Thursday, August 28, 2008

Happy Returns

Last night I arrived in Libreville, Gabon after 4 days of travel from Angola. To get here I spent 2 nights in Luanda, the capital of Angola, followed by 2 nights in Johannesburg, S. Africa. It always takes awhile to get anywhere in Africa. Luanda was very loud because their elections are coming up, so people drive endlessly through the streets waving flags and honking horns; there was also a DJ across the street from the hotel blasting music at obnoxious levels 24 hours a day. Joburg was cold (it's winter south of the equator now) but I stayed at a nice game lodge, saw a few interesting birds and had time to catch up on work on my computer.

I've come to Gabon to participate in strategy and planning meetings hosted by WCS for coastal ecosystems here. Hopefully these meetings will produce a unified strategy for research, training and fundraising so that researchers and managers can all work more effectively and cooperatively together. That's not to say that folks here aren't working effectively now, just that now that the national parks are 6 years old, it's time to assess how things are going and see what can be done to improve. For example, up to now fundraising for each national park has been done independently and much research done independently as well... I'm hopeful that collaborations can be strengthened to fundraise together and build upon the fieldwork collaboration for multiple species and their habitat.

The meetings will be held in Mayumba, a beautiful national park on the southern border of Gabon. This is the first place I surveyed for manatees in 2006 and I'm looking forward to getting back there.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Angola Trip #2 Wrap-up

Yesterday I left Soyo and flew to Luanda, Angola’s capital. Tomorrow I’ll fly to Gabon via Johannesburg, S. Africa (there are no direct connections between Angola & Gabon, so it’ll take a few days to get there, par for the course in Africa). Tim & Sal are in Soyo for a few more days to deploy 2 more MARUs.

Although we didn’t sight any manatees this trip, I continue to get valuable information from interviews at villages, and as I return to the same villages each time, people remember me and have information on new sightings. I also meet new people every time depending upon who is at the village rather than out fishing when I show up, which increases my pool of responses.

Collecting 101 manatee bones was definitely the work highlight of this trip for me. Joao will contact one of the deceased manatee hunter’s sons to see if we can acquire the harpoons for a cultural display at an Angolan museum. I’m thrilled that the sons are not interested in manatee hunting as a career, but I’m also worried that if the harpoons stay at N’Tutu, someone else will decide to take up the hunt. Manatee meat fetches a much higher price at market than fish. Because Mr. Domingos was the only hunter for such a large area, it would have a big impact on manatee conservation here to get these harpoons “off the street” and into a museum, where they belong.

Manatee harpoons at rest in N'Tutu... hopefully for good.
One last pic: I love this photo because it sums up my joy at finding so many manatee bones at N'Tutu (with Tim & Warren's help of course!). The man on the left was the only person around when we arrived at the village, so he showed us around and was amused at our interest in old trash bones.
I’ll probably be back to Soyo in November…
Outrageous Whale Day!

Another component of the whale work here is the deployment and recovery of acoustic recording devices (called Marine Autonomous Recording Units or MARUs, developed by Cornell University Ornithology Lab, Bioacoustics Research Program) to record whale song. Actually they continuously record everything 24/7 while they’re deployed, but the goal is to record whales. The devices are really cool (I wrote about the same devices being used for elephants in Gabon, see my posting from 11/2/07) but very expensive ($20,000 each, which makes $6000 manatee GPS tags seem cheap by comparison!), so Sal is understandably always a bit nervous about getting the deployments and recoveries to go off smoothly. I think this trip is the third recovery/re-deployment for this project, but it’s the first time I’ve been here to see it.

While Warren and I were busy sampling manatee bones on 8/20, Sal and Tim recovered 3 MARUs offshore where they had been deployed in the submarine canyon at the Congo River mouth. On 8/21 they spent the day downloading data that was recorded over the past couple months, then refurbishing them with new batteries and other parts to be re-deployed on 8/22.

Here's Sal working on one of the MARUs. The equipment is housed in a very thick glass sphere to withstand pressure at over 100m depth. When deployed, the entire unit is also covered with a heavy yellow plastic housing.

