Ruth H. Leeney is the founder and director of Protect Africa’s Sawfishes and the Sawfish Conservation Officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.
Sawfishes are among the least understood fishes in the world. How did you become one of the few people to study them?
By accident, really. I was doing interview work in West African fishing communities to assess whether dolphins are regularly targeted as a source of food. Because of that experience, I was asked to collect interview data on sawfishes in Guinea-Bissau in 2012, which was then thought to be one of the last refuges for sawfishes in West Africa. And then I became intrigued!
There aren’t many sawfishes left globally. Do they still exist in Africa?
I think they do, but I’m still searching for the photographic proof! So far I have some convincing evidence from a few sites in both Mozambique and Madagascar. Later this year I’ll be sampling in some of those areas in the hope of catching a few sawfishes.
Where do you spend most of the year?
It often feels like I spend a lot of my time squashed into various forms of public transport throughout the African continent. Nowhere in particular – any place where sawfishes used to occur and where there is no up-to-date information about them.
What’s the most remote place you’ve been to?
Probably Lac Kinkony, in north-western Madagascar. There are no roads to get there, so you travel in a crowded truck along a potholed, unsealed road for hours (depending on how often the bus breaks down) to a nearby village. Then you walk to the riverbank, get into an uncovered, aluminium shell of a boat and sit in it for another five hours while a local boatman paddles down the river, lifting the boat through narrow straits (we got out and walked the long way around through mud and thigh-deep river channels for that part). You finally emerge into the lake and cross its wide, unshaded expanse to reach one of the dispersed villages along the shore.
Why is it important that we protect sawfishes if there are so few of them left?
Sawfishes are top predators in river, mangrove and coastal ecosystems, so they help to keep these ecosystems in balance. They are also an important part of many traditional cultures in places like Australia, Guinea-Bissau and Panama, so by protecting sawfishes in such areas, we also help to conserve traditional cultures, many of which are also in danger of disappearing. But for me, it’s simply because they are unique in so many ways and because if we can’t save such a weird and wonderful group of species, what hope is there for the rest of the natural world?
Based in one of the world’s most unusual and unexplored ecosystems, Ruth aims to unravel the mystery of Madagascar’s sawfishes. Which species are present? What threats do they face? Can communities be convinced to protect them?