Friday, January 27, 2012

West African Manatee Network Activities

Over the past few months I've received several updates from my former trainees, who are now actively starting manatee research and conservation efforts in their home countries, despite many challenges. Here are some highlights of their efforts:


In central Mali, manatee researcher Soumaïla Berthe is starting surveys to learn about manatees in the Bani River, a 775 km long tributary of the Niger River. Berthe attended the training workshop I led in Djenné, Mali in 2010, and he was one of the most dedicated and enthusiastic members of the group. He's been fascinated with manatees for years, and had educated himself about them online since there are few other resources in Mali. I was also able to visit his study area near San when I was in Mali (see posting from November 18, 2010). With no funding for his manatee work (his official job is a regional director for the Niger River Basin Authority), Berthe goes out in his spare time to start surveys, train others, and build a local manatee sightings network that is creating and maintaining a database of known manatee use areas and year round sightings. So far Berthe has documented a new dam on the Bani that has changed the pattern of seasonal waterflow and is likely effecting manatees ability to access important feeding habitat, plus he has recorded known seasonal use locations reported by fisherman, and collected samples of manatee bone and feces for genetics and stable isotope analyses. He has 5 volunteers working with him, and I am very impressed with his energy and determination.

Berthe (with binoculars) surveys the river with his colleague Lassina Diarra. Photo courtesy of Soumaïla Berthe.

Berthe and Lassina check out a piece of manatee skull found by villagers living on the Bani River. Photo courtesy of Soumaïla Berthe.
Côte d'Ivoire:

Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast in English) has faced years of civil war, and the past two years have been especially difficult because of fighting after President Gagbo lost the last election but refused to step down and allow Ouattara (the winner) to assume the presidency. Additionally, in 2009 Dr. Akoi Kouadio, who had been leading a manatee research program in Ivory Coast for almost 30 years, passed away after an illness. The non-profit organization Akoi worked for dropped his project after his death, leaving his staff and programs with no way to continue.

Since then his former protégé, Dr. Kouame Djaha, has been trying to find a way to continue the manatee sightings network and educational outreach started by Akoi. Kouame attended the training workshop in Djenné, Mali and I was able to donate a full set of field equipment to his research efforts. Kouame reports that now that the government has settled down a bit, he and several colleagues have made contact with members of the former sightings network, and people tell them they still want to protect the manatee. Under Akoi, the project had ended all hunting in a lagoon system where 100,000 people live, which is a huge achievement! Kouame needs funds to restart their work, and for now he is working as a botanist at a university.

This is a photo I took of Kouame during the training workshop in Mali. His shirt says "Don't kill the manatees" and was one of the educational tools Akoi's group used to end hunting in Fresco Lagoon.Niger:

Manatee researcher Boureima Boubacar, who also attended training in Djenné, Mali in 2010, has now started manatee surveys in the Niger River in Niger. He's working to reactivate a manatee sighting network that was set up years ago near W National Park (so named because the Niger River literally forms a "W" in this area. Test your geographical knowledge and see if you can find it on Google Earth! Hint: it's south of the capital of Niamey and north of the border with Benin). During his surveys Boureima took environmental data and talked to people about how often they see manatees. He hopes to raise funds to continue his work.

Boureima (in orange) and a colleague discuss their data during a field survey. Photo courtesy of Boureima Boubacar.
Boureima using a depth sounder with digital thermometer donated to him by my grants that provide field equipment to African researchers. This device collects accurate water depth, as well as water and air temperature data... it's extremely useful in Africa's muddy rivers. Photo courtesy of Boureima Boubacar.

At Lac de Guiers, a huge lake in northern Senegal, Tomas Diagne (who is also my husband) has been working with the community and the government for many years to establish a wildlife reserve to protect manatees, an endemic species of freshwater turtle (Adanson's Mud Turtle, Pelusios adansoni) and many species of water birds. This past Fall the first signs designating the Tocc Tocc Refuge were erected, including a map of the refuge.

The local crew assembled for a group photo after putting up two signs. Bouys will soon also mark refuge boundaries from the lake side. Photo courtesy of Tomas Diagne.
A fisherman pulls up abandoned net full of aquatic plants within Tocc Tocc Reserve during a cleanup organized by Tomas and the local community. Photo courtesy of Tomas Diagne.
Tomas raised funds and has purchased a fiberglass boat for surveys and reserve monitoring, which they plan to start this year with a team of staff from local villages. He has also received equipment donations from Save the Manatee Club including a trolling motor, life jackets, a digital camera, a tent, and a desktop computer. Training, equipment and uniforms will be provided to refuge staff so that they can both enforce protection of the reserve, as well as collect scientific data on the manatees and turtles. A committee made up of chiefs and elders from each of the surrounding villages will oversee management of the reserve, ensuring that they can protect the wildlife and reap the benefits as it grows into an ecotourism site.

