Monday, July 27, 2009


Last August when I came to Soyo I learned that the only manatee hunter for the area, Mr. Domingos, had died a week before I arrived. I visited his village on that trip and found four manatee harpoons there. Since then I’ve been working to try to find a way to get them “off the street” so that no one else in this area will take up manatee hunting. Angola LNG generously agreed to trade supplies to the Domingos family for the harpoons and a specialized net Mr. Domingos used for catching manatees. On Wednesday Joao and I met with Mr. Domingos’ widow and youngest son Lando to discuss the terms of the exchange. In return for the manatee harpoons and net, Angola LNG has offered them 6 bags of cement, 4 fishing nets, line and floats for the nets, 8 boxes of hooks and a large cooler. This is all very valuable, especially since the son is a fisherman. They presented us with 2 very old, rusted harpoon tips and the son agreed to go upriver with us the following day to collect the rest at a village. Mrs. Domingos said a third harpoon was locked in a neighbor’s house, but they could give it to us later.

Joao, Mrs. Domingos, me and Lando Domingos meeting at their village near Soyo
On Thursday we dropped Lando off at the village of Pendi to gather the rest of the harpoons and the net while we did our river surveys. When we returned to Pendi I had hoped to see him waiting on shore with lots of equipment, and was sadly surprised to find him standing there with one more very old rusted harpoon tip and nothing else. When we asked him where the rest was, he said his cousin had deployed the manatee net in the river to try to catch a manatee, and it had disappeared. He claimed a manatee or “big fish” had probably swum off with it. He didn’t volunteer anything about additional harpoons and when we asked him, he only referenced the one his mother had mentioned. Joao explained to Lando that the deal for the trade is that he turn over all the equipment, so we cannot give him anything until he does. It was pretty obvious he had hoped to give us a few old, unusable harpoons and then we would just turn over all the goods to him, but he began to realize on the trip home that we meant to give him nothing until he turned over the rest. He says he’ll try to get the net back.

What Lando doesn’t realize yet is that I photographed all the harpoons last summer just after Mr. Domingos died. Each tip has a unique design since they were all hand made, and the ones I photographed are in much better condition. So it’s very easy to tell whether or not we’re being given the ones that are still usable. So far I believe Lando has turned over one of the four I photographed. Even though I had to leave Angola, Joao and Mary (the socio-economic advisor and Joao’s boss) will continue to work with the Domingos family to recover all the gear. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t happen while I was there, since I’ve been working to broker this deal for a year, but in the end I hope it will still mean the end of manatee hunting in this area. And we definitely made some progress! I just have to remind myself that nothing happens quickly in Africa.

These are the three harpoon tips we have received so far. Their hunting days are over, and hopefully we'll find a place in Angola to display them as part of a cultural heritage exhibit.

The newest Angola LNG boat was named the Manatee! So maybe I've managed to raise some awareness on the base :-)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Congo River Days

On Tuesday we boated 40km up the Congo River from the mouth, to several tributaries where I have been on previous trips and interviewed villagers about manatees. Accompanying me was Tim B. (the Angola LNG wildlife specialist), Wilson (a translator since I don’t speak Portuguese, Kisolongo or Lingala), Junior (Angola LNG environmental team assistant) and our two boat drivers who have taken me on almost every trip, Eduardo and Perreira. We stopped at the local Navy base, villages of Kibaka, Nzadi Caca and a new village I had not been to before. At Kibaka and Nzadi Caca they still see manatees everyday, throughout the year. They said there has been no targeted hunting since the hunter died last year, but that occasionally manatees are getting caught in fishing nets, and of course they eat them when they do. I can't fault people for making use of the meat once the manatee has drowned, this area is very poor. We didn’t see any manatees as we traveled several tributaries, but unfortunately we also didn’t really have time to sit and wait for them anywhere.

