"You’re going to turn my house into a zoo!" Papa Diagne used to say as his tiny garden in Dakar was filled with chickens, snakes and a menagerie of other animals collected by his 12-year-old son, Tomas. "He was not keen on the idea," Tomas now recalls. "The animals made a mess, and I was neglecting my studies."
Today, Tomas Diagne, aged 30, is well known throughout West Africa and abroad as a dedicated, perceptive and energetic conservationist. "I am originally a city boy, and should have been interested in cars, not animals," he explains. But as a boy he used to wake up early each morning to listen to the birds in the local park before going to school.
Later, when his father bought a farm in Sangalkam, 35 kilometres northeast of Dakar, Tomas spent his school holidays in the bush. "I’d gather lots of specimens and bring them back to the house to study them. At first I was interested in snakes, but one day I came across some tortoises."
He had in fact collected Geochelone sulcata, the African spurred tortoise. Searching for information about sulcata, he came across an article by Bernard Devaux, a French tortoise specialist.
"I sent him photographs of the tortoises, and he wrote back telling me that this species was highly endangered," Diagne recalls. "I felt that this was tragic, and I wanted to do something to protect them." Tomas Diagne’s future was determined by that wish.
In 1992, with only three tortoises, Diagne set up a sulcata sanctuary on his father’s farm in Sangalkam. He wanted to establish a tortoise village modelled on the Village des Tortues set up by Devaux in the south of France. The following year, with help from Devaux, Diagne established S.O.S. Sulcata, a project aimed at collecting tortoises and breeding them at Sangalkam.
Using radio broadcasts, Diagne raised awareness of S.O.S. Sulcata, and the public began donating their pet tortoises. Diagne also persuaded the government to allow tortoises seized by customs in Europe to be repatriated to Senegal and sent to Sangalkam. In 1997, Diagne opened the village to the public. "I had a lot of success with the radio, and I saw that my father’s farm would not be big enough, so I started looking for a larger piece of land."
Devaux encouraged Diagne, suggesting he contact the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) office in Senegal, which in turn urged Diagne to visit the Protected Forest of Noflaye, not far from his father’s farm. "The director at that time was Patrick Bouland," remembers Diagne. "He took me to see the reserve — it was the first step in setting up the [new] village." The next task was to obtain permission from the government to use part of the reserve for the project.
Abdoulaye Kane, then director of Senegal’s Department of Water and Forests, and now head of IUCN Senegal, was a key ally. "It took me some time to convince him," Diagne says, "but once he was convinced, he was like a father to me — it was as if he adopted me."
In 1997, Diagne gained permission to use 15 hectares of reserve land. Devaux’s organisation, SOPTOM, made a cash gift to allow work to begin. A well was sunk and a 2km fence was built around the land to protect the vegetation from the local zebu herds.
In 1998, Tomas Diagne was selected as an Associate Laureate in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, and the following year the European Union approved a grant of €152,000. "The Rolex Award helped secure the funding," Diagne comments. "It was like a recommendation." Work on the village went ahead, and the Noflaye Tortoise Village opened on 17 March 2001. "The new village was planned to receive large numbers of visitors without disturbing the tortoises," Diagne explains. "It has room for 3,000 tortoises, while the old one only had space for 800."
Part of Noflaye’s success is due to its location on what Diagne calls the "tourist trail", between Rufisque and Lake Rose, the finishing point for the Paris-Dakar Rally. Giant silver-grey baobab trees dominate the landscape, towering over a patchwork of thorny bush and bare, ochre-coloured earth.
The village is a cluster of thatched buildings. "The main building has offices, an exhibition hall and accommodation," explains Diagne. "It is dedicated to Théodore Monod, the first naturalist to study Noflaye’s wildlife."
The tortoises are kept in enclosures with log fences typical of those used in Senegal for cattle. "One of the unique things about sulcata," says Diagne, "is that they burrow dens to protect themselves from heat in the dry season and in cold nights during the rainy season." A concrete wall has been sunk a metre into the earth around the adult enclosure to prevent underground escapes. In the wild the tortoises retreat into tunnels during the dry season where they undergo a form of hibernation.
Between October and April the foreign tourists arrive, in particular Germans and French-speaking Europeans. "On the weekends, many people come from Dakar," says Diagne. "I’m delighted that they know about the village and that they are interested in nature." Local schools bring busloads of children. The entrance fee is €4.60 for foreigners and €0.80 for Senegalese. "We received 4,500 visitors in its first year," says Diagne.
Mating takes place all year round, but especially after the rainy season when jousts between males competing for females can be fatal. Males have a hook-like outgrowth of shell below their necks which they use to overturn their opponent. Once on its back, a tortoise cannot right itself. "In the village we can help them," explains Diagne, "but in the wild they die from heat exposure."
