The Banc d'Arguin (19°21'-21°30'N and 16°00'-1715'W) is a World Heritage Site that has the largest winter concentration of wading birds in the world. It is also the most important breeding area for birds on the Atlantic seaboard and the richest fishery off the west African coast. The park comprises sand dunes, coastal swamps, small islands and a wide expanse of shallow coastal waters. The austerity of the desert and the biodiversity of the marine zone result in a strongly contrasting land and seascape. There are several species of sea turtle and of dolphin, which traditionally fishermen used to help them capture shoals of fish.
Threats to the Site
The Banc is threatened with overfishing by international industrial-scale exploitation of the Banc outside the Park and by neighboring pirate fishing fleets within it. However, fishing within Park limits is to be permitted to the local Imraguen people if traditional sustainable methods are used.
The Park occupies two thirds of the northern half of the Mauritanian coast in a gulf between Cap Timiris 145 kilometers (km) north of Nouakchott, and Pointe Minou, with an isolated extension at Cap Blanc 33 km west across the Baie du Lévrier. It includes the Ile de Tidra and the Ile d'Arguin. The boundary extends halfway across the Banc, 80 km out to sea, and an average of 35 km into the Sahara. Located between 19°21'-21°30'N and 16°00'-1715'W.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1976: Created 24 June by Decree No. 74 176/P/G which provides all the necessary protective, legal and administrative mechanisms for the reserve, the largest marine park in Africa;
- 1978: Established. The Park is directly attached to the Presidency of the Republic;
- 1982: Designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention;
- 1986: Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin (FIBA), a supporting Non-governmental organization (NGO), founded;
- 1986: Two outlier satellite reserves to be added: Baie du Lévrier 200 hectares (ha) on Cap Blanc and Las Cuevecillas on the Côte des Phoques (the seal coast) on the west side of Cap Blanc;
- 2000: January. Law passed to restrict all non-traditional activities within the Park.
State (Nouadhibou and Azefal provinces). Administered by the Parc National Banc d'Arguin.
5 meters (m) below sea level to 15 m.
The Park is an example unique in Africa of a transition zone between the Sahara desert and Atlantic Ocean. It is a gulf nearly 300 km long with a shallow coastline of windblown sand dunes, marshes and mangrove swamps, tidal mudflats, mazes of channels and creeks, sandbanks and islets. The submarine bank extends up to 80 km from the coast. The gulf includes the Ile de Tidra, the largest island at 8 km by 35 km and 14 other islands up to 1 km wide and 5 km long, four being rocky outcrops. The prevailing trade winds between Cap Blanc and Cap Timiris sculpt the coastline into sandy bays between capes of rock. The coast is very shallow, being at low tide only 5 m deep even far offshore, with 63,000 ha of mudflats. The range of spring tides is 2.1 m, of neap tides 0.6 m.
The origin of the shallows is a combination of ongoing aeolian transport from the desert on top of alluvium from relict estuaries which nourishes the 3,100 ha of mangrove swamp. There are 3,100 ha of tidal swamps on either side of Baie de St-Jean near Cap Timiris, 19,000 ha of tidal swamps and marshland around the Ile deTidra and some 37,000 ha of tidal marshes in the northern half of the reserve. The arid inland is mainly sand hills and sandstone cliffs which rise to 15 m, with some sebkha (salty mud pans).
The bank lies on the boundary between temperate and tropical climates. There is great contrast between the coastal air cooled by ocean water and the hot desert temperatures inland. The prevailing northeast trade winds from the Sahara, and from the northwest over the ocean, strongly influence the currents and climate of the bank. Winds up to 8 meters per second (m/s) have been reported. Those blowing offshore continually push the surface waters out, inducing upwelling mineral-rich currents of cold water. The rainfall is irregular and very low, averaging 34-40 millimeters (mm) per year. Because of the high evaporation, the bank's salinity increases towards the coast. Tempered by the sea, temperatures are relatively similar all year. The cold season, January to May, has a mean minimum in December of 8°C. The hot season from August to October has a mean maximum in September of 34°C.