As I get more reports from other network members I will continue to post them to show more of the terrific efforts that are underway for West African manatees!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Persistence pays off!!

Happy news! After 13 months of working with colleagues in Mali to get an export permit for manatee samples I collected there in November 2010 (which have since been added to by my colleagues) we finally got it! It's amazing how long it can take to push simple paperwork through government bureaucracy, and I have learned that patience is definitely required. The permits are required so that I can legally ship the samples (which include bone, tissue, and even manatee feces, which will be used for genetics, age determination, and stable isotope analyses) to the lab in Florida. Once the analyses are complete, I'll share the results back to my colleagues in Mali in the hope that the results will help them make informed management and conservation decisions for manatees. Now the next step is shipping... which has it's own set of challenges from Mali!
Kamla's Florida Training Adventure

As I mentioned in my last post, Aristide Kamla from Cameroon came to Florida for 3 weeks of training this past November. Thanks to tremendous help and enthusiasm from my Florida manatee colleagues at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab (FWC/MMPL), the USGS Sirenia Project, Sea to Shore Alliance, Lowry Park Zoo, and Homosassa Springs State Park, Kamla was able to experience almost all aspects of manatee research in his short visit. The idea was for him to gain as much practical, hands on experience with manatees as possible. In Africa, manatees are very difficult to study and we can only rarely collect samples, but it's important for researchers to be able to know what to do when the rare opportunities arise. In his 3 weeks in Florida, Kamla was able to participate in more training activies than I would be able to provide in several years in Africa.

As an aside, I call Aristide by his last name, Kamla, because that's how he always signs his emails, so for a long time I thought that was his first name! Now it's stuck as my nickname for him and he's ok with it, so there you go.

Just after arriving in Florida, Kamla participated in wild manatee captures and health assessments led by USGS in Crystal River. USGS has been studying the manatees in Crystal River for over 30 years, and their current study is looking at baseline health parameters of the manatees that return to this natural hotspring area every winter. My husband Tomas and I also participated. Photo courtesy of Susan Butler, USGS.
Here Kamla helps to carefully roll a manatee so that USGS photo identification photos can be taken of its ventral (belly) side. He also learned how to take standardized measurements, collect genetics samples and safely pull captured manatees into shore in nets. Photo courtesy of USGS.
Once their health assessments are complete, the manatees are released back into the warm water. Photo courtesy of USGS.
This is a group shot of some of the many (almost 100!) people who took part in the captures. Another benefit of Kamla's participation was getting to meet and talk with manatee researchers from all over Florida. Photo courtesy of USGS.
After captures USGS researchers, including manatee telemetry guru Jim Reid, took Kamla snorkeling with the manatees, so he was able to swim with them and see their natural behavior. Photo courtesy of USGS.
Kamla with the manatee sanctuary sign at Crystal River. Photo courtesy of USGS.
Next, Kamla accompanied Sea to Shore Alliance manatee trackers Jessica Koelsch and Melody Fisher on two separate field outings to track tagged manatees. Sea to Shore is responsible for tracking rehabilitated Florida manatees after they have been released from captivity, to make sure they successfully re-acclimate to the wild. Here he drives the boat while listening to the VHF radio receiver for the beeps emitted by the tag. Photo courtesy of Melody Fisher.

Listening for a manatee who was feeding in the floating vegetation close by.... Photo courtesy of Melody Fisher.
Next Kamla headed back to the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab (MMPL) in St. Petersburg to spend several days learning how to do detailed necropsies on dead manatees. Aside from determining the cause of death, MMPL staff also conduct studies on many aspects of manatee physiology. Here Kamla examines muscle and fat layers. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Kamla with MMPL staff Trevor Gerlach, Brandon Bassett, and Anna Panike. Photo courtesy of FWC.
Kamla also went out with MMPL staff Anna to collect a manatee carcass, which is alot easier when you have a truck with a winch attached! Photo courtesy of FWC.
Another day Kamla accompanied FWC staff Kane Rigney & Andy Garrett to Lowry Park Zoo, to conduct a health assessment on a manatee that was about to be released back to the wild. By this time he was getting pretty good at rolling them over! Photo courtesy of FWC.
Kamla watches as an ultrasound reading is taken, which shows the width of the manatee's fat layer and gives a good indication of overall health. In Florida manatees need a good fat layer to help protect them through cold winters. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Finally, Kamla spent 3 days at Homosassa Springs State Park working with their captive manatees. After all his hands on training, Kamla attended the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Tampa (more details on that below). He was the first African researcher my project has sponsored for training in the USA and I'm really grateful to all the people who gave their time to teach him! It took alot of logistical coordination to make it happen, and I'd also like to thank Susan Kahraman of Sea to Shore Alliance for all her help setting up Kamla's flights, local transportation, and lodging. He's now back in Africa continuing his research in Cameroon and plans to apply to universities to study for his PhD. Kamla's goal is to be the first Marine Biology university professor in his country, and I'm betting he will be!

