Monday, October 27, 2008


I've now been working at the WCS office in Libreville, Gabon for the past 2 weeks, finishing reports and setting up logistics for fieldwork at Fernan Vaz and N'dogo Lagoons south of here. On Saturday I went up to Cap Esterias, a small fishing community north of Libreville on the edge of Akanda National Park. I talked to a few fishermen about manatees and distributed copies of the manatee coloring book in French. They haven't had any new manatee sightings since I spoke to them a year ago and still say they are quite rare there.
Aerial view of Libreville

Field staff porch desk at the WCS office in Libreville. It's a great office location with a nice breeze!

On Friday I'll travel south to Evengue Lodge, my base for the next 2 weeks while I survey Fernan Vaz. This is the only lagoon system in Gabon that I haven't surveyed yet, and possibly an important use areas for manatees, although it has the highest human population of any lagoon in Gabon and was the site of an oil spill last winter. So it is likely to be the most compromised system I've surveyed so far but I'm interested to learn more about it. More soon once I start fieldwork!

Friday, October 24, 2008

USFWS Wildlife Without Borders grant received! I'm overdue to acknowledge this fantastic grant, which I received last month. This is the first time Wildlife Without Borders has requested applications for their new Africa regional program and I'm very excited that my work in Gabon was awarded this funding! This is my largest single grant to date and it will focus on capacity building in Gabon: training in manatee research and conservation techniques for Gabonese biologists, resource managers, students and ecotourism operators, and development and implementation of a public education / outreach campaign. I'm already working to set up permanent manatee displays at two national parks in Gabon (more on that as it gets going) and hope to extend this work on a more regional level for manatees throughout western Africa starting next year.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A few wildlife shots from Ghana (sorry, no manatees)

Although I didn’t see a manatee myself while I was in Ghana, my priority was working with the participants to ensure they have the skills they need when they return to their countries. We often split the group in two: one group stayed at camp with me for lectures while the other half went out on the water; the following day they switched. In my free time I did have the opportunity to walk around and photograph some local wildlife near camp:

There were seemingly endless species of gorgeous dragonflies and butterflies
We had a pair of big (~8 inch long) skinks that patroled through camp, but they were wary of us and hard to photograph. The male was bright pink on the sides. Edem caught some cool frogs on his nighttime walks through the bush... he also saw some big snakes including pythons (which is why I wasn't interested to go with him!)
I'm standing next to a giant termite mound
Additionally, we had a couple exciting moments when a cobra got under someone’s tent, and twice we had LARGE scorpions in camp. You can believe that I made sure my tent was zipped tightly closed each night!

The cobra had to be killed, it was just too dangerous and there was no way to capture it and move it to another location. It was dissected and found to have recently eaten a toad (you can see the lump on the body in the photo below)The scorpions were bigger than my hand!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Manatee Conservation Workshop at Lake Volta, Ghana

I’ve just spent the past two weeks co-teaching an African manatee conservation training course run by Earthwatch and the Nature Conservation Research Center (NCRC) of Ghana. My friend and colleague Dr. Patrick Ofori-Dansen is the Principal Investigator for a manatee research project on Lake Volta, and I assisted him in teaching the course. Unlike Earthwatch projects where participants pay to accompany researchers and assist with their studies, this capacity building program funds African researchers to come to the workshop to learn skills they can use in their home countries. Eight participants were selected for this year’s training. They came from Nigeria (2), Liberia (2), Ghana, Gabon, Senegal and Togo, and included two women and six men. Their professional experience ranged from university student to senior researchers who have worked in field biology for many years, but mostly with other species. We had several reptile researchers and a bird enthusiast in the group. Some have done manatee work in their countries already; others were there to find out how to begin.

