Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Stay Tuned...

I'm now back in Florida for manatee work here, but I'm proceeding with fundraising efforts to continue work with West African manatees, hopefully next spring and summer. This blog will resume when I return to Africa!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Huge Thank You!

To all the wonderful people who helped and supported me in Gabon, shared their advice and boundless enthusiasm, and most of all made me feel welcome. Your dedication to Gabon, it's protected areas and wildlife is phenominal, and I truly hope I can return to work with you all again and contribute more to understanding the West African manatee there. In particular I would like to recognize the wonderful collaborative spirit that I feel between Wildlife Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society.

There are many folks I'd like to recognize, but I only have pictures of a few. Those who escaped my lens for now, but who were integral to making my work and overall experience there a great one, include Lee White of WCS Gabon, Rombout Swanborn of Operation Loango, Solange Ngouessono at Mayumba National Park, Steve Blake, Sharon Deem, Francois Horrent, Evelyne, Heaven and Christian at the WCS office in Libreville, Pierre and Daniel at the Cas de Passage, Bas Hujibregts and Pauwel DeWacher of WWF, Robert and Sosa at Evaro Lodge. And of course Howard Rosenbaum in New York.

And those who didn't escape my camera...

Han and Josey, who introduced me to the Petit Tropicana, the best beach bar in Libreville.

Bruno at his favorite office position. Bruno was a huge help with logistics, even if he liked to jokingly give me a hard time about things!

Aimee, Rich and Boo in Mayumba. Thanks to Rich who suppported my survey work there!

Simon and Ant enjoying a Mayumba sunset

Nic and Jean Marc surveying Evaro Lake. Thanks again to Jean Marc for all his support and enthusiasm for manatee work there. I hope we can do some GPS tagging in this freshwater system in the future.

Tomo talking to EcoGuides while being interviewed by National Geographic. Thanks very much to Tomo for all his help at Iguela, including loaning me his personal camping gear!

Alban and Ladji provided lots of laughs at Iguela.

All the EcoGuides and boat drivers I worked with were very knowledgible about where to find manatees, and had the best ability to spot wildlife from a distance that I have ever seen. I appreciate all the hours of slow boat driving, advice on manatee habitat and seasonal movements.

Romain lent us his personal boat to survey Akanda National Park and maintained his good sense of humor about getting stuck in the mud and other minor logistical frustrations!

I made some great new friends who I hope I will see again before too long- Sandra and Kath....

Ruth! Best of luck with your future endeavors!

Josey and Angela.

And last, but certainly never least........ Tim (see below)

Tim wants a Blog

...or at least that's what he said when he first saw mine! For those of you who don't know him, Tim is a cetacean biologist who I met at a marine mammal conference last December. Over lunch with mutual friends he mentioned that he was looking for a manatee biologist to come to Gabon to study manatees there. I gave him a business card, never expected to hear from him again, and was very surprised to receive an email about a month later, asking if I wanted to start working on a proposal for manatee research. Hard to believe that was less than a year ago.

After my 2 months in Gabon, Tim and I have now developed a pretty good working partnership. We've learned how to work through each other's bad moods, goofy moods, my need for morning coffee, his need to disappear every once in awhile, and both of our need to take a zillion pictures. Other things I've learned alot about Tim over the past couple months:

- When he's not chewing on the biopsy darts, he has absolutely amazing accuracy at collecting genetic samples from whales at sea.
- He takes longer to pack for a 3 day camping trip than most other people would take to pack for a month.
- He never has any idea where he'll be in 2 weeks.

- He knows how to find great food anywhere, no matter if he's in a city or the jungle.
- He is absolutely certain he will be killed by a hippo.

So Tim, this blog is for you. Thanks for all your help with logistics and for introducing me to so many wonderful people and places in Gabon. You're a true friend and I look forward to more great collaboration between Wildlife Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society on West African manatees. I'll never be able to thank you enough for inviting me on this incredible adventure.

Cheers mate! ;-)

Friday, November 03, 2006

More Akanda Pictures
Below is a picture from another fishing village, this one is called Moka. The people were really friendly and most of them spoke English.