Eduardo and Perreira, doing one of their many radio check-ins to base.
Back at Nzadi Caca. The village continues to grow as they add more clam shells and then build their houses on top of them.
We interviewed the guys in Nzadi Caca while they skewered clams to sell

View from the new village we visited
Woman making thatch roof panels at Kibaka We released the baby python while we were upriver On Thursday we went upriver again, and this time Joao accompanied me as translator. We didn’t go as far upriver, but explored some new tributaries I had not been to before. It still amazes me how many hundreds of miles of tributaries there are here, and that there are very few people living along them. We interviewed several fishermen and stopped at a manioc plantation (manioc is a root vegetable, also known as cassava). Although there is plenty of good habitat and favored food plants in the area we went, people there said they don’t see manatees very often. There were no hunters in this area; they only knew of Mr. Domingos, who died last year.

Some of the tributaries here are half a mile wide and 13 meters deep, while others are narrow channels (but usually still 4-5 meters deep). Most of this area is still pristine, with very few villages or other signs of people.
Watching the GPS map as we travel the new rivers.
One of the fishermen we interviewed as we explored several new tributaries. This woman at the manioc plantation proudly showed me her fish. She and her husband said they don't see manatees frequently there, but occasionally they (and hippos) travel by in the river.
Young guinon that was a pet at the manoic plantation, tied to a tree. Beautiful little monkey, I felt sorry for it.
Nice skink I saw at the manioc plantation. (this one's for you Tess!)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Angola Trip #3

It’s been almost a year since I’ve been here in Soyo, so it’s interesting to be back. It takes the better part of 2 days to get here; I flew from Tampa to Houston, spent the night, then flew from Houston directly to Luanda, the capital of Angola (15 hours, 7640 miles), then took another short flight up to Soyo, in northern Angola. I arrived Sunday afternoon, checked into my room in a nice new house on the base and then was invited to a wine and cheese party! Certainly a nice way to end the journey.

Landing in Luanda... it's the dry season, but no matter when I come, the city always has this brown dusty haze, I've never seen it look clear.
Coming in to Soyo we flew over the Congo River and this village. I've been here by boat before to check out the large grassy area (ie manatee salad bar) Soyo AirportOn Monday I sampled 36 new manatee bones that were brought to the base by the deceased manatee hunter’s wife since my last trip. These bones were fresher than most of the previous ones we found at the hunter’s village last August, which is hopefully good news for DNA extraction. Tim, the wildlife advisor on base, enthusiastically cut all the samples with a hacksaw as I labeled them. He also showed me some of the cool animals he’s recently found on the base (which will be relocated back to the wild off base).

Most of the manatee bones were ribs. Although it's a bummer that these animals were hunted, hopefully their DNA will help us better understand the species.
Tim cutting samples- we take about a 3 inch sample of bone from each. Puff Adder, quite a dangerous snake... I was not actually this close!
Pelusios castaneus, a local species of freshwater turtleBaby python as wrist accessory

Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking forward....

Today colleagues and I announced the next round of African manatee conservation training workshops, to be held in Ghana in October and November. These training sessions, which are held over 2 weeks as we camp on Lake Volta, are one of my favorite things that I do in Africa. It's a rare opportiunity to be able to spend a nice long period of time with a group of people who are trying to start or continue manatee research and conservation in their countries, and there's alot of comraderie and a sense of shared purpose. So I'm excited to continue planning for that. This is the last year Earthwatch will fund these training programs (they set out to do 3 years and this is it!) but I plan to continue similar training on a smaller level in other African countries in the future, since capacity building is included in all my research work.

If you are an African national interested in learning more about the training workshops (the application deadline is August 10) please submit a comment to this posting and I will forward the information.

But before all that, I'm headed back to Angola next week for a quick 10 day trip to do another round of manatee surveys in the Congo River. It'll be great to get back out in the field after several months of being chained to my desk working on budgets and reports! So I'll have fieldwork adventures to post.
I took this last August, a man using a small mangrove tree as a sail heads up the Congo River