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!

Monday, October 09, 2006

All is not well in the forest… or the lagoon

I find the forests here absolutely mesmerizing. As we motor along the lagoons and rivers I am amazed at the size of the trees, with trunks that can easily reach 10 feet thick. In Evaro (inland) the roots of the trees are gnarled and look like something out of a Tolkien story; the forest seems enchanted. The water level rises and falls 3 meters or more between wet and dry seasons there. In coastal areas the forests seem positively primordial and I expect at any moment to see a dinosaur or prehistoric man peeking out of the dense growth. They are teeming with life- as we ride along rivers, birds and butterflies of incredible jewel colors flit everywhere, elephants and water buffalo wade into the river, baby crocs peek out from the shore under trees, and large fish roll at the surface.

Tree at Evaro, note water lineForest on the Rembo Rabi, Loango National Park

When I came to Gabon I knew that the national parks had only been established a few years ago and I assumed that there would still be some lingering issues, such as poaching in areas where people had hunted bushmeat forever, but that are now protected. I had heard quite a bit about the bushmeat issue and the lack of commitment and ability by the Gabonese government to enforce laws in huge remote areas. Unfortunately the EcoGuides don’t have law enforcement status here, they can only report violations to the police who often can’t or won’t do anything about it. Hopefully that situation will change, but apparently for now the president only allows the army and police to have guns, because he fears a coup.

What I did not expect, was the reality of oil concessions. A Chinese oil company, Sinopec, is currently testing for oil reserves all throughout Loango national park. This involves dynamite blasts that are set in both the forest and the lagoon and triggered remotely. It appears that they paid off a minister in the Gabonese government who gave them an oil concession with boundaries that are pretty much the same as the national park boundaries. The minister of energy did not tell the minister of the environment, and unfortunately the Chinese have been blasting here since May. It’s a complicated issue as Gabon wrestles with the temptation of oil wealth vs. its commitment 4 years ago to protect its natural treasures by establishing 13 national parks. And no one seems to know what president Bongo knows or thinks of the situation. Sinopec brought in a bulldozer and opened up an old logging road, then established a camp of 200 workers within the park. There are huge concerns about the impact to the wildlife, not just from the blasting but from poaching to feed the workers. And the blasting is the worst part. There are researchers living in the forest with the gorillas and chimps who fear for their safety and that of the apes. They hear hundreds of blasts a day and the blasts are getting closer. A tourist boat in the lagoon witnessed a blast (the tourists actually thought it was a whale, which is sort of funny, but not really). When I went to the southern end of the lagoon this week, we heard at least 25 blasts in the distance, and saw flagging tape markers known to be Sinopec’s and areas where lots of trees had been cut down. It is very disturbing to say the least.

Then as we were boating back to the lodge on Sunday, we found a fresh dead manatee in the lagoon. It was bleeding from the nose and had a shark bite out of its lower back, but I think the shark bite was likely post-mortem (there are bull sharks in the lagoon here). We towed the carcass to shore and took some photos, measurements and a genetic sample, but I didn’t have tools with me to do a proper necropsy. I plan to return to it in a couple days, but I’m not sure if I will be able to determine a cause of death. I’ve written a colleague of mine in the US who studies barotrauma in cetaceans (in layman’s terms that means he studies the effects of trauma to the auditory system of whales, for example in cases where groups of whales strand dead after Navy test bombing in the area). I’m hoping he can give me some advice about what to look for when I cut the manatee open. I hope it died of natural causes, but for now I worry that it may be the first recorded victim of blasting in the lagoon.

Click here to read more about Sinopec in Gabon

By the way, some other articles I’ve read say that Sinopec has stopped their activities here, but as I sit here in the park, I can tell you that is simply not true. Let’s hope they are pressured to do so soon. A West African manatee face, but sadly it's dead.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Animal IDs

Brian from Nat Geo looked at the snake pictures I previously posted, and thinks the first one is a forest cobra. The second one I saw last Wednesday is a Rhinoceros Viper (not Gabon viper).

Tim says the monkey is a red-capped mangabey. I saw quite a few more in the past few days, as well as more forest buffalo and elephants. Here's a nice picture of an elepant on the savannah yesterday morning:

The camping trip went pretty well despite alot of rain. I am completely covered in Tse Tse fly and mosquito bites. Tse Tse flies really are an insideously evil insect... they crawl up pant legs and sleeves and no amount of bug spray seems to deter them. It was nice to come back to the lodge and wash off all the grime... amazing how bad one can smell after only 3 days!

More soon..

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Great animal sightings Wednesday!

Yesterday morning we went out to a different part of the lagoon in the drizzle and didn’t find any manatees, but I did see my first forest elephant! Infact, my first wild elephant ever! It was wonderful, he didn’t seem too disturbed by our presence. After he came out of the bushes I realized he was wearing a radio collar. The big yellow box on his neck is the tag. He was petite compared to the African or Asian elephants I’m used to seeing. I thought he was a juvenile until Pierre told me he was a full grown adult. Tomo told me later that this elephant is part of a study to look at movement patterns that’s being conducted by Steve Blake, an elephant researcher I recently met in Libreville.

