Fauna of Timbuktu

Wildlife is limited in the desert and has grown more so in recent years between droughts and hunting either for food or sport or both. The following is what remains in the zone:

Domestic Animals

Camels are widely used by nomads as personal transport, transport of goods and for food. For more information on the camel see the page on camels.

Kitten on carpet
Cats are common in the cities of the area. They are handy to control the rodent population, and are kept as such with minimal up-keep. However many people are superstitious of them, associating them with witchcraft or sorcery. Witches are believed to shape-shift and a cat is one of the animals into which a witch may change. Also cats are believed to be capable of stealing a person's soul. Many people are careful to keep cats away from infants and are uneasy or down right afraid to touch a cat or have one walk on them. See also the page about eating cats. The cats here tend to be thin with medium length hair and come in whites, white with black spots, orange and mackerel tabbies. There is apparently some wild variety of cat that lives in the desert, though they can and do cross with the town cats.

Chickens are smaller and tougher than we are used to seeing in the western world their eggs are also considerably smaller and due to species or diet often don't produce an egg everyday. However they do provide a variation in protein for the people in the area.

Cattle grazing along the Niger River
Cows only barely reach the zone of Timbuktu. They stick near the river requiring far more water than sheep or goats. The cattle in this area are a variety known as zebus they have a hump on the back of the neck that may flop to one side. this hump functions as a reservoir of fat similar to that of a camel. It stores the necessary energy without overheating the cow with a layer of fat on its entire body. They have large curving horns and are predominately white, though dark brown is not uncommon and the Fulani herder people have a hundred odd ways of describing the nuances in the coloration of a cow.

Dogs seem to be ubiquitous the world over but while they do exist in Timbuktu they are actually relatively few in number. In comparison to other cities in Mali or neighbouring countries Timbuktu does not echo the night over with howls and barking relays. This is apparently been the case for a long time as René Caille comments on the lack of dogs during his stay in Timbuktu 150 years ago.

Donkeys are indeed ubiquitous in and around Timbuktu. In this area they are used in preference to the horse for pulling two wheeled carts in addition to being general pack animals. In and around town they pack burdens such as heavy goods home from market or jugs of water home from the public faucet. Caravans of donkeys can be seen going from Timbuktu to Douenza and Dogon country where half-slabs of salt from the taoudeni mines are traded for millet, onions and other goods common in the south. The are usually greyish brown with a black cross on the back (long line down the spine and the cross bar over the shoulders) although white or dark brownish black ones exist too. When not in use they can be seen standing idly alone or in groups in pares the like to stand facing each other with head rested on opposing necks. Occasionally a donkey (or heard of donkeys) will take it in head to go charging around braying wildly with no apparent provocation. While donkeys do in fact make a sound remarkably like "hee-haw" that simple word does not do justice to that sound of a donkey's bray... especially not in the middle of the night.

Goats around a well
Goats will eat anything and it is probably a good thing here, as on the Saharan boarder quality food can be scarce. In town these animals graze the trash heaps for anything remotely edible including scraps of cardboard and and plastic bags. Though less prestigious than the ram they are eaten for meat and the nanny goats produce milk that is made into cheese or soured and used in a local beverage of refreshment called zrig or for medicinal properties. The skin is preferred for leather working as it is the most durable of the hides available and is used to make geurba (water bags) as well as well buckets, shoes and drum heads to name but a few items. Key characteristics that distinguish goats from sheep is the short perky uplifted tail, and the shape of the head. They have a more delecate shaped face with a pointier muzzle.

Horses Like camels the horse has beein used for transport in the area for a very long time. The local horses are of Arabian or some similar stock. Small and hardy and adapted to the environment

Pigeon on our roof
Pigeons Are kept almost more than chickens, perhaps because they require less care. They are eaten and make a tasty stew of the local variety. However there seems to be far more of them kept than accounts for how many are eaten. Young boys seem to take a pleasure in raising them for no profitable end use - as pets. When they do get tired of the responsibility they may slaughter them and have a little feast of grilled pigeon. Others escape to roost on roof tops where only an agile user of the slingshot will recapture them.