The park lies on the boundary between the Afrotropical and Palaearctic biogeographic realms on a coast of nutrient-rich offshore waters teeming with phytoplankton. The vegetation of 600-800 square kilometers (km2) of shallow water is vast expanses of seagrass, especially the eelgrass Zostera noltii in the intertidal zone and Cymodocea nodosa with Halodule wrightii in the subtidal zone. These anchor the mud substrate, produce oxygen and shelter huge communities of algal epiphytes and a rich invertebrate fauna, especially molluscs and crustaceans, which provide the biggest fish feeding and spawning area in west Africa. The vegetation of the saline coastline, mudflats and islands is halophytic, predominantly Sesuvium portulocastrum, Salsola baryosma, Salicornia senegalensis (R), Suaeda fruticosa and Arthrocnemon spp. There are some 1,400 ha of white mangrove swamp Avicennia africana [germinans] on emergent mud-banks on the tip of Ile de Tidra and 1,700 ha in bays on the mainland near Cap Timiris. These are the northernmost mangrove stands in the eastern Atlantic, on muds dating from the time when coastal oueds carried freshwater from the Sahara.
There is the most southerly cordgrass Spartina maritima marsh on the west coast of Africa marsh,behind the mangroves; both Ipomea pes-caprae and Sporobolus virginicus grow on the margins of the salt marshes. The terrestrial vegetation is Saharan with a limited Mediterranean influence. The sand dunes are dominated by Stipagrostis pungens, Cornulaca monacantha, Euphorbia balsamifera and Calligonum comosum. Tree species include Acacia raddiana, Balanites aegyptiaca, Maerua crassifolia and Capparis decidua; herbaceous species are Panicum turgidum, Cassia italica, Pergularia tomentosa and Heliotropium bacciferum.
The bank has a very high productivity of pelagic phytoplankton offshore and of benthic forms near the shore which provide the energy base for the countless numbers of birds and fish. There are thousands of fiddler crabs Uca tangeri on the upper beaches, and cockles Cardium edule and the detrivorous gastropods Cymbium and Cornus spp. on the mudflats. Of the estimated seven million shorebirds which use the Atlantic flyway, approximately 30% winter at Banc d'Arguin. It has the world's largest concentration of wintering shorebirds and extremely diversified communities of nesting piscivorous birds - about 15 species. At least 249 bird species have been recorded, from both Palaearctic and Afrotropical realms, several species from each being at the limits of their distribution.
The wintering shorebirds number over two million: hundreds of thousands of black tern Chlidonias nigra and tens of thousands of greater flamingo Phoenocopterus ruber. There are also ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula, grey plover Pluvialis squatarola, knot Calidris canutus, redshankTringa totanus and bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica among many other species. The area is one of the most important wintering grounds for hundreds of thousands of European spoonbill Platalea leucorodia leucorodia and gull-billed terns Gelochelidon nilotica . The 40,000 pairs of breeding birds include white pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, three subspecies of cormorant Phalacrocorax africanus, and a range of terns: Caspian, Hydroprogne caspia, royal, Sterna maxima, common S. hirundo, little S.albifrons and bridled S.anaethetus; also gulls: whiteheaded Larus cirrocephalus and slenderbilled L.genei There are several species or [[[subspecies]] with an African distribution, such as the endemic grey heron Ardea cinerea monicae and spoonbill Platalea leucorodia balsaci and western reef heron Egretta gularis.
Mammals include about 200 dorcas gazelle Gazella dorcas (V), mostly on the Ile de Tidra, jackal Canis aureus, fennec fox Fennecus zerda (K), sand fox Vulpes rueppelli (K), sand cat Felis margarita (K), African wildcat Felis lybica, genet Genetta genetta, African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha (Poecilictis lybica?), ratel Mellivora capensis and striped hyena Hyaena hyaena. A small population of about 150 of one of the world's rarest animals, the monk seal Monachus monachus (E), lives on the Cote des Phoques at Cap Blanc, their survival threatened by the collapse in 1982 of their breeding caves and by disease. Marine mammals regularly seen are Atlantic hump-backed dolphin Sousa teuszii (K), common dolphin Delphinus delphis (K), rough-toothed dolphin Steno bredanensis (K), bottle-nosed dolphin Tursiops truncatus (K), Risso's dolphin Grampus griseus (K) and killer whale Orcinus orca. Fin whale Balaenoptera physalus (R) and common porpoise Phocoena phocoena have also been sighted.
