Saturday, December 22, 2007

Another Gabon season ends

It has been another wonderful few months in Gabon this Fall, and as always there are many people to thank for enthusiastic support of my work there. First and foremost I thank the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Wildlife Trust, WCS – CCRP (Marine Program), the WCS Gabon Program (Africa Program) and the government of Gabon.

In particular, the following individuals provided invaluable support and assistance: Buddy Powell, Cyndi Taylor, Susan Kahraman and Julie Hughes (Wildlife Trust), Tim Collins and Howard Rosenbaum (WCS-CCRP), Lee White, Romain Calaque, Alden Whittaker, Tomo Nishihara, Rich Parnell, Angela Formia, Christian Tchemambela, Josie Demmer, Ruth Starkey and Leonie (WCS- Gabon Program), Rombout Swanborn (SCD), Solange Ngouessono and Augustin Mihindou (Gabon Ministry of Water and Forests), Bas Huijbregts and Bas Verhage (WWF), Christian Otando and Jean-Alain Pambo (Sette Cama Safaris), and John “DeDe” Mboumba (Ibonga).

The fundraising effort continues and I plan to apply for at least 9 different grants this coming year in order to fund GPS tagging/tracking and genetics work to get a clearer picture of manatee population distribution throughout Gabon and throughout the species range (from Mauritania to Angola). This is the next step after the past 2 seasons of preliminary surveys throughout Gabon. Fundraising could be a fulltime job if I didn’t have another fulltime job! But I’ll keep at it because I think the work is important, the species needs all the help it can get, and I appreciate all of you who help me with it.

Photos of a few folks:
Bas Verhage (along with some delicious grilled fish at a local restuarant in Gamba)
DeDe and I in Gamba (yes, I've covered the countryside in WT t-shirts!)

Alden and Angela

Josie and Tomo

Late night happiness at Pongara
On the spur of the moment the other night I decided to join friends Miguel, Josie, Ruth and her 2 friends from England on an overnight to Pongara National Park, across the estuary from Libreville. Pongara has one of the world’s highest densities of leatherback sea turtle nests and right now is the peak nesting season. Some of you may not know that I have been involved with sea turtle research as well as marine mammals throughout most of my career- either as a secondary part of my job or as a volunteer. In Florida I volunteer monitoring Loggerhead nesting from June-October each year, but I’ve never seen a live Leatherback and have wanted to see one for many years.

So we took an afternoon ferry across to Pongara and stayed at a house there that WCS friends kindly loaned us. At 10pm Ruth and her friends headed out to the beach (about a 20 min. walk up to a point where the estuary meets the Atlantic Ocean) and found 2 turtles on their way back to the sea after nesting. They called us back at the house and Josie, Miguel and I set out. Over the next several hours we found 2 leatherbacks nesting and were able to watch the entire process. It was fantastic! Not only are they enormous, but to watch an animal that has existed for literally millions of years nesting so instinctively was fascinating. Well worth going to bed at 3am!

Photo below: digging the nest one flipper-full at a time. Both the turtles we saw were tagged (you can see the silver tag on the right rear flipper below). I found out the following day from my friend Bas that one of them was tagged in 2003 in Gamba, which is several hundred miles south of where I saw her!
Eggs being laid into the nest. The last eggs were much smaller and probably were infertile. You can see one of the larger (normal size) eggs on the right side of the photo below.
Josie, Miguel and a nesting leatherback.

Heading back to the ocean after nesting. She will lay several clutches of eggs during the nesting season.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What do marine biologists do for vacation? They go to the desert! I just spent a fantastic week in the Kalahari Desert at Kgalagadi Transboundary National Park, which is in the northwest corner of South Africa and includes portions of Botswana and Namibia (hence the name). A group of 8 of us drove up from Cape Town (15 hours) and stayed at three different parts of the park... at each site we stayed in nice bungalows complete with BBQ grills, a pool and in 2 cases a blind overlooking a waterhole. We saw fantastic wildlife every day, so I'll mostly let the pictures speak for themselves:
We saw lots of Oryx (Gemsbok) and not surprisingly this was originally named Gemsbok Park.

Lioness resting in the shade right by the road.Springbuck. These were everywhere in large herds. They do gorgeous leaps when they run.

Wildebeast herd too shy to come all the way in to the waterhole.
Giraffes were re-introduced to the park a few years ago, so we are lucky to have seen about 20 of them. They were definitely one of my favorite animals there. So graceful!