The mangroves are huge here!
Below is Ruth, the most enthusiastic paddler! She was such a good sport about spending her vacation day paddling after we ran out of gas. Ruth runs WCS's program at Langoue Bai in Ivindo National Park.Pin-tailed Wydah, a very cool little bird we saw in Akanda. Note the extremely long tail.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Last weekend I spent a couple days boating around Akanda National Park, looking for manatees, sea turtles and talking to fishermen to see if they hunt or see manatees or turtles. On Friday morning 3 of us boated a zodiac from Libreville around a peninsula (open ocean but relatively calm) to the very shallow bay at Akanda. The water is murky and it was hard to see the depth- we actually got stuck in the mud and had a very funny experience trying to walk the boat to deeper water.

On Friday afternoon we visited a Nigerian fishing village on a small river. They mostly fish in the ocean rather than the bay, and they catch shrimp and spiny lobsters as well as fish. The chief told us in his 9 years there he had never seen a manatee, but that they catch about 2 turtles a week (although they don't differentiate between freshwater and sea turtles, so it's hard to know exactly how many are sea turtles, but they shouldn't be taking any, so obviously there's a negative impact). We also surveyed a smaller bay and a couple rivers. It is mangrove habitat, so impossible to see manatee feeding sign, and we saw no manatees or turtles.

The following day I went out again with a boat driver and two friends, Josey and Ruth. Unfortunately we got about 5km from the marina and ran out of gas. This was due to several factors- a gas gauge that didn't work, my misunderstanding of the amount of gas we had used the previous day, and a boat driver who decided not to tell us we were low on gas before we left the dock. So we spent a couple hours intensively studying a particular section of the river while paddling and not really getting very far! Eventually we persuaded some fishermen to tow us back to the marina in exchange for some money and a couple beers. They ended up giving us some fresh lobster so it was a pretty good trade! We also talked to them about manatees and they said they had never seen any there. It's hard to know if they are telling the truth, but with the intensive fishing that takes place there, my guess is that if there are any manatees at all, they are very few.

Sunday we had a torrential downpour and didn't end up going out on the water, so unfortunately we were never able to survey the eastern side of the bay. Monday morning my friends Romain, Bruno, Ant and I moved the boat back to Libreville, of course in perfect sunny weather! I wish I could've spent longer up there, but I had to leave Gabon that night. The boat belongs to Romain, so I thank him very much for letting us use it!

Nigerian fishing village in the large shallow bay. This is one of at least 3 villages in the park. Josey with a paddle, right before we got stuck in the mud. Little did we know at the time this picture was taken how important the paddles would become!

I want to put up as few more pics from Akanda soon, but am having trouble loading at the moment.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Back in the office and daydreaming of Pongara...

Cool Guitarfish I saw swimming along the shore.

Tomorrow I'll head off to Akanda National Park, a half hour drive north of Libreville. I'll be surveying for manatees and juvenile sea turtles (likely greens, but also possibly hawksbills) with Angela, a sea turtle colleague who works here. Akanda may not have many manatees due to it's proximity to Libreville (there are also a few fishing villages there), but a carcass was reported there last year and it'll be interesting to check out another protected area. I'll be offline from Friday-Sunday, hopefully they'll be time for one more post before I fly to the US on Monday night.

This is a nice map of Gabon's national parks that I found on the internet. In my 7 weeks here I will have surveyed Mayumba, Loango, a western section of Ogooue (Lambarene and Evaro), and Akanda for manatees, so I feel that I have been able to see a wide representation of the country's protected areas and different manatee habitats.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I just spent a blissful 3 ½ days in Pongara, a national park across the estuary from Libreville. I was actually in Pointe Denis, a small, very laid back beach with a few houses and hotels that is a favorite weekend getaway spot for Expats in Libreville. It’s near the tip of the peninsula in the upper left corner of the map. The national park is outlined in green and Libreville is on the top middle of the map in red. I was invited by a friend who recently bought a wonderful little beach house there, so I joined a merry group of who headed out for the long weekend (Monday was a holiday here). The navette (ferry) from Libreville only takes about 30 minutes to get there, but it feels worlds away. It’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve really had time off to completely relax and not think about logistics, reports, etc. for a few days. It was so nice to take long walks on the beach, swim, read, eat great meals, laugh and just sit and watch birds in the trees and great sunsets. The house is perfect in its simplicity- no electricity, just two rooms and a huge porch, a gas stove and the luxury of an outdoor freshwater shower. It sits about 50 feet from the water behind the shelter of a few lush green trees, and the back looks out over savannah. We had a couple gorgeous sunny days and several intense rain showers.

