Banc d’Arguin National Park, Mauritania

Photo: Kokopelado (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Kokopelado (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A flock of flamingoes wade through the water, each standing on only one pink leg when they pause. Broad-billed sandpipers forage in the soft mud around the marsh. Black-and-white Caspian terns dive straight into the water in search of fish. White pelicans gracefully glide toward a small island. While an endangered Mediterranean monk seal watches them from the shore.

Welcome to Banc d’Arguin National Park, a beautiful World Heritage Site that few people have—or will be able—to visit. There are no fancy lodges, trails with lookout points, or even roads here. Those who come to explore the swamps, the sand dunes, and the islands within the national park must have an off-road vehicle, camping gear, and be willing to travel to Mauritania.

Mauritania is a Western African country that is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali, and Senegal. This is not a welcoming place. Slavery is still a major issue here, and terrorists are believed to be hiding out in the western part of this Islamic republic. But along the coast, between the capital of Nouakchott and the fishing town of Nouadhibou, it’s quiet and peaceful.

Banc d’Arguin was named a national park to protect the rich fishing area from international fishing fleets. It was later named a World Heritage Site, since it’s the breeding site for migratory birds from Northern Europe, Greenland, and Siberia. Imraguen fishing tribes live in little villages within the national park. They use small boats, nets, and dolphins to attract shoals of fish.

The wintering birds—the tiny ringed plovers, the huge flocks of red knots, the silent Eurasian spoonbills, and the wading bar-tailed godwits—have all returned home for the warm summer months. A few terns and black reed cormorants stay all year. As do the Atlantic humpback and bottlenose dolphins. They fly around Tidra, the largest offshore island, and they swim around Arguin’s dangerous reef. Maybe it’s a good thing that no one is around to disrupt them.

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