“W” National Park


Lordly elephants in some of Africa’s great herds browse among the trees in the Tapoa Valley, which cuts through vast wooded savannahs of a national park and U.N. World Heritage Site called simply “W” after the double-bend of the Niger River where Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso meet.

With them on freshening grasslands among the scrub move other hoofed grazers in great variety—white-striped bushbucks, sturdy African buffalo, lyre-horned kobs, frisky little redflanked and common duikers alongside Defassa waterbucks, reedbucks, slender, graceful oribi, roan antelopes, and swift red-fronted gazelles. After them come hartebeest and topi which get along on sparse fodder others leave behind, drinking water only every few days— all these prey for lions, leopards, and cheetahs.

During dry seasons hippos submerge in the river on warm days, only eyes and noses visible, and threatened Nile crocodiles bask on banks of the Mékrou River. Both the Mékrou and the Tapoa Rivers are bordered by riverine forests, with fast-flowing rapids through narrow valleys when rains have been plentiful. Downstream the valleys open to flatter terrain which, together with floodplains of the Niger River, create wetlands noted of world importance by the Ramsar Convention.

More than 80 mammal species include diurnal carnivores once thought locally extinct — spotted hyenas, common jackals, serval cats, fringe-eared caracals,and wild dogs—plus aardvarks and crested porcupines which snuffle along forest floors at any hour. Magnets for all these are dozens of water holes, both naturally occurring and scoured out for wildlife benefit.

Birds of more than 350 species find niches everywhere in these habitats covering almost 15,625 square miles (40,500 km2) shared by Niger with neighboring Benin and Burkina Faso in this wilderness virtually without human habitation.

Cackling guinea fowl and clucking francolins move through grasslands. Hornbills sail raucously among fruiting trees. Fish eagles scoop up meals in waterways. Long, fluting musical cries of chanting goshawks float down from tree lookouts in thorny scrub. They compete with baboon troops “yakking” strident warning if a predator appears (harsh growls are reserved for courtship).

Waterfowl share pond edges with long-legged shorebirds and waders—storks, ibises, egrets. Bright chestnut lily-trotters (aka African jacanas), trot nimbly over floating vegetation. Gray pratincoles rest on river sandbanks near where tawny Pel’s fishing owls hunt and, between January and June, colonies of brilliant northern carmine bee-eaters nest in burrows, especially along the narrow, steep-banked Mékrou. Migratory species from Europe and Asia are most common during October–April.

Threats include poaching, illegal grazing, and annual cattle migrations, plus uncontrolled bush fires, fishing, cultivation within park borders, and proposals for phosphate mining and damming of rivers (although the Niger Republique says these are unlikely to be approved due to lack of proper environmental impact study). Traditional hunting has little significant effect.

The park is open to visitors December–May, closed during rainy season. Niger (pronounced nee-zhé) is only country of the three sharing “W” where the park can be visited fairly easily, from headquarters at Tapoa, which gives access to 435 miles (700 km) of trails, with comfortable accommodations at the small Tapoa Hotel nearby. Tapoa is 93 miles (150 km) south of Niamey, which has international jet service and hotels where guides and transport can be arranged—best by rental car, via Say and Tamou, with a guide or organized group since public transport is reliable only part-way. Not all wildlife is easy to see in the bushy landscape of “W”, but a good variety can be spotted by a diligent visitor.

 Nile crocodiles, of a family thought to be the most intelligent reptiles on earth, are Africa’s largest, up to 20 feet (6 m) long, and weighing up to 1,600 pounds (726 kg). They can kill whatever comes to water, including wildebeest, pulling them under until they drown—but they can’t chew well, so sometimes don’t eat until victims start to rot and become more easily digestible. This one guards her nest, which may contain 60 eggs, vulnerable to raids by hyenas, monitor lizards or humans. After 80–90 days’ incubation, she may assist hatching by gently cracking eggs and carrying young to water, where they will be protected until they take off on their own.

Nile crocodiles, of a family thought to be the most intelligent reptiles on earth, are Africa’s largest, up to 20 feet (6 m) long, and weighing up to 1,600 pounds (726 kg). They can kill whatever comes to water, including wildebeest, pulling them under until they drown—but they can’t chew well, so sometimes don’t eat until victims start to rot and become more easily digestible. This one guards her nest, which may contain 60 eggs, vulnerable to raids by hyenas, monitor lizards or humans. After 80–90 days’ incubation, she may assist hatching by gently cracking eggs and carrying young to water, where they will be protected until they take off on their own.

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