Travel broadens the mind, so the saying goes and so I thought until recently. But in later life and from a personal perspective I am beginning to have my doubts.
Mark Twain famously wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 40 years ago I would have agreed with those words. But having had my eyes opened to new experiences by travel, and witnessed fellow travellers fail to open their own, I have become increasingly uncharitable towards people: well-meaning individuals yes, the human race in general much less so. These days as I increase my carbon footprint I notice common themes emerging when it comes to human impact on the environment, namely exploitative attitudes towards wildlife and a refusal to put biodiversity before personal gain. My mind may have been broadened but perspective has narrowed.
I have just come back from The Gambia, a country I first visited 28 years ago. A reunion took place in January 2019; at the time I reigned in my expectations but was pleasantly surprised both by the abundance of birdlife and the attitude of the locals I encountered, generally ones working in the tourism, birding and eco-tourism sectors. So I decided to return this October, partly to see and photograph birds in their breeding finery but also to scratch beneath the surface. I wanted to see whether this really was a nation living in harmony with its environment, and one where visitors from Europe respected both the culture and the wildlife.
The birdlife was still wonderful of course, and it is still a destination I would recommend to birders and bird photographers if your environmental conscience allows you to fly. But digging a little deeper what I found was a country that is beset by the same problems that face wildlife and biodiversity in the UK: problems driven by the desire for growth, and ranging from cynical indifference to exploitative greed. Fortunately, The Gambia has got a long way to go to catch up with the UK, which Sir David Attenborough describes as “one of the most nature-depleted places on the planet.” But it is showing worrying signs of heading in that direction.
Like most wildlife-orientated visitors to the country I employed the services of members of the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association, an excellent organisation that trains and marshals its guides, but also campaigns and actively promotes conservation. GBA does the best it can but its resources and influence are limited of course, especially when faced by the financial might of the tourist industry, and by comparison with environmental campaigning organisations in the UK.
The GBA has its base at Kotu Creek, a location on the coast that is flanked by nearby hotels and apartments. Three decades ago, the creek was contaminated and decidedly smelly, but GBA have done a great job of raising awareness of its environmental significance and in practical terms they have helped clean it up. However, their efforts are clearly not respected by some of their neighbours. Vast piles of rubbish dumped over hotel boundary walls are a testament to the indifference that some establishments have towards the natural world.
Above: Pollution comes in many forms and if you stay at Kotu Creek’s Sunset Beach Hotel you will be contributing to the deafening noise that blights the spot at times. It emanates from the hotel’s generator, conveniently sited so as not to affect the hotel itself but close to the GBA headquarters where this Blue-breasted Kingfisher was photographed, and near the best birding spots on the creek. Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
On the itinerary of most birding visitors to The Gambia is a location called Brufut Woods, a remnant of coastal forest. On the late, lamented Thomas Cook website is the bold statement: ‘Nature lovers will feel at home in the tropical surroundings of the Brufut Woods Community Project. Working with the West African Bird Study Association the conservation area is a hive of activity for resident and migrant bird species. It can be found in the eastern part of the village where you can enjoy the picturesque scenery by following the dusty path routes, through canopy trees and grassy planes (sic)’.
Above: A Google Maps image placing Brufut Woods in environmental context.
Brufut may be community woodland (where local causes benefit financially I am told from visiting birders) and blessed with birdlife but a haven amidst ‘picturesque scenery’ it is no longer; and it is a location whose future is far from assured. Beset on all sides by development, an extensive and growing rubbish dump abuts the woodland on one side and what little remains of the surrounding ‘countryside’ is being eroded by building: not by subsistence dwellings I should add but mansion-style properties whose grand proportions would look more at home on a Florida Golf Course.
Above: An African Pygmy Kingfisher, photographed on the margins of Brufut and a stone’s throw from an adjacent sea of rubbish.
An island of nature in a ocean of humanity, Brufut has no natural buffer zones to soften the impact of human influence and no legal protection worth the name as far as I can see. To add to its woes, there is evidence of people nibbling away at the forest margins and while I was there a small gang of boys arrived commanding a 20-strong pack of dogs, out for a spot of hunting so I was told – whatever mammals and birds they could catch. Judging by the skilled control the boys exerted over their well-disciplined and eerily silent dogs, this was a regular routine for them. The GBA guides did their best to expel the boys and dogs from the woodland but I had no doubt they would return when backs were turned.