Sheep are an important animal in the zone and many families even in the towns try to keep at least one or two in the yard. Ewe milk is used as goat milk for beverage or cheese. Rams are slaughtered and sold by weight by the town butchers (as are goats, cows and camels) but are also purchased whole and live in mass quantities for the religious celebrations particularly Eid El Kabir, know as Tabaski. Sheep are also a preferred sacrifice of family choosing to slaughter an animal to distribute the meat in offering for a safe trip or on a day when prayers are being offered for a sick member of the family or to provide meat for a wedding or baptismal celebration. In these later cases a wealthy family may slaughter a cow or camel instead.

Sheep are often confused with goats by visitors used to the bob-tailed wooly variety of Europe and North America. sheep in Africa do not have their tails removed. They also have much less wool for climatic reasons. however the wool they do have is harvested, spun and woven. Blankets of this material can be found in the markets. Hides with the wool still on are cured and made into prayer rugs or mats for the patriarch to sit on. Leg bones of the sheep and goats are used to make tobacco pipes.

Wild/Native Animals

Ardvark at night
Aardvarks These peculiar nocturnal creatures native to Africa are still to be found in the Sahara north of Timbuktu. They have long snouts and long claws on both front and hind feet to dig out the ants. What I found particularly disturbing about the one I saw was that the hind feet looked closely related to the human hand I almost took it for a monkey’s paw. The back of the hand was covered with short hair. The palm was leathery with thumbs that are surely close to being opposable the tipped by long nails that looked like overgrown fingernails.

bats in an abandoned building
Bats As in most places bats come out at dawn and dusk to eat insects and can be found nesting in abandoned buildings. Occasionally one will fly into a open door or window not find its way our immediately and spend the day hanging upside down in a dim corner till the following evening

Birds There are 606 species of birds both large and small in Mali. I have been told by locals that seagulls have even been seen as far inland as Timbuktu! While it is not a bird park one bird-watcher said he saw eleven new birds on his trip to Mali (that is ones he’d never seen before). Along the river you can see many fishing and wading birds such as grebe, pelican, cormorant, darter, herons bitterns, egrets, hamerkops, storks, shoebills, Ibises, spoonbills, ducks, geese, and osprey. Large birds of prey and scavengers such as hawks, kites, eagles, buzzards, vultures, falcons and owls are found in the edges of the desert and small grain and insect eaters are all over the place. Examples include pigeons, doves, finches, swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, larks, swallows, martins, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Larger terrestrial birds such as francolin, quail, partridges, guinea fowl, bustard, ostrich are frequently hunted for food by nomads. For the ardent birder you can visit the page on birds for more details.

Scarab beetle
“Bugs” There is a very rich insect life in the desert. Many are quite large. While many might say “eew” to bugs they are generally benevolent and rather fascinating only a few offer any danger and those usually only when they feel threatened. The selection of beetles is huge. The most common beetle to be seen is the scarab. The scarab is sacred and a sign of good fortune in Egypt. It looses a bit of its romance to learn that it is in fact a variety of dung beetle. It is however more elegant than the veritable dung beetle seen more commonly in southern Mauritania its bulbous body crawling backwards while it rolls a ball of manure with its rear legs puts one in mind of the bumble bee: big and clumsy. See the sidebar for a selection of insect life.

Elephants: To the south east of Timbuktu in the circle of Bourem a heard of elephants still circulates. These are protected and are being tracked by radio tags. They run a loop through the northern bit of Burkina Faso and up into Mali. During certain seasons they can be found around the ponds between Hombouri and Gourma Rharous.

Frogs come out during the rainy season. They hibernate under the mud in the areas that flood seasonally. When the rains soften up the ground they come out, mate, repruduce and leave a new generation to carry on the tradition. During this time you can hear the frog song at night and it is not uncommon to find the occasional amphibian hopping around your yard in the night, or hiding out in a cool dark corner during the day.

Gazelles Once very common these graceful creatures are becoming harder to find, though we still have people bring by baby ones that they caught wanting to sell them to us. We refuse as they are often too young to survive easily without their mother. Gazelle horn is used by artisans particularly for bracelets. The natural curve of the horns lends itself well to such fabrication; the polished surface is then inlaid with silver, bronze and copper designs.

hippo in the Niger River
Hippos A family of Hippos lives just down stream of Timbuktu in the Niger river. It is a popular tourist activity to try and spot them. These massive mammals spend most of their time in the water and when the river is high you may only catch a sight of their nose and ears when they come up to breath. When the river is lower you can see more of them sticking out of the water. Sometimes you can catch them on shore and you can certainly see the great craters formed by their footprints in the soft clay of the river banks. For all their size they are fast swimmers and can be dangerous if they feel threatened. I saw the desiccated head of a young male who had been killed by local fishermen after it had attacked someone.