Pale Chanting Goshawk. We sw lots of these birds and they often feed cooperatively with honey badgers. We saw 2 honey badgers at night with a cobra they had killed, but I wasn't able to get a photo. Spotted Hyena eating a Red Hartebeast carcass; there were actually 4 hyenas at this kill.
We saw lots of Black-backed Jackals throughout the park. They reminded me of coyotes and were really neat animals.Kori Bustard, a very large and very cool bird.
Kalahari Tortoise, which is pretty rare.
A group of ostriches at a water hole. The ones laying down are having a giant bird bath.
An Oryx carcass in the road. We saw lots of carcasses, some from kills, some (mostly Eland) that had died as the result of dehydration during the dry season.
Yellow Mongoose
Sunset over the water hole at Nossob.
Our very fun group at breakfast! Gill, Sal, Hilde, Tim, Ken, Marco and Christina. Definitely the trip of a lifetime.

Friday, November 30, 2007

SMM Conference

Now that most of my work for the conference is over, I have time to actually sit back and enjoy the rest of the talks. On Tuesday I presented my poster at the Sirenian Workshop and heard great talks from sirenian researchers from around the world. Yesterday I gave my spoken presentation at the main conference which was a bit nerve-wracking, but no tomatoes were thrown and I got good comments on it from many colleagues. The Wildlife Trust contingent at the conference includes me (obviously!), Martin Mendez (works with Franciscana dolphins and is doing his PhD at Columbia), Cyndi Taylor (Right Whale and manatee researcher and most patient friend who listened to me practicing my talk in our room ad nauseum), Alonso Aguirre (WT vet who works primarily with sea turtles in Mexico, and we also worked at the Monk Seal Project together years ago), and Pablo Bordino (Franciscana dolphin Project Leader from Argentina).
On Wednesday I went to Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden, with friends Colby, Susan and Susan's husband Jeff (who is a botanist). Another perfect sunny and cool day and the gardens were breathtaking. Fun to be there with Jeff who is a Cycad fanatic and excited as a little kid over the ancient trees.
Proteas, the national and very unique flower, with the mountain backdrop at Kirstenbosch.

Closeup of a King Protea just coming into full bloom.
A view of the sculpture garden where we had a picnic lunch
We even found a mermaid! I love how prolific and pervasive the mermaid myth is all over the world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I am blown away by South Africa. Completely, stunningly gorgeous. We arrived on Saturday morning after a long overnight flight and were picked up at the airport by Tim's friend Ken who lives outside Capetown on the southern peninsula. He and his wife Romy took us on a tour that afternoon and literally within minutes of starting out, we pulled up to a beach with a mother and calf Southern Right Whales, lying about 100 feet off the beach! They were basking at the surface and at one point the calf was playing on it's mother's head. After watching the whales for awhile we continued on our drive and encountered some baboons, just walking along the road, as well as sitting and grooming each other, eating leaves, etc. They are used to living in close proximity to people and were completely unfased by cars stopping to look at them.
We continued on to Boulder's Beach to see the Blackfooted Penguin colony there. The setting is beautiful and as many of you know, penguins are near and dear to my heart, so I was ecstatic to see my 7th species in the wild. We also saw Eyptian Geese, Cape Gannets, Cape Cormorants and Cape Fur Seals on rocks offshore.

After our tour, we had lunch and then Ken suggested we hike up to a dam to go for a swim. After a short drive in the car we walked along a dirt road through the fynbos, the local name for the unique floral kingdom that is here in southern S. Africa. This is where proteas come from and we several beautiful yellow and red species, as well as many other amazing flowering plants (mostly shrub size). The dam has created a small lake at the top of a hill and there are beautiful rock formations there (pic below). The water was really cold so I could manage getting in to about my knees!

Fynbos and mountain view as we hiked back from the dam.

On Sunday I walked all around the waterfront in Capetown, went to the Aquarium (really great creative exhibits) and got up close to some Cape fur seals resting in the harbor. You'll note that the big male in the center has a packing strap caught around his neck. Unfortunately there was no way I could remove it. And now the conference begins, so it's back to work for awhile! But great to be here and see friends and colleagues as well as the amazing scenery and wildlife!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cape Town

Tonight Tim and I fly to Cape Town, South Africa to attend the Society of Marine Mammalogy biennal conference. I'll present my Gabon manatee research as a scientific poster at a Sirenian Workshop before the main conference, as well as in an oral presentation at the main conference. The thought of speaking to 500 people is more than a bit intimidating, especially when the data is preliminary. But I've been happily surprised at the amount of interest my Gabon research has generated by organizers of this conference- I was actually invited to give 3 talks and had to decline some of them because I just don't have enough information yet to split it into separate 15 minute talks. There is so little research going on with W. African manatees and the scientific community seems starved for data, so it's good to get the information out there and hopefully this conference will lead to support of more work down the road.

Here's a miniture preview of the poster, sorry I can't load a larger image! Hopefully after the conference I can create a link to a downloadable version.

