The international seahorse trade out of West Africa is booming. The animals are used in dried form in soups, teas and rice wine. But growing demand is putting these little fish at risk of extinction.
Piles of writhing sea life cover a narrow wedge of golden sand at the southern tip of Djiffer, a compact but bustling fishing town on the coast of Senegal.
In the late afternoons, colorfully painted pirogue boats arrive on its shores to add fresh hauls caught in the tropical waters off the surrounding Sine-Saloum region.
Boisterous crowds of merchants tussle to secure the prime choice of the day: barracuda, stingray, oysters, sea cucumbers, and the revered capitaine fish. The smallest and perhaps most valuable part of the catch, however, is the seahorse.
"Prices for these have gone up very quickly," said Youssef, a local mareyeur whose role traditionally involves acting as a broker between fishermen and buyers.
A buoyant trade
Although, there are no specific estimates for Senegal, the number of seahorses traded in West Africa has risen dramatically over the past few years, reaching about 600,000 animals exported last year, according to the marine conservation charity Project Seahorse.
"There are essentially two avenues for trafficking, both linked to seafood trade with Asia, particularly China," said Andres Cisneros, a researcher who carried out fieldwork in Senegal for the NGO in 2015.
When fisherfolk bring in their catch to shore in the fishing town of Djiffer, there's a jostle for the prime catch
The first, he says, are via industrial bottom trawlers that fish along the seabed and land their catch in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Asian crews started to hold onto their seahorses, with a view to selling them in dried form once at home, said Cisneros.
"Local Senegalese or other West African crew soon started doing this as well, either selling to their crewmates or to buyers [for further transport to China] at the Dakar port," Cisneros told DW.
"Meanwhile, artisanal fishers are fishing [for seahorses] in small boats all throughout West Africa," he added.
Almost all of the West African marine life trade eventually flows out of Dakar, the largest port and seafood trade hub in the region, Cisneros explains. Poaching hotspots include the species-rich Saloum Delta as well as neighboring countries such as the Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.
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The black market for illegal wildlife products, such as seahorses, is worth up to €18 billion ($20 billion) per year, with poaching continuing to grow and pushing many species to the brink of extinction, according to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
A report by the leading wildlife charity Traffic found that seahorses made up 24.4% of the total marine products confiscated from traffickers in the air transport sector between 2009 and 2017 globally. A single seizure could contain up to 20,000 seahorses valued at more than €8.8 each.
"All but three of the marine product trafficking instances originating in Africa (that were analyzed as part of the report) were destined for China and Vietnam," it said.
Researchers believe that demand from China is behind the increasing trade in seahorses and other vulnerable species. They are valued in traditional Chinese medicine as a source of virility and are believed to cure a wide spectrum of ailments including asthma, insomnia and heart disease.
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Seahorses are often dried and ground into a powder, and added by Chinese consumers to rice wine, tea or soup. The country's billion-strong population means a national appetite for any product can have an enormous impact. But that impact can sometimes go unseen.
"The seahorse trafficking problem in Senegal has been going on under the radar for years now," said Cecile Bloch, Senegal coordinator for the eco-activist network EAGLE, which works with governments across Africa to uncover and investigate animal trafficking.
The West African seahorse (Hippocampus algiricus), which swims in the waters off the West African coast from Senegal to Angola, has been particularly neglected and is at serious risk of extinction, added Bloch.
Hundreds of thousands of tiny seahorses are exported from West Africa annually, putting the animals at risk of extinction
In late 2016, CITES, a multilateral treaty governing trade in plants and animals, completely banned the trade of Hippocampus algiricus due to Senegal's failure to improve meets its obligations. Earlier that year, the international body had restricted exports of all seahorses to those sourced sustainably and legally due to their declining numbers — a quarter of the around 40 seahorses species are listed as vulnerable or endangered. The West African variety is among those.
But the moves have done little to curb demand.
When the bans don't work
Efforts to control the international trade in seahorses out of West Africa have so far been ineffective
Research published by the University of British Columbia in Canada earlier this year revealed that many nations continue to trade seahorses in large numbers despite bans. It found that 95% of dried seahorses in Hong Kong were reported as coming from supposedly prohibited countries.
"What we have now is a situation where the seahorse trade seems to be continuing 'business as usual' but is not legal, not managed and not monitored — all three of which are required under CITES provisions," said Sarah Foster, lead author of the study published in Marine Policy.
"There seems to be a lack of political will to stop this trade and there certainly aren't the resources being provided to fund anti-trafficking work," she told DW.
Cecile Bloch agrees that the Senegalese government has not taken any meaningful action beyond occasional customs seizures.
"The law in Senegal in any case does not protect seahorses well," she said. "There are quotas that are not respected or controlled and corruption (exists) especially."
Bloch said there was no legal avenue in Senegal to fight the international trade. And the Senegalese Ministry of Water, Forests, Hunting and Soil Conservation had not replied to a DW request for comment at the time of publication.
For now, the capture and sale of seahorses along the entire coast of Senegal continues apace.
In Djiffer, where young fisherman carefully repair holes in their nets while sipping tea, there is little sign of the industrial scale trade. Yet beneath the cobalt blue waters just beyond, the days of the seahorses could be numbered.