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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Enroute to Maliimage courtesy of

Tomorrow morning I'll travel from Senegal to Bamako, Mali to work with manatee colleagues Alfousseini Semega and Abdoulaye Guindo, and see their manatee study sites in the inland Niger River delta. Later in the trip I'll also lead a week long manatee research and conservation training workshop for African colleagues, very similar to the ones I taught in Ghana for the past 2 years. This time many of the trainees will be from Mali, but we'll also have participants from Niger, Ivory Coast and Chad. So it should be a very interesting trip! I'll post more soon....

Monday, November 01, 2010

Senegal: On the trail of a dead manatee

Last June an adult female manatee died in a narrow lagoon called Mbodiene. I try to follow up on all of these reports since any information we can gather adds to our sparse knowledge of the species. This manatee was particularly interesting because it had been seen alive with 2-3 others several days before it died, and photos and reports clearly indicated it was in distress. Unfortunately I was in the USA at the time and could not get to the site myself. Due to the somewhat slow chain of communication, after the manatee died no one could get to the site fast enough to collect samples before the local population butchered the carcass for meat. There were enough witnesses to verify that the manatee did die naturally, it was not killed. Several people tried to help it as it struggled to breathe. But unfortunately once it died, people couldn't imagine seeing the meat "go to waste".

In this photo the manatee propels itself high out of the water as a concerned man tries to help it. Based on this photo and others showing it bobbing on the water's surface, it is possible the manatee had a watercraft impact injury (I used to see lots of these in Florida and they are less obvious than manatees cut by boat propellers. Often the manatee has trouble diving because a broken rib bone has punctured a lung). Photo courtesy of Oceanium Dakar.
My guess is there was little anyone could've done to save it. There are no facilities in Africa to take care of injured or sick manatees (or any other marine mammals for that matter!).

People on scene claimed the other manatees with the distressed one were it's "babies" because they were smaller, but based on descriptions I got, I think these were just other individuals accompanying it. Female manatees are larger than males, and it's a common mistake for people to think males are babies, or that manatees travel in "family groups" (also not true, they form temporary social groups for feeding, socializing or mating, but these are not related individuals). Ultimately the other manatees headed out of the lagoon back to the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Senegal manatees are commonly reported near shore in the ocean moving between different lagoons/estuaries.

So last week I went to Joal to meet with Karim Sall, a biologist who is involved with mangroves, sea turtles, and marine mammals in the Delta Saloum region. Aside from wanting to meet him because he has lived in the area for many years and is a great source of local information, I was specifically hoping to learn more about a manatee that died in Mbodiene Lagoon. Karim told me at first he thought the manatees had become accidentally trapped in the narrow lagoon, but after talking to some old men there he discovered there are at least 2 freshwater springs within it and that manatees are sighted annually, mostly between March and May. This is interesting because that's the end of the dry season, so manatees may be migrating along the coast and using the springs as a stopover for freshwater. The lagoon is only 9km long and about 200 feet wide, so manatees are easy to spot when they're there.

Karim (right) searches his computer for pictures he took of the manatee remains.
This is the photo he gave me. By the time Karim got to the site last June, the manatee had been completely butchered and only pieces of skin were left. I will use a piece of the dried tissue for genetics. Photo courtesy of K. Sall. After talking to Karim, I went out to the lagoon. I went to the site where the manatee died to collect a GPS point and see the area for myself. There were mangroves along the edge but no visible seagrasses or other aquatic plants. Although I checked at several houses, no one who had seen the manatee was around, but the site visit helps me learn about manatee use areas for the future. I'd like to find the springs and document those as well... there's a huge network of freshwater springs that manatees use in this region.

Mbodiene Lagoon is very narrow and shallow, especially at low tide.

On the way home we saw this sign for Pointe Sarene with a manatee caricature on it. Pt. Sarene also has a freshwater spring It may seem like these little bits and pieces of information, gathered so long after the manatee died, are not much. But when we know so little, every bit helps to piece together the African manatee's life history.