Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mission Senegal

Happy 2009! I hope everyone had wonderful and restful holidays! I've been busy here in Gabon, finishing end of the year reports and grant applications and planning for manatee rescue captures in Senegal (see below for more about the situation there). I leave for Dakar on Sunday night and I'm very excited. Aside from helping these particular manatees, the opportunity to finally see a live West African Manatee up close is something I've been waiting 3 years for! And we should also be able to collect valuable data from these guys.
In the past two weeks I've been working with a Spanish NGO, Fundacion CBD-Habitat, who wants to tag some of the manatees when we release them, in order to understand their movement patterns. This is important both so that manatees will not get trapped behind this dam in the future, but there are also 3 other dams planned, so understanding their seasonal habitat use is a high priority. CBD-Habitat normally works with Mediterranean Monk Seals (near and dear to my heart since I spent 4 years working with Hawaiian Monk Seals in the 1990's) but they have never tagged manatees before, which is entirely different. Seal tags are glued directly to the seal's fur, but a manatee tag is a floating buoy attached to the manatee by a belt around the tail and a tether to the tag. So I agreed to help them buy the correct tagging gear from colleagues in Florida (there isn't enough time to order new equipment, which can take 6 months to build, but it is very important to use equipment that has previously been used for manatees in order to insure the safety of the manatee and the accuracy of the data) and I will attach the gear to the manatees in Senegal, training Pablo from CBD-Habitat at the same time.

Getting tagging gear bought and shipped from Florida to Spain to Senegal over the holidays when most businesses are closed and alot of components are required has taken a monumental effort from my friends and colleagues who work with Florida manatees, so I want to especially thank Monica, Chip and Margie for making this happen! And also Pablo for working so quickly and well to achieve this.

So here's an overview of where I am going. On this Google Earth map of Senegal I've put a red box around the rescue location at Matam, which is a 10 hour drive from Dakar. The yellow line is the Senegal River, the border between Senegal and Mauritania. Despite the patches of green in the photo, Matam is literally at the western border of the Sahara, or Sahel as it is called in Africa. It will definitely been a new part of the world for me.
More news when I get there...

Friday, December 19, 2008

I just received a nice Christmas present- Columbus Zoo has notified me that they have awarded me a grant for my work in Gabon! This is my second year of funding from them, and I will always have a special place in my heart for them, because they were the first funders to award me money for my work in Gabon. This time the money is especially appreciated so that I can continue my work here this year... in these tough economic times it is hard to sustain a project like this. So a huge thanks to Columbus and the people there who made this funding possible!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gabon Magazine

My first popular article on West African manatees has just been published in Gabon Magazine. To see the interactive web version, click here and then "turn the pages" to the story on page 28. Or you can select "Jump to Page" from the menu in the upper left hand corner and select page 28.

Unfortunately they had to use photos of Florida manatees, because there really are no good pictures of wild West African manatees in clear water in all of Africa! Like Florida manatees, they mostly inhabit murky, dark water where it is hard to photograph them, and they are much shier than their American cousins. The editors made the text alot more "British" than my original writing (it's published in London), but it's still a decent article and gets the basic facts across so I'm happy with it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Meanwhile, in Senegal...

For the past month my colleagues in Senegal have been dealing with a difficult manatee situation. Thanks to a new dam built on an arm of the Senegal River at Matam (a town on the northeastern border of Senegal), some manatees are now trapped above the dam. It is believed that waterway is an annual migration route for the manatees, so they swam through the dam gates when the water was high, but now the water level has fallen and the manatees are stranded as the water dries up. At this point I don't think it is possible for them to swim back through the dam, even if the gates were opened and/or herding them to the dam would be impossible. It has now been determined that there are at least 15 manatees trapped in this area. The water is very muddy so it is only possible to see manatee noses when they surface, and some areas are still quite deep, but as the waters dry up the animals will eventually be stranded. One manatee has already been found dead up against the dam grates.

Several organizations in Senegal have been coordinating efforts to rescue the manatees and transport them back out to the main part of the river. In late November they went out and were able to capture 2 manatees using local fishermen's nets and a pickup truck to transport them. However, there was also alot of chaos as many people tried to help with almost no expertise and very little equipment.

