Friday, July 22, 2011

Congo: Lac Tchimpa and the Lukani River

After paddling down the Ngonogo we traveled to Lac Tchimpa, another tranquil lake with no permanent residents. However, this lake is closer to villages so we did see lots of signs of fishing activity (particularly large hooks set for freshwater turtles). Again the habitat was great for manatees, but none were seen. I did find a small river at the far end of the lake (later I learned it is called the Lukani) that looked promising. The photo below shows Lake Tchimpa shoreline plants that are attractive to manatees: ferns, grasses, and a taro-like plant known as Cryptosperma senegalense.
We were also lucky to get a good view of this male Finfoot duck, which is a common but shy species here. We mostly see them disappearing under bushes as we move along the edge of waterways. (Photo by T. Collins)
We returned a day later to properly kayak and survey the Lukani. It's a very narrow creek, but in places it's 8 feet deep. Numerous fallen trees and other brush blocked the river at various points (although manatees could swim underthem), so we instantly regretted that we'd forgotten a machete. It was obvious from the overgrown brush that no humans had come up this river in a long time.
I found known manatee food plant species I hadn't seen anywhere else in Conkouati (or even in Gabon) and finally I found fresh feeding sign! Fern leaves hanging in the water had been stripped off their stems and and Cryptosperma leaves had been eaten.

As we continued upriver the going got tougher.
Where's the river? Tim is cutting through brush with his small knife in this photo.
After a couple hours we reached a mini lake and heard chimps in the trees nearby. Unfortunately further progress upriver was blocked by a huge log, so we turned back. But at least I have some proof that manatees use this area.
The Lukani was the last survey I had time for before I had to leave the Congo. I'd like to thank Tim and Hilde for their hospitality and all their help with logistics for my surveys. Although I didn't see any manatees myself, my interviews provide local knowledge of where they have been seen recently, and hopefully the tapez tapez fishing can be stopped, for the benefit of all the wildlife in the national park.

I've returned to Gabon for a few days to secure my export permits for the manatee samples I'll bring back to the USA, so my fieldwork is over for the next few months. Next I'll head back to Florida and the lab for sample analysis.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Congo: Kayaking the Ngongo

Last week my friend Tim (a whale researcher who lives at Conkouati) and I took off on a 3 day trip in search of manatees to lakes and up the Ngongo River north of Conkoauti Lagoon. People on the lagoon told me manatees occur in these more remote areas, so I was eager to go look. Our Congolese boat driver, Christian, works for Conkouati national park and knows these waterways very well.

Boating up the Ngongo River towards Lac Tchibinda on the first day, we passed through raffia palm forest which is full of elephants at this time of year, then moved into more upland tropical forest in the north. It was slow going due to many fallen logs in the river.
Lac Tchibinda is enormous! It took us an entire day to slowly boat around the edges. There are only a few people who live permanently on Lac Tchibinda, although there are a number of camps and people come occasionally to fish.
Overall the habitat is very pristine. Tim saw 4 otters on his morning kayak near our camp, and I found hundreds of duiker tracks (they're like a small deer) on the shore. It's quiet and good manatee habitat, but unfortunately we didn't see any. You can see the waterline on the bottom of the trees in the photo below, which marks the water level rise in the rainy season.
Our peaceful campsite on the lake. It's dry season, so very cool at night.
Ready to kayak in the land of too many tse tse flies! The first morning we went in opposite directions in our kayaks in order to cover more area at first light.
Sunrise view of the lake from the shoreline
I found freshwater mussels and collected samples. They were quite large, about 3 inches long. Now that I've really started looking, it turns out I find shellfish everywhere manatees are reported in Africa.
After the morning kayak we loaded up our motor boat & headed off on a survey around the rest of Lac Tchibinda. At the mouth of a small river that drains into the lake, there was a large grassy area with many species of manatee food plants. A local fisherman I interviewed that day told me he often sees manatees here as well as within the river, and he described mating herds, which was the first report of them I've had at Conkouati. The river was too small to navigate in our motorized boat and we had to keep going to finish Tchibinda and get to the next site, so no time to kayak it that day.
While I checked out the river mouth, Tim caught his first fish of the trip (which was released)
At another small river that drains into the lake we saw elephant tracks... but still no manatees.
After interviewing a local fisherman I wrote up my notes before we continued. People are often less intimidated when I don't take notes as I interview them. (photo by T. Collins).
As we headed from Lac Tchibinda over to the Ngongo River we passed this banded cobra (Boulengerina annulata) sunning just above the water.
Boating quickly up the Ngongo to reach our camp by sunset. Despite the beautiful scenery, I start to get frustrated when I don't find manatees! (photo by T. Collins).
As we came around one corner, we surprised a female elephant bathing in the river. We also saw and heard many other eles feeding along the banks.
Happy campers part 2: Tim & Christian in the early morning mist of the Ngongo. Tim is just happy that he survived the night without an elephant tromping on his tent!
Early the next morning we kayaked down the Ngongo River. The current is pretty strong, so we were able to mostly drift and look for wildlife. We saw lots of monkeys & chimps, hundreds of hornbills and other birds, and we heard elephants feeding in the brush above us. (photo by T. Collins).
The banks of the river rose about 20-30 feet above the waterline, indicating how much higher the water rises during the rainy season. This whole area floods, and as in other rivers I've surveyed in Africa, it's possible that manatees swim into flooded forests on the rivers edge at that time of year. But now it's the dry season and upriver the vegetation is too far above the waterline for manatees to reach, so I wasn't surprised not to find them here. Further downriver, though, the embankments are not as high (the river gets wider & deeper) and manatees could use that area in all seasons.
This is just another photo to give a sense of the gorgeous forest habitat. (photo by T. Collins).
At least we had a beautiful kayak trip and saw some cool animals. This is a Great Blue Turaco, one of several we saw as we paddled the river. They are about the size of a hawk. It's hard to photograph them so I was lucky.
We also saw these pretty purple flowers that reminded me of wisteria.
Next we continued to Lac Tchimpa....