On the morning of 8/22 we headed back offshore for the re-deployment. The ocean was almost as calm as a lake which made for a perfect day (those of you who know my susceptibility to seasickness will understand why a calm day is critical for my ability to function at sea!). Two MARUs were deployed without a hitch, and then we used the rest of our time to look for whales.

Tim and Warren get ready to help deploy. Each MARU is tethered to an anchor which keeps it on the sea floor for the duration of the deployment. The tether contains a burn cable and the unit is programmed to burn through the cable at a pre-determined time, so the MARU can pop back up to the surface for data recovery.
Sal can also communicate with the MARUs by sending a specific series of acoustic signals sent out from an underwater speaker he brings onboard the ship.
We hit the jackpot when we saw a humpback repeatedly breaching a couple kilometers away. Shortly after we boated near to it, it was joined by a second whale and for the next couple hours they put on a display that was the cetacean equivalent of the finale of Fourth of July fireworks! Time after time they breached, barrel-rolled and tail-slapped right in front of the boat. There was also some mating activity, but this happens mostly underwater, so we didn’t witness any whale porn. Needless to say, between Tim, Sal and I, we have well over 1000 photos. Here’s a sampling of a couple of my favs:

Rocketing skyward out of the water
This whale must've tail-slapped at least 20 times in a row, while the other one barrel-rolled next to it.
This is what it looks like when 40 tons of whale goes airborne...
And this is what it looks like when that same 40 tons hits the deck!

What a great way to spend my last day at Kwanda base!
Last Peninsula trip, for now

On Thursday afternoon Joao and I boated back over to the Sereia peninsula to do a few more interviews at villages. We took along Mendez and Gisela, the Angolan students, and showed them the habitat around Pululu Channel (which is more like a small lagoon than a channel) and another gorgeous channel where there are enormous mangrove trees. Mendez told me there are 3 species of mangrove in Angola, 2 that are saltwater and one that can live in freshwater. We interviewed the soba (chief) at Pululu village who gave us another report of seeing manatees in the area as frequently as several times a month, but he said there were more in the area in a long time ago.

Gisela and Mendez as we head out on the Pululu Channel.
This man collecting firewood and his canoe gives some perspective to show just how gigantic the mangroves are.
We also saw a group of Moustached Guenons as we toured the mangroves. They were pretty curious and this one came down to eye level to check us out. A few minutes later they evaporated into the forest.
This tiny nest (about the size of the palm of my hand) hangs out over the water and is made by a flycatcher (sorry bird friends, I still need to figure out the species). We peeked inside and saw 2 tiny eggs about as big as the tip of my pinky finger.
We also stopped at a village called Moita Seca II at the end of a large channel (I hadn’t been there yet) and spoke to a man who said manatees rarely come there now, but he had seen one this past June and he pointed out a small river nearby where they were sighted more frequently. The river has a lot of fallen logs, so only non-motorized boats can navigate it. He also proudly told us that the manatee hunter had come by there a few years ago, and their village told him to go away because they didn’t want him to kill their manatees. This was not altruism towards the manatees, but rather the village felt the manatees were theirs and if anyone was going to kill them, it should be them. However, they didn’t hunt manatees, so it was actually a form of protection. The man also told us they knew manatees only had one calf every year or two. When I asked him how he knew this, he said that many years ago a pregnant female had been killed at Pululu (several villages away) and they had seen that it had only one large fetus. They assumed that like other large animals they know (hippos, etc.) manatees must reproduce slowly.

A Fiddler Crab waving his claw
A Common Whimbrel enjoys solitude on a mudflat in Pululu Channel

The Bone Collectors

The day after our incredible find and collection of manatee bones at N’Tutu, Warren and I documented and sampled each one back at base. We were assisted by Gisela, an Angolan biology student who, along with a recent graduate named Mendez, came to Soyo as part of an agreement with the Angolan government to see our marine mammal research here firsthand. It was a great opportunity to share what we are doing with Angolans and also to learn from them about Angola.