Protecting the Young
Females usually lay two batches of 14 to 21 eggs between December and April. Roughly the size of table-tennis balls, the eggs are buried 15cm in the earth. "Skunks and monitor lizards, or any animal with a good sense of smell will find them," says Diagne. So the eggs are collected immediately by his staff and buried in the "hatchery" where they are protected by wire mesh. "The eggs are not incubated by body heat like mammals or birds," he says. "They rely on the heat of the sun to develop so the incubation period depends on the weather." In hot years, eggs hatch after 2.5 months, but it can take up to four months in cooler years.
"The sex of the tortoise is determined by the temperature during incubation," Diagne explains. "The warmer eggs become male and the cooler ones female."
The hatchlings have extremely soft skin, and are vulnerable to predators. "In the wild only 1 per cent of hatchlings survive but here 80 per cent reach the adult stage." In 2001, 375 sulcata were born in the village.
Three-year-olds, digging their first dens, are moved to the juvenile enclosure. When they reach 3kg, at the age of four or five years, the tortoises learn to fend for themselves. "Away from the tourists, we have a large adaptation enclosure," says Diagne, "where the young learn to survive in the wild." The tortoises eat wild plants and have minimum human contact. Tortoises that have spent a long time in captivity are generally not capable of surviving in the wild. "They stay in the village for breeding," Diagne continues. But some escapees have managed to stay alive. "Sometimes I come across them in the reserve outside the village. I’m delighted to see that they can survive."
The Ultimate Goal
The village’s biggest tortoise is 46-year-old "Bill", weighing 96kg, a little lighter than the sulcata maximum male weight of about 100kg. Females are smaller, their maximum weight never passing 60kg. Seventy-year-old Sibille (40kg) is the village’s oldest denizen, but she is barely middle-aged for a species that can live for 150 years. Tomas Diagne’s favourite is Lat Dior named after Lat Dior Diop, a national hero who fought against the French in the 19th century. "He was the first large tortoise that we were given," says Diagne, "and he attacks people — he has no fear of man. For me, he symbolises his species’ fight for survival. I tell him that he can fight against humans, but he can’t win. I tell him I have another way for his species to survive."
The village is also home to six other species of tortoise and turtle — one terrestrial and five aquatic. The land tortoise is the West African hinged tortoise that lives in the forests of southern Senegal. Hinged tortoises can fold the rear section of the shell under their bodies for extra protection. The aquatic turtles include the Nile softshell and the Senegal softshell, covered in soft, leathery skin rather than rigid armour. These agile predators live on fish in big rivers. The other three species belong to the mud turtle family that inhabits sluggish, muddy rivers and marshes.
"The reintroduction of sulcata into the wild is our ultimate aim," says Diagne. "All our work here is orientated towards that goal." Noflaye sulcata will be reintroduced to the Ferlo, the Sahel region in northeast Senegal. But much work needs to be carried out before sulcata can be returned to its natural habitat. "We need to ensure that they will be able to survive," says Diagne. This will mean undertaking research into the habitat, as well as ensuring that local people support the project. Diagne is working to raise the €76,000 necessary for the reintroduction programme.
The programme’s nucleus will be the Louggouré Tioli Special Reserve in the Ferlo region. In the 1990s, Diagne worked with IUCN and the Senegalese Directorate of National Parks to set up the nature reserve which would serve as a haven for sulcata as well as other Sahel species. Senegal’s president, Abdou Diouf, signed a decree in February 1999 creating the 2,600ha reserve and declaring that the reserve would protect the Sahel fauna, "particularly the tortoise Geochelone sulcata".
The need to protect Senegal’s wild sulcata has become an extremely urgent task. "There was a pocket of sulcata holding out in the northern Ferlo," reports Diagne, "but two years ago, there was a fire and the population dropped. Experts estimate that there are now only a total of 30 individuals left in the wild."
Conservation at Heart
Diagne has been asked to take in marine turtles from the Galapagos and the Seychelles, but he is adamant that the village is only for local land species. "There will never be more than the seven species of tortoise that are found in Senegal. I will not bring in any sensational species to attract tourists"
Five people are employed in the village, which also has accommodation for scientists and volunteers, including four volunteers from Europe currently working at Noflaye. "They write to me from abroad asking to come and work with us," says Diagne, "but there are so many, I have to turn them down."
The village aims to be fully self-financing within the first five years. "We now cover 70 per cent of our costs from entrance fees," the Rolex Associate Laureate says.
Diagne has been referred to as the "backbone" of the work to save the spurred tortoise. He is a member of IUCN’s Specialist Groups on Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles, and Marine Turtles. He is also responsible for the World Wildlife Fund’s African turtle work, coordinating field groups monitoring turtle nesting areas all over Africa.
But his interest in nature conservation goes far beyond tortoises. "People think that I am only interested in tortoises, but there is no one species that should take priority — it is the whole ecosystem that counts." Diagne, who describes himself as a "global naturalist", has received funding from the Total-Fina-Elf Foundation for a project to protect the mangroves of central Senegal and is preparing a project to save the baobab tree, Senegal’s national symbol.
Published in 2002