Here are a few photos my friend Tomas Diagne sent: 3 manatee noses visible in the river

A manatee is transported by pickup truck at night to the release site

Releasing a manatee back into the Senegal River

So now the next round of rescues has been scheduled for early January. I have been asked to come up to assist with capture planning, training for rescuers and to participate in the whole operation. This is an incredibly valuable opportunity to help build capacity in the region, collect samples from this very rare species and train researchers there. So I am going to go for a couple weeks. Right now I'm spending a bit of time discussing logistics on email, but I'll write more as plans progress. I'm also back in Libreville now, after a successful 6 weeks of work at N'dogo Lagoon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


This past week ended well, despite not being able to get out on the lagoon for surveys. I did 3 training sessions for ecoguides, which included background on manatees and an introduction to collecting samples from carcasses (basic stuff: GPS points, photos, how to determine the sex, how to collect genetics and ear bones). It will be very helpful to have other people trained if a carcass turns up when I'm not here, and it will help increase understanding of the manatee population in this lagoon to have samples collected year-round. I was impressed with the questions the guys asked and look forward to working with them more next year.

One on one discussion with Anselm about sample collection
On Friday afternoon I went back up to Sette Cama. I drove up with Jean-Pierre Baye, an energetic guy who started the local sea turtle NGO here, Ibonga. He arranged for me to speak at 2 schools this weekend. So on Saturday morning I gave my first manatee presentation to elementary school kids and their teachers in Sette Cama. I had a power point presentation, some video clips of manatees, and I gave out the French manatee coloring books that I helped produce with Save the Manatee Club. It went well and they had interesting questions- there are alot of myths about manatees here so questions ranged from how long the gestation period is for a manatee (Answer: it is believed to be 13 months, but it's not scientifically confirmed for the species yet), to whether or not it is true that they eat human cadavers (it is not!). Unfortunately the second school presentation was cancelled at the last minute because the school director had a death in the family, but I'll be able to go there when I'm back in the area next Fall.

At the end the teachers and some of the kids wanted a group photo with the coloring books.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's been a challenging week!

Late last week I received news that 3 manatee carcasses had been reported within 1km of each other near Akaka, which is an enormous swamp area on a river system between the N'dogo Lagoon (where I am) and the N'gowe Lagoon just to the north. It raised red flags to hear about 3 carcasses in close proximity, especially after we have been experiencing similar mortality here in northern N'dogo. It is an extremely remote area (4 hour boat ride from the village where WCS has a base) and my colleague Ruth, who heard about the carcasses, could not get there due to broken boats, no fuel and staff issues. She will try to get there today, which is a hugely generous effort considering she is not a manatee biologist and has alot of other work on her plate. (And oh yes, HAPPY 30th BIRTHDAY Ruth!)

I'm in Gamba and managed to get a really nasty cold at the end of last week that kept me bedridden with a fever for 3 days. Meanwhile I was planning to do boat surveys of southern N'dogo Lagoon this week, but the entire town of Gamba is out of fuel. This is especially ironic because Gamba wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Shell oil concession here, but apparently the fuel has to go several hundred miles north to be refined and then is shipped all the way back here for use. So no surveys. Instead I am preparing a training workshop for ecoguides that I will teach here at the end of the week and a school presentation I will give at 2 schools next weekend.

