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The best place to get COVID stuck - PART II

My Magazine 2022/06
9 min
Author: Renske Wolters
When we arrived that beautiful afternoon in March at the Gambian Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT) we had no idea yet we would be spending the night here, let alone the 300+ nights to come. We had no idea that we arrived in the place that for the next ten months we would call our home.

We started with a tour of the GHDT visitor centre where they have many materials explaining the often dire situation for working animals in The Gambia, the way many of them are treated, the problems encountered and how the GHDT works to improve situation both for the animals, as well as the farmer. Within minutes it became apparent that we stumbled upon an organisation with a strong and clear mission. As a healthy working animal can increase a farming family’s income up to 500% GHDT strives to reduce the rural poverty in The Gambia through improving the health, welfare and productivity of all animals, and working animals in particular.

As we learn this afternoon they achieve this through a set off activities. They have their animal hospital where injured animals are treated, they have a strong educational programme and work closely together with the communities. One of the community collaborations is the “Donkey Project” in which GHDT provides a donkey to a family in need that cannot afford to purchase their own donkey. The donkey recipients attend an intensive training course at the GHDT centre where they are educated about how to appropriately care for and handle a donkey. The donkeys are provided on loan to the families in need, and there is a project manager that travels to visit all of the donkeys every month to ensure they are being properly taken care of, and to provide veterinary treatment if required.

After meeting the patients and an interesting tour of the hospital and yard we get back to reception where we meet Emily. She is a brilliant vet nurse from the UK and the long term volunteer and manager at GHDT. We join her, Musa, Modou (GHDT employees) and their 30+ dog on a beautiful walk through Makasutu Cultural Forest, to the river. While the dogs play on the river bank we discuss the upcoming COVID measures and their impact. The Gambia has just announced to be closing the borders which means Alex and me as travellers are forced to pause our road trip of West Africa. At this point we have no idea yet how long the borders will be closed and how COVID will further impact life in West Africa. When Emily offers to stay at GHDT and see how the situation develops we are directly excited and the plan arises to stay at GHDT for a few days and help out as volunteers.

Soon it becomes clear that COVID and the measurements are not something that will clear up in a few days nor in a few weeks. Month after month The Gambia announces to extend their state of emergency. Which led to Alex and me extending our time at GHDT.

Alex and I joked that never in our life we have worked so many hours of the day. Especially during the full lockdown where the staff that does not live on the compound, could not come into work. We had to do the same work but with half of the team. Though it was busy we really loved it. Every day we learned more about animal care but also more about the different cultures and what it is like to be working closely together with the Gambian team. I have so much admiration for the important work GHDT does, and we are very grateful to the team, that in the middle of the pandemic we found this safe haven where we could make ourselves useful.

The months flew by and on an August afternoon I hear Emily calling over the yard: “Renske, they found an injured sea turtle we need to go help it”. Without hesitation we jump in the back of the pick-up truck and speed off to Sanyang fishing village. Upon arrival we meet with Omar Sanyang, the director of the sea turtle rescue organization Smile for Life the Gambia (SFLG). He explains how Bubbles, as we will call her later, is a poaching victim. They found her under a fishing boat. She has deep machete cuts in her flippers, one cutting right through her bone and on her head you can see the marks where she must have gotten a few hard blows on her head. As she is an astonishing 101kg big turtle, SFLG assumes the poachers couldn’t directly take her and therefore injured her, bound her with rope and left her lying on her back hidden under the boat to organize transport and pick her up later. Luckily SFLG found her before they returned and as there is no other facility that can rehabilitate turtles, they called in our help.

I was astonished how quickly Emily managed to take on the care of Bubbles, even with no previous turtle experience at all. She build on her international network and passionately led and trained our team. Many of them had never seen a turtle before but were now able to take on the daily care, IV injections and even tube placement. Alex helped in keeping the tank clean and twice daily went with donkey cart or pick up to the river for fresh water and food supply. Emily and I spent almost every night on turtle brainstorm and research. It was on one of those nights we came up with the idea to make a customised 3D printed splint for Bubbles that would brace and stabilize her flipper which could help heal her broken bone. We were blown away to find out that there is a super innovative 3D printing company in The Gambia called Make 3D. We reached out to them and from the start they were very eager to help. While making good progress and being very excited with the idea how technology could make an impact on animal welfare and could help Bubbles heal, it was Bubbles that decided we needed to take a different route.

After the infection got better, and a period in which Bubbles seemed bright and interested, she was now getting depressed from the life in the tank. She stopped eating, lost weight and every day she was becoming a bit more miserable. After consultation with turtle experts worldwide, we agreed that since her wounds had healed and the infection had gone, the best chances for Bubbles were in her own habitat. The ocean was calling and it was time to set Bubbles free.