The view across the estuary to Libreville is in the background.Sunset on the savannah.

Pongara is known for leatherback sea turtle nesting, but the season has just started. I saw a couple nests (huge! They literally look like a bulldozer has come through), but no turtles. Only about half the nest is visible in this photo. There is good protection in place and an NGO (Adventures sans Frontiers) who have a research station on the beach and do nest monitoring, but there are still quite a few off road quad cycles going up and down the beach. Our host, hard at work editting his elephant book:

Mum Sandra and Kath Jeffery. Kath has been in Gabon for most of the last 10 years and is the Assistant Director of Lope National Park. Sandra was visiting from England. The three of us had alot of laughs together!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Detour To Libreville

On Monday I left Iguela in a truck with 8 others from Iguela, and we bumped along the sandy track across the savannah for the hour and a half drive to the airport at Ombooue. We then took a short flight to Port Gentil, where Tim and I had a really nice lunch with Francois, his good friend who has driven the whale boat for many seasons here. Tim said I was suffering from "the Iguela Effect" because all I wanted was salads! I ate two in rapid succession. It's hard to get fresh veggies and fruits at Iguela because they don't have a garden and everything has to be brought in.

On Tuesday I spent a frustrating 9 hours in the Port Gentil airport after my flight to Gamba was cancelled. The airlines here are small companies, often with only a few planes, so when one of them (or in my case 2) break down, it's just not possible to get to your destination. I tried the only other airline there that had flights to Gamba, but they were reserved by Total Gas. There are so many oil company people here, that gas companies reserve entire flights for their staff. I was finally able to change my ticket to return to Libreville and got back here Tuesday night.

This is a picture of the peninsula at Port Gentil, which is the westernmost point in Gabon, and the site of an old whaling station. Tim would like to try to collect samples of old whale bone there, to look at DNA and compare it with samples they get from living whales now.

The sunset Tuesday night at the local favorite beach bar in Libreville, a great place to get a Regab and watch the sun go down.

So now I'm thinking about what else I might do to learn about manatees with my remaining one and a half weeks in Gabon. Unfortunately due to logistics, I won't be able to get to Gamba. Planes fly there only a couple times a week, and with such a big lagoon, I'd need more than a few days to do any meaningful surveys there. Hopefully I'll get there next time. I'm now hoping to get to Akanda National Park, just north of Libreville. They had a manatee carcass there (a year or so ago I think) and I may be able to combine my fieldwork with Angela, a sea turtle researcher I've just met who also wants to survey there.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Tomorrow morning I leave Iguela. I'll go to Port Gentil for one night and then fly to Gamba, which is a town on the next lagoon south, the N'Dogo. This lagoon is much bigger and I'll only have a week there, so I doubt I'll see all of it. But the idea is to get a sense of the place and meet some of the people working there. My boss Buddy surveyed this area a few years ago and listed it as one of the eight most critical areas for manatees in West Africa, so I'm looking forward to following up his work there! I'll be the guest of Bas Huijbrugts of World Wildlife Fund.

Before I leave Iguela I'd like to thank the three guys who have spent two weeks in a boat with me, mostly in the rain, always covered with Tse Tse flies (and not always happy about it). They have great senses of humor and made my 12 manatees sightings here possible.

