Friday, December 17, 2010

Senegal Manatee Rescue Video

Click here: Navel Rescue video

This video is from the rescues we did in January 2009 at Navel in eastern Senegal but the video was only posted online a few months ago. Better late than never! There were many agencies involved, as listed in the description. I provided the satellite tags and tagging expertise to this project. These rescues continue on an annual basis (although on a much smaller scale with only 2 manatees needing rescue last year, as opposed to 7 in 2009). I hope to tag manatees in the Senegal River again in the future, because we still have so much to learn about how they survive in this Sahelian ecosystem.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mali wrap-up (for now)

Mali is a very important place to study the West African manatee because this population is isolated thousands of miles inland from their coastal relatives. As the photo above shows (courtesy of Google Earth), the inland Niger delta is a huge wetland that nourishes an otherwise extremely arid desert region. Manatees here were naturally isolated once they colonized this area however many years ago (possibly literally millions of years ago!), since the species does not migrate thousands of miles. As they slowly moved into this area over time, they stayed. But now the construction of dams in this region has permenently separated them from other populations downriver. As in other African countries with large dams (Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria) this makes protecting the species that much more urgent. There are also manatees in western Mali in the Senegal River (and possibly the 2 tributaries that form it, the Bafing and the Baoule) but these too are locked into the Senegal River by the Menantali dam in Mali, and the Diama dam at the mouth of the Senegal River.

So I'm very happy that there are people in multiple agencies in Mali who want to work to study and conserve manatees. At the workshop we had representatives from the Ministry of Water and Forestry, the Niger River Basin Authority, and the Niger River Department of Fisheries, and regional people came from many locations along the river: Kangaba at the border with Guinea; San in the southern portion; Sofara, Mopti, and Djenne in the inland delta. Malian interest in manatees is not new, as shown by this old poster I saw in several offices around the country (although the artist clearly used a photo of a Florida manatee, rather than a more slender African manatee, as his inspiration!)
But so far there have been only brief surveys here. Now I hope these folks can initiate longer term monitoring and research to really understand the size and needs of the population, the effects of dams, and illegal poaching (particularly where it's most prevalent at the north end of the delta). And as we discussed, hopefully they'll provide training for additional people, including colleagues in the northern part of the river at Timbuktu and Gao.

I appreciated the opportunity to work one on one with Berthe in San and Abdoulaye in Mopti (below), and look forward to hearing their future progress, which I'll report on this blog. It takes alot of self-motivation to keep going when you have limited resources, other work, etc. so I'll keep trying to support their efforts via the regional network.

I'm also extremely grateful to have a new partner in the Ministry of Water and Forestry! We are now working together to export the 9 tissue and bone samples I collected on this trip in order to start the first genetics analysis for the species from Mali. Below, Timbo and Tomas look over export regulations. These are more stingent than CITES because the species is fully protected in Mali. Since I left, Berthe has already collected another sample. So we're off and running!
New project webpage

The Save Our Seas Foundation, one of my funders, has created a new website for my African manatee work... check it out at Right now it's in somewhat of a first draft form because we're waiting to add photos of West African manatees (coming soon I hope!), there will be a link to this blog, and hopefully other info in the future.

I really appreciate the opportunity to continue raising awareness about the "unknown" manatees. I am determined to change that!

Monday, December 06, 2010

African Manatee Training Workshop in Djenne, Mali

(Sorry, I would've liked to have posted this earlier, but we are having constant power outages in Dakar!)

