Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Best of Tenerife
I’m back in Libreville after my productive week in the Canary Islands. I had an extra day there after the meetings ended, because there were no flights to Libreville on weekends, so I rented a car and drove up to El Tiede National Park at the center of the island. Driving up from the ocean I passed through arid countryside full of cactuses, dotted by villages bursting with bougainvillea and palms. Higher up there’s a pine forest, and eventually the road gets above the tree line, as well as the clouds! It reminded me a bit of Haleakala in Hawaii. The park is a series of volcanoes with craters in between, lots of sagebrush and other endemic plants. I think the last volcanic eruption was in 1785. It is a gorgeous place- sheer rock spires shooting straight up and backdrops of clouds, ocean and neighboring islands. I hiked around the park and saw a few bird species, then drove back down and headed to a remote part of the coast.
I stopped by Los Gigantes, enormous sea cliffs, then drove to Masca, a town perched on a pinnacle inside the cliffs. The road to Masca is a single-track road of endless hairpin turns, with sports car drivers flying at you around blind corners. Halfway down I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, but the spectacular views kept pushing me on. Again I was reminded of Hawaii, but this time of the Na Pali coast. The villages definitely have a Mediterranean feeling though. After winding my way all the way back to the top and back down the other side, the sun was setting over the ocean. Definitely a great way to end the trip. The appropriately named Los Gigantes
The precarious road to Masca

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Manatee Working Group got the job done!
For the past two days, the Manatee Working Group that was convened here at the CMS meeting in the Canary Islands has been working on an Action Plan for the species in West Africa. As a framework we used the Conservation Strategy that has been worked on for the past several years by Wetlands International, so that the two documents and their recommendations will be compatible. There are four main Themes of the Action Plan: Policies and Legislation, Applied Research, Restoration and Safeguarding of Manatee Habitats, and Awareness and Education. Each section has Recommended Actions that were prioritized and leads identified. Leads include government bodies, partner countries, NGOs, etc. The group also discussed proposing a re-classification the species as a CMS Appendix I Species (this would raise it to a more endangered status than it's current position as an Appendix II species). Togo and Niger will take the lead on working on this proposal. The Action Plan outline was presented to the CMS delegates on the last afternoon of the meeting. It was a great experience for me to be involved in the working group discussions and hopefully I can continue to be involved.

Also, a very nice fellow named Remi from the Pew Environment Group and has posted a comment on his blog about these meetings and manatees: God is an Appendix II species.
The West African Manatee Working Group in session yesterday.Tim Dodman was the Reporter for English and Akoi Kouadio was elected as the Chairman of the group. Also in the photo is Mr. Bonassidi, who is the Conservator of Conkouati National Park in the Congo. Isidore Ayissi of Cameroon was elected as the French Reporter.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Few Pictures of Tenerife

The Magma conference center where the first 2 days of presentations (all on small cetaceans) took place. View of Playa des Americas, Tenerife... unbelievable rampant development that has pretty much all happened in the past 40 years Short-finned Pilot Whales The Jardin Tropical Hotel where the rest of the meetings were held.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Manatees in the Canary Islands?

Actually, no. Tim and I came here to Tenerife to attend a Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) meeting focusing on small cetaceans and manatees in West Africa. I am incredibly grateful to Wildlife Trust’s Director, Mary Pearl, for donating frequent flier miles so I could attend this meeting, as well as to WCS for paying for my hotel room. This has been a very important meeting for me to attend in my efforts to develop a working relationship with other researchers and decision makers working in the region.

There are government representatives from many countries here, as well as representatives of NGOs. I am the only American manatee scientist here; Akoi Kouadio from Cote D’Ivoire and Patrick Ofori-Danson from Ghana are both here (both of whom I hosted in Florida years ago when I ran the Southwest Field Lab for FWC, so it's fun to see them again, and they are both doing the longest term manatee research projects in Africa), as well of Tim Dodman of Wetlands International who has been overseeing the creation of a Conservation Strategy for manatees in northwest Africa for the past few years, and researchers from several other countries. Tim D. gave a really nice overview presentation on the need to for CMS establish an action plan for West African Manatees. There was a lot of discussion and agreement from the delegates from the African countries, and it was decided to establish a manatee working group for the rest of the meeting to formulate a draft action plan, as well as a proposal to request that CMS list this species as an Appendix I species (it is currently listed as Appendix II). Representatives for the working group include delegates from Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Angola, Niger, Chad, Congo, Mali and Burkina Faso as well as Tim D. from Wetlands International and myself.

