14 March 2024

Exploring Namibia's underwater world: A journey with the NaRaS project

 by Arariky S. Shikongo

Arariky Shikongo working with the NaRaS team, February 2024. © Ruth H. Leeney. 

Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surface of Namibia's only marine protected area? In 2022, the Namibia's Rays and Sharks (NaRaS) project launched the first-ever attempt to document the diversity of shark, skate and ray species inhabiting the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area (NIMPA). Using Baited Remote Underwater Video systems (BRUVs), the NaRaS team lowered cameras to the seafloor, capturing video footage of marine life and providing valuable insights into the underwater ecosystem.

I joined the NaRaS team in February 2024, for their fourth fieldtrip to the NIMPA. At sea, my job each day ranged from setting up the video equipment to crushing the sardine bait and filling bait canisters, to deploying and retrieving the BRUVs (lowering and hauling the equipment by hand, over the side of the boat). Manoeuvring the boat and retrieving the equipment by hand became more challenging in rough seas, but the team had a shared sense of purpose and with each new day, we worked together more effectively. The true highlight, however, was the footage captured by our equipmentscenes of majestic sharks, vibrant fish, and colourful seabeds unfolding before our eyes. The footage collected so far includes recordings of dark shysharks, tope (also called soupfin sharks), sevengill cowsharks, biscuit skates and numerous fish species like hottentots and gurnards. These discoveries, coupled with observations of various habitat types including kelp forests, seaweed gardens and rocky reefs dotted with sponges and sea stars, paint a vivid picture of the rich biodiversity within the NIMPA. 

Venturing into the NIMPA left a lasting impression on me. Working in this vast and little-studied marine environment made me realise how crucial future management efforts will be. There has not, to date, been an active management plan in place for the NIMPA, but the Namibia Nature Foundation has been working alongside the Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to develop one and ensure its implementation. The NaRaS project's research findings have fed into this management plan, and many of the sharks and skates documented as part of the project’s research have been listed in the plan, as focal species for future protection and monitoring. The NaRaS project’s use of research techniques never before used in Namibia, such as BRUVs, has also proven their usefulness and viability for longer-term monitoring of the NIMPA. The promise of future protection for this expansive MPA fills me with hope.

Arariky Shikongo prepares a BRUV system for deployment, whilst Finlay Bell prepares the bait. © Ruth H. Leeney.

On days when the famously strong Lüderitz winds prevented us from working at sea, we visited some primary schools in the town. We showed students the NaRaS project’s short educational film, and left copies of the educational materials produced by the project. We quizzed them on their own knowledge of sharks and on what they had learned from the short film, and answered their questions about sharks as best we could! We were delighted by the many students who shared stories about fishing experiences with their parents and displayed impressive knowledge about sharks, including species not found in Namibian waters. Engaging with these learners further emphasised for me the importance of education and community involvement in marine conservation. Their enthusiasm for and knowledge about our oceans reaffirmed my belief in the value of empowering young minds to safeguard the ocean.

School students in Namibia learning about threatened sharks, skates and rays from an educational poster produced by the NaRaS project. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to marine conservation efforts through my time with the NaRaS project. This journey has expanded my understanding of the ocean's importance and instilled in me a deeper sense of responsibility towards preserving it for future generations. Exploring Namibia's underwater world with the NaRaS project has been a transformative experience - one that has inspired me to advocate for the protection of our oceans and the invaluable life they harbour. My hope is that we continue to work together to safeguard these precious ecosystems for generations to come.

The NaRaS project is supported by the Shark Conservation Fund.
Our BRUVs work is conducted in collaboration with SAIAB's Marine Remote Imagery Platform research group.

Find us on Instagram: @namibia_sharks 

15 May 2023

Discovering the secret lives of Namibia's sharks and rays

by Hayley Brand 

Sharks, skates and rays, collectively known as elasmobranchs, are a critical part of a healthy and balanced ecosystem. However, overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction and lack of knowledge are placing many species of elasmobranch at risk and worldwide, populations are declining. Little is known about the elasmobranchs that occur off Namibia’s coastline but if we want to protect them, we need to learn more about their lives, such as where they live, where they breed and their movement patterns. But how can we learn these things if we can’t see them or physically follow them around? 