During the last week of November, I led a manatee research and conservation training workshop with 11 participants from 4 countries (Mali, Niger, Chad, and Ivory Coast) in Djenne, Mali. This is the first time I've run a workshop on my own, and some of it was modelled after the workshops I co-led in Ghana for the past 2 years. I'd like to give huge thanks to my husband Tomas, who greatly helped with many aspects of logistics and translation for this workshop, and offered participants his insight from his own manatee work in Senegal. Aside from lectures, we had a group discussion about fundraising for research in Africa, and most importantly, trips to the field for practical training on field sampling equipment use, village interview techniques and manatee survey techniques. Our workshop was held at the Hotel Dar Salaam in Djenne, a new hotel just a bit out of town. The staff there was great, the food delicious and the setting perfect for talkiing about manatees, since they had a carcass in Djenne last year. This is the front of the hotel, with local sheep passing by! We had 1-2 lectures each day on topics including manatee biology and evolution, research techniques, sample collection, and field equipment.
The first day we went over environmental sampling equipment such as GPS units, depth sounders, salinity meters, and other basic tools the participants will need to record the manatee's habitat in their home countries.
This was our boat (or "pinasse" in the local French) for field outings. It was nice to have a cover from the hot sun.
On our first field trip participants learned how to use field sampling equipment. In this photo Berthe from San, Mali uses the GPS.
We had two different types of depth sounders, this one (being tested by Boureima from Niger) also records water and air temperature as well as detecting animals moving below the water's surface.
Timbo from the Dept. of Water and Forestry in Mali checks the reading on the other type of depth sounder.
I sponsored three participants from outside Mali, including Wachoum from Chad (looking through binocs), Kouame from Ivory Coast (middle) and Boureima from Niger.
On our first and second outings we also went to local villages so participants could practice manatee interview techniques. The Bozo people are the fishermen in this area and they have alot of local knowledge about manatees.
In the interview at the village of Syndaga, Diakite of the Water and Forestry Ministry from Djenne (on left) led the questions with village elders. They see manatees in this area year round and explained mating herds by a story calling it a "manatee wedding" where the manatees gather to celebrate a bride and groom.
At the end of the interview some of the villagers wanted to have a photo with our group. People here recognized the local workshop participants that were from Djenne, which greatly helped us gain their trust for the interview.
Participants also gave lectures about manatee research in their country. Here Boureima discusses his research in W National Park in Niger (so named because the Niger River forms a "W" in this area).
I also led the group in a discussion of manatee necropsy techniques. We didn't have an actual manatee carcass for demonstration, so for measurements we used an inflatable orca (I was unable to locate an inflatable manatee so this was as close as I could get. If anyone knows where I can get a manatee for future training use, please let me know!)
Practicing girth measurements...
During breaks and free time participants had lots of opportunities to talk about their work and what they hope to achieve in their countries.
Kouame from Ivory Coast had an example of a t-shirt his program has distributed there, urging people not to kill manatees.
I'd like to thank my colleagues in Mali who assisted in setting up the workshop: Semega and Guindo from Niger River Basin Authority, and Timbo from the Ministry of Water and Forestry.
This is most of the group on the last day, after I handed out donations of field equipment (one set for each country, hopefully I can fund more in the future) to help their manatee data collection. The money for this equipment was made possible by generous grants from several funders.
Thanks to all the participants for all your interest in manatee conservation! I look forward to hearing how your work progresses!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mali: Sevare and Mopti

In mid-November we spent the Tabaski holiday in Sevare with our colleague Semega's sister and her family. After that we met up with Abdoulaye Guindo at his office. He's the Niger River Basin Authority manager here. Abdoulaye attended the training workshop I co-led in Ghana last year and it was good to see him again! He's hoping to start manatee research in this region.
Nearby, Mopti is a city that was originally built on 3 small islands at the junction where the Bani River joins the Niger. The whole city is surrounded by water and small Bozo fishing villages that seem to float on the surface. There's also a huge area of rice fields. We started out at the port and looked for fishermen to ask about manatees.
This is one of the Bozo villages just across from Mopti
Old town Mopti
Lots of good manatee habitat everywhere, but also lots of people
All around Mopti is still flooded from the rainy season
While driving to one fishing village we stopped at the edge of the river to see the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers. We ended up talking to this fisherman (on the right) who told us people see manatees traveling by and feeding on grass along shore in this area, particularly at night. He knew of a village further upriver where manatees are supposedly quite tame and approach people in the river. I wished we had time to go there, but at least Abdoulaye got the name so he can go check it out later. The guy also told us the Bozo people have a legend that when the water dries up, the manatee turns into a turtle!
Later we met with elders from 2 other Bozo villages. They told me manatees are not hunted here because people know they'll get in trouble if they're caught, but further north (closer to Timbuktu) people still regularly hunt them. People here are fascinated by them.
These are some of the manatee samples I collected in Mopti... a vertebra and two pieces of dried tissue. Hopefully I'll be able to isolate DNA from these to learn about the population here and to determine if it is genetically isolated from coastal African manatee populations.
In Mopti's port I saw this boat with a flag that said "From here 2 Timbuktu" and wished I could hop aboard! Timbuktu is about a four day boat ride up the inland Niger delta. I think it would be an interesting trip sometime, but on this day I needed to get ready for the training workshop I was leading the following week.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Conservationists Working to Protect Endangered African Manatees:

Click here to view this article on manatees in Senegal!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mali: Bamako to Sevare

On Tuesday morning we drove out of a smoke-filled Bamako as everyone began preparing to cook their sheep for the Tabaski holiday the following day. Once we left the city the air cleared and we drove through an area of very cool rock formations, then into a zone of lush forest, then finally into a Sahelian scrub landscape that became drier the further north we went. After several hours we crossed the Bani River, one of the largest tributaries of the Niger River. The Bani is created from two other rivers, the Baoule and the Bagoe, which flow from the mountains of Ivory Coast to the south. It still feels odd to me that rivers flow to the north here.
After lunch in Segou we stopped at the town of San, where we had arranged to meet Mr. Berthie who works for the Niger River Basin Authority in that area. We met him at his house and were also joined by another man who is the son of the local "water chief". After drinking the customary cup of tea, we set off in a four wheel drive through miles of flooded rice fields, driving on the top of narrow dikes and dodging donkey carts piled high with hay.
After about 10km we reached a village called Sokon at the edge of the Bani River. The village is in a fairly remote area and it was important to us because the people here report that they regularly see manatees. When we arrived we first met with the chief to say hello and explain our interest in manatees. He was an older man who assigned a younger man from the village to give us a tour near the river's edge. As we walked to the river we passed this traditional mosque which I thought was neat. The rainy season ended about a month ago so the waters that flooded a huge plain are now receding back to the river. We learned that just as the Senegal River floods a huge area and the manatees swim onto the floodplain to feed on the grasses and trees, the same thing happens here. People see large groups, mating herds and babies. They estimated the largest group was about 20 manatees. During the dry season the locals told us they know of three deep holes in the river where the manatees stay. They can only be reached by boat and we didn't have time to go that day, but hopefully Mr. Berthie will follow up with this. There are no manatee hunters in the village but they did have some manatee bones which they consider sacred; the cheif told us manatee bones have magic.

