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.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Cap Esterias- Part II
After lunch we boated back to the mainland. Innocent talked a bit about manatees, then took us to meet an older fisherman named Timothe who knows a lot about manatees, turtles and cetaceans. Innocent and Timothe are both from the local Bange tribe and their cultural belief is that manatees are sacred, so they don’t hunt them. When asked why they don’t, Timothe replied that they are a long-lived species and only have 1 “young” every 2 years. Innocent related a story of his uncle, a fisherman who is no longer alive, who caught a manatee in his fishing net by accident 8 years ago and released it. Timothe also related that the same man caught a manatee about 20 years ago near Cocotier, and they tied it up for 2 weeks to look at it because they were curious, and then they released it. Timothe had a wealth of knowledge about manatees, and discussed seasonal use of rivers vs. the bay, mangrove seed pods as a preferred food in the rivers, sightings manatees year round both singly and in mating groups, etc. He also told us that 8-9 months ago there was a pair of manatees hanging around Cocotier Island for 3-4 months, and then they left, but they were not hunted. He said the Nigerians living in fishing villages in nearby Akanda National Park (I visited a couple of these villages last year) regularly kill manatees, but they know they are protected, so they eat them locally rather than trying to sell them illegally. He also spoke about manatees being caught in the Ogooue River and sold in Pt. Gentil (larger city down the coast at the mouth of the Ogooue), which I hear from everyone all over Gabon every time I ask about manatee bushmeat.
Timothe, Lucy and Angela talking about manatees and turtles.

Timothe was absolutely my best interview in Gabon so far and a very positive way to end the day! Many, many thanks to Angela who translated Timothe’s Spanish for me!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Cap Esterias- Part I

Last Saturday Angela, Andrea, Virginia (sea turtle reseachers) and I took a day trip to Cap Esterias, which is located north of Libreville on a peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean meets Corisco and Mondah Bays. The town sits near the border of Akanda National Park and there are several small islands in the bay.

We took a Taxi Brusse (bush taxi) which is basically the size of an ancient VW bus, crammed with 20 people and their market baskets, for the hour ride up to Cap Esterias. There aren’t many other options for getting there because the road is terrible (more pot holes than actual pavement, although they were repairing it in one area), and although bush taxis aren’t the most comfortable (think sardines), it cost us the equivalent of $1.25 each to get there. Once we arrived we met Innocent, one of Angela’s turtle assistants, who had arranged a boat to take us out on the bay. The day was grey but the water was calm and we went first to Mbanye Island, where there is a small military outpost (because this area is an ambiguous and disputed border with Equatorial Guinea). There is also a turtle hunter on this island. Unfortunately sea turtles other than leatherbacks are not a protected species here (they would be if the Gabon government would finally approve a decree that has been sitting waiting for two years…).

First some of the military guys took us out to a sand spit at one end of the island and showed us 3 Ridley nests and a false crawl (the turtle comes up on the beach but decides not to nest, this can be determined by looking at the tracks). They had taken eggs from one nest but had left the others to hatch. After that they took us to a corral where the hunter had a live adult green sea turtle. She was beautiful and Angela estimated her to be about 30 years old (and still not as large as they can get). I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that they were going to kill her and there was nothing I could do to stop it. They’ll sell her meat in Libreville for the equivalent of $50 US, which is a lot of money here, but seems so little for killing such a long-lived and slow-breeding species. They remarked that 5 other turtles had just gone in a boat to Libreville. I wanted to buy it, but Angela said these turtles are residents here, and it would just go back to the same reef and be re-caught by the same fisherman. It was so hopeless I had to walk away from it all. They allowed Angela to take measurements and a genetic sample, and as she did so she was telling the guys that the turtle was 30 years old and only 1 in 1000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. She later told me that the turtle fishermen are willing to give up hunting if there was another way to make money, but this is something that still needs to happen here.
Angela and Innocent take data on the doomed green sea turtle.

While we were there we also asked the military guys about manatees. They said they never saw them there, but their rotations on the island changed every few weeks. They knew what manatees were and said they were very rare.

After that depressing episode, we left Mbanye and went a short way across the bay to a tiny speck of an island called Cocotier. There are about 3 trees and 500 terns on Cocotier; it is surrounded by rocky ledges and Angela had seen turtles and seagrass there in the past. We snorkeled and I found several patches of Halodule wrightii, a favorite manatee food. Collected samples and photographed them. This is also the only seagrass species recorded for West Africa. I also saw some nice tropical fish, a big sea hare and signs of turtle grazing on algae growing on rocks, but no sign of manatees.

Coctier Island
Halodule from Cocotier. The individual plants were larger here than the ones I found at Iguela last year, but the grass beds were much smaller and patchier here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Langoue Bai

Fair warning- if you're only interested in manatees, skip to the last paragraph of this posting. I occasionally write about other things I'm seeing to give another perspective of where I am, and this is one of those times!