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Congo: Conkouati Lagoon

I've been at Conkouati National Park for 2 weeks now and have boated around most of the southern end of the large lagoon. One of the first days we went out to where the lagoon drains into the Atlantic Ocean. The lagoon is formed from many rivers that meander down from mountains west of here and drain into lakes and then rivers north of the lagoon. Then the lagoon stretches through lowland forest and mangrove channels to the sea. Just before reaching the ocean it jogs north, leaving a thin sandy peninsula between lagoon and beach. In the photo below you can see a sliver of lagoon under the forest on the right side.
One of the first days I was here we took a boat to 5 different sandbars spread out around the southern part of the lagoon. People have reported seeing manatees on some of these sandbars in the past, so I wondered if I would find Halodule wrightii seagrass, which is the only species that grows in this part of Africa. I found Halodule near the mouths in several places in Gabon and it's known to be a favorite food of manatees. However, there was none here. Instead I found lots of tiny clam shells resting on the sand, and when I dug into the sandy mud I found hundreds of live ones just below the surface. As readers of this blog know, I'm trying to document that manatees eat clams and other shellfish in Africa... I hear reports about it most places I work, but it's hard to prove without samples from manatees (which can be a skin sample, nobody has to die!). In the meantime I'm collecting reference samples of plants and shellfish that manatees supposedly eat, so that I can prove it later, once I'm able to sample manatees.
I spent many days paddling around Conkouati Lagoon in a kayak looking for manatees, but despite great habitat and no hunting here, I saw none. There could be several reasons for this: they could be very scarce, they could be very shy, and/or they may only be active at night, which is the case in some places in Africa. It's an enormous lagoon and fishermen are everywhere, plus it was logistically difficult for me to go out at night.
Kayaking through mangrove tree tunnel.. there are lots of these here.
I did see lots of other nice wildlife, including both wild chimps an these semi-wild ones (that were rescued by 2 different organizations here and reintroduced to islands in the lagoon).
One day hile kayaking I saw something making a wake in the water in the distance. Hoping it was a manatee I paddled madly up to it, only to find it was this snake. It was very pretty, with aqua blue and black stripes.... I don't know what species it is (does anyone out there know?). It was about 2 feet long and had a brown belly.
While paddling and boating around I noticed I constantly heard banging noises from fishing boats. The fishermen use a technique here called "tapez tapez"... they use nets with a very fine mesh, and once the nets are set they bang on the sides of their boats and beat the water to scare all the fish into their nets. Several older fishermen are trying stop this practice because it catches even tiny juvenile fish, thereby depleting the lagoon. The younger men apparently don't care, they're looking for fast money. Aside from the important issue of over-fishing, the constant noise (we heard it around the clock, from all sides of the lagoon) scares off wildlife. I would imagine it certainly scares off mantees, who are generally very shy around boats as it is. So I wonder if this is why I didn't see any. The old fishermen are trying to get everyone to sign an agreement that they will all stop "tapez tapez", and my friend Hilde, who runs Conkouati National Park is very eager to get it stopped. But in a place where people are so poor, and in a lagoon so large, it's a huge challenge.
So the search continued.....