We also saw a troop of 40 or so monkeys bounding through the trees. Hard to get a good picture in the rain, and they don’t exactly stay still! I need to look up the species.
And in the afternoon we encountered a Gabon Viper swimming across the lagoon. It was only about a foot long and had the most beautiful color pattern, as you can see. Apparently they have the longest fangs of any snake in the world and their bite can be deadly.
I’d like to say that the picture is blurry for artistic purposes, but its tough shooting from a rocking boat at sunset!
A night on the lagoon

As we boated out to our campsite Tuesday afternoon, we surprised a group of at least 3 manatees in an open channel. The water literally erupted around the boat, and even though I had a camera in my hand, I was so stunned (and was also trying to count any noses or tails) that I didn’t get a picture. Unfortunately there was a strong wind and we didn’t have an anchor, so the boat drifted away quickly. We tried slowly moving back to the area, but they were either gone or sitting tight on the bottom (water was 7 meters deep there). Interestingly, nearby Pierre showed me some seagrass that he says grows throughout the lagoon, and that he says manatees like. No surprise there, but the surprise is that there is seagrass at all. There is almost no scientific literature on seagrass in West Africa, mostly because there isn’t much. So I collected a sample (photo below).

Manatee salad
Sunset on the lagoon

We camped at Pierre’s family’s fishing camp (really just a cleared area in the forest) and did a night survey. We had a third sighting of a manatee in one particular small cove, which is the type of thing I’m looking for. Repeated sightings in the same place suggest frequent use, and therefore might be a good place to set nets to capture a manatee if we get funding to tag them here in the future. Which is something I really hope to do!

The net below is used for hunting manatees (called a Tangle net, because the mesh size is big and the manatee gets it’s head and flippers caught, tangles itself up and can’t escape), and is one of 5 such nets confiscated from the lagoon by the park EcoGuides here. It would be great to use it for a good cause- to catch manatees alive so that they can be GPS tagged and we can learn more about their behavior and distribution (where they go to find food, rest, day vs. night, dry vs. wet season, help us to get a baseline abundance estimate, etc).

Pierre (in the hat) and Brice (in yellow) check out the confiscated manatee net

Communication Gap

Yesterday afternoon I headed out on the lagoon with my 2 EcoGuides, Pierre and Brice. They knew I had done an interview in the morning, describing my manatee research here and showing / describing the parts of a West African manatee skull (Tim recovered a skull from a carcass here in July, it is in pristine condition). So as we’re heading out from the lodge the guys say, “So, do you want to see another carcass?” I look at them in shock and they boat me over to a manatee carcass that is literally within sight of the lodge! Granted it wasn’t fresh, infact it had been recovered last Christmas Day, 2005. It has baked in the sun for all these months and is now basically dried hide over a complete skeleton. I had been given a brief report about this carcass shortly after I arrived at Iguela (basically 2 pictures and GPS coordinates), but no one had ever mentioned that they actually still HAD the carcass! When the guys saw that the other skull was important enough for me to describe to a camera crew, they realized I might be interested in other bones as well. Previously they had assumed I was only interested in live manatees. So now I wonder what else they will show me!

And so now there’s a second carcass to collect samples from- dried skin for genetics, earbones for aging, pelvic bones which are differently shaped in males vs. females. I’ll take some measurements (total length won’t be completely accurate, but it’s better than nothing), and see if we can store the bones out of the sun. It would be great to find a way for the skeleton to be re-articulated somewhere here where Gabonese people can see it.

This may not look exciting to many of you, but given how few complete West African manatee skeletons there are for education and scientific study, this is a gold mine!

By the way, I know my manatee friends in FL will laugh because it seems that no matter how hard I try to work with live animals, I always seem to end up dealing with the dead stuff!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

For new bloggers...

If you want to go back to the beginning and see earlier posts, click on Septmber 2006 on the right side of this webpage. Posts are archived each month.

This morning I was interviewed by National Geographic for a documentary they're doing on Gabon's national parks. They hope to come out to the field with me later in the week. This was my view of Gil and Brian as I described the parts of a West African manatee skull. They are great fun!

I'm heading out to camp on the lagoon so I'll post more in a few days!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Some Iguela pictures

The main building. Guest dining room is on the left, salon area on the right. The bar and staff dining area (convienently near the bar!) is below. The gazebo out on the lagoon. The scientist's quarters, very comfortable!
Snake swimming on the lagoon. It was about 3 feet long. I am not sure of the species, it wasn't in the reptile book here. Anyone have any ideas? Click on the photo to enlarge it and see the markings on it's head.