For the first time the Namibia’s Rays and Sharks (NaRaS) project is using a method called passive acoustic telemetry to track the movements of elasmobranchs within the Namibian Islands Marine Protected (NIMPA) just off Lüderitz. Acoustic transmitters (also called tags) have been inserted under the skin of several sharks and skates by an experienced and authorised tagger, Dr. Matthew Parkinson, from the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). The procedure was overseen by Namibian veterinarian Dr. Andrea Klingelhöffer.
Matthew Parkinson and Ruth Leeney prepare to tag a bluntnose guitarfish. Tagging authorised under NCRST permit RCIV00012021 and authorised by the Namibian Veterinary Council.

Each tag emits a unique sound pattern, a bit like morse code, giving each tagged shark a unique identity. The NaRaS team have deployed four acoustic receivers in the NIMPA, where they are suspended in the water column (but anchored to the seafloor), ready to detect a tagged animal when it swims within range. When a tagged animal swims close enough, a receiver will record the unique identity of that tag, as well as the time and date that it was detected. After about 6 months, the receivers need fresh batteries, so they are retrieved from the depths, allowing us to replace the batteries and download the data. Fortunately, we don’t have to dive into the cold Benguela waters to retrieve them - a remotely triggered device releases the receiver from the anchor allowing it to float to the surface.

A whitespootted smoothhound (left) and biscuit skate (right) tagged by the NaRaS team in February 2023. (c) NaRaS.

The aim of this work is to assess whether tagging can be an effective long-term monitoring method for sharks, skates and rays in the NIMPA. This work will also give us insight into how some of Namibia’s elasmobranchs are using the country’s only marine protected area. The data collected will eventually contribute to a monitoring and management strategy for elasmobranchs as part of the broader NIMPA management plan. For the first time in Namibia, the NaRaS team tagged elasmobranchs with acoustic tags in February 2023. Several bluntnose guitarfish and biscuit skates were tagged, as well as two white spotted smoothhounds. All three of these species have rarely been tagged before (only one whitespotted smoothhound has been tagged in South Africa to date, and no bluntnose guitarfish), so the results of this study will, we hope, provide unique information on the lives of these species and how they move inside the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area. We will return to Lüderitz in July to download the data from our receivers and re-deploy them. We are looking forward to sharing what we learn from the first 6 months of tracking data – keep an eye on our social media channels for updates! 

We are grateful to our collaborators at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity for their support of our acoustic tracking work. 
The NaRaS project is supported by the Shark Conservation Fund.

27 April 2023

An interview with Mabuta Simataa

Mabuta Simataa is the first Namibian Masters student to study sharks and rays in Namibian waters. He has a BSc in Fisheries Science from the University of Namibia, and is now collecting data for his MSc research project with the Namibia’s Rays and Sharks (NaRaS) project.


You're doing your Masters research with the NaRaS project. Can you tell us what you are researching?

We are assessing the biodiversity of chondrichthyan species in the Namibian Island Marine Protected Area (NIMPA) using stereo-Baited Remote Underwater Video systems (called BRUVs for short). What this means is that we are trying to document the different types of species of sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras (collectively called ‘chondrichthyans’) found within the NIMPA. The data we collect will help us to describe the biodiversity of sharks and their relatives at various sites within the NIMPA and describe their species distribution.

Mabuta (right) hauls up a BRUVs from the seafloor, assisted by Angus van Wyk from SAIAB. © Ruth H. Leeney. 

Tell us a little about BRUVs- what kind of information do they collect and why are they useful?

Stereo-BRUVs consist of two cameras inside waterproof housings, attached to a base-bar and encased within a frame with a baited container in front of the cameras. Our BRUVs are lowered to the seafloor and are left recording for 60 minutes. The footage is then used to assess the recorded the habitat in that area and the many marine species using that habitat – of course we are mostly interested in the sharks! Stereo-BRUVs are a non-extractive method, meaning they have little impact on the area being studied and therefore there are an ideal sampling platform to use in a marine protected area.

A BRUVs ready to be deployed in the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area. © Ruth H. Leeney. 

What did your BRUVs fieldwork in Lüderitz involve?