Monday, July 04, 2011

Mayumba, Gabon to Conkouati, Congo

After finishing my surveys in southern Banio Lagoon, I returned to Mayumba for several days to interview fishermen and survey several rivers at the north end of the lagoon. I also worked with Jean Nestor and Chardene, the WCS outreach team, on manatee presentations for villages. Mayumba has a much higher human population so manatees are rarely seen (the last one anyone could remember was seen in the Louzibi River North in 2007). They may be around in small numbers, but they are very secretive. The Louzibi River North (there are 2 Louzibi Rivers draining into Banio Lagoon, which makes it complicated when discussing them with local people) has plenty of good manatee habitat, including an open swampy area with lots of plants they eat, but unfortunately there were no signs of them.

Some of the trees had funky twisted roots that wound at their bases like sculpture.

The second river we surveyed in the north, the Doumvou, quickly got very narrow. No manatees were seen there either, but they may have been hunted out a long time ago.

A few days later I took a local boat to the southern end of Banio Lagoon, a 4 hour trip. The boat was loaded with thousands of pounds of rice and beer, and 13 passengers. We stopped at every village on the lagoon to offload people and supplies, and finally arrived at the small town of Ndindi. Thanks to Jean Nestor in Mayumba who helped me make arrangements, a pickup truck was waiting to take me to a small hostel (which was an experience I won't soon forget- the entire roof was full of bats and the guano smell so strong that I was convinced the ceiling was going to collapse in on top of me, but there was literally nowhere else in the village to stay). The next morning I rented the same truck (not an inexpensive proposition, but there was no other way to get there, and I ended up taking 3 other paying passengers to help cut the cost) to go through the forest and across the border into the Congo. Before leaving I had to spend an hour at the local border patrol to await the commandante who was finishing his breakfast, then explain to him the purpose of my trip and have my passport info. registered (and pay a small bribe, of course). The "road" was basically a dry riverbed occasionally used by logging company trucks. We bounced over boulders and along sandy embankments from forest to savannah and at one point the driver told me we were entering the Congo. There was no sign to mark the boundary in this very remote area. A short while later we entered the village of Nzambi and went to the border patrol. I had been told they could be very difficult (especially to researchers with lots of equipment), but I was pleasantly surprised and they quickly waved me through without even asking a bribe. I think this definitely had to do with the fact that I told them I was working with Hilde, the director of Conkouati National Park, who is greatly respected in this area. After passing through the checkpoint we drove down a big hill to the edge of Conkouati Lagoon, which is surrounded by hilly savannah that peeks up above the gallery forest all along its edge. My friend Tim, a whale and dolphin researcher, picked me up in a small boat and brought me to the national park headquarters.

The logo of Conkouati national park is the manatee!

As we approached from the lagoon, I could see the park buildings on the savannah at the top of a hill. This is my first time here, and mine will be the first manatee surveys in many years.

Hilde & Tim's wonderful house sits at the top of the hill...

...with a beautiful view of the savannah and lagoon below. In the morning I hear chimps calling from the forest, and at sunset we saw buffalo grazing on a nearby hillside.

The savannah is dotted with termite mounds that resemble giant mushrooms.

This is Hilde and her 3 dogs when we went on my first kayak excursion on the lagoon.

This coastal lagoon has habitat ranging from mangroves and lots of Crinum natans near the ocean, to lowland forest up the rivers.

Crinum natans are gorgeous flowers and much more of a true water lily than the lotus that are regularly called water lilies.

On my second day I accompanied two park employees up a river to release 2 Dwarf crocodiles that had been confiscated from poachers. This gave me my first opportunity to see the riverine habitat. No hunting or fishing is allowed on the river and there were no camps. Elephant trails were everywhere and the habitat was great for manatees.

One of the Dwarf crocs, just prior to release.

Now that I have a better understanding of the layout of the lagoon, it's time to survey for manatees!!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

New Victor video!! Click here!!

Friday, July 01, 2011

First day with Sea to Shore Alliance!

I'm very excited to announce that as of today I am be joining the staff at Sea to Shore Alliance, a non-profit wildlife research organization based in Florida. Sea to Shore's Director is Dr. James "Buddy" Powell, who has been my manatee mentor since 1998, and my African manatee work follows in the footsteps of Buddy's ten years of work in Africa in the 1980's and 1990's. Buddy also serves on my PhD committee at the University of Florida. I'm very happy to be joining an organization whose mission so closely compliments my work, and I look forward to working with their great team. All of my West African manatee projects will remain the same, and I'll be continuing my research studying the distribution, genetics, and feeding strategies of this elusive and little-understood species. Additionally, my efforts to build a collaborative regional network for African manatee researchers and to promote educational outreach throughout the range of the species will also continue full speed ahead!

Please note my new professional contact information:
Lucy Keith Diagne
Sea to Shore Alliance
4411 Bee Ridge Road, #490LinkSarasota, FL 34233

Check out the Sea To Shore website by clicking here