We were quite nervous the night we released Bubbles to see how she would cope. Emily and I swam with her for three hours (with appropriate distance to give her space) to make sure she was getting on well. Initially she had some trouble adjusting her buoyancy but bit by bit say stayed longer underwater and finally she didn’t resurface and took off to the open sea. Alex, Emily and I stayed at the beach and did several patrols during the night. And when we were sure she was really gone we made our way back to GHDT.

It was thanks to Bubbles that Alex and I stayed in touch with the turtle organization SFLG and that Omar approached us to see if we could spare some time to help him. SFLG has been active as a sea turtle conservation organization since 2011. Through their many activities they aim to reduce the threats to sea turtles to ensure their survival. SFLG has a broad network of volunteers that patrol the beaches at night in turtle season to protect the nesting turtles from poachers. They have two safe hatcheries where they can relocate nests when needed and focus a lot of their efforts on education and community sensitization. In addition to that, the director Omar has big dreams for expansion to make even more positive impact on sea turtle conservation.

The case of Bubbles shows how much it is needed to intensify education around sea turtles and have facilitation for proper turtle rehabilitation. After much research and with this idea in mind we helped Omar to work out a business plan to build a turtle conservation, rehabilitation and marine education centre. We worked with the Gambia Tourism Board, the Department of Parks and Wildlife management and other institutions to pitch this idea and expand our network in the international turtle community to put The Gambia on the map as a turtle conservation spot and collaboration partner. We also wrote a funding proposal to apply for the GCCA+ fund for the needed financial means.

We got the disappointing news that we weren’t awarded the grant that we applied for. Although we didn’t get this funding, on the bright side, the process helped to establish more and stronger local stakeholder relations and a wider community engagement to realize our plans. Since we do not have the funds yet that we hoped for it hasn’t tempered the ambition and enthusiasm, we just have to take the development of the centre step by step, and rely even more on the communities and different organizations to bit by bit gather the required financial means.

Parallel to the sea turtle work with SFLG, we were introduced to Mic Mayhew, who would engage us for another amazing initiative in The Gambia. Mic is a vet and primatologist that has fervently been researching the Red Colobus monkey for many years and runs a project in Sambel Kunda called Communities for Red Colobus (C4RC). The Red Colobus monkey has been referred to as one of the most threatened primates in Africa, and as such is assessed as (critically) endangered. After more than six months in The Gambia we had no idea that this country actually hosts the largest known population of Red Colobus monkeys! How special is that. Unfortunately, also in The Gambia, the Red Colobus is losing forest habitat due to people that turn forest into charcoal that can be sold to support their families. The C4RC team is doing outstanding work to help reverse the primates loss of habitat.

They engage with the local communities, they educate in the local schools and develop tree nurseries to create more awareness for the environmental challenges The Gambia faces. Every day this team works on the mission to develop alternative, sustainable livelihood projects to generate sources of income for the local families that spare the forest habitat of the Red Colobus.

Alex and I worked together with Mic, the team of local rangers, their education officer and their project manager Lamin to encourage a view of the communities on how the Red Colobus Monkey can be central in creating a form of responsible eco-tourism and with that bring another source of sustainable income. We helped to consult and manage a project to build a visitor centre, a small scale ecolodge and set up a responsible ecotourism program that supports the local communities without compromising the welfare of the monkeys. I am really stoked about this project and in awe of the good work the C4RC team is doing. I therefore can recommend all of you to make the trip to Sambel Kunda to support and join the C4RC rangers for a day to witness the magical Red Colobus monkeys in their natural habitat. If you are interested you can connect with the team HERE and for more information on this project you can also read THE ARTICLE Mic wrote for MyGambia.

Looking back to when we rented out our home in the Netherlands, quit our jobs, and left our friends, family and everything behind in October 2019, to travel the world, little did we know that due to Covid we would be stuck in The Gambia for over a year. We often get the question whether or not we are disappointed, angry, or sad how the pandemic put a hold on our journey and travel dream. And of course the pandemic made us adapt, caused frustration, insecurity and big impacts. Like it had for all of us and for many people in an even much severe form. But I am glad that I can answer that question with a solid no.

In every situation we always look on the bright side, the learnings and the opportunity we receive in return. For us the pandemic meant we had the chance to work with three amazing organizations and collaborate with local communities for positive change. We met incredible, passionate people that every day strive for a better Gambia for animals and people alike. This year has brought us so much that we could have never expected beforehand and we count ourselves incredibly lucky with this in depth experience of The Gambia, and are grateful to everyone who made this country for us the best place to be “Covid Stuck”.

Photo Credit: Renske's personal archive

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