The BRUVs field work involved waking up early in the morning and heading out to sea. We put assembled our BRUVs while on the boat, attaching the metal legs to each frame, putting mashed sardines in each bait container and closing it up. We then lowered each BRUVs down to the seafloor. Once we had deployed all three BRUVs, the rest of our day involved navigating the boat to pickup each BRUVs after it had been on the seafloor for 60 minutes, changing the memory cards, camera & light batteries, and redeploying the BRUVs again at a different location. We had to haul the BRUVs up to the boat by hand, without a winch on the boat to help us. That’s not so bad when it’s only in 7 metres of water, but requires a lot more effort in the places where we worked in water that was 30 metres deep! When we got home we then had to clean all our equipment, charge all the batteries for our cameras and lights, and start downloading and entering data from the day’s work. This makes for long days of work that is at times both physically and mentally demanding!

What did you enjoy most about the BRUVs fieldwork?

What I enjoyed the most about the BRUVs field work is being at sea and deploying the BRUVs. With each deployment we did, it gave me a feeling of being closer and closer to seeing what goes on down under the waves. The whole process requires teamwork and concentration, and I enjoyed working with the entire team.

And what did you find the most challenging about the fieldwork?

The most challenging activity would have to be downloading and entering data on the metadata sheet. After a long day at sea, you’re exhausted and feeling nauseated, but the data entry requires extra attention and patience, to make sure that you enter the right values in the right places.

Do you feel you have learnt any useful skills from your experience in Lüderitz?

Yes I have, I have learned how to analyse the video footage we collected. The software even allows us to measure the length of the sharks we see in the footage. I also learned the value of value of teamwork, whenever there was a task to complete, there was always someone there to help you out.

What interesting things have you seen so far on the BRUVs footage?

I have seen a lot of dark shysharks on the footage - apparently they are not camera shy! They are one of Namibia’s smallest shark species, totally harmless but beautifully patterned. I have also seen lots of crayfish, a biscuit skate, and a sevengill cowshark. We even saw seals on the footage, I can’t wait to go through the rest of the footage to see what we captured.

A dark shyshark from the coastal waters near Luderitz. © Andrea Klingelhoeffer. 

What would you like the Namibian public to know about this kind of work and why it is important? 

This kind of work is done to better understand our marine environment. It is only through this kind of research that we can come up with management plans for the amazing underwater habitats and species which are so important for the health of our ocean. It is important to protect this, so future generations of Namibians can enjoy and benefit from the sea.

But also, the footage we have collected is a great way to engage people because they can literally see for the first time what it looks like underwater, and they can see the different shapes and sizes and funny facial expressions of the different sharks and rays that live there.

Stereo-BRUVs work is conducted in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. 

The NaRaS project is funded by the Sharks Conservation Fund, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.



Introducing: The Namibia's Rays and Sharks project

 by Ruth H. Leeney

Bluntnose guitarfish. Illustration by Alexis Aronson. 

I have neglected this blog for a long time, but have revived it in order to share some updates on a new project in Namibia. 

Almost nothing is know about chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras) in Namibian waters. The Namibia's Rays and Sharks project (NaRaS) is the first project of its kind in Namibia, aiming to collect much-needed baseline information on these species. Populations of many shark, skate and ray species are declining due to a huge array of threats, in particular bycatch (accidental capture) in small-scale and commercial fisheries, and overfishing of shark and ray species that are often targeted for their fins. 

The NaRaS project also aims to educate the public, both in Namibia and internationally, about sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras - their amazing diversity and beauty, and the important roles they play in keeping life in the ocean in balance. All of us rely on the ocean in some way - for our jobs, for food, or simply because plankton in the ocean produces around half of all the oxygen in the air we breathe! We will be producing posters, an educational film and an identification guide to Namibia's chondrichthyans, giving public presentations and interactive lessons in schools. 

A close-up of a bluntnose guitarfish's eye. (c) Melanie Honiball. 

Stay tuned for updates on all our activities, and to learn more about the amazing creatures under Namibia's waves. 

Our project is funded by the Sharks Conservation Fund, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers. 

10 June 2016

A window to the lost world of West African sawfishes

Between 1974 and 1975, Nigel Downing conducted what was probably the only in-depth research on live sawfishes in West Africa. A withdrawal in funding led to his project being abruptly terminated after only 18 months, and he switched to a laboratory-based research project in order to complete his PhD. Forty years later, I collaborated with him to resurrect some of the data he painstakingly collected in The Gambia and Senegal. Having myself spent much time in this region, searching for the now-elusive river monsters, his data brought to life a West Africa unknown to me – where rivers and coastal waters teemed with juvenile sawfishes. His stories have brought me closer to understanding what we have lost, both in West Africa and in other parts of the world.