I was talking to a new friend this morning who just moved here from Holland (her husband works for Shell) and we were discussing the fact that living/working here takes alot of getting used to. People in our home countries don't always comprehend why things take so long, why you can't just get your work done. She is in the frustration stage at how hard it is to accomplish even the simplest thing, like buying gas or having running water that works so you can bathe. I am more at the acceptance stage. It can still definitely be frustrating, but I have learned that I have to spend more time in Africa to accomplish the work. Logistics are never going to be easy, it's just Africa. But the reward is that the more I'm here, the more I learn and the more people realize I'm in it for the long-term, so they share more information, and they know to tell me when they hear manatee news. And there are so many great people here working so hard for conservation, that I am continually inspired and then I forget the inconveniences. So I'll keep at it...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Number 5
When I returned to Gamba early last week I heard that another manatee carcass had been found in Sette Cama. On Wednesday I was able to catch a ride back up there on a boat that was delivering gas and beer. On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving in the USA... I was reminded of my days working for the state of Florida manatee program, because in that job I always ended up dealing with carcasses on holidays) I went out with two ecoguides, Joesph and Eryc. We quickly found the carcass and although it was badly decomposed, it was in slightly better shape than the previous ones. It was a female, 243cm long, the biggest one I've had here so far. The cause of death appeared to be natural (no signs of trauma). I collected the skull and genetics samples. The previous 4 skulls all already have future homes in museums (3 in Gabon and possibly one in South Africa, if export permits are obtained).
The good news is that I finished up in time to join some friends for a nice feast hosted by a Dutch film crew that was filming in Sette Cama, and even though it wasn't turkey, it was fantastic fresh food, quite a luxury here! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.
While in Sette Cama I also started talking with the Eaux et Foret (Water and Forestry) guys who run the small ecomuseum here about expanding their manatee exhibit, which currently is just an incomplete skeleton lying on a table (below at left). Thanks to the generosity of my Wildlife Without Borders grant, I have money to produce permanent display panels, educational posters and pamphlets. I will also provide them with a complete skeleton (we may try to articulate it and hang it from the ceiling if we get adventurous) and old tagging gear to show some research equipment.
Gislain and Yvan run the Sette Cama Ecomusee and are excited to help with a refurbished manatee display.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rembo Bongo, Part 2
On our second day of surveys we returned to Lac Mafoume, the one lake we were able to boat into last year. It was incredible to see how much the water had risen.

Early morning view of the Moukalaba-Doudou mountains from Lac Mafoume.
View of the channel leading into Lac Mafoume, September 2007
Photo taken in almost the same place last week. The tip of the log sticking out of the water is the top of the large fallen tree in the background of the photo above.
Where there were fields divided by channels of water last year, there was now an enormous lake 3 times the size. Grassy areas along the borders were shallower, only a few feet deep. As we started around the lake we began to find a few manatees feeding and swimming among the grasses.
There was also plenty of feeding sign- below is a photo of a big area where they had uprooted papyrus plants to eat the tender roots. All the floating plants in the picture were probably pulled up by manatees- there are simply no other grazers around at this time of year. We surprised one feeding here, but it quickly swam out to deeper water towards the center of the lake.
A manatee swims off through the Polygonum plants but never graces us with a view! We had 3 sightings in this lake which was a bit lower than I expected, but because I wanted to see the entire lake, we didn't have time to really sit and wait for long periods in any one spot. At least I know they're there for next time.
We saw some other nice wildlife on Lac Mafoume as well:
Hartlaub's Duck. We also saw large flocks of these guys flying up the Rembo Bongo.

We saw several groups of Putty-nosed monkeys along the lake edge. This one was quite curious.
Tiny bird's nest built out over the water. It probably belongs to one of the little flycatchers we see flitting everywhere along the lakes and rivers here.
A young water monitor Lizard (Varans ornatus) relaxing on a log.
The following day was bright and sunny and we went to Lac Gore, the closest large lake to Ingoueka, the village where we stayed. This lake was basically a sea of grass that stretched for miles.
Another view of Lac Gore. There were also huge coves filled with water lilies, another favorite food of manatees. But despite enough food for herds of manatees and sighting recent feeding sign, we only had 2 sightings in this lake. I'm not sure why, although as with Lake Mafoume, I wanted to get an idea of the entire place, so we didn't sit in any one spot for very long.
On our last morning we surveyed two small lakes, Mouaga and Marimossi (view below), before traveling back down the Rembo Bongo to Gamba (a 3 hour trip). We didn't see any manatees or recent feeding sign, and the close proximity of these likes to the village might deter manatees from using them as much.

So all in all we had 10 sightings comprising 13 individual manatees in the lakes over 3 days. For this part of the world, that's a pretty high sighting frequency and it's obvious there is plenty of great habitat. I feel privileged to be able to see this amazing remote place where so few people ever get to go.
Rembo Bongo, Part 1

Last week I went back up the Rembo Bongo (river) on the north side of N’dogo Lagoon for 5 days. I was there in September 2007, but it was still the dry season, and I found out through interviews with villagers that the manatees only come up in the rainy season. So this year I waited until well into the rainy season before heading back up there.

Map detail of N'dogo Lagoon and the surrounding area, all of it is located in central Gabon. The Rembo Bongo and most of the lakes (Longa Longa is north of Kivoro, off the map) are in the upper right.
This time a hippo researcher named Sylvie joined DeDe and I on the trip. We boated across the southern end of N’dogo Lagoon to the mouth of the Rembo Bongo, then boated about 2 hours up to the only village, Ingoueka, where we set up camp.