As for Tenerife, it’s an interesting place. The majority of the island is mountainous and very arid, with cactuses dotting the sloping terrain. There are a few beaches, but mostly the coastline is sea cliffs where Mediterranean Monk seals used to live (now they only exist here on the outer / less human populated islands). The southern area where we are located (Playa des Americas) is actually a really touristy and somewhat cheesy place. Yesterday afternoon we were treated to a 3 hour whale watching trip off the coast and saw at least 50 short-finned pilot whales. Hopefully at the end of my week here I’ll be able to get up to the national park to see some of the natural beauty.
The closest thing I can find to a manatee here.... mermaids caved into the sidewalk tiles! Old friends- Tim from WCS and Solange, the Gabonese Conservator of Mayumba National Park. Akoi Kouadio, the Cote D'Ivoire government delegate, and Patrick Ofori-Dansen from Ghana

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the Move

Last Friday night I flew up to Libreville and finally met up with Tim, who had technical issues with getting his Gabon Visa renewed for the past few weeks. I caught up on some office work this weekend, we ate a lot of good food, and met up with some interesting new folks: Andrea (an Italian vet who is in Gabon to help Angela with sea turtle work), Adam (a Brit who works for RARE Conservation training local people in different countries to conduct environmental education projects) and Peter (from Cornell University and is in Gabon recording and analyzing elephant calls). Then on Sunday night we flew out to the Canary Islands (via Paris and Barcelona- 17 hours of exhausting travel, although everything went smoothly).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Friday: we went out to find a dead whale but…

…instead we found an Olive Ridley sea turtle entangled in old fishing line. I went out to the beach at Gamba with Bas V. from WWF and DeDe (who works with sea turtles for a local NGO called Ibonga) to try to get a few samples from a dead humpback whale that washed up about 10 days ago. As we walked along, DeDe found a female Olive Ridley (the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild) still alive with 3 flippers wound up in thick polypro line. Luckily I had my knife and we were able to cut it free. The line had cut down to the muscle on the front flippers, but those will likely heal. The bad news was one of the rear flippers had been cut down to the bone. The poor thing had probably been caught in the large mass of line for at least a few weeks, but I guess it was fortunate she got caught in a part of the line where she could at least breathe at the surface of the water until the debris washed ashore. Bas also thought the turtle probably only washed up on last night’s high tide (if it had been there longer, crabs and insects would’ve started to eat away at it). In the States this turtle would’ve gone to a rehabilitation facility, but here there are none, so we had no choice but to walk her down to the water and hope for the best. After having her limbs bound for weeks, she seemed to have trouble moving 2 out of 4 flippers, but hopefully she rested up and swam out on the next high tide.
We couldn’t locate the whale, so Bas called the guy who had reported it, and we found out we had come to the wrong stretch of beach. So we got back in the car and drove further out on the savannah to access beach further north. Unfortunately, along the way on the sand track the car suddenly lost power. I was horrified because my flight to Libreville was leaving in about 3 hours, and here we were stranded miles from anywhere. Luckily after awhile (and some fussing with various tubes and gas filters) Bas was able to get it started again and I have never been so happy to make it back to Gamba! We later found out we had gotten some water in the gas tank. Never a dull day here….

Lac Cachima and the Nyanga River

Last Tuesday I left Gamba again, this time in a truck towing a boat. We headed south of town across the savannah (on an actual road!) to the Nyanga River where we launched the boat. DeDe, my guide (who also took me up the Rembo Bongo) and I headed upriver and then turned into a smaller tributary that took us to Lac Cachimba. This is a large lake that had been reported as full of manatees, and I was not disappointed. We surveyed that afternoon and Wednesday morning, and in the short space of about 7 hours, we had 7 sightings! A new record for Gabon! It seemed everywhere we went- near shore, offshore, coves- we found manatees. And even though the lake was practically boiling over with them, alas STILL no decent photo! Although the lake is shallow, the water is the consistency of chocolate milk. At one point we spooked a group of manatees, stopped the boat and they were swimming high speed circles around the boat, yet we never even saw so much as the tip of a nose! You can’t imagine the frustration of seeing all the fluke prints but nothing of the animal (well, maybe some of the other manatee biologists know this frustration)… never again will I wonder how those people in the Everglades study FL panthers for years without ever seeing them. I’m beginning to think these Gabonese manatees don’t breathe air! Kidding…