Because of its high productivity, sheltering seagrass beds and the variety of marine biotopes, the gulf is a major fish spawning and nursery ground for the whole west African coast. There are three main categories of fish living on the bank: shallow water fish - mudskippers Periophthalmus spp. on the mudflats, with gobies Gobiidae, seahorses Syngnathidae and rays Batoidea in the seagrass beds; juveniles of species such as sea perch Lutjanus spp., croakers Argyrosomus spp and sea bass Centropristus and Dicentrachis spp.in the nursery seagrass beds; and various mullets, especially grey (yellow) Mugil cephalus and white mullet Mugil curema, which with groupers Epinephalus spp. and sea bream Sparus spp. are the basis of the traditional fishery. Migrant pelagic include tunnies Thunnus spp., smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata guitarfish Rhinobatos spp.,and smooth hammerhead shark Sphyrna zygaena. Two endangered species of turtle breed in the Baie du Lévrier: green Chelonia mydas (E) and hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricata (E), and three others occur: loggerhead Caretta caretta (V), leatherback Dermochelys coriacea (E) and olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea.
Neolithic archaeological sites and vestiges of the Almoravid civilization are found on some of the islands. The local people, the Imraguen (Amrig), relate many of their customs to the natural environment: their name means 'the ones who gather life'. Until the 1990's these tribesmen still maintained age-old life styles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using traditional sail boats and techniques unchanged since first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers, such as a collaboration with wild dolphins in catching schools of mullet. The notorious wreck of the Méduse, depicted by Géricault, occurred off the bank in 1816.
Local Human Population
The ~1,500 Imraguen live in seven villages within the park, many at Cap Timiris, dependent on water supplies collected outside the boundary and on the yellow mullet. Nomadic camel and goat herding has much decreased owing to desertification. Traditional subsistence methods of fishing are under pressure from fishermen mainly from Senegal in hundreds of motorized pirogues based in the Baie du Lévrier and Nouadhibou, who hunt with gill nets for shark and ray fins, overfishing of which is unsustainable because of their long reproductive cycles. Overfishing by international fleets with factory ships just outside the Park boundaries is even more serious: in 2001, 334 foreign trawlers had permits to work in Mauritanian waters. Competition and the high prices given by seafood dealers for shark and ray fins drew some Imraguen in the past to take up motorized shark hunting themselves.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
The area was opened to nature tourism in 1988. In 1991 the Wetland Conservation Fund gave CHFr 45,000 to develop a plan for limited tourism and the Park is now featured by several international touring agencies though there are no hotels or restaurants and entry must be authorized by the Park administration.
Scientific Research and Facilities
The earliest research dates from the 1950s. Past research has focused on ornithology and oceanography, including inventories of species, study of the phytoplankton biomass, and studies of the reproductive biology of the white pelican. The Netherlands Ornithological Mauritanian Expedition of 1980 gathered comprehensive data on waders, crustacea, and other fauna. Surveys of the monk seal population were made by D. Marchessaux for the WWF and IUCN 1985-1988. Publication of flora collection records by Monod have been proposed.
A full review of research opportunities is given in the masterplan by the Scientific Council of the Banc d'Arguin. A field station is based at Cap Iouik (Iwik), with an outstation at Oued Chibka, equipped for six researchers and four support staff; it has three Zodiac boats, one motor launch, a radio station and is accessible by four-wheel drive, motor launch or light aircraft. Research is sponsored by the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin (FIBA) and there is co-operation with both French and Dutch authorities. The government of the Netherlands supports a major research program.
The Banc d'Arguin is the richest fishery of the west African coast, in winter has the largest concentration of wading birds in the world and is the most important breeding area for birds on the Atlantic seaboard, with a great number and diversity of birds: 25,000 to 40,000 pairs from 15 species. It lies in the Sahelian upwelling marine ecosystem between the Canary Islands and Guinea-Bissau, which has the highest priority for marine conservation in Africa. Its wealth of organic life creates the wide range of marine and littoral environments which support the huge populations of fish, birds and marine mammals. The region's mild climate, absence of human disturbance due to lack of freshwater, the shallowness of the sea and the vast expanses of mudflat provide over two million shorebirds from northern Europe, Siberia and Greenland in one of the world's most important refuges for migrants.
The Park contains the world's largest and perhaps only viable colony of monk seals (25% of the world population), extensive seagrass meadows which are major fish nurseries, nesting sites for two threatened species of marine turtle, and relict populations of dorcas gazelle. Justification for establishment includes an outstanding example of traditional human interaction with the environment; the area also clearly exemplifies ongoing surficial geological processes.
