The ballad of the Bijagos: The chapter of João Vieira and Poilão Marine National Park
9th July 2017 Written by Wilson Vieira
The sky is covered with clouds, a premonition of rain. The ocean has a gray metallic-like glow and the waves are getting bigger, swinging the boat up and down. It is already the rainy season when we approach João Vieira Island, in the João Vieira and Poilão Marine National Park (hereafter JVPMNP).
The JVPMNP is located in the southwest of the Bijagos Islands in Guinea-Bissau, off the west coast of Africa. The Park was founded in August 2000 and is composed of four main islands covering an area of 494 square km: João Vieira, Cavalos, Meio and Poilão. Once on the shore, I meet my guide for the next few days. Armando is Bijago, and inhabitant of Canhabaque. The people of this island are the traditional owners of the land that is part of the national park. Each tabanka (village) of Canhabaque owns a specific island that is used as a sacred place and as an agricultural area to cultivate rice. All the villagers found on the temporary camps in João Vieira Island belong to the tabanka of Meneque. Likewise, other villages own the other three islands: tabanka of Bine (Cavalos Island); tabanka of Inhoda (Meio Island) and Poilão tabanka of Ambeno (Poilão Island).
Very early in the morning, Armando took me to see one of the most charismatic species of the island, the Timneh Parrot (Psittaccus timneh). Very illusive and difficult to observe, the Timneh Parrot has been assessed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Wildlife trade is the major threat to this parrot.
"The hunters come here and use glue on branches. They put it at the entrance of the parrots’ nests. When the parrot lands on the branch, they get stuck. The hunters just have to collect them...” – Armando explains. At that time, I wondered about the fate of the younger birds that remain in the nest, or about the fact that these birds are monogamous and some individuals don’t breed again if they lose their partner. It is too heavy a loss.
“Where do they sell the parrots?” I asked. Armando, who was looking for nests on the tree trunks, looked back at me: “They take them to Bissau and sell them. Then they ship the parrots to Europe”.
The Timneh Parrot was listed for long time in Appendix II of the CITES convention, but since 2016 it is listed on Appendix I. This category includes endangered species that are or can be negatively affected by trade. Breeders can still commercialize the species under very strict laws and certificates, but international commercial trade is illegal.
In the legal market, the price of an individual can range from 1,000 to 2,000 US dollars. On an interview with National Geographic, Rowan Martin, director of the World Parrot Trust, said that aviculturists still look for wild birds to breed, since breeding their own captive stock and waiting for the individuals to reach maturity would take too long. Much appreciated by their capacity to mimic human words, trade might be a threat that the species will face for a long time.
Armando touched my arm and pointed up to a hole in the tree. Two adult Timneh parrots walk on a branch while approaching an opening. Cheeping, a small grey head lurks outside. One of the adults flies into the hollow and starts feeding the youngster.
Going back to base camp, Armando and I head to the shore and walk on the seaside. He tells me the name of other species we find on the way. Species that I do not know. All of them are marine birds. All of them with a Guinea-Bissau crioul or a Bijago name. Then he smiles at me and points in the opposite direction, towards the forest. “
Today is your lucky day” he said. I looked for Cotêduas (Gypohierax angolensis) in the palm tree tops. The most common bird of prey on that island. No birds ahead. Then my eyes wandered back to the sand: a recent track of sea turtle denounces the existence of a nest.
Five out of the seven species of sea turtles are found in this archipelago. The most remarkable is called by the Bijago people as Etchunko. The Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) spawns in several of the Bijago Islands. JVPMNP is seen as the most important spawning place in the Eastern Atlantic for this species.
Between 2000 and 2001, 7,000 females were reported spawning in Poilão Island. To Armando, it is easy to spot and analyze these kind of tracks. Every year in July, the monitoring season starts. By night, when females come onto the shore to spawn, biometric data from each individual is collected, and some can be marked with a metal washer. During the day, the nests are counted, GPS coordinates logged, and their width is measured in order to identify the species. In the end, any trace or evidence of the presence of a nest is erased.
Armando goes ahead and starts smoothing the sand. “This way no one can find the nest” he says. Like in several places in the world, turtles’ meat and eggs are used for human consumption. In Guinea-Bissau, despite not being commercialized, turtles are sought for consumption or for traditional purposes.
Different ethnic groups relate to the species in different ways. The Felupe and the Balanta do not hunt turtles, since they consider the species sacred. However, they consume their eggs. The Bijago hunt and feed on the eggs and use parts of the turtles on their ceremonies (e.g. shells as recipe; bones to fertilize the soil). Associated with this, pollution and accidental catches from industrial fishery affects the population negatively, and the Green Turtle has been assessed as Endangered due to the decline in its population size.
Days before, while sailing around Bubaque, Sôga, Rubani and Anguruman Islands (two hours away from João Vieira Island) I saw some green turtles. They came to the surface to breathe, but when they saw the boat, they swam away. The captain of the ship laughed every time I failed to take a photo. He turned his eyes to the ocean, and then back at me. “They know what a boat means. They are hunted too much”.
Back at base camp with Armando, he introduces me to Teresa. She is also a Bijago from Canhabaque Island. She came to João Vieira to help on the rice plantations. As many other places in Guinea-Bissau, slash-and-burn agriculture is the main agricultural practice. Every eight years, some people from the tabanka of Meneque come to João Vieira and work on the fields. “The Bijagos use the same fields as they used eight years ago. They have been doing it for a long time. It is a way to feed their families. However, we do not know what the impacts to the parrots are, for example. We are doing some studies about this, and trying to come up with solutions” says the director of the park.
Teresa, Armando and I went for a walk. I wanted to see the crops and the temporary camps. While walking in the forest, Armando points at something once again. He does not say anything. I keep searching for some animal in the bush. Teresa laughs and gets closer to me. Her arm is near my eyes. I follow its length until I see the place the finger is pointing at: a structure built with palm leaves. Then she said: “It’s a baloba”.
The balobas are like altars. Sacred places where some ceremonies of the Bijago culture take place. The Bijago hold animistic beliefs. It is believed that some public spaces (e.g. rivers, trees, islands) are inhabited by supernatural entities. These places are crucial for the survival of the Bijago culture. Furthermore, these places are traditionally protected and human activities are very regulated or even prohibited. For example, the cultivation of rice is subject to extensive intervals of plantation in order to give time for the land to recover its nutrients. Thus, traditional activities and beliefs create “protected areas" that are important for the maintenance of the ecosystems and natural resources.
The sky is covered with clouds, a premonition of rain. The ocean has a gray metallic-like glow and the waves are getting bigger. It is time to go back to Bissau. The whole island is on the beach to see the boat go away. I went to meet Armando. “See you next time” I say. Armando laughs, “Most of the time you never return”. He helps me to put my bags on the boat. “But I hope that you do”, he says. Then I went to say goodbye to Teresa. “Hope that you find a safe path back home” she says. I nod and go to the boat.
Once in the ocean, there is a cold wind blowing. I think about the struggles this young national park still has to face. The balance that it has to achieve between the subsistence of its inhabitant’ and nature conservation. Suddenly, a group of dolphins (Turciops truncatus) starts swimming next to the boat. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and it gets warmer.
Maybe this is only the first chapter. That chapter where you introduce the characters and their life struggles. Maybe, by the time we finish the story, it will have a happy ending.
All photos are credited to Wilson Vieira and used with permission.