Interview by Ruth Leeney. 

What were your research objectives in West Africa?
Dr. Jean Maetz, a French physiologist who ran a radio-isotope laboratory in the South of France, was keen to discover how elasmobranchs survived in fresh water. He proposed that I find suitable animals, catch them, look after them in captivity locally and then arrange the transport of about 20 by air to his laboratory. Then I would work with him using radioisotopes to study the flux of water and ions in and out of the fish under experimental conditions. This last part I never achieved.

Where did the idea for the project come from?
As an undergraduate student, in a lecture on osmotic and ionic physiology, I was informed that cartilagenous fish were stenohaline - unable to tolerate wide variations in salinity. While there are teleosts (bony fish) that can move from sea water to fresh water and vice versa, salmon being the best-known example, we were told that elasmobranchs were restricted to the sea. However, I knew otherwise. As a young boy in South Africa I was well aware of the Zambezi shark (bull shark), which had been held responsible for a spate of attacks off the Durban beaches in the 1960s. I even remember an ambulance arriving to pick up a shark attack victim off a beach where we used to swim. I also knew that this shark penetrated rivers and had frequently been observed in fresh water. Further, I had spent several months working at the Oceanographic Research Institute at the Durban Aquarium before going up to university, and knew that sawfish were also found in rivers as well as the sea.

Three things therefore compelled me to do this project: I really liked sharks; field work was my thing; and I was curious to find out how euryhaline elasmobranchs controlled their salt and water balance (osmoregulated) as they moved between salt and fresh water.

Were you aware that sawfishes were present in you study areas when you first started the project in The Gambia and Senegal?
My initial plan was to head back to South Africa, use the Durban Aquarium facilities and collect from the rivers and estuaries of Zululand, but that fell through. Dr. Maetz said he had heard there were sawfish in West Africa and so, as a result of hearsay, I ended up working between The Gambia and Senegal, both of which proved to be excellent places to capture bull sharks and sawfishes. By that point I had realised, from my time at the Durban Aquarium, that keeping bull sharks alive and healthy in captivity was going to be far more difficult than looking after sawfishes. The latter can happily spend hours on the bottom using their spiracles to ventilate, whilst bull sharks needed to keep swimming. For that reason, sawfishes became my primary study species. 

This adult male Largetooth Sawfish, 4.5 m in length, was landed by a fisherman in October 1975. (c) Nigel Downing.

Can you paint a picture of your fieldwork and day-to-day activities in The Gambia and Senegal?
I was based in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of Dakar (the Senegalese capital), at a French laboratory. However, I set out for the field very early on to establish where best to find the fish I needed. I discounted the Senegal River from the outset, and investigated most of the Gambia River in Senegal (by road) and in The Gambia (by road and by boat). Finally, I established two field bases in the Casamance, in southern Senegal. Sawfish appeared to be more numerous in the Casamance River and it was an easier place in which to work, and since I was based at a French research station, it made sense to do my fieldwork in Senegal too. 

Initially, my main priority was to find out where, when and how to catch small sawfishes. They can grow to several metres in length, and for obvious reasons I needed them neonatal-size, preferably. Once I had located them, the next phase was to keep them in captivity, locally. Thiaroye and the Casamance are miles apart, and there were no holding facilities at either place. So I had to build tanks and equip them with water circulation and filtration systems in Thiaroye, and pens along the river in which to hold recently-caught sawfish. Finally there was the issue of transporting them from the pens in the south of Senegal to the tanks up in the north. All of this took me six months, and I had only been given eight months in which to get the fish to France! I was given an extension to collect again in 1975, and with all the infrastructure and logistics firmly in place, I conducted an intensive sampling season in the Casamance River. 
Nigel placing a sawfish in a holding pen.