Jackals These nocturnal members of the dog family are occasionally seen at a distance. They are scavengers though they will also eat small prey. They look rather like a fox in size an shape with brown or yellowish fur and a darker stripe along the back including the fluffy tail. The locals have some superstitions concerning jackals for this reason jackal skin guerbas are acquired for children for whom propitious portents have been noted. It is supposed to bring good fortune, success in all undertakings and assure one will always get the better of ones enemies.

Adult Gecko hiding behind shutter

young gecko
Lizards A profusion of species live in the zone. Geckos called tilentari by the local population are dull earth colours. They have rounded pads on their toes and their legs go out to the sides bringing the body close to the ground. They look rather like a rubber lizard in a toy shop. Geckos are nocturnal and live off insects. They often hide out in dark spaces in the house during the day; behind a folded back window shutter or in the narrow gap between a wall and a piece of furniture. They come out at night to eat insects that swarm around the lights. If grabbed the gecko's tail can come off to be re-grown later. The tail continues to twitch after being detached, a mechanism to distract while the gecko makes its escape. Locals are frightened of geckos they claim they are poisonous and would do you harm should they fall on you. They often try to kill them when they see them. Geckos are harmless and, in fact, do good by eating mosquitoes and other obnoxious bugs. It is also highly improbably that they would fall on you considering that they can walk across a plaster ceiling with no difficulty.

Male mbaga lizard

Female mbaga lizard
Another variety of lizard called mbaga is day-living. The male is brightly coloured with an orange head, blue body and reddish-orange tail. His female counter part is smaller and greyish with orange and green mottling on the sides. These lizards dart about stopping to do push-ups and jerk their heads about. The have claws on their toes instead of sticky pads. They always seem to be holding themselves in fingertip-push up position and look like they've been made of the hard moulded plastic of toy dinosaurs in the toy shop.

Another variety also suspected of being poisonous and mistrusted is a sand burrowing lizard. It has a roundish body somewhat like a stubby snake with legs and is the colour of sand. I have never actually seen one in nature but the small boys sometimes catch them and keep then in a can of sand to try and sell to tourists.

Chameleons are more rare and I have only seen one in the zone. They prefer to live in trees. These creatures have odd feet with two wide opposing sections that grip.

Ostriches The feathers of these large, flightless, long-necked, long-legged birds were once a major commerce item on the markets of Timbuktu. They are the largest bird in the world and are very fast runners. They have been hunted to scarcity in the region but their picture is used on the packaging of one of the popular brands of green tea sold in the area. They are the largest bird in the world and are very fast runners.

Rabbits live in the bush and are hunted for food by the nomads.

Rodents there are several species of rodent in the area. A burrowing country mouse, known as a jarboise, with cream underside and beige back and a very long tail is rather pretty, and if captured by the nomads can form a part of the diet. There is also a variety of hopping mouse whose tracks can be seen on the dunes in the morning.

Tortoise These long-lived herbivorous land turtles are prevalent throughout west Africa's wherever the mandinge had influence. They are the symbol of longevity and are good luck to have in a household. In the Bambara tradition when a new chief takes up the power a tortoise is brought and remains in that household until the chief dies. The woman who prepares the chief's meals sits upon the tortoise and when it is ready gives it the first taste if it accepts than the meal is good and the chief can eat it if the tortoise refuses the meal is thought to be poisoned. It is thought as long as the tortoise is present and well so will remain the chiefdom. The Sognai of Timbuktu have adapted the legend; the women sit on a tortoise when they prepare toh, a very thick sort of cream of millet, when finished they will give the stiring paddle to the tortoise to taste the paste stuck to it. If it eats the food is good if not... well the head of household, at least, will not partake thereof.

African Zorrilla
Zorrilla This is genetically a member of the weasel family but looks a lot like a skunk, having the characteristic black body white white stripes on the back and a fluffy tail almost as long as the body, which is however long and narrow like the weasel. Like the skunk it also has sent glands next to its anus that spray a foul odour as a defence mechanism. They are nocturnal and may come sniffing around human habitations in search of food stuff. Fortunately the spray is a last line of defence with running away or playing dead like an opossum being preferred methods, because the Guinness book of animal records states that one has held off a pride of lions while feeding on their kill.