The Park was established to protect the natural resources, scientific sites and the valuable fisheries of the Banc, half of which lies outside the Park. This resource contributes two-thirds of the country's annual revenue, much of it from government permits to foreign industrial-scale fishing companies. Half a million tonnes of fish are taken by foreign trawlers in these waters each year. According to Article 2 of the establishment decree, the following are prohibited within park boundaries: all forms of hunting, low-altitude aircraft, forestry, agricultural and mineral exploitation, pastoral activities and unauthorized removal of stones, sand, earth, leaves and all forest products. Article 4 prohibits without authorization by the relevant service all forms of fishing, prospecting and construction, modifications of the landscape or vegetation, all activities which could pollute the water, introduction of zoological or botanical species, access by people other than tourists or visitors and any activity which could disturb flora and fauna.
A preliminary management plan was published in 1984 by WWF, IUCN and the Belgian Royal Institute of Natural Sciences. In 1986 the executive committee of the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin (FIBA) convened sixteen international organizations to support the Park. Revised management plans were proposed for the period 1988-1992 and a second plan for the next five years which the WWF has helped the Mauritanian government to implement. A separate management plan for the monk seal Baie du Lévrier Reserve was drawn up in 1986 by FIBA. UNEP and the WWF again helped the government to put it into practice.
The park rangers patrol the area to prevent illegal fishing and disturbance to nesting waterfowl. Permanent entry points control access into the park and are used for survey work. The wardens, based at Iwik, with a secondary base at Oued Chibka, undertake maritime patrols and control access to the islands. An eight man camel patrol is used to limit hunting, and boundary markers and signs have been set up. The law of January 2000 gives the Imraguen the exclusive right to use the reserve's fishery in order to ensure the maintenance of their traditional stewardship, aid their economy and allow the heavily depleted fish stocks to recover. It mandates sustainable development, environmental impact assessment of development, and participation of the Imraguen in taking park decisions, a policy which co-opts the people to guard their own resources.
This policy elicited an honorific WWF designation as a 'Gift to the Earth'. There are also proposals to liaise with national park authorities in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau which are suffering similar pressures; and to increase protection, staff of the Ramsar Convention and the Commission on Migratory Species are also cooperating. In 2002 however, the WHC requested from the State a full environmental impact assessment for a proposed coastal road in place of the very partial study done; also that it submit to the IUCN a GTZ study on the legality of oil exploration in the Park; and that it protect its marine resources better from international predation and increase the extent of the traditional Imraguen fishing grounds.
The biggest challenge to management is effective surveillance over so vast an area. Overfishing on official permits by industrial-scale fleets, Japanese, Russian and EU-subsidized, which cluster in the waters on the Banc just outside the Park, is severely depleting fish stocks of international importance. This may cause the decline of breeding colonies of fish-eating birds, and hinder the long-term regeneration of fish stocks. Motorized foreign pirate fishermen raid the reserve itself. Shoreline pollution by waste is noticeable since the bank is down-current from the iron ore and oil terminals at Cansado and Port Minéralier at the mouth of the Baie du Lévrier. Predation by jackals and foxes also threatens seabird colonies. There is some hunting of marine turtles and the critical status of monk seals may be aggravated by the use of fishing nets which could trap them as they have done dolphins, causing many deaths. On land, hunting of gazelles is heavy, access being easy from the main Nouakchott-Nouadhibou road across the park and oil exploration may take place.
Imraguen fishermen complain of reduced catches and reduced sizes of fish caught. Marginalised and stressed by these changes and suspicious of interference, they are torn between traditional and modern methods, tempting some to compete with the small foreign pirate boats by the use of motorized fishing for shark fins even within the Park. However, the law passed in 2000 permits them - with up to a 100 boats only - to fish within the Park if engines, trawls, seine, drift, gill and fine-meshed nets are not used and turtles and sharks are not taken.
This comprises some 24 Mauritanians: one Director, four assistant directors, three wardens, two secretaries, one financial secretary, five drivers, eight camel corpsmen; along with expatriate scientists and volunteers.
After initial financing of 18million UM (ougiyas) (US$225,000) by the home government, extensive funding has come from IFAD in 1992 and from the French government in 1995 (Ffr 1,000,000) and 1996 (Ffr 860,000). In 2001 the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin raised nearly Ffr 16,000,000 for use in the Park. Funding for the reserve headquarters and for camel patrols has has been supplied by the French Ministry of Cooperation and in 1998, the WWF donated three fast patrol boats to control fishing piracy. Revenue from tourist entry fees goes toward park management costs.
IUCN Management Category
- VI Managed Resource Protected Area. Ramsar site.
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed 1989. Natural Criteria ii, iv
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