A typical day in the field went something like this: I got up well before dawn, left the empty classroom where I slept at a mission station and went to pick up the local fisherman, Timothé, who helped me with all my work in the Casamance. We would go back to the classroom, cook and wolf down huge bowls of porridge, washed down with cups of tea or hot chocolate. We then made our way to the river by car with all the equipment:  fuel, transport tank, net, syringes, portable centrifuge, battery, ice and much more. The boat was dragged into the water, engine attached, all the equipment was loaded in and we made our way to the river mouth. The net was set… and we waited. If anything was snagged in the net, we knew it and went to retrieve the animal immediately. If it was a sawfish, one of us held it firmly in the water while the other patiently disentangled the rostrum from the net. This could sometimes take up to 20 minutes to achieve. The animal was sexed, measured, and sometimes a blood sample taken. The animal was put into the transport tank and the water circulation system switched on. If another animal had been caught meanwhile, we would retrieve that one too. Then we had to dash to the holding pen to release the sawfish, before heading back to continue netting.
At the end of the day the net was retrieved and repaired by Timothé if necessary, while I took care of the boat and loaded up the equipment for the next day. I wrote my notes up by gas-light, cooked myself a meal and fell into bed, exhausted. The days were long and tiring.

By July of 1975 I had a holding pen in the river filled with 15 small sawfish. As I was preparing to transport them north, I was told that lightening had struck my tanks, and the research vessel that was to transport them had broken down. I released all the sawfish back in to the river, and headed back to my base in Thiaroye. Not yet defeated, I was able to arrange for the French Airforce to send a Nord Atlas transport aircraft to Ziguinchor (such things were possible in those days!), and in October 1975 I successfully transported six small sawfish by air to the tanks in Thiaroye, where they thrived. Despite this eventual success and the enormous effort I had invested, the project’s funding was withdrawn in December of the same year, and I returned to the UK, immensely sad and rather despondent. 

Adult female Largetooth Sawfish landed in The Gambia, 1975. (c) Nigel Downing.

You took a remarkable photograph of an adult female sawfish that was landed on a beach in the Gambia. Can you describe the experience of seeing that animal being landed?
I was very excited. Only a few days before I had helped collect an equally large female at Niani Maru, several hundred kilometres up the River Gambia and in fresh water. Now here was one taken in the sea not far from the river mouth, and she was pregnant with 15 young. It is such a shame that she had not delivered them, and I felt overwhelmed to witness all those baby sawfish so near to term, all out of the one huge female. I could only suppose that she too was about to make the journey upstream, and to deliver her young. Instead, in no time at all she was reduced to chunks of meat, ready to be dried, then to be bagged up and exported to Ghana.
The pups from a pregnant sawfish landed in The Gambia.

Forty years on, sawfishes are in danger of extinction throughout much of the world, and many may even have been extirpated from the areas where you saw so many of them. How does that make you feel?
I don’t wish to be too morbidly philosophical, but I believe very strongly that we are stewards of the world we live in and we are doing a pretty poor job of looking after it. The loss of the sawfish is global, with the exception of a couple of places where they are properly protected (Florida and Western Australia). I am sad that sawfish are probably no longer present in significant numbers West Africa. In other parts of the world, their recovery will depend on credible and guaranteed protection being put in place, which may be too much to ask for in some places.
The fishing net and motorised boats have been the demise of the sawfish in West Africa. Although they may now fetch a good price largely because of their fins, back in the 1970s the fishermen did not particularly like catching sawfish. They were not valued as fresh food, and they made a huge mess of their nets.

What influence did your time in West Africa, working on sawfishes, have on the rest of your life, your interests or attitudes?
Overwhelmingly I feel a sense of privilege. I have to pinch myself sometimes to realise what I experienced and witnessed some 40 years ago. The experience of working largely alone and undertaking the task I did certainly formed me, and I would never trade it for anything, tough though it was at times.

Nigel’s description of the time he spent studying sawfishes in West Africa provides a solemn and somewhat dramatic contrast to the present day and highlights the almost complete loss of these extraordinary creatures from the coasts and rivers of Senegal, the Gambia and many other West African countries over just a few decades. I hope, however, that his story will inspire others, as it has me, to seek out and protect any remaining sawfish populations in far-flung corners of the world, lest they too meet the same fate.

This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of the Save Our Seas Foundation magazine: http://www.saveourseasmagazine.com/west-african-sawfishes-window-lost-world/

A blog post on how the sawfish specimens Nigel brought back to the UK are being used for contemporary sawfish research and conservation: http://saveourseas.com/update/the-ghosts-of-sawfish-past/ 

03 April 2016

The Ghosts of Sawfish Past

I never thought that a few days working in a museum would inspire me. The quiet, ordered presentation of the natural world in a setting locked away from the elements has always lacked what I love most about research and wildlife: being outside, in wild places; the excitement of searching for and eventually seeing live animals; observing and documenting those experiences. Fieldwork is, for me, the most meaningful part of biological research because it is a process of discovery – of the natural behaviour of animals, of the ways in which the fate of animals, habitats and human communities are linked, and of my own strengths and limitations.