We camped Tuesday night at the village of Cachimba, which was about a 20 minute hike from the lake. It was a bit of a ghost town- lots of houses but almost everyone gone (probably to find work in Gamba or other cities). There was an old chief, his 3 wives and about 100 chickens there. We were able to pitch our tents under a large tarp which was great to keep the rain from leaking in, but the roosters crowed all night and the mosquitoes were fierce, so we couldn’t wait to get back out on the water in the morning. We found lots of fresh manatee feeding sign (only really possible to see if hippos aren’t present) and saw a few fishermen and some nets set around the lake. My guess is that some manatees are accidentally caught in those nets and eaten, but the only known hunter who had been in Cachimba was gone, so there was no one to interview. After a very pleasant morning sighting manatees all around the lake, we headed back out to the river.

Quiet paddling in the early morning, hoping to see feeding manatees on Lac Cachimba.

Using the cool depth sounder bought with funds from my Columbus Zoo grant... it allows for depth readings "on the fly" as we travel the murky waters of Gabon!

On the left side of the photo is the fluke print and pressure wake of a manatee doing high speed circles around the boat!

Unfortunately that’s when the weather deteriorated and we spent the day in dismal, hard driving rain. We could barely see the river much less anything in it, and I lamented to myself that I had no other dry socks or pants and was about to spend the night in a wet tent. But I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the village of Igotchi, where they had a very nice Cas de Passage (house for travelers) that we were able to stay in. At Igotchi the river has large boulders and rapids and you can go no further upriver in a boat. Igotchi is a gorgeous place… when I disappear into the jungle for awhile to live a quiet life with the elephants and gorillas, that’s where I’ll be! No electricity but right on the edge of the Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, a perfect wilderness.

Rapids at Igotchi

Cas de Passage at Igotchi

On Thursday we headed back down the Nyanga (saw a large group of 10 hippos on the way, good thing Tim wasn’t with us). The river is wide and very deep, with little settlements all along it, so if manatees are there, they would be very difficult to find. We took the river all the way to its mouth at the ocean, then back-tracked to another small river that runs parallel to the coast through mangrove habitat. It was great to see the whole area with all the different habitats, and incredible to know there are so many manatees in Cachimba! I got back to Gamba on Thursday night, and although I love being in the field, there are few things more wonderful than showering and scrubbing off 10 layers of sweat, dirt, bug spray and sunscreen, then having a cold drink and a delicious dinner of crevettes (crayfish in a nice garlic butter sauce)!

Near the mouth of the Nyanga river: lagoon on the left and ocean is to the right of the photo

Friday, October 12, 2007

Back from camping

I will post a report of my camping trip to Lake Cachimba and the Nyanga River as soon as I can. It was a great trip! I'm back in Gamba and flying up to Libreville this afternoon, but beforehand I'm headed out to the beach here to look for a humpback whale that stranded about 10 days ago. It should smell pretty ripe by now! Yes, Tim, if I find it I'm getting you samples.

A quick note about comments to the blog: I love getting them, but I'm also getting some spam, so I moderate any comments before allowing them to show up here. Which means if I'm not on the internet for a few days, you won't see your comment until I get back online and approve it. Sorry, but it helps me keep out the junk!

More soon~

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Highlights from the past week

There’s way too much to describe, so I’m just going to give a few highlights from each day.

- For our first morning out, we headed north to 2 lakes off the lagoon well-known for manatee sightings: Lac Sounga and Lac Simba. Each time I come to Gabon I have this secret fear that after all the preparations and time and money to get here, I won’t be able to find any manatees! So there, the secret’s out. But the good news is that we had 3 sightings the first morning! One of the sightings was 2 individuals, the others were single animals and as usual my pictures are all mud swirls and “footprints” on the water. But that ties my only other sighting of 4 animals in a single day almost exactly a year ago at Iguela (next lagoon to the north). So, a good beginning.

- We also saw a mother hippo taking her calf into the lagoon, and a large group of black mangebeys (monkeys) eating in the trees over a quiet cove.