Each bone was labeled with a unique ID number, photographed with a measuring tape to document its size, and entered into a database that describes basic information such as the type of bone (rib, sternum, etc.). Warren got a hacksaw and a vice, and we went to work cutting samples from each bone, recording its ID and individually packaging each one. Between each sample the hacksaw blade was washed with bleach to avoid contaminating different samples. Huge thanks to Bob Bonde and Ginger of UF, who emailed me fantastic advice about where to sample each type of bone in order to have the best possibility of getting good DNA for genetics. Some bones were pretty deteriorated from being partially buried in the mangroves or just old and weathered, but hopefully most will yield useable DNA. Warren deserves a very special gold star for cutting the vast majority of bones- I really appreciated the help and enthusiasm. The process took us all day, 2 hacksaw blades and a lot of plastic cling wrap. Now the samples are stored at Soyo until we can get an export permit to ship them to the USA for analysis at UF (this will be part of my PhD research).

Hacksawing through a jawbone. We tried to keep the best-preserved bones as intact as possible.

Warren saws as Gisela and I package and label cut samples.

Warren shows off the days work... a bag full of individual samples and some of the original bones.

Whale Days

Manatee work in Angola is part of a larger project here that also includes cetacean and sea turtle research. On this trip Tim and our other collaborator Sal (who arrived last Tuesday) are doing cetacean work, and since most of my background with whales and dolphins has been stranding work (dead and injured), it’s been nice to have some opportunities to see happy, healthy whales that are not in distress. (How do I know the whales are happy? Most of what we see here is mating activity, so I’m assuming this makes them happy!)

Going out in the ocean also gives me the opportunity to see the nearshore and offshore habitat. It’s unknown how frequently African manatees go out into the sea; clearly they did at some point in order to disperse along most of the west coast of Africa, but other than reports of manatees seen traveling offshore in Ghana (Buddy Powell, personal communication) and in the Bijalos Archipelago off Guinea-Bissau, there seem to be no other reports of manatees sighted in the ocean (if anyone knows of any others, I’d be very interested to hear about them). I’d expect them to stay close to shore since there’s very little seagrass (and none where there’s rough surf) so they would primarily use the ocean to travel from one river or lagoon system to another. In both Angola and Gabon the surf is almost always intense, so even if they’re there they may not be seen. Fishermen in Angola laugh when asked if they ever see manatees in the ocean- they assume I’m making a joke.

A view of the shore from the boat. I thought the symmetry of the wave and the treeline was cool.
Fishermen off the Sereia Lighthouse
Last week Tim and I went out to do a dolphin survey just off the Sereia peninsula. We started transects down the peninsula, but after we rounded a point on the coast the swell became too strong, so the chance of being able to sight dolphins was severely reduced and we had to stop the survey. Luckily we then spotted some humpback whales close to shore and were able to document them. Tim IDs these whales primarily through photos of markings on dorsal fins and flukes, and it’ll be very cool if he can match any sighted here to animals recorded in other parts of the Gulf of Guinea. Or if there’s no previous record, he’ll be able to create a new one, which also gives great information about whales here, where almost no one has studied marine mammals before.

We saw about 10 dolphins following a humpback whale. They came by the boat quickly and kept going, so we only got a brief look at them, but they were likely Bottlenose.
Two humpbacks we were able to photograph for about an hour.
You can see how close we were to the peninsula in this shot.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More images from Congo River surveys

While waiting quietly for manatees or stopping in at villages to talk to people about them, we have plenty of time to see lots of other interesting things on the river...

Broad-billed Roller
Mudskipper, a fish that comes up on mud banks to search for food. The way this guy walked around on his fins reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character!

A spectacular lavender-pink ground orchid. We saw them growing wild in several places and the flower stalk was as tall as I am.