Brice and Pierre, getting in touch with their feminine side.Tim demonstrates Tse Tse fly defense gear.My best bird photo so far... a Blue-breasted Bee-eater

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The beach

Friday afternoon I had a chance to go out to the beach at Iguela for the first time since I’ve been here. It was so nice to get out and walk, after riding around in a boat so much! It’s a beautiful wide beach with lots of pretty shells, big ghost crabs but no animal tracks (too close to humans- there’s a village close by). Sometimes humpback whales can be seen from this beach. Huge logs are found on every beach here, lost as logging companies tow huge groups of logs from lagoons to large ships waiting off the coast.

Akaka is African heaven!

Tim and I and our 2 Ecoguides spent 3 nights at Akaka, which is a camp at the junction of 2 rivers south of the lagoon. Akaka is one of the most pristine and stunningly gorgeous places I have ever seen. As we traveled down the river from the lagoon we passed through different habitats- first dominated by palm and papyrus, then large areas of open swampland bordered by hardwood forests, and finally the river is bordered by the hardwood forest itself. We saw a group of 5 hippos (apparently rare to see this many adults together), saw lots of forest buffalo (including a carcass killed by a leopard), 2 species of monkeys (Red-capped mangabeys and Moustached), spectacular birds and even had an elephant walk through camp. We saw a manatee the first day as we traveled to the camp along the river, and saw likely feeding sign (although in some places it’s difficult to differentiate between manatee, hippo and buffalo) and found fresh feces. There have been previous sightings at Akaka, but their use may be seasonal. We didn’t have frequent sightings as we have in the northern part of the lagoon.

Akaka was set up by Iguela Lodge as a satellite camp for tourists to see wildlife and comprises a main platform building with a sitting area and dining room overlooking the rivers, and 5 platforms up a hill nestled in the trees with dome tents and outdoor showers. We had the place to ourselves which was great! Very relaxing to listen to all the wonderful forest sounds. One morning we woke up and saw an elephant lying in the grass just across the river from the living area platform. The Tse Tse flies were bothersome, especially when we were out in the boat, but still not as miserable as the chiggers last time I was in Belize!

The main living / dining platform overlooking the river The view from the platform at sunset
A hippo in the river

Giant Kingfisher

After we finished our surveys, an EcoGuide named George who is currently stationed at Akaka for 3 months, took Tim and I on a walk through the forest. Elephant and buffalo tracks were everywhere, we saw some incredibly beautiful butterflies and flowers, and enormous trees. Huge Black-Casqued Wattled hornbills flew through the trees (the huge casque on their bill makes a cool humming sound as they fly) and we could hear the most amazing trills and songs of other forest birds from the trees above. George showed us which trees chimps prefer, fruits that monkeys like and which trees elephants like to scratch bark off of…even the large roots of trees elephant hunters use to escape charging elephants (he’s a former elephant hunter). A couple pictures:

I have so many incredible pictures, but the internet is slow, so I'll have to post more later.

On the way back to Iguela yesterday we stopped and collected the skeleton of a manatee carcass that Tim had found in July, plus collected part of the carcass (head and flippers) that I discovered in the lagoon last week. The maggots are doing their best to clean off all the soft tissue- I’ll spare you the close up maggot pictures!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lagoon map

To give an idea of some of the places I’ve been talking about, I thought it would be helpful to post a map of Iguela and the lagoon. This area is located on the central coast of Gabon.

The red stars are my manatee sightings (some overlap in the northeast at Manatee Corner), the pink stars are former sightings made by staff here, the yellow star at the mouth of the Rembo Rabi was the site of a rescue of a live juvenile caught in a manatee net in 2005, and the purple stars are carcass locations (Tim’s from July and mine from the other day). I have now pretty much surveyed the entire lagoon except for the southeast corner where Sinopec is working.

A few more pictures:
Little skink on patrol for bugs in my tent. He was about 2 inches long, but will grow to about 8 inches.Really cool seed pod! Looks like something out of Little Shop of Horrors.
A peaceful spot on the lagoon

Vulturine Fish Eagle in flight, they are everywhere here.

Today Tim, Brice, Pierre and I are going to a camp in the Akaka River for 3 nights. Manatees are frequently seen in this area (as well as hippos, elephants and lots of other cool wildlife I’m sure), so I hope to have some good stories when we return on Friday!