathala Game Reserve. From the map, the IUCN evaluation document and the fact that the safari trucks here are clearly marked ‘Parc National du Delta du Saloum – Reserve de Fathala’ I believe that we were within the core zone of the World Heritage Site.
Calling Fathala a ‘forêt’ is a bit of a stretch. It was a stretch of straw-coloured scrub with stands of low trees scattered about – typical African dry savannah. The key conservation story here is that it is one of the last remaining homes to the Critically Endangered western giant eland (or ‘Lord Derby’s Eland' – Taurotragus derbianus derbianus). The giant eland is the largest of all antelopes and is separated into two separate subspecies, the eastern largely found from Cameroon through the Central African Republic and into South Sudan, and the western which is now found principally in Senegal and in the (World Heritage Site) Niokolo-Koba National Park away to the south east. And we were lucky enough to find some of these elands a couple of times. They are quite stately-looking creatures [photo] with huge dewlaps, attractively-striped hides and powerful spiral horns that resemble mining drills. We also found a white rhino: correction, we found the white rhino (there had been a pair but the male accidentally gored the female to death in the height of, ahem, amorous excitement). I had been very excited about seeing my first ever rhino in the wild. In the end it was a bit of an anti-climax – it was standing at a widening of the track where a huge pile of hay was being forked from the back of a truck. It was in no way an impromptu or unexpected encounter (unlike the giraffes – we were apparently the first visitors to spot the giraffes that day, hence Maria’s excitement).
And that serves as a good frame of reference for understanding what the Fathala Reserve is all about. It has a laudable aim in helping to protect one Critically Endangered species. But people are unlikely to visit just to tick off Lord Derby’s eland. And so success hinges on providing more of a classic ‘safari’ experience. The rhino was an import and we were informed that three more (one pregnant) would be shipped in later in the year. So too would some elephants. The Cape giraffes were likewise far from their usual home in South Africa. We also saw warthogs, buffalo, waterbuck and roan antelopes. IUCN, in their assessment, specifically criticised ‘the unscientific manner in which animals are being introduced’. There were however no predators wild in the park, understandable if you are aiming to grow numbers of a famously tasty herbivore. The whole experience was less ‘safari’ and more ‘safari park’ – which is perhaps fitting considering that the home of Lord Derby himself, Knowsley outside Liverpool, now operates as a safari park, a legacy of his own interest in sponsoring exhibitions to discover new species (and bring specimens back to his own private menagerie).
Fathala does not add anything to the Saloum Delta’s current inscription as a Cultural site. If Saloum had been inscribed as a Natural or Mixed site then actually its inclusion would make a kind of sense in widening out the key biome (riverine mangrove forests and delta islets) to a neighbouring complementary one (dry forest) – although even here it could be argued that this is the sort of protected area that would work wonderfully as a Buffer. The site was proposed under Natural Criteria as well as Cultural, but the Natural elements were (quite harshly) rejected by IUCN. They argued that the most significant species in the Delta du Saloum was the red colobus monkey (we saw none here – but plenty rollicking around our hotel back in The Gambia). Officially the Natural criteria have been referred pending more studies on bird life but I have not been able to find anything to suggest this work is progressing. The inclusion of Fathala is, sadly, a relic of a failed Natural nomination that has somehow managed to get bundled up with a successful Cultural nomination to which it adds nothing.
That being said, the trip was enjoyable, and it does provide a rather sanitised introduction to the safari experience for those who can only afford a package tour to West Africa rather than the classic East African experience. For me the best part was actually the journey there and back. Even though we did not venture into the heart of the delta, Jarek is correct when he says that the only way to reach here is by boat – certainly if you are coming from the resort strip south of the River Gambia. The Banjul-Barra ferry is perhaps my favourite memory of a week in The Gambia. We crammed on as foot passengers, our olive and khaki wardrobe choices contrasting with the rainbow hues of everyone else’s clothes, hundreds of people as brightly coloured as a tube of Smarties, flowing around dusty trucks whose cabs were painted with flags and whose windscreens were thick with images of holy men. We found a bench and squeezed in between a man in a plum-coloured salwar kameez and skull cap and a distinguished older gentleman wearing a crisp white ‘Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue’ shirt (complete with epaulettes). Women circulated through the throng, trays balanced on their heads, offering sealed bags of water, orange cordial and cakes. To seaward overloaded pirogues set off from palm-shaded fishing villages offering a cheaper, quicker and more risky alternative to the ferry. Now this was an outstanding cultural experience.
World Heritage-iness: 0.5 (of the Fathala element)
My Experience: 4 (principally for the journey to get there)
(Visited January 2013)
Some practical info (site visited in April, 2018). The best place to start exploration of the area is a small town of Toubacouta (frequent local buses or sept-place from Kaolack, main road Kaolack - Karang - Gambian border is a basic transportation artery from Senegal to Gambia). Toubacouta has some descent number of hotels / hostels, shops, restaurants so its an ideal base for visiting the area.
The only way to reach Saloum Delta is to take a boat. There are usual two types of trips offered by local people: southbound trip from Toubacouta to Sipo village (typical Delta village located on artificial mounds made of millions of shells). In the village - around 30 huts you can visit any place as well as buy local products (honey, souvenirs). Trip include visiting some canals with mangrove vegetation as well as local birds.
Another trip is a northbound one to the place called "Ile au coquillages diorum". It is also an artificial island made of shells but much higher that Sipo. It also looks much older as there are baobabs trees that seems to be several hundred years old. The island is currently uninhabited. There are some hiking paths (unmarked)
Both trips costs 15.000 CFA each and takes 3-4 hours depending on the time spent in the village / island. During the trips you should have your own protection against the sun (boats are uncovered). Take also plenty of water and some food with you.
Comparing to other places in Senegal it is one of the most interesting area and relatively unchanged. People still rely on fishing and ostrige collection, transportation is done by boats, huts are built from local materials (wood, straw, clay). Mounds made of shells are quite impresive and high.
We had our hotel in Toubakouta in the Saloum Delta. From there we did a bird walk along the river. Also a boat trip in the evening to see the birds come back to their sleeping place.
2011 Advisory Body overruled
IUCN recommended no inscription - did not meet any natural criteria - should go for Ramsar/World Biosphere instead. ICOMOS were ok with cultural inscription. Some WHC members supported IUCN, some (e.g SA, Egy) wanted referral, some wanted deferral. Secret ballot 11 against 10 was in favour of referring the Natural nomination for more studies on Bird life.
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