An Eco-Tree House in Senegal
Julie Falconer reports from a recent visit to Senegal, where she was able to experience their burgeoning ecotourism industry firsthand.
As I pulled up to Les Collines de Niassam, I was struck by one thing: the tree houses. Perched high in the branches of centuries-old baobab trees, the wooden chalets-in-the-air were the top floors of what I later discovered were three-story lodges. The upstairs level held the sleeping and living room, the middle a terrace with great views over the lagoon, and the bottom was a bathroom, complete with a shower in the roots of the baobab. The tree house was just one facet of an eco-resort that has helped put southern Senegal’s Palmarin region on the map.
Three hours south of the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Palmarin is a coastal region on the northern edge of the sprawling Sine-Saloum river delta. The region is famous for its migratory and resident bird populations, its picturesque rivers, and its beautiful coastline, and it is growing increasingly well known for ecotourism projects like Les Collines de Niassam. Nine years after receiving the official designation of nature reserve, the 3,500-hectare area of coast, mangroves, and salt flats is an example of how ecotourism can help bring about sustainable development.
The local Seereer community has traditionally used the land for salt collecting, farming, fishing, and cattle grazing. But as erosion of the land and degradation of local ecosystems started to threaten the environment, the community turned to ecotourism to help preserve the natural environment and provide a new source of income.
I wanted to see Palmarin’s ecotourism developments firsthand, so I took a trip to Senegal a few weeks ago. Local eco-enterprises were evident from the moment I arrived at my lodge. The main lobby was full of posters advertising tours with eco-guides, river safaris, and night drives for hyena watching. And Les Collines’ lounge area had a small gift shop featuring local goods like those produced by Otewo Artisanal Products. Women-owned and operated, Otewo sells a range of natural food and skincare products sourced from local ingredients.
The lodge itself was also a testament to the ecotourism trend. Les Collines de Niassam uses solar power for 90 percent of its energy. It also cooks gourmet food using locally sourced produce and vegetables from the lodge’s garden. And that’s to say nothing of how fun it is to spend the night in a tree house.
In addition to the ecotourism efforts by local businesses, the National Park Department and the Association of Hotels created the Palmarin Carbon Offset Program. Local visitors that want to reduce their carbon footprint can do so by filling out a card and making a donation to help with the reforestation of the reserve. There is a place on the card to choose specific plants to donate, each of them serving a special function to fight land erosion, soil exhaustion, or salt-water invasion. The ecotourism office also provides information about the land, flora and fauna, and community of Palmarin, and their staff also helps visitors make reservations with certified local eco-guides.
It was with two of these eco-guides that I went on a river safari through the mangrove channels in the Sine-Saloum Delta. With over 600 species of birds as well as jackals, hyenas, mongoose, and monkeys, the delta is teeming with life. In a large pirogue, the eco-guides took me through the mangrove-lined river, pointing out herons, kingfishers, egrets, cormorants, starlings, bee-eaters and the millions of oysters and mussels that grow on the roots of the mangrove trees.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I left Palmarin feeling upbeat about the environmental efforts of the local community. Yes, there are still plenty of cattle grazing the land, and increasing levels of salinity in the rivers is making it difficult to find fresh drinking water. But local efforts are aligning economic incentives and environmental protection. If those efforts continue, Palmarin’s environment and ecosystems will thrive well into the future.
[National Geographic Travel Guide: Senegal]
[Les Collines de Niassam]
Photos: Julie Falconer