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News overview
19 December 2023

A small scholarship with major consequences

Mauritanian ecologist Hacen El-Hacen (1980) came to Groningen on a scholarship from the Eric Bleumink Fellowship. He is researching the largest African wadden area in order to contribute to its resilience. Moreover, he now helps with awarding Groningen scholarships to students from developing countries.

Off the coast of West Africa lies Banc d’Arguin, a wadden area that is unrivalled in its kind. It is larger than our Wadden Sea and is home to the greatest number of breeding aquatic birds of West Africa. Banc d’Arguin is Africa’s largest coastal park, an area that is indispensable to many of ‘our’ shorebirds and aquatic birds who hibernate there every year, such as the common spoonbill, tern, red knot, and black-tailed godwit.

Dutch ecologists, including UG biologist Theunis Piersma, have been doing research there for 40 years. In 1980, Piersma and his colleagues counted a record 2.4 million migratory birds there – which immediately put Banc d’Arguin on the map as a unique bird hot spot. The area turned out to be a crucial link in the migratory bird route from Siberia, Scandinavia, and the Wadden Sea to Africa.

Local fishermen

Then, one day in 2006, they ran into a Mauritanian student there. He had studied forest and nature management in Syria where he had also learned English. However, secretly, he was much more interested in the coast and the sea, birds and shells, seagrass and blow lugworms. So he started working for Park services: counting birds, monitoring benthos, but also giving tours to visitors from abroad, helping them with their field research, and communicating in Arabic with the local fishermen who took the researchers to remote places in their small boats.

‘That’s how I met Theunis Piersma’, says Hacen El-Hacen in a monumental building in the heart of Leeuwarden. Since last year, BirdEyes found its home in the former bank. BirdEyes is the expertise centre for migratory bird ecology that Piersma founded under the umbrella of the University of Groningen. ‘One year later, I was allowed to do observations for the Dutch people for half a year, while they were back in the Netherlands. In those days it was mentioned that I might do a Master’s degree in Groningen.’

Too costly

A magnificent plan but too costly. The people of Groningen helped with looking for a solution, which was soon found in the form of the Eric Bleumink Fellowship (EBF), part of the Eric Bleumink Fund. This fund grants students from developing countries scholarships enabling them to study at the UG. ‘The EBF has been my saviour’, El-Hacen says passionately. ‘Everything I have been able to do since then, I owe to that scholarship.’

In Groningen, he studied ecology and evolution and did a final research project in Piersma’s group. ‘I researched the common spoonbill in Banc d’Arguin’, says El-Hacen. ‘But I gradually discovered that I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand the entire coastal system, embrace the interaction between the seagrass and the tidal flats, and of course the migratory birds. And I wanted to be there all year, not just when the migratory birds are there.’

Great drought

Over the past decades, Banc d’Arguin has undergone some major changes. In the 1980s, for example, there was a lot less seagrass, and there were more bristle worms in the soil serving as food for migratory birds. Now, there is more seagrass and the birds mostly find shellfish. This means that there was also a major shift in the number of birds: some species profit from the changes, others perish.

‘All this is connected to the great drought in the Sahel region in the 1970s’, explains El-Hacen. ‘For eight years there was not a drop of rain. That was our climate change. That drought has had a huge impact. Sandstorms, sand sediments... Our world has been turned upside down. You see and live the consequences. Loss of cattle, of crops, but also of culture, of being connected with nature. Everyone there now has a hole in their heart. It is one big story of loss.’

New estuaries

That’s exactly what drives him to want to understand these changes. ‘How does this all influence the coastal system, what are the consequences, what can we do about it?’, he says to name a few examples. ‘We have also seen positive changes in recent years: the sea sometimes breaks through the dunes creating beautiful new estuaries with lots of seagrass. They are breeding grounds for young fish and they are rich with bird life. A bit similar to the Wadden Sea. Amazing.’

But the system is vulnerable: it is closed in by dykes and cities coming ever closer. There is a risk of pollution and the current climate change puts everything on edge as well. ‘That’s why I think not only research is important but also outreach’, says El-Hacen. ‘We have to start the conversation with the administrators, with the farmers and the fishermen, and the industry, to work together on resilience. Not only birds but also people will profit from that.’

The Dutch connection keeps playing a role in that, according to the researcher. ‘Dutch people have built a reputation. Administrators say: we can ignore everyone but not the Dutch academics!’

Hidden role

El-Hacen has by now obtained his PhD for his research. Financed by a Swiss fund, he currently works as a postdoc in Piersma’s group. But his ties with the EBF remain strong. ‘I myself am now in the committee that awards scholarships’, he says. ‘That is a great honour. I’m happy to run that extra mile for the EBF. The fund plays a hidden but crucial role in the university system: it offers people who otherwise would never have been able to escape their situation a chance, often people from the most vulnerable parts of the world.’

If these people follow a good education here, their knowledge and skills could spread like ripples on water when they return to their country of origin. ‘But it also works the other way around: these students are an enrichment to the UG. They bring with them unique knowledge and experiences and show what the relevant questions are.’ Recent scholarships granted that El-Hacen was involved in discussing were, for example, scholarships for students working on gender equality in Africa and on ways to help traumatized children in war zones.

‘These are the topics that really matter’, says El-Hacen. ‘Real mind-blowing research. The EBF touches the lives of so many people with this. I am so glad to be working alongside them and I do it with a big smile and an open heart.’

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