Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gabon: camping on the haute Banio

After spending time with Victor, it was then time to continue my surveys for wild manatees. As I mentioned in my previous post, I haven't been to this lagoon since 2006. At that time I only spent 2 days doing surveys because during my first season I traveled to many different parts of Gabon to get an overview of the country. So this time we did a much more in-depth survey of the entire south end of the lagoon, camping in a different place each night. I was accompanied by Papah, a biological technician at Mayumba National Park, and Chardene, who does educational outreach for the park. Papah worked with me when I was here in 2006 and I was impressed with how much he's learned about the lagoon since then. Both of them know everyone in the villages and speak Villi, the local language. Almost everyone also speaks French, but it puts peple at ease when they can speak the local language, and part of the trip was for Chardene to learn how to do the interviews (which she mastered by the second day).

Happy campers: Papah and Chardene as we quietly paddle a cove.
In the daytime we visited villages, interviewed people about manatees, and collected plant specimens as references for my stable isotope work (in order to know what manatees eat, I need reference samples of the plants they eat which isn't easy since no one knows all the species and there are literally thousands of different plants here). In the evenings after dinner we headed back out on the lagoon to look for manatees (we looked during the day too, but didn't see any and the population seems low here).

One evening we had a manatee right next to our boat and as it dove under us Papah could see it's entire body. We were all very excited, manatee sightings are rare here! We were enthusiastically talking about it when we all started to hear a loud humming sound as darkness fell. I thought it was a large boat engine in the distance. Then we all realized (to our horror) that it was the roar of millions and millions of mosquitoes coming from the center of the lagoon! As we boated back to camp the mosquitoes were literally as thick as a snow storm and you couldn't speak without getting a mouthful! It was unbelievable, but they were all in the center of the lagoon. Thankfully when we got back to camp, there were very few around.

Here are a few more photos from our lagoon tour:

Heading out into the peaceful lagoon early in the morning
Our second campsite had elephant tracks everywhere, but they didn't come while we were there. The lagoon is behind the trees.
Chardene preparing fried plantains for dinner...yum!!
A common site here: a field of submerged lilies in the shallow waters at the lagoon edge. Manatees swim through a 3D dinner.
A manatee-eye view of the Crinum natans (white flowers) and water lilies
This aquatic plant occurs in several lagoons in Gabon but I don't know what it is yet. There are very few references for aquatic plants in Africa so figuring out the plants is as much of a struggle as figuring out if manatees eat them!
My plant bucket overflowed...
There is also beautiful forest and powder soft white sand at the lagoon edge. Evening swims were wonderful!
Chardene explains the manatee poster to a fisherman in the village of Malimbe. Most people here have never seen a manatee so they were interested by the photos.
Fisherman in the village of Yoyo (no joke, that's the name!) during our meeting.
I got a big surprise at the village of Nkoko... there were Senegalese fishermen living there and they were so excited that I could speak alittle Wolof (thanks to my husband) that they invited me to a baptism and insisted I stay for the feast! You never know where the day will take you!
After the camping trip I returned to Rich's house to work with Victor for a few more days. When I arrived Brice excitedly told me that the day I left, an adult manatee had appeared in the floating grass just outside Victor's enclosure! It makes me wonder if wild manatees know he's there. I could hear Victor "talking" when I snorkeled in his enclosure (manatees make high pitched chirping sounds, to hear some Florida manatees click here), so maybe other manatees are talking back to him!

When I went back to Mayumba, I donated a manatee skull to the national park for use in their outreach programs (the manatee died of natural causes in N'dogo Lagoon in 2009 so I cleaned the skull for educational purposes)
...and I dried all my plant samples (thanks to Rich, Brice & Junior for helping me devise this home-made plant drying rack!) before packaging them to ship to Florida or analysis.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gabon: Return to Mayumba

