Tomas Diagne is a finalist in this year’s TUSK Award for Conservation in Africa. Sarah Marshall shares his incredible story.
Driving 1,200 miles across the east coast of America is an epic journey to make for one animal – especially if the creature in question is dead. But when Tomas Diagne was offered the body of a Nubian flapshell turtle, the most endangered turtle species in Africa, he couldn’t refuse.
“For 30 years, we haven’t had any recorded sightings of these animals that live in South Sudan and southern Chad,” says the Senegalese biologist, who admits he spent $2,000 to collect the cadaver from a US-based private collector, bury it in his American wife’s back garden and send it to an osteology museum three months later to have the skeleton cleaned and articulated.
“Lucy kept saying, ‘I hope the neighbours don’t think we have a human body’,” he jokes, aware of how ridiculous the scenario sounds. “But this could be the last known specimen of this species.”
Feeling the need to give further justification he adds: “If you don’t have passion, you cannot do this kind of thing.”
Now the skeleton is one of 800 tortoise and turtle artefacts available to research students at the African Chelonian Institute, in Senegal, which Tomas set up in 2009. It’s a vital educational resource in a field where so little is known, but the wildlife lover and accidental conservationist would rather see these precious reptiles alive.
Realising tortoises and turtles were in trouble, Tomas dedicated his life to saving the continent’s species. In the last 26 years, he has established centres for turtle protection and captive breeding programmes and is working with Senegalese authorities to rewild animals intercepted in the illegal pet trade.
With no blueprint to follow, he really is breaking new ground.
“In Africa, conservation is a relatively new concept because animals and resources were always plentiful,” he explains, as we paddle along the waterways of Tocc Tocc Community Reserve at Lac de Guiers in northern Senegal. “But now with population growth the balance is changing.”
An important habitat for manatees and water birds, this wildlife sanctuary is one of Tomas’ proudest achievements. He admits it took 15 hard years to persuade communities to change their habits and protect the wetlands. Now they no longer see turtles as a food source, and improved fishing practices have resulted in less bycatch.
“It didn’t happen overnight. A year later we’d be saying the same thing; it was frustrating but that’s the way it is.”
Determination has brought Tomas a long way. Born into a family employed in the military and public services, working with wildlife was not an obvious career path. But a love of animals sparked a desire to do something meaningful. “That’s why I say I was not born a conservationist, I became a conservationist,” he says. “It’s a fire you have in the belly that keeps you going, a passion. I always want to move forward.”
Eager to pass on his knowledge and shape a generation “far stronger” than his own, the 49-year-old places great emphasis on education. Many of his facilities, including the Tortoise Village in the Noflaye region of Dakar, are open to both schoolchildren and tourists.
“You cannot conserve something you don’t care about,” he tells me when we visit the sanctuary for sulcatas which attracts up to 10,000 visitors per year. Along with breeding the world’s third largest tortoise, the aim is to release individuals into the wild, although Tomas admits the lengthy and strictly regulated process is bittersweet.
“You spend two years or more monitoring these animals; they become like your baby. Sending them into an uncertain future is something that can make you feel sad.
“But at the same time, they will be happier to be free, and freedom is the most important gift you can give to these animals if you truly love them.”