Above: Northern Red Bishops seem to do well in the man-altered, low-impact farmland that used to fringe parts of Brufut. But even this secondary habitat is disappearing, paved and concreted over as housing encroaches.
On the coast, Tanji Fishing Village is another much-vaunted destination for tourists, birders and bird photographers alike. Undeniably colourful and remarkable, it offers an assault on the senses as hundreds of boats line up to offload their catch, and thousands of people facilitate the process. And there is birdlife in abundance too, represented primarily by species willing to scavenge fish. View the scene dispassionately from a fish’s perspective however, and what you find is a testament to marine exploitation and excess – the birds feed on mixture of fish guts and dead and dying fish that represent ‘spillage’ of the transported cargo.
Above: Tanji Fishing Village is great for birds such as Grey-headed Gulls but the spectacle comes at an environmental cost. Locals talk about a year-on-year decline in fish stocks and wonder why. Perhaps the answer is staring them in the face, and it’s not global warming.
Continuing my journey, I ventured inland and crossed to the north bank of the River Gambia, staying at a remote village. While I was there a group of Dutch tourists arrived for a night; they were ostensibly birders but keen so it transpired for the full Gambia Experience. Being in West Africa there were no game animals to kill so they opted for a softer option: they requested a young goat be purchased in the nearby village and brought back to the ‘lodge’ to be slaughtered for their barbecue delectation. Anyway the young goat duly arrived, in a distressed state tethered on the roof of their minivan. It had its throat cut and its barbecued remains were partly consumed by the four Dutch visitors, seemingly in a state of elation.
At this point I should confess that I am a lifelong vegetarian and goat-slaughter is not on my bucket-list. But it wasn’t so much the animal welfare side of things that bothered me – in The Gambia, sooner or later the fate of this male goat was always going to be to have its throat cut and be eaten. Rather it was the message it sent to the local community – when toubabs arrive anything is for sale, toubab being the name applied by locals to ‘white people’, in a descriptive or pejorative sense I am not entirely sure. Anyway following the logic, I have to ask what next? Bushmeat shot to order or fresh francolin for the barbecue?
Above: Species such as Vitelline Masked Weaver seem to do well living alongside rural communities, nesting in shade trees and feeding in part on spilt grain and seed outside the breeding season.
And what about my fellow travellers to The Gambia from the UK you might ask? Certainly some were there to experience the wildlife and specifically the birds. Many were visiting purely for the sun and sanitised golf club environment of the upmarket venues. And others – solitary souls of a certain age – were there for ‘companionship’, for want of a better word. Travelling back to the UK was also an experience to cherish. Ah, the Brits abroad. A few of the passengers were visibly the worse for alcoholic wear before they boarded the plane and it turned out a reasonable number of them had acquired the added delight of chronic diarrhoea – affectionately known as Banjul Belly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Double Gins and Imodium all round on the flight back. So, all in all, that was a Gambia Experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
Paddling up a creek one afternoon (actually a really pleasant one at Marakissa) I was reminded vaguely of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, a narrated tale of travel in the Congo. The two locations are not remotely comparable in terms of challenge but there are some similarities in the narratives. A work of its time, Heart of Darkness questions what it means to be civilised and the one of the underlying conclusions to be drawn is that no matter what our nationality or state of cultural advancement there is little difference between what humans are capable of doing. People are people whoever they are and wherever you go.
None of this should be taken as a direct criticism of The Gambia – merely a series of observations. So what’s the answer? I have no idea, but what I would say is that change trickles down from the top and while people with power, influence and wealth view the natural world as a resource to be exploited rather than a treasure to be protected, there is little hope. Their hearts and minds need to be changed. As for the rest of us, if you travel then allow your mind to be broadened, and don’t turn a blind or blinkered eye in the hope everything will be OK. Support organisations on the ground like the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association that try to make a difference. And don’t hesitate to voice concerns, or outrage come to that.
Aware of my own contribution to the erosion of Plant Earth, travel for me these days is bittersweet. It fuels my despair at the global demise of wildlife, a progression driven as much by direct exploitation and destruction as by global warming. I find the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in Heart of Darkness, resonate more and more: ‘The horror! The horror!’