I've wanted to post long before this, but I've had a series of computer nightmares recently and am only typing now thanks to the generosity of my friends Hilde & Tim, who've lent me a laptop. In early June, once I'd sorted out all my logistics and research permit applications in Libreville, my friend Rich Parnell and I flew to Tchibanga, the largest town in southern Gabon. After a night there we rode in a bush taxi (which in this case actually was a nice new 4x4 pickup truck that even had air conditioning!) to Mayumba, which is reached on a reasonably good dirt road that winds through hills and eventually ends in a short ferry crossing of Banio Lagoon. Mayumba sits on a peninsula at the north end of the long, thin lagoon, which stretches ~50 miles south, almost reaching the border of the Congo. This is the very first place I came in Africa to survey for manatees back in 2006. I've only been back once since then, for a meting in 2009, so I was anxious to spend more time here. This is also where Victor, the orphan West African manatee, is being raised. Infact, Victor lives in an enclosure at Rich's house and he has generously given not only his house (2 manatee staff need to live there fulltime to provide round the clock feeding) but his time, to help fundraise for Victor and supervise his care.

After an afternoon in Mayumba buying food and seeing some friends, we headed off in Rich's motorized canoe down the lagoon to his house, which is about a 45 minute ride normally, but laden with all my gear it took us almost 2 hours. As the sun set over the lagoon our colleagues Mike and Michelle buzzed us in a small plane as they finished surveying the coast for illegal fishing activity. The cool, fresh air of the dry season is fantastic and for once I needed a jacket in the evenings, rather than dripping sweat while sitting perfectly still.

Meeting Victor was an incredible experience for me. Not only are West African manatees normally very hard to see because they're so shy, but calves are almost never seen. Even when I worked with manatees in Florida, I rarely got to spend any time with calves, other than the sick and injured ones I rescued and drove to critical care facilities, or released back to the wild once they were older and healthy. So to be able to spend 2 weeks with Victor, to watch his normal behavior and learn from his caretakers, was a special treat for me.

A chubby Victor contemplates life after filling up on a bottle of milk

In his first 9 months, Victor struggled with skin wounds and to gain weight. But now he's healthy and rapidly getting fat. We owe alot of this to the efforts of Jonathan, the Masters student from Puerto Rico who spent 4 months here and trained the caretakers. Since I arrived in Gabon Victor's gained 6 kg! As of last week he weighs 38.5 kg and has started to nibble at roots in his new enclosure (which had to be built because the old one was too shallow as the water receded in the dry season). The new enclosure was a gigantic labor of love by Rich and the 3 manatee caretakers here, Brice, Davy and Junior, because they had to hack it out of dense brush at the edge of the lagoon. Everything we learn about Victor is new information about West African manatees and therefore very valuable in our understanding of the species.

Victor's new enclosure
We all dribble when we're sleepy! Victor still gets fed every 3 hours around the clock except between midnight and 6am.
Victor immediately checked out aquatic plants I "planted" in his enclosure. We are encouraging him to investigate plants that manatees eat in the wild here, and he's already eating some roots. In a few months he'll be transitioned off the bottle of milk and on to a regular diet of local plants.
The evidence: each morning we found newly exposed and partially chewed roots at the bottom of Victor's enclosure.
Junior and Brice display a manatee educational panel I had made (thank you Aimee Sanders for your amazing design expertise!) to be used for educational outreach programs here. Victor's enclosure and Banio Lagoon are in the background. Victor's story is a great opportunity to educate people in Gabon and other African countries about the importance of protecting manatees and we hope to raise more funds for this important work.
I collected hair and whisker samples from Victor as part of my stable isotope research. This analysis will help me understand when Victor began eating plants in addition to his milk. I am also collecting hair samples from wild manatees to determine food preferences over different seasons and locations. I also collected a genetics sample from Victor.
Victor's length and girth measurements are taken during each weekly checkup.
Victor is weighed by a 50 kg hanging scale and a net that he will soon outgrow. We hope to get him a new scale soon! A larger net should be easier to get, pieces are found washed up on the beach occasionally.
Victor gets his algae gently scrubbed off after his health assessment.
Next, I headed off down Banio Lagoon in search of wild manatees....
Senegal: News article

I should've posted this link awhile ago but I was already in the field when the story came out, so I'm just getting to it now! Nice article focusing on West African manatee efforts in Senegal written by Amanda Fortier and featuring some of my photos... click here