Forest and hilly savannah view in southern N'dogo lagoon as we head to the river. The Rembo Bongo divides into 2 channels at it's mouth into the lagoon- one is a palm-lined corridor (below), the other is a deeper, wider channel lined with papyrus and grasses.
Early morning view of the river from the top of a hill at Ingoueka
Our campsite was actually on the front porch of the infirmary because there's a nice roof to shelter us from the constant rain. That's Sylvie on the front step.
Tents on the front porchEach day we set out from Ingoueka to survey the six lakes that are adjacent to the river. In the dry season the lakes are very shallow and are bordered by open fields that are then surrounded by pristine forest. Elephants, buffalo and antelope graze the grasses. When the rainy season comes, however, the lakes flood and the water level rises 2-3 meters (6.5-10 feet), submerging the grasses. The terrestrial animals move back into the forest and the manatees arrive to graze on the abundant plants: papyrus roots, grasses and water lilies.

The first day we went to the northernmost lake, Longa Longa. On our way upriver we found a large dead softshell turtle (Trionyx triunguis), a dead snake that had gotten caught in a fishing net while swimming across the river, and a dead juvenile elephant. Suffice it to say the elephant was so decomposed that it took us several minutes to identify it, so I’ll spare you a photo. We were relieved that it wasn’t another manatee! We also saw some beautiful wild orchids and lots of neat birds. The river is fast-flowing and the color of chocolate milk, so that combined with the sound of the motor mostly precludes us from seeing any manatees that might be there.

DeDe with the dead turtle Wild orchid with pretty yellow flowers Long Longa turned out to be spectacular. We boated among partially submerged trees and up coves into the forest. We spent most of the day surveying all around the lake and had 5 manatee sightings (6 individuals) which is fantastic! A couple times we were able to follow them across the glass smooth water by their bubble trails, made as they swim across the very fine sediment, releasing bubbles trapped under decaying foliage on the bottom. At one point two manatees surfaced together and I had about a millisecond to snap a picture. I finally captured a manatee nose, but of course it’s blurry.

trees in Lac Longa Longa Bubble trails allow me to see where the manatee is swimming, even when they make u-turns!
Yes, that's the nose. Trust me, it is really hard to see these guys, much less photograph them! But I'll keep trying. Later that afternoon we went to Lac Kivoro, just south of Longa Longa. I had underestimated the size of these lakes (they literally increase 3 to 5 times their size from the dry season), so we were only able to survey part of it before afternoon thunderstorms chased us back to the village.

Rain shower heading towards Lac Kivoro
Lac Kivoro in the rain. Despite the higher water level, there are still some shallower places where grass protrudes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Other Highlights from Sette Cama

On Thursday we surveyed mangrove channels where manatees are often seen, and in a quiet cove we found a lone manatee calf. There was no adult anywhere in the area but the brief glimpse we got of the calf told us it was certainly active, because it zipped off and we could not relocate it. In Florida mother manatees sometimes leave their calves in a quiet area and go off to feed elsewhere, sometimes miles away, returning later to the calf. So it’s possible that that is what is happening here as well.

We also stopped by a house on the lagoon owned by a Dutch man named Herman who often sees manatees feeding in the cove in front of his house. There are large beds of aquatic plants here, primarily Crinum natans. I stopped by here last year but Herman wasn’t home. This year I met him and we sat overlooking the cove while he told me stories about seeing mating herds and adults with calves frolicking in the clear water. Of course they never seem to be there when I am, but DeDe did spot 2 manatees much further out in the lagoon while we were there. Infact, people in the nearby village of Pitonga see manatees year round in this area and it's one of the places I'm considering as a capture site when I finally get funding to tag manatees.
The manatee cove at Herman's house
Crinum natans with cropped leaves. We often find plants floating on the surface where manatees have recently fed. In this case we were told manatees had been seen at Herman's cove the previous night.
DeDe keeps watch for manatees from Herman's lawn.
Friday and Saturday we surveyed another small lake, Lac Simba, and a river near the mouth of the lagoon called Moune Mouelle. Both were good habitat but we didn't see any manatees this time (one sighting at Lac Simba last year).