I'm holding a Spotted (or Variable) Bush Snake. It was found on the base where we stay and Warren was relocating it to better habitat so he let it go after we took a few photos. It was a gorgeous little snake with bright blue turquiose flecks and it's one of the few here that isn't venomous.
Clam divers at Nzadi Caca. These guys free dive 10m deep, bring up armfuls of clams and dump them in their pieroges until the boats are full. They have seen manatees eating clams, but only small or rotten ones.
Catch of the day at Kibaka. We see a huge variety of fish species in villages here.
Tim took this photo with my camera. Children here always love to have their picture taken, but I think this shot is especially beautiful.

At first we couldn't figure out why all the mangroves along the edge of this channel were dead. Then we saw the man with the canoe collecting wood to make charcoal and realized he had girdled the trees to kill them so the wood would dry out before he collected it.
Home-made sailboats heading up the Congo River in the late afternoon sun.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Busy days on the Congo

I haven't had much time in front of the computer over the past few days- we've been out on the water all day everyday and I also got a nasty cold, so I've been doing nothing but working and sleeping with a few meals somewhere in between. We've made three trips up the Congo River looking for manatees and talking to people in villages along the way. On the first trip (last Friday) we stopped in at several villages I had visited last April. People are so friendly and remember us from last spring (of course they probably don't get many white visitors looking for manatees!), and tell us they still see manatees mostly every day. Unfortunately we haven’t seen any ourselves this time, but random people have gone by in canoes yelling “there were 2 here yesterday”, so I’m sure they’re around. Even though they may be prevalent, they’re still shy, and we also can’t get up here at dawn and dusk, which are usually the best times to see them. But you never know (and we did see that one manatee at mid-day in April), so we have spent quite a bit of time quietly drifting and waiting in different parts of the river in hopes of spotting one.

We have explored several new tributaries, and all are great habitat for manatees. The more I see of this area, the more I realize manatees here have an enormous network of mostly undisturbed mangrove and rainforest channels with relatively few villages and very few motorized boats, so it's no wonder that they have managed to survive so well in this area. We’ve also gotten 4 reports about hippos from different villages (spread far enough apart that they are not likely to be the same animal), and then on Sunday we were lucky enough to actually see 2 of them! Seeing hippos here feels very special because almost nothing is known about their numbers in this part of the world and few scientists (if any) are able to get here to study them.

This tributary was 10m deep! Overhanging vegetation provides both food and hiding places for manatees. We also saw a water monitor lizard and several cool species of birds along this river.


At our first village stop on Friday, a guy told us that the manatee hunter had died the previous week. I was surprised, because he had seemed in perfect health in April, but I later learned that he died from an infection in his leg. I had conflicting emotions about this news- he was an interesting man and had a wealth of knowledge about manatees in this area, their behavior, movement patterns, etc., but of course he was also killing several a week, so I was also somewhat relieved that he won't be able to kill any more. He does have 2 sons though, and Joao speculated that they may want to take over the family business.

Yesterday we went to the hunter’s village, N’Tutu. There was only one man there when we arrived, and he showed us the hunter’s hut, his cooking area and his harpoons. Behind the cooking area, which backed up into the mangroves, we found manatee bones scattered everywhere! Tim, Warren (staff biologist here, a great South African guy I first met at a sea turtle conference several years ago) and I searched around and ended up collecting 101 bones! Some are old and weathered, but others were very fresh. This will hopefully be a treasure trove of genetics information. Of course the guy who was showing us around the village thought we were completely crazy to want to pick up the trash bones. We asked about the manatee hunter’s sons, and he told us that neither are interested in becoming manatee hunters; one has gone down river to Soyo (the biggest town here) to look for a better job, and the other lives in a nearby village but has other work. This is a huge relief to me since Mr. Domingo was the only hunter in this whole area stretching at least 40km.