A handful of rostra (saws) from young Largetooth Sawfish collected from the Gambia River in 1974. (c) Ruth H. Leeney.
But sitting in the basement of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, I became immersed in a different type of discovery. It was like opening a long-lost, dusty volume filled with stories of expeditions through West Africa. Not from hundreds of years ago, but nonetheless a different era in terms of sawfish populations – the 1970s. What a difference forty years can make

Nigel Downing putting a sawfish into a holding tank, 1975. (c) N. Downing.
In 1974 and 1975, Dr. Nigel Downing conducted a study of sawfishes in the Casamance and Gambia Rivers, in Senegal and The Gambia respectively. He worked in collaboration with local fishermen, asking them to bring him any sawfishes they caught. Back then, sawfishes were no more than a nuisance to local fishers – they entangled and damaged their fishing nets, and had little value at market. They caught a great many, especially during the rainy season when there was clearly an abundance of pups (juvenile sawfish) in both rivers. The fishers usually kept only the rostra (saws), sending the meat to Ghana where dried shark and ray meat was, and still is, popular (international trade in sawfish parts has only been prohibited since 2013). When Nigel’s project was brought to an abrupt close, he was able to bring over 40 sawfish rostra back to Cambridge, where they have since lain unnoticed. Until now. 

Before me were four wooden drawers holding carefully-wrapped layers of tissue paper, which I folded back to reveal bundles of rostra from very young sawfishes.  I have never seen so many sawfish rostra all together in one place. On some, the skin still had a golden iridescence, while others were still encrusted with river mud or bore a solitary glittering fish scale, impaled on a needle-sharp tooth; they seemed like a collection of careworn Christmas decorations. In these museum drawers lie the relics of a time when sawfish saws could be collected by the handful and were worn on the headdresses of the Bijago people of Guinea-Bissau, or placed on the roofs of houses in The Gambia and Senegal to protect families from evil spirits. One of nature's most decadently-decorated animals, and the traditions it inspired, now only a fading memory in most West African societies

In the stillness of the museum’s basement, where all is clean, carefully stored and climate-controlled, I felt a million miles from the dust, mud, burning sun, clamour and stench of fish markets and the general sensory overload that comes hand-in-hand with my usual fieldwork in Africa. But as I eyed the museum treasures, I was transported back in time to a different West Africa: one where rivers teemed with baby sawfish. Fishermen in Guinea-Bissau had described to me how, years ago, they went to the beach at night and speared small sawfish in the shallows by the light of their torch flames. Holding the miniature saws of young sawfish in my hands, I imagined and wondered at such a scene of abundance – a scene that exists no more. 
Juvenile Largetooth Sawfish caught in The Gambia in the 1970s. (c) Nigel Downing.
Nonetheless, these ‘Ghosts of Sawfish Past’ can reveal stories never before documented. Although sawfishes disappeared from much of the West African coast several decades ago (we’re still not sure where, if anywhere, in West Africa they remain), museum collections can tell us much. Which species lived in the Gambia River and which in the Casamance River? Were they closely related to the sawfish found on the other side of the Atlantic, in Florida and the Bahamas, or were they different? Did sawfishes from these two rivers move large distances along the West African coastline, or did they stay close to the areas where they were born? Genetic analysis of the dried cartilage from sawfish saws is now possible, and will answer some of these questions. It may also help researchers to understand whether sawfish populations might be able to recover in West Africa or if, once gone, they are gone forever. I’ll soon be heading back to the mangroves and coasts to continue my search for Africa’s last sawfishes, but with a new respect for the invaluable role museums can play in providing a window to the past. Knowing what has been lost in West Africa, can we redouble our efforts to protect the sawfish populations that remain, before they meet a similar fate? 

Many thanks to Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at UMZC for facilitating access to the collection and to Save Our Seas Foundation for funding my visit to the museum. 
This blog post was originally published on the Save Our Seas Foundation website: http://saveourseas.com/update/the-ghosts-of-sawfish-past/