For the past 4 days I took a much needed break from work and have been in the interior of Gabon at Ivindo National Park's Langoue Bai, which is a marshy clearing in the forest where elephants, gorillas, forest buffalo and other animals come to drink water. I went with 2 Italian friends, Andrea and Virginia, who have been working with sea turtles here in Gabon for the past month. It was something of an ordeal to get there... from Libreville we took a long taxi ride to an overnight train (which was as cold as a meat locker and as slow as a snail, impossible for me to sleep) to Ivindo. We were met there by my friend Ruth, who runs Langoue Bai. We had breakfast, then drove 2 hours into the forest on a dirt road (at one point we had to stop because an enormous tree had fallen across the road overnight, so an Ecoguide who was with us chainsawed through it so we could continue). We arrived at a trailhead and then backpacked 8km up a steep hill and deep into the forest to the Langoue Bai camp. The hiking was intense (ok, I admit I quickly realized I'm really out of shape!) because the trail was not only steep, but muddy and slippery. But the steep hill is apparently the reason this forest is still intact- the logging companies weren't able to get their equipment up the hill, so they never logged the forest here and then it became a national park. By the time we got there we'd been traveling for 19 hours straight, but it was so incredibly beautiful it was all worth it.

View of the kitchen and dining/living room buildings at Langoue Bai camp. All the buildings were built on top of a large open rock clearing, so no forest was cleared for the camp.

The camp is really well done- 5 platforms with large tents, a dining/living room building, an office, kitchen and shower buildings all built on a huge area of flat rock. The first afternoon we took a short walk to a nearby clearing and saw a pretty rare bird, the Picathartes, as well as some grey-cheeked mangebeys. The Bai (which is a Pygmy word for "clearing") is another hour hike from camp so that most human activities are far removed from where the animals aggregate. For the next 2 days we spent all day at a raised platform at the edge of the Bai. The first day we saw at least 14 forest elephants, 50 red river hogs, forest buffalo, Sitatunga (a type of forest antelope), 4 gorillas and some cool birds including a Great Blue Turaco. The next day there were more elephants and sitatunga, plus a family group of 11 gorillas came in, including several tiny babies riding on their mother's backs. It's surreal to be there, you feel almost like you've been dropped into Jurassic Park. A researcher from Cornell's Elephant Listening Project, Peter, is in Langoue for 6 weeks recording elephant vocalizations on Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs) which are the same type of units my colleagues will use to record whale calls in Angola. It would also be neat to see if these units can determine manatee presence in Gabon's lagoons someday. Elephant chasing Sitatunga out of the water hole.

Elephants and Red River Hogs enjoying the mud. I was told that these animals actually depend on this resource more for minerals than water.The silverback male on the left is "Padouk" with part of his large family group.Handsome male elephant. Modeste and Alain, the two Gabonese guys at Langoue studying the elephants, recognize individuals by ear notches, tusk length/condition and the "brush" on the tail. They have catalogged 1000 different individuals; this one is "Dan". A new female elephant came in to the Bai our first day, so we got to name it. We chose "Paradis" (French for paradise, because that's what the Bai is!).
The viewing platform at the Bai has 3 levels- researchers on the top, tourists in the middle, storage on the lower level. There were so many butterflies everywhere, it was unbelievable. We saw some amazing species.
A civet (rare dog-like African mammal) that we saw on 2 different nights! (Photo by Andrea Dondona)

Carnivorous flower (like a Venus fly-trap). It was about the size of my foot, and Ruth (who has worked in this forest for 4 years) had never seen it before. The biodiversity here is asounding.
Happy campers- Lucy, Viginia and Andrea by a big tree in the forest.

After 3 fabulous days, we walked back out of the forest and got a ride back to Ivindo. Ruth mentioned that some of the guys who worked in the park might know if manatees were ever sighted in the Ivindo or Ogooue Rivers (which intersect near the town of Ivindo), so we went and talked to a few of them. I had previously been told (by others) that manatees were not found east of Lope on the Ogooue because of rocks and rapids in the river, but I had also heard one report that manatees have been sighted at Tsenge Tsenge, which is east of Lope on the Ivindo River. The Ivindo guys also said they knew of manatees at Tsenge Tsenge, and said an old fisherman at Ivindo had seen manatees there as well, but not for about 10 years. They had some other interesting info as well. Now that I've seen the rapids myself, I'm sure manatees could swim up them in periods of high water. Manatees in Florida swim equally strong currents going up power plant intake pipes!

It can't always be exciting

Starting last week I'm doing more office work in Libreville- analyzing data and preparing my presentation and scientific poster on the Gabon manatee work for the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference at the end of November, and trying to organize logistics for some fieldwork in Akanda National Park in northern Gabon and in Angola.

Last week the only excitement was the appearance of a Mustached Monkey in the garden at the Cas de Passage in Libreville. It was clearly an escaped pet, but we all delighted in having it visit.