Searching the mangroves for bones
Warren starts piling bones on the beach

The manatee hunter's cooking hut

We collected 101 bones and 1 tissue sample from N'Tutu, which represent a minimum of 13 individual manatees, but the number could be alot higher than that. It makes me excited to do the genetics work! We collected 12 lower jaws, 7 upper jaws, 43 ribs, 2 sterums, 5 vertebrae, 2 partial scapulas and numerous other skull bones. I'm fairly certain this is the largest number of West African manatee bones ever collected for genetics.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Angola Trip #2, first field day

Tim arrived here in Angola yesterday and we've finalized our workplan for the next couple weeks. This takes a bit of effort coordinating boats, drivers and translators (when we visit villages) with staff from Angola LNG. Our liason on the base this time is a great guy named Stuart, a Scotsman with a wonderful sense of humor who is incredibly helpful and even-keeled, and a joy to work with. Also, since this is my second trip, there are familiar faces and it's easier to get back into the routine. It's the end of the dry season here so everything is very dusty, the weather is mostly cloudy but cool (70's during the day which is refreshing after the Florida humidity).

This morning we went out to a wide channel near the base where several fishermen reported frequently seeing manatees feeding at low tide (and often at night, but we don't boat here at night for safety reasons). The tide was still going out when we arrived at 7:00am and I had been told about an embankment to sit up on to watch over the small lagoon area, so we sat and watched for over an hour. At one point Tim saw a head pop up, but it could've been a turtle. Lots of fish rolled at the surface, but since no manatees seemed to be there, we took the boat back out and sampled the area for aquatic plants. Our first 2 scoops with a sediment sampler brought up small freshwater plants with crinkly leaves similar to ones I've also found in Gabon except with browner leaves, but I'll need to do alittle further research to determine the species. Other areas of the channel yielded no plants, which isn't surprising because the water is murky and often too deep for sunlight to penetrate. So at least we know the place where manatees have been reported has food available.

Calm morning on Pululu Channel
Tim brings up the sediment sampler
Finding plants in the mud!

In the afternoon we went back out to 3 villages along the peninsula at the mouth of the Congo River to conduct interviews about manatees and dolphins. Joao, our fantastic translator, came along and was invaluable as always. Manatees don't frequent this area much anymore because they have mostly been hunted out, but they are seen occasionally and several people have seen (and in one case, eaten) them in the past two months. There are no hunters on the peninsula anymore, but if a manatee gets caught in a fishing net, it's too much meat for people here to pass up. No one had any bones or other remains, although they did have meat/bones from dolphins in two villages, so Tim was able to collect his first genetic samples. Dolphins are sighted often in this area at this time of year (dry season) so we will be doing a couple surveys off the coast later this week to try to get sightings of both dolphins and whales.

A resident of the village of Bocolo shows Tim dolphin meat

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In Transit (written on Tuesday somewhere over the Atlantic)

Now that I’ve finally settled into my comfortable seat on the 15 hour flight from Houston to Luanda, Angola I actually have time to really start thinking about returning to Africa. Of course I have been planning logistics for the past month or so, but then I took a much-needed relaxing vacation in the Pacific northwest with my family, and only returned to FL for 2 1/2 days before leaving for Angola. I’ve been so busy thinking about everything I needed to bring, the work plan for manatee surveys, various travel logistics, etc., that I hadn’t had time to consider the excitement of returning to Africa until now. And what a great feeling it is. I have spent most of the past 3 months at my computer working on grant applications to raise funds to continue and expand manatee research, stakeholder training and conservation efforts for Gabon, and have been fortunate to receive three grants so far, as well as some very nice individual donations, all of which brings me 2/3 of the way to my budget goal. So hard work is paying off and I am looking so forward to being back there for at least 4 months this year which will give me more time in-country to get work done. Although there certainly are challenges for manatee conservation in Gabon, there is also more hope for the species there than in many other parts of West Africa, and it feels good to be building momentum for a long-term effort there. There is such wonderful enthusiasm from the people I work with as well. So stay tuned for field notes from Gabon.

But first, in the next few weeks I’ll do my second round of manatee surveys in northern Angola. Then I’ll go to Gabon for meetings the Wildlife Conservation Society is holding to hopefully unite research, training and fundraising efforts for marine species in Gabon’s coastal ecosystems so that we can all work more effectively together there.