On the first morning we left Accra, the capital of Ghana, and drove 4 hours north to Lake Volta. We took a short ferry ride across the lake and arrived at a camp set up near the village of Samamkwaii. We were on the Afram Arm of Lake Volta, and the surrounding area of open scrubland is known as the Afram Plains (it was formerly forest, but the trees were mostly cut long ago and the area is now farmland). The camp includes a dining / classroom hut, a kitchen and bathing and bathroom huts. We slept in tents and meals were prepared by people from the nearby village who are employed at the camp. The weather was very hot and humid with rain nearly every afternoon (which mercifully cooled things off a bit).

On the map of Ghana below I've put a red box around the Afram Arm of Lake Volta and a red X on the approximate location of our camp.
The ferry we took across the Afram Arm of Lake Volta View of Lake Volta from the ferry

CampThe dining / classroom hut
Typical house in the nearby village of Samamkwaii
Grain storage building Over two weeks I gave lectures on manatee evolution, field research techniques, genetics sampling, and my research in Gabon and Angola. I had lots of time to talk with participants individually to discuss ways to address research needs and techniques for each person’s home country, so that they can tailor their research to their individual situations. Patrick and his teaching assistant Emmanuel taught a skull morphology workshop, gave lectures on research in Ghana and an introduction to environmental sampling equipment such turbidity and dissolved oxygen meters, GPS, etc. They took the participants out on Lake Volta for habitat and manatee scanning surveys, and to learn environmental sampling techniques.

The skull morphology workshop

Early morning boat trip to look at habitat and for manatees. I also went out on several boat trips when I wasn’t giving lectures. It’s an interesting place- the lake was created in the late 1960’s when the Volta River was dammed and flooded several large forested valleys. Trunks of dead trees still protrude above the water’s surface in many areas. A population of manatees was trapped above the dam and is now isolated here. It is unknown how many manatees are here, but they are hunted, their conservation is of great concern and the lake is also subjected to intense fishing pressure. During one of the morning boat trips some of the students sighted a manatee, which is exciting for here, where they are rarely seen alive.

Several nice views of Lake Volta

Other than that, it’s hard to sum up two intense weeks of learning, laughing and good conversations in a few short paragraphs. Everyone in the group got along really well and we talked about our lives, politics, war, religion, the difficulties and frustrations of working in wildlife conservation in Africa… and endlessly about every aspect of manatees. Each evening someone gave a “personal profile” and some the stories of people’s lives were incredible. One person had been a refugee at one point in his life and later studied at Columbia University in the USA; another had done every job imaginable from taxi driver to singer to earn money to go to school- now he’s a PhD lecturer teaching at a Nigerian university. Several had lived through terrible wars in their countries. One guy has been able to get a wildlife refuge created in his country (Senegal) for manatee and turtle protection and others are just starting out, but everyone is extremely motivated to make real contributions to manatee conservation. It is inspirational to see such excitement and focus, and I believe that manatee research in the region will surely benefit from the efforts of these wonderful people who I now consider good friends as well as colleagues.

Dr. Patrick, who everyone calls "Prof", has been working with the manatees of Lake Volta since 1998. I first met him when he came to Florida for manatee training in 2000 and it was great to finally see his country. (Photo by Tomas Diange) Martin works for NCRC and was our trip logistics coordinator... he did a fantastic job keeping us organized!
Tomas getting in touch with his manatee side. He was nicknamed senegalensis (the species name for West African manatee) since he's from Senegal. This led to humorous nicknames for everyone based on their country... Liberiensis, Nigeriensis, Americanensis, Gabonica, etc.

Bolaji and Edem from Nigeria added constant theatrics and humor to the group. This photo was taken on an afternoon off when we went to a local bar in town to relax.
Alex (top) and James (photo below) from Liberia will start trying to find manatees in their country when they return home.

Gabriel from Togo has just finished his PhD on reptiles, but has also been working on manatees in Lake Togo for the past several yearsTomas, Solange and Gabriel were the three Francophones in our group. Every morning we woke to Gabriel and Solange's infectious laughter as Tomas told them jokes in French. Most of our conversations were a melange of "Franglais" so that everyone could understand.

