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Dr Mohamed Henriques

Dr Mohamed Henriques looks at the world through birds’ eyes. He believes that “migratory birds connect the world at different levels, linking ecosystems, sites, habitats, and cultures”, and he was shortlisted for the JWO Research Grant for his proposal entitled “Migrant shorebirds as sentinels of local ecological changes in key African wetlands with global implications”.

He hopes to learn how local changes in West Africa “cascade through to the whole flyway by measuring changes in migration timing and pattern implications”.

He notes that “the shorebirds of the East Atlantic Flyway connect the very different ecosystems of Siberian tundra and Icelandic river plains in the Arctic, with the intertidal flats off the coast of the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania bordering the Sahara Desert, and the tropical mangrove islands of the Bijagós Archipelago, in Guinea-Bissau.

“These high latitude breeding species spend up to eight months at these African UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, foraging on invertebrates on the intertidal flats. Their disappearance might cause unpredictable shifts in this ecosystem. In face of current global changes, West Africa is among the most vulnerable regions, with foreseeable local ecological changes in key biodiversity areas like the Banc d’Arguin and the Bijagós Archipelago. However, these changes are very challenging to measure and monitor. The proposed research project is built on a long-term ongoing effort through which the movements of bar-tailed godwits, Limosa lapponica, and whimbrels, Numenius phaeopus, are being tracked with GPS tracking devices.

He says this is “a unique opportunity to learn from these birds about the local ecological changes taking place in West Africa by analysing the alterations in their space use and habitat preferences. In this way we want to develop migratory shorebirds as sentinels of the ecological changes taking place in the two most important biodiversity coastal wetlands in West Africa, the Banc d’Arguin, in Mauritania and the Bijagós Archipelago, in Guinea-Bissau.”

Asked what motivated him to embark on this research, Henriques, who is Bissau-Guinean, says “as an African citizen and a naturalist, I feel that I must also contribute to tackle the ongoing ecological crisis and help to preserve our African natural heritage.

“Finding solutions to ecological problems through the eyes of the birds qualifies as groundbreaking, but I believe that this was already what local African communities did many centuries ago: use nature to guide us on how to best exploit the resources in a sustainable way. As a young African, I am convinced that there is a lot of wisdom and know-how in our traditions and culture that can be retrieved and used to face today’s challenges.”

He says “the ecological state of the world is degrading rapidly due to global changes and biodiversity loss, which leads to worrying loss of ecological functions in our natural environment. Coastal wetlands in particular are key ecosystems which currently face increased pressure from unsustainable human activities and climate change, and the African continent is among the most vulnerable.

“Nonetheless, maintaining the ecological value of African wetlands is essential, not only for the intrinsic worth of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, but also due to their importance to the livelihood of local communities. A step towards this is to be able to identify what are the local changes that have happened and that are ongoing on African wetlands, and understand what can be done to improve the overall state of these ecosystems.

“Shorebirds are sensitive to changes in their environment, and in West Africa they depend on coastal areas of good quality where they can feed and rest in safety. If the conditions in these areas deteriorate, these birds will respond by changing their space use patterns and behaviour. Shorebirds have already been showing very steep declines in West African wetlands, and in particular migratory shorebirds are in trouble in this region. This research relevance hangs on the urgent need to understand why shorebirds are declining in West African wetlands.

“Using sophisticated technology, we can track the movement of small shorebirds with a high temporal and spatial resolution and apply advanced analytical methods to interpret shorebird movements in relation to their habitat choice and behavioural patterns. With this, we expect to learn about what are the most important habitat layers and areas where conservation efforts should be focused, informing management plans of the two African UNESCO Biosphere Reserves where our proposed research is focused on.”

Henriques says that in his previous study of migratory shorebirds in the Bijagós Archipelago in Guinea Bissau “one of the most relevant things we found was that fiddler crab colonies (Afruca tangerii), are one of the most important factors influencing shorebird distributions in the intertidal flats, with some shorebird species avoiding these areas because fiddler crabs cause a reduction in the abundance of other food resources like worms and mollusks), while others come to feed on these crabs.”

Henriques says “Africa is currently facing multiple conservation and environmental challenges, which are cumulative and are impacting biodiversity heavily. It is very difficult to isolate one challenge given the number of relevant threats, like intensive fisheries, habitat degradation, mining and plastic pollution, among others. But if I had to mention just one thing besides climate change, I would highlight industrialisation and human development activities surrounding the energy industry, and mining, which is causing extensive marine and coastal habitat destruction, land subsidence, disturbance to biodiversity and disrupting the local culture and the societal structure of local communities.”

All is not doom and gloom, however. Henriques says that “science has multiple facets and multiple layers to it, and many amazing developments are being achieved by researchers for all of these layers. In ecology, and in movement ecology in particular, the development of advanced GPS trackers of very small size and weight, solar panels, accelerometers that allow to measure behaviours, and high temporal and spatial resolution of data collection have allowed researchers in avian ecology to follow the movement of birds with unprecedented detail.

“This has opened a whole new set of possibilities that, with powerful analytical methods, enabled to sharply define boundaries of bird populations, identify important areas for conservation, and understand how birds are using different areas. Tracking also opened the possibility for us to gain insight on how migratory birds connect different habitats, ecosystems and countries along their migratory flyways, and learn how different areas in the world are dependent of each other.”

Asked what he will do if he gets the JWO award, he says “I will get to work and use the amazing opportunity to try to make a contribution and a difference for the preservation of African natural patrimony.”

And to keep him going, he’ll have a stock of gummy bears. “I am absolutely crazy about gummy bears! I always take several bags of them when I go to the field, and eat them while I watch, count or study birds.”

Dr Mohamed Henriques is currently a post-doctoral researcher, BirdEyes Centre for Global Ecological Change.

He has a Ph.D in Ecology, which was conferred for his thesis entitled “Shorebirds of the Bijagós: Interpreting ecological processes and habitat features affecting migratory shorebirds in a mangrove-influenced tidal landscape’”

Dr Mohamed Henriques