Fleeing manatees...
Black Mangabey in the leaves

- Today we went south in the lagoon to the nearby village of Pitonga. I had heard stories about a man (a Shell employee from Gamba) who has a weekend house there and claims he sees manatees feeding in front of the house all the time. We went to the house and talked to the caretaker who told us yes, manatees are there feeding on the aquatic plants all the time, but only at high tide and mostly in the dry season. Of course it was low tide and there were no manatees, but I jumped in the water and dug up some of the plants from the sandy bottom. Now I just need to figure out what it is! Any of you aquatic vegetation people out there who might know, please feel free to post a comment or email me.
- Just after I got out of the water, Alain pointed out a snake swimming right next to the boat. It was about 1.5 feet long and seemed intent on avoiding us, but still, you don’t hear much about NON-poisonous snakes here!

- After Pitonga we searched some nearby coves and had a manatee sighting in one. Interestingly, about 100 yards from the manatee there was a hippo in the water. I wonder how those two species interact when they cross paths underwater.

- This afternoon after entering data from the survey, I went down to the beach for a swim. The surf is really strong here so I didn’t go out far, but it felt great after all the sticky humidity and blazing sun in the boat. Didn’t get to surf with a hippo this time, but I found buffalo, hippo and monitor lizard tracks on the beach (to see pictures of surfing hippos at this very beach, click here). There’s also a very old graveyard with gravestones going back to the 1880’s. I was trying to imagine what it must’ve been like just to travel here back then.
The beach here has this feeling of incredible wildness. Almost no human footprints, but plenty of animal tracks.

- We returned to a series of mangrove fringed lakes and channels south of Sette Cama and near Pitonga this morning. I had my best single day of manatee sightings in Gabon so far- at least 5 animals in 3 different sightings. One group literally erupted in the water as we came around a corner, but with all the mud swirls it was hard to tell how many were there (3 for sure, I would bet there were more but I always have to go with the most conservative number).

- We watched 3 hippos swimming around in the lagoon and they watched us back! We also saw 2 water monitor lizards out swimming.
Water Monitor Lizard (Varans ornatus) swimming.

- In the afternoon we went to a small museum that the Department of Water and Forests has set up here. They have a partial manatee skeleton and nice educational displays about protecting wildlife against poaching, sea turtle facts and lots of other skulls and bones (whale, hippo, gorilla, etc.).
They had the vertebrae upside-down and backwards on this display, so I fixed them!

- Today we explored a large part of the northern end of the lagoon. The water is much deeper there. We didn’t see any manatees, although they have been seen there in the past. We don’t get lucky everyday, especially in a lagoon as huge as this (it’s about the size of Delaware).

- While we were stopped to look at a map, a large group of monkeys came out of the trees above us. There were 3 species all together: red-capped mangabeys, black mangabeys and putty-nosed monkeys. They seemed unconcerned with our presence and were neat to watch.
Putty-nosed MonkeyThe forest here is absolutely fantastic. You wouldn't believe all the diversity and beautiful shades of green. Manatees rest close to shore under the overhanging boughs.

- For the last day of surveys we headed up the lagoon (which narrows to a channel about a mile wide for 10km or so) to the embrochure (inlet) where it drains into the ocean. The salinity was very low all the way to the mouth and there is lots of good manatee habitat, but there are also more fishermen around than in other parts of the lagoon and we didn’t see any.

- At the mouth of the inlet we saw a sea turtle swimming out from the lagoon! It was small, so it was likely an Olive Ridley.

- On the north side of the inlet is probably the most famous place in West Africa for viewing wildlife on the beach. So Alain took me on a short hike to see some of it. Of course the first corner we came around, we found a large stinking mass of what appeared to be formerly a whale, bobbing in the surf. Don’t ask me how I always manage to find the dead stuff.

- We climbed a bluff covered with beautiful trees and a view of rolling green hillsides bordering the beach. At the top we looked out and saw 2 forest buffalo walking down the beach in the surf. We hid behind a bush and watched them walk right past us. We also saw another one on the hill near us.

- On the walk back we found a fresh Ridley sea turtle nest, saw a Marsh Mongoose and then walked through forest where we saw some monkeys and a rather large forest cobra (at least 4 foot long and as wide as my arm, I was not sorry to see it slither away from us!). So the walk definitely made up for the lack of manatees!