Theresa is a student at the University of Ghana who plans to work with manatees in the future and Emmanuel was the course teaching assistant. (Photo by Tomas Diange)
The whole group (except Edem who was out looking for snakes!) I miss you all already!

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Today I drove from Lome, Togo to Accra, Ghana with colleague Patrick Ofori-Dansen, with whom I'll co-teach the Earthwatch Manatee Training course for the next 2 weeks. Tomorrow morning we head up to Lake Volta where we will camp for the next 2 weeks with the 8 students. There's no internet access there, but I'll have lots of good stories when I come back online in 2 weeks!

Friday, October 03, 2008


I’m in Togo to attend the Convention of Migratory Species WATCH (West African Cetaceans and Their Habitat- yes, manatees got lumped in with cetaceans). The meeting is being held at a nice hotel in LomĂ©, the capital of Togo.
Woman walking along the beach front road in front of the hotel.
Building upon the work we started at the meeting last year, the goal for this meeting was to finalize the MOU for Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macronesia (Macronesia refers to the islands off the west coast of Africa), as well as Action Plans for the West African Manatee and for Small Cetaceans. In other words, three large bureaucratic documents to be signed by 21 range states (countries) which will then hopefully be implemented ranging from regional and national levels to local levels in each country. It’s an ambitious task and an interesting experience to participate in. I’ve been impressed by the interest and earnestness of the delegates and the discussions have been very focused. But as you might suspect, there is also quite a bit of time spent discussing word choice (“key” vs. “priority” species was discussed for so long I wanted to bang my head against the table) and in making sure the English and French versions of the documents read the same way (which is important, but again requires a lot of time focusing on word choice). In addition to country representatives, several NGOs were represented including Wildlife Trust (me), Wildlife Conservation Society, Wetlands International and IFAW.

At this meeting I gave out copies of the new French version of the West African manatee coloring book that Save the Manatee Club just produced at my request. People here were really excited about it and there’s a clear need for educational outreach tools throughout the region. I also got requests for, and supplied the electronic version to, representatives from Benin, Togo, Mali, Sierra Leone and CotĂȘ D’Ivoire. So this coloring book has already gone much further than Gabon.This afternoon the range states approved the MoU, and it was signed by 15 countries and 3 NGOs (including me for Wildlife Trust). It's exciting to have made this progress for the species! Other countries (and NGOs) are likely to sign later; they need approval from their home governments before they can sign.
The signing ceremony
Group photo of the signatories
Celebrating with friends from Mali and Togo!

On September 29th I flew back to Africa. It’s always an exhilarating feeling taking off, knowing that I’m on my way (and that whatever I forgot, I’ll just have to live without!). At JFK in New York I ran into Dr. Bill Perrin, a colleague who was also heading to the Convention of Migratory Species meeting in Togo. We had a 12 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco so we took a taxi into the city, went to a bazaar and then toured around the world’s second largest mosque, which was still under construction when I was here in 2006.
Mosque Tower
View of a pretty lighthouse across from the mosqueWe arrived in Togo at 1am local time after over 30 hours of travel. The first day we were able to rest up and I went with some colleagues to a local “Fetish Market”, also known as a voodoo market. We were greeted there by a man who told us we must have a guide to tour the market, so that he could explain its value for traditional medicine. It was immediately obvious why he wanted to guide us- there were dead endangered species at every table… I counted at least 20 leopards, numerous elephant and antelope parts, every species of bird and primate you can imagine. We found manatee bones and whale baleen among the skeletons and dried carcasses. The guide told us that all these animals died naturally, which of course is impossible and ridiculous. It was overwhelming and distressing, and the openness of the market and the fact that they allowed us to take photos (for a nominal fee equivalent to $3) indicates that they had no fear of law enforcement.
Manatee rib bones (for some reason this photo will only load sideways! Sorry)
Leatherback sea turtle skullSeverin, Koen and Tim D. looking at whale baleen