Senegal / The Gambia
Birds of extraordinary color and variety find homes everywhere in these westernmost African countries that are an ecological crossroads between the vast arid Sahara and humid equatorial tropics. With them are some of the largest mammals on the continent.
Senegal, about one and one-half times the size of England, touches the southern Sahara on its north, becomes gradually greener as it’s crossed by three river systems, and finally is covered with tropical vegetation in the south. It is divided in a slash two-thirds down by tiny Gambia (The Gambia) which has been a separate entity since colonial days when it was a British protectorate surrounded by French territory.
Shorebirds in the millions literally cover coastal marshes in spring and fall—plovers, sandpipers, curlews, whimbrels, godwits—probing intertidal mudflats for worms and crustaceans to fuel migration flights between far northern breeding grounds and winter homes to the south.
Long-legged Goliath herons five feet (1.5 m) tall stalk shallow marine estuaries. Jewel-like malachite kingfishers dive for minnows. Delicate rust-colored African jacanas—“Jesus birds”— trip with splayed toes atop floating vegetation. Peach-breasted Egyptian plovers, called crocodile birds for their reported habit of cleaning crocodiles’ teeth, look for grasshoppers along pond edges and fields where crowned cranes with golden spray-crests peer over tasseled savannah grasses.
Every possible ecological opportunity is exploited.
Beautiful violet turacos pluck ripe fruit in forest gloom. Enterprising little honeyguides enlist badgers and sometimes humans to break open beehives which they share, feeding on larvae and eggs while their followers get the honey.
At night silent-winged owls take flight—12 species, from diminutive scops owls to Pel’s fishing owls and massive eagle-owls over two feet (65 cm) long—preying on everything from small lizards and mice to fish and roosting birds.
In hotel gardens exquisite red-cheeked cordon-bleus flit about shrubbery. Yellow-crowned gonoleks feed on lawns. Red-billed firefinches scrounge seeds at grain stores. Over clearings and roadways graceful scissor-tailed kites—called “white angels”—hover and handsome bateleur eagles teeter as if trying to keep their balance (“bateleur” is French for tightrope walker)—a few of some 660 bird species.
Among more than 80 mammal species are some of the largest lions anywhere—almost 10 feet (2.9 m) long from head to tail-tip—lording it over the savannah, with the world’s largest antelopes, giant Lord Derby’s elands weighing up to a ton, chestnut with vertical white stripes and massive V-shaped horns.
In rocky outcrops crested (or brush-tailed) porcupines share lairs with 18-inch (45-cm) rock hyrax, undersized relatives of elephants. Desert foxes or fennecs adapt to drier places with rare addax, beautiful white antelopes with great twisted horns. Chimpanzees are here with waterbucks, bushbucks, gazelles, antelopes, spotted and striped hyenas, civets, and a few golden cats and wild dogs, along with elephants, buffalo, leopards—nearly all the great animals typical of African forest, bush and veld.
The first national park was created here in 1925 under French rule. Now Senegal has 11 wildlife reserves including three U.N. Biosphere Reserves, two World Heritage Sites and four Ramsar wetlands classed as of world importance. With forest set-asides they cover over 11 percent of the country. The Gambia has six national parks and reserves covering 3.7 percent, with more planned.
More about the Reserves in senegal / The Gambia
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