Moune Mouelle habitat
Forest Buffalo on the river
On Sunday I went out with 2 guys from the BBC and Richard (one of the mangabey researchers) to forest on the lagoon where the BBC is planning to build a platform in the tree canopy to film wildlife here. After the documentary is finished, the platform will be donated to the national park for use by ecotourists. The BBC guys selected an enormous sacroglottis tree that overhangs the lagoon. Sacroglottis fruits are a favorite of elephants and red-capped mangabeys, so at certain times of the year the wildlife will come right to the platform. It might be possible to even see manatees from this site, since they have been recorded feeding along the banks here.

James, one of the BBC guys, climbed the tree on a reconnaissance mission. Unfortunately he also discovered a bee hive and was bitten about 25 times in the face before he could descend.
Cool lizard in the forest
In the afternoons I spent time entering data and writing on my computer, and then going for walks on the beautiful beach near the house.
One day I noticed fresh elephant tracks as I walked out to the beach. The next thing I knew, I heard a big "crunch" sound on my right, and I looked over to see a big bull standing in the bushes eating fruit right next to the trail. After taking a quick photo I moved away. Later, as I came back from my walk, 3 elephants crossed the path right in front of me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What Happened at Lac Sounga?

A WWF boat was waiting for us at Sette Cama and DeDe and I set out first thing Tuesday morning. First we went next door to Sette Cama Safaris, where I stayed when I was here last year. Alain, the manager there, had found a manatee carcass last week. So we said hello to him & then got directions to the carcass, which was only a couple miles up the lagoon. It was very badly decomposed and many of the bones had already fallen out, but we were able to collect genetics samples and the skull.

Collecting the skull
Next we turned in the other direction and headed north up the lagoon to Lac Sounga, a large lake near the lagoon’s mouth at the sea. This is where 3 manatee carcasses were reported in October by national park ecoguides working in the area, so we had GPS points of the locations. Just as we arrived there, a torrential rain started, and in seconds we were drenched. It was raining so hard we could barely see where we were going, but as soon as we reached the location of the first carcass, I saw it under some bushes. We pulled it out and it was even more badly decomposed than the first. Unfortunately it was impossible to tell if it was male or female, and although we searched for the pelvic bones (small bones that are uniquely shaped in males vs. females), we couldn’t find them. So again we collected tissue for genetics and the skull, including the ear bones, which are used to determine age in manatees. After that we headed back to the house, because there was almost no visibility and sitting in an open boat with the sensation of a giant faucet over your head starts to lose its novelty after a few hours.

DeDe collects his first genetics samples
Heading home with a bucket of skulls. If you stand in a cold shower with the aroma of rotting meat while viewing this photo, you'll know exactly how I felt. But I'm not complaining- whenever I have field days like this, I remind myself that I could still be in a nice clean office selling dental malpractice insurance (one of my first jobs after college), but I would be bored out of my mind! Wednesday was sunny and after Tuesday’s soaking we were glad. In the morning we went back to Lac Sounga (a 30 min. boat ride) to look for the remaining 2 carcasses and to survey the lake for live manatees. Sampling carcasses is important, but it’s much more fun to find live manatees! When we reached the two GPS locations for the remaining carcasses near the mouth, they weren’t there. The water has risen several feet since they were first reported, so by now they could be completely submerged in the coffee-dark water, or they could’ve floated away. So we started around the edge of the lake and about an hour later we came across a really badly decomposed carcass on the north shoreline. We sampled it for genetics and skull, started off again and about a minute later DeDe spotted another! We’ll never know if these are the same ones that were reported elsewhere in the lake, and suffice it to say they were literally giant bags of lard. The bad news is that for 4 carcasses I was unable to determine a cause of death (all organs were gone and most bones), and I couldn’t find pelvic bones on any of them, so I couldn’t determine much, other than they were adults. The good news is that we were able to collect 4 skulls, all with ear bones, and 8 genetic samples (I double sample every carcass because samples are so hard to come by for this species). There were no obvious signs of trauma (if they had been hunted or killed accidentally they wouldn’t have still been there) and since they were all in approximately the same state of decomposition, it’s likely they all died around the same time.

Lac Sounga on a placid morning
After sampling the carcasses we moved along the rest of the lake edge and had 2 live manatee sightings, which was cool. The sightings were near places I saw manatees last year, but they swirled away through the dark water before I could get any photos (the story of my life in Gabon).