I'll post updates from Cape Town and look forward to seeing some of you there!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Getting Religion

On my last night at Iguela, I was invited into the village to watch a Bwiti ceremony. Bwiti is a West African religion where participants chew the Eboga plant to hallucinate and communicate with their ancestors. They do elaborate dances with fire, flinging it (and themselves) around wildly, all while wearing grass costumes. At some points they even purposely lit their costumes on fire briefly and as they whirl around sparks go everywhere. It was very cool to see.
Dancing at the begining to start the ceremony
Carrying sticks with fire in his mouth, this dancer was rolling his head all around, diving and jumping. In the pitch dark you barely see the dancers, just balls of fire flying all around.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Return to Loango

Since I'm not able to go to Angola to do manatee surveys this month (visa issues), I have a bit more time in Gabon. So I made arrangements to return to Iguela in Loango National Park. I did manatee surveys there for 3 weeks last year and found 4 manatee carcasses during that time. I had to leave the skeletons behind (many thanks to Tomo for making sure they stayed safe!) and wanted to retrieve them this year. I also wanted the opportunity to take some more data on the lagoon, since I now have a depth sounder and a refractometer for salinity readings. Many thanks to Mr. Swanborn, the owner of Loango Lodge, for supporting all my logistics to return for 4 days!

On Friday I flew from Libreville to Pt. Gentil where I met a charter flight direct to Loango Lodge (much better than flying to Ombooue and bumping across the savannah in a jeep for 2 hours!). We flew down the coast and had beautiful views the entire way.
Sandbar just off the coast near Fernan Vaz Lagoon:
Where N'gowe Lagoon meets the sea- the embrochure:
Aerial view of Loango Lodge: The little plane we flew down in, just after we landed on the savannah:On Saturday I went to the north end of the lagoon with an Ecoguide named Armel and surveyed for manatees, stopping to record environmental data along the way. We saw one manatee, several hippos (including a tiny baby wiggling it's ears as it watched us) and lots of birds.

On Sunday we went south to the Rembo Rabi River, which drains into the lagoon. I went several miles up this river last year, but this time we went way up and now that the rainy season is in full swing, I was able to see the flooded forest for the first time. It is amazing- the river channel was 8 meters deep, the banks are completely flooded and the water in the forest is 1-5m deep! It's easy to imagine a manatee swimming among the trees, eating fruits that have fallen or overhanging leaves. There were also a few open swampy areas with grasses and other plants they like to eat. We didn't see any, but I wasn't really expecting to with the deep water and the enormous area of flooded forest.
Boating in the trees!

Monday, November 12, 2007


This past weekend Angela and I went up to Akanda National Park, about 30 minutes north of Libreville. Manatees are rare there, but there are occasional sightings and reports of them hunted as bushmeat, so I primarily went to talk to villagers in the area. Unlike national parks in the USA, there are villages inside parks here, which can cause conflicts over hunting and other resource use.

We had another adventure in local travel getting there when the dirt road became a giant mud bog and our taxi could go no further; luckily a very nice Gabonese couple picked us up in their 4x4 SUV, but then the road got even worse (huge trucks stuck in mud 2 feet deep) so we ended up walking the last half mile to a boat ramp at Cap Caravane. Angela's assistant Innocent met us there with the same boat we used at Cap Esterias. We headed down the river to a spot Angela had heard about, where juvenile sea turtles supposedly congregate in large numbers. On the way we met and interviewed a local fisherman about turtles, manatees, crocs and dolphins. We often ask about multiple species because it puts people at ease to talk about a variety of general topics, and they aren't biased by knowing we are mostly interested in 1 species. Also, if they think you are only interested in protected species (and they happen to hunt it) they tend to become wary and/or lie.

We sat in the boat at "Turtle Junction" for 2 hours, enjoying the sun and a nice lunch of sandwiches and fresh mangoes. Innocent and I each saw a turtle head pop up, but poor Angela didn't see either of them (they pop up and are gone in a flash).
Rocky substrate at "Turtle Junction" is likely why the turtles are there- plants and algae they like to eat grow on the rocks.

After a couple hours we headed north to the village of Moka, which I visted last year. It's a Nigerian fishing village. People in nearby Cap Esterias told us they kill and eat manatees. The Cheif of Moka remembered me from last year and was not enthusiastic about answering questions. He repeated several times that they don't see or hunt any manatees. But eventually we got him to warm up a bit and he told us a bit about seasonality of sightings and a few other tidbits. He also talked to Angela about turtles.

Moka's main drag

We were running a bit low on boat fuel, so we weren't able to go to the second village I had hoped to visit. Because of our difficulties in the morning, we decided to ride the boat back to Cap Esterias and take a taxi home from there. So we headed out into Corisco Bay where there were lots of shorebirds- Skimmers, plovers, terns and gulls on sandbars. The bay was alot rougher than last week and we got soaked, but otherwise it was a nice ride.