Project Leader

Nigel Downing

Nigel Downing

Who I am

I suspect that I am somewhat of a curiosity compared to the normal recipient of an SOSF grant. Firstly, at the age of 65 I am probably older than most, although hopefully not the oldest! Secondly, I am no longer a full-time research scientist. And thirdly, I am resurrecting aspects of a project that consumed me more than 40 years ago when I was a young PhD student. Working at the Durban Aquarium between school and university, I quickly cottoned on to the fact that I liked sharks, and that to become a field biologist was my thing. I also knew quite a lot about the bull shark Carcharhinus leucas, which was the main culprit for a spate of shark encounters off Durban’s beaches in the 1960s. What fascinated me was that this shark could enter fresh water. So, when at university the head of department said that sharks and rays were intolerant of fresh water, I happily pointed out the error of his ways. Thus the idea of a PhD was born – how do cartilaginous fish species such as the bull shark and sawfish adapt to fresh water?

Where I work

In my day job I work around the world, but it has nothing to do with where I am going with the SOSF award. That place is Senegal, and specifically the Casamance region. The Casamance is a river right in the south of the country. It flows from east to west and empties into the eastern Atlantic just a few miles north of the Guinea Bissau border. My base in the 1970s, it was where I discovered a treasure trove of sharks and rays using the estuary as a nursery ground. Bull sharks were in abundance in that area, but I needed live animals and it is not easy to keep this shark in confined spaces. However, smalltooth sawfishes were also very common there, but only at certain times of the year and in very specific locations. Luckily, I was able to discover both.

What I do

What I do now is probably dull to most scientists, so let me tell you what I did do for the PhD and what I am going to do with the SOSF award. They are linked. I took for granted the abundance of the sawfishes when I found them. I learned to catch them, keep them alive in the river and even transport them by air right up to the north of Senegal to proper holding facilities. More than 40 years on and every indication is that the smalltooth sawfish is all but extinct in the region. The big question is, does it still exist in the Casamance? I intend to do a short feasibility study to see if we can find out. If the smalltooth sawfish, the most endangered of all the sharks and rays, is still there, it will be a massive find and the implications for its preservation on the eastern Atlantic seaboard very challenging.

My project

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