- Here’s a very quick map of the northern half of N’dogo Lagoon, to give you an idea of where I just did surveys. Different colored track lines indicate different survey days. Note manatee sightings (red stars) were localized to 2 areas. The pink star at Pitonga is a previous sighting at the home of the man who sees them feeding in front of his house.
Sette Cama is wonderful

That about sums up my week here! On Monday, after buying my fuel, a driver brought me here from Gamba. Driving is interesting… the only real dirt road dies out after several miles and then there’s just a deep sandy track across the savannah that gets progressively worse as you go along. We were in a Landrover and the plastic gas drum and all my gear were inside with us; as we lurched over the sand the drum seemed like it was going to tip over on us many times, my internal organs felt like they had been blended and the car’s radiator overheated twice, but other than that it was an uneventful ride. Actually it only took an hour to get to Sette Cama and the best surprise of all was seeing 2 side-striped jackals along the way. They were only recently documented by researchers here.

Sette Cama Safaris is one of only two lodges here and it is a gorgeous place. It’s not as fancy as some of the other lodges I’ve stayed in previously in Gabon, but it definitely wins the award for the most relaxed atmosphere. It sits facing the lagoon, with the ocean and a gorgeous beach just alittle more than a stone’s throw behind it. There are 5 bungalows and a main lodge with 2 large covered porches, a dining room, sitting area and a bar. It’s all pretty open air. There are cool things to look at everywhere in and around the main lodge- whale bones and an elephant tusk, beautiful African wood carvings, and old fishing pirogues overflowing with flowers. All around the buildings are beautiful flowering bushes filled with amazing birds- it’s like being permanently inside an aviary at a zoo. This is the best place I’ve seen in Gabon for birds so far (as most of you know, the bird thing is genetic- Dad’s an ornithologist extraordinaire). From any of the porches you can sit and watch 30 or more species go by- bright blues, greens, oranges and reds all chirping merrily.

Main Lodge

View of bungalows from main lodge.

View from the front door of my bungalow.

The Bungalows are really nice (comfortable beds, nice, clean bathrooms and hot water!). I highly recommend this place if you ever want to come to Gabon and see amazing wildlife!

Sette Cama Safaris is interested in knowing about manatees in the area, so we worked out an agreement that they provide me lodging, a boat and a driver knowledgeable of the area, and I provide boat fuel and my own food (there are no stores here). It has worked out very well and it’s been a very productive and fun week! Alain, the lodge manager, has taken me out in the boat every day. Not only does he know his way around every mangrove channel (there are thousands, it’s like a maze), but he knows both common and Latin names for every species in the area.
Green-headed Sunbird, gorgeous little bird!

This adorable bird is called a Black-bellied Seedcracker. I want to know who thought the black belly was the defining feature of this bird?? I guess "flaming red head with white eye ring and big fat blue beak" didn't come to mind? Ridiculous!

Ok, on to the mantee surveys...

On Monday morning on my way out of town to Sette Cama, we went to the Shell station to buy all my boat fuel. I had to buy 300 liters (that’s a full size oil drum plus 4 extra 25 liter jerri cans) because of the amount of lagoon we’re trying to cover. There are no stores or supplies in Sette Cama, so you have to bring everything you need with you. The fuel transaction took over an hour (partially due to the pace of life in Gabon, partially because of difficulty getting the top open on the drum, confusion over cost, etc.). I also bought the oil to mix with the gas and the whole thing was absolutely the most money I have ever spent on fuel in my life. It’s a bit stressful for me because I’m doing this project on a shoestring budget and fuel cost is hard to project a year ahead when you are writing grant proposals. So on this day I was especially thankful for Andy Holman, an individual who made a nice donation to my project last August, which ended up covering about half of my fuel costs that day. I guess the good news is I have been able to put every cent I’ve gotten directly towards necessities for this project. The bad news is that I’m trying to cover huge areas and logisitics here are both difficult and expensive. So if anyone else out there would like to contribute, please let me know and I can tell you how to direct a donation to Wildlife Trust so that it goes specifically to Gabon manatee research. This will be my one and only shameless plug for donations.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Monday- off to Sette Cama

Today I'm heading to the north end of N'dogo Lagoon, luckily by truck along a sandy peninsula, because it is raining hard today so travel by boat would be dismal. Anyway, there's no internet up there, so I'll post more when I return to Gamba in a week! Here's hoping I have lots of good manatee stories to tell.