Based on the success of Kamla's training, next month I'll sponsor a second researcher, Dawda Saine of the Gambia here in Florida. And I'm already thinking about my next training work in Africa, which will take place in Guinea-Bissau in May. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Fall 2011 Recap

Happy New Year! Finally I have time to catch up with myself after a whirlwind Fall. I'm happy to report I survived my toughest semester of my PhD program, which will now make studying for and taking my qualifying exams this spring seem a like piece of cake :-) I learned alot in my Phylogenetics and Biochemistry clases that will help my research, but I'm also very glad they're FINISHED!! In addition to school, there were a few other project achievements this Fall:

- My collaborator Katie Brill has aged the first 16 West African manatee earbones from samples I collected and imported from four countries. Earbones are used for aging because manatees lose and replace their teeth throughout their lives as they wear them out (think of a conveyor belt from the back of the jaw to the front... the teeth move forward as the ones in front of them wear down and fall out). This is the first time the aging technique (which requires slicing a very thin section of earbone with a diamond saw and counting the rings, just like in a tree) has been used for this species. The ages ranged from 12 to 39 years old (39 is very old for a wild manatee!) and this information will be used along with genetic samples collected from the same individuals to give us a picture of the lives of manatees in different populations. We continue to try to get more earbones from other countries, so we can expand our research; I also plan to use these and other bones to do stable isotope analyses to determine what the manatees eat. We'll publish our results in a year or two, once we have more data.

Here's a photo of a manatee earbone slice... how many rings can you count? The answer is at the bottom of this post. (Photo courtesy of Katie Brill)

- In November I sponsored Cameroonian manatee researcher Aristide Kamla for 3 weeks of training in Florida. Aristide worked for almost a year to fundraise in order to make this trip, and in addition to the stipend I gave him (thanks to the generosity of my grants for training African researchers) he received a student travel award to attend the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Tampa (see below), and matched both awards with several thousand dollars of his own funds. My grants also allowed me to outfit Aristide with basic field equipment he needs for his manatee surveys in Cameroon, including binoculars, a GPS unit, a depth sounder with digital thermometer, a tape measure, a drybag to safely store his equipment, and manatee posters for educational outreach in his country. He's an impressive and extremely motivated young man, and I'll write more about his experiences in Florida in a separate post shortly.

Aristide and me with some of his field equipment donated by this project

- In late November I attended the biennial Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Tampa, FL where I gave 3 presentations (1 oral and 2 posters) on different aspects of my ongoing research. The spoken presentation, "First Satellite Tagging of the West African Manatee" was given at the Sirenian Workshop and reported manatee rescues and satellite tagging I did in the Senegal River in 2009 in collaboration with Oceanium Dakar (a Senegalese NGO) and CBD-Habitat (a Spanish NGO). The two posters reported on my work to build the researcher network for the WA manatee (see below & link in menu at right), and a poster (lead author was Jonathan Perez Rivera) on our rehabilitation of Victor, the orphan manatee in Gabon.

Aristide and I presenting our posters at the marine mammal conference

-The conference was also an excellent opportunity to meet with other researchers to discuss future collaborations, and I'm excited to report that Dr. Miriam Marmontel (who first developed the manatee earbone aging technique) will join Katie's and my earbone research. I also met with a Mexican manatee researcher to discuss collaborating on manatee tooth wear (which helps us determine the types of plants they are eating) and with others to discuss WA manatee morphometrics (the study of manatee size and shape via measurements, which will help us determine if there are differences between populations in Africa) and future fundraising efforts. So all in all, it was a very successful meeting!

- In December the Columbus Zoo Conservation Fund awarded their 5th consecutive grant to this project, and I'm honored to have them as my longest term supporter of my West African manatee research! Thank you so much for your commitment to me and to this work Columbus Zoo!

So it was a very productive 4 months! Next up: aside from studying for 3 months for my qualifying exams and taking 2 more classes, I'll sponsor Gambian manatee researcher Dawda Saine in Florida for training in February, I hope to finish and submit 2 manuscripts to scientific journals, and I'll be planning my next field season in Africa (Senegal, and hopefully Guinea-Bissau and Gambia). And I'll try to be better at posting news here more often! I wish you all a wonderful, healthy and happy 2012!!

Earbone age answer= 16 years