This area where the water runs back to the river looks just like Navel in eastern Senegal, even the tree species are the same.
At the height of the rainy season, the water level reaches the leaves of the trees, at least a 2 meter rise.
We also found some freshwater mollusk shells but no one knew if the manatees eat them as they do in other places. Another mystery to solve!
Mr. Berthie is on the left and he'll take part in the training workshop next week. I was very impressed with his knowledge of manatees in Africa and I think he'll be a huge asset in this region. The local guide froim the village (on my left) was also knowledgible and enthisiastic. The water chief's son is in the maroon shirt, second from left. He later gave me a manatee earbone and another piece of bone for genetics.
Before we left Sokon we returned to the chief's house to thank him and tell him we hope to learn more about manatees here in the future. Then he gave me a chicken as a gift! Never had that happen before! Not to accept it would've been rude, but I can't exactly travel with a chicken, so I gave it to Mr. Berthie for his family.
Later that night, after 14 hours on the road, we reached Sevare.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mali: Bamako
It's been a busy and interesting few days in Bamako. After arriving last Thursday, Tomas and I met up with one of our Malian colleagues, Alfousseini, who took us on a grand tour of the city. The city is defined by the Niger River which passes through on it's long journey from the mountains of Guinea, north through Mali, Niger and Nigeria on it's way to the sea. There are no manatees in the river in Bamako anymore, due to dams and probably hunting long ago. Next week we'll travel north to Mopti and Djenne to study where manatees are found today- the inland Niger delta.
Central Bamako near city hall. The streets are crowded with literally thousands of motor bikes.
Bamako sits in a valley below lots of hills and the mighty Niger River flows through the middle. It is picturesque but unfortunately polluted from factories and agricultural runoff.
This is the office of the Niger River Basin Authority, where Alfousseini works. They are very interested in manatee conservation and research.
We also went to the zoo, where they used to have 2 captive manatees which unfortunately died awhile back (causes of death are unclear, but my sense is that unfortunately they didn't know how to properly care for them). This is the sign near the pool where they kept them. We were told that people flocked to the zoo to see them, because they are so fascinated by such a mysterious creature and opportunities to see one are so rare.
The manatee pool.
After the manatees died they preserved them in a giant tank of formalin so that people could still see them. Unfortunately someone broke the glass and stole the manatee bones and other parts, which they consider useful for traditional medicine. Alfousseini and the zoo keeper lamented that people could be so short-sighted. All that remains today is a chunk of mummified skin.
We also saw the National Museum of Art, the presidential palace and gardens, the conservatory of music and many busy markets! It's just a few days before the Muslim holiday Tabaski, so the markets are crazy with shoppers buying food, new clothes and other supplies. We went to the market to check out the "fetish" stands, which are the vendors selling animal parts, usually for traditional medicine or religious purposes. Although I find looking at piles of dead animals (and particularly wildlife) depressing, I've found I learn alot from these stands in the sense that you can tell how prevalent certain species are in a country by their presence or absence in the market, and you can also tell how stringently (or not) the laws are enforced by the willingness of vendors to talk about or show you that they have certain species. Here in Bamako manatee bones and parts were not seen, and most vendors either didn't know what a manatee was or didn't have any. Sometimes they are reluctant to talk to a white person, so Tomas went back without me and was able to see a couple manatee bones. But overall this market had much less wildlife than others I've seen.
This is a typical vendor stand. In general vendors here had primarily domestic animal parts (horse skulls, dog legs), but I did see a few monkey skulls, crocodile and antelope pelts.
On Monday we met with officials from several different government agencies to talk about the upcoming training workshop and manatees in Mali. These diplomatic meetings are always necessary in Africa in order to get people from multiple agencies to work together. Alfousseini was extremely helpful in setting up meetings with all the correct people, and I'm also thankful for Tomas, who always knows the most diplomatic thing to say and has taught me so much about protocols with officials! The first meeting of the day was with the director of the Niger River Basin Authority. He was a very pleasant fellow who talked at length about the need for conservationists and people involved in development to work together to protect wildlife.
Next I met with the director of Water and Forestry (middle of photo below, Alfousseini is on the right) which is an agency similar to Fish and Wildlife in the USA.
Then we met with the head of the wildlife protection section. He plans to attend the training workshop in Djenne so we mostly talked logistics.

After that we stopped by the Ministry of Environment to say hello to several officials. Phew! Now it's time to pack because we leave for Mopti early tomorrow morning.