Ruth Leeney

I have always been fascinated by the underwater world, encouraged perhaps by watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries as a child, and when I learned to scuba dive in my early 20s, my world changed forever. I began my career as a marine biologist by studying whales and dolphins and, searching for a niche to fill, realised that there was remarkably little known about them in African waters. I began working in The Gambia in 2007 and have since been involved in projects in eight countries on both the east and west coasts of Africa.

Through my experience in providing training to local communities and interviewing fishers, I landed a short contract to collect information about sawfishes in Guinea-Bissau. I soon became fascinated by this group of unique and rapidly disappearing species. We have even less information about where in Africa sawfishes still exist and the local threats they face than we have about whales and dolphins.

I set up the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project in 2012 in order to address this gap in knowledge and to work in collaboration with local communities and governments to protect any remaining sawfish populations in African waters. To my mind, sawfishes can act as flagship species for marine conservation. By addressing the threats to sawfishes, which include unsustainable fishing practices and the loss of mangrove habitats, we address threats to marine and freshwater ecosystems throughout Africa and to the fishing communities that depend on these ecosystems for food and income.