Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gabon: Weekly Victor update

I received some great news this morning- Victor's lost milk shipment has finally been located! Due to an airline screw up (the baggage tags apparently weren't properly attached to the trunks), the trunks reached the airport in Paris but since their final destination wasn't known because the tags fell off,  the trunks were shipped to the Seattle area home of the passenger who was transporting them to Gabon for us. He just returned there to find the trunks sitting in his garage. At least they've been found, and we're now working with the airlines to get them shipped back to Gabon, since Victor's milk supplies will be depleted again in 3 weeks.

At Victor's weekly health assessment the other day he weighed in at 94kg. Jonathan estimates Vic is eating 30% of his daily diet in plants now (up from 10% a couple weeks ago) and his bottle feedings have been reduced to 3 times per day, so he's making steady progress. My friend Ruth Leeney, who is studying dolphins in Gabon, took the following photos of Victor when she visited this week:

Jonathan taking Victor's heart rate
Looking good Victor!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gambia: Niumi National Park

On the weekend after the workshop, Dawda and I traveled to Niumi National Park in the northwest corner of Gambia. On a map it seems relatively close to Banjul, but it turned out to be quite an adventure to get there and back!
On Saturday morning we took the ferry back across the Gambia River to the north side town of Barra. One of the guys from the workshop had given us the name of a place to stay in the park and a driver to get us there, but Dawda couldn't reach the driver, so once we got to Barra it took some finagling to find a ride for a decent price. After about half an hour we reached an agreement with a driver, then walked through Barra to a small river and waited for him while he went to get fuel for the car. This process took about an hour, then he finally returned and we all got in a small canoe to cross the river to the car waiting on the other side. About halfway across the river it suddenly started raining- a torrential downpour. We ran to the ancient Land Rover and jumped in... aside from Dawda, myself and the driver there were 5 other people in the back. We drove about 50 feet towards the beach (there's no road, the car usually drives along the beach on hard packed sand) and stopped because it turned out the tide was still quite high. At this point the driver spent some time contemplating whether he could make it down the beach, as we sat inside with rain dripping through the rusty top and front of the car (there was literally no dashboard, just wires hanging out, including the ignition!). Finally he put the car in 4 wheel drive and headed out onto the beach. As we drove at the water's edge, waves were crashing onto the car, adding to the water now pouring in on us. All we could do was laugh and hold on for dear life as we lurched along!
This is a view of the beach through the pouring rain. It felt like we were sitting under a waterfall... inside the car!
About 15 minutes later the driver realized he still needed to put fuel in the car. In Land Rovers the fuel tank is under the front passenger seat, so he got out in the rain and ran around to my side of the car while Dawda and I slid over to the driver side so he could raise my seat and put the gas in.  
After about half an hour we arrived at the village of Ginack Niji, which sits in the middle of Niumi National Park. Niumi is basically a long thin peninsula stretching north towards Senegal, with Atlantic Ocean on one side and mangrove channels on the other. Ginack Niji sits along one of the main mangrove channels and is a very peaceful fishing village.  

We stayed at a small, rustic lodge called Camera Sambou that's operated by a local guide named Lamin. After we dried off, he suggested we walk into the village to meet with an old manatee hunter there.
Lamin took us to meet Mr. Jammeh and translated from Mandinka to English for me. Mr. Jammeh is (thankfully) retired now, but he hunted manatees, dolphins, and crocodiles for many years in this area. He learned his skills from his grandfather and used a harpoon to kill manatees at springs and in mating herds. He admitted that he thinks there aren't many manatees in the area now, compared to 20 years ago. Apparently there used to be 9 active manatee hunters in this area, but now there is only 1 fisherman who wants to hunt manatees. Mr. Jammeh told me the fisherman is not a true manatee hunter and has only killed 2, and that he thinks the man doesn't have the proper knowledge and skills (more to be thankful for!). In the photo below Mr. Jammeh is holding a photo of a huge Nile crocodile he killed a few years ago. It looked to be about 2.5 m long and when they opened it up they found many of the village's chickens inside!

 After the interview I walked along the shore checking out the different plant species... there are 3 mangrove species here (for those of you who are interested, they are Rhizophora harrisonii, R. mangle, and Avicennia germinans). Red mangroves grow closer to the water and have long prop roots whereas white mangroves (higher up on the beach in the photo below) tend to grow further from the waterline. At high tide manatees can access all species here and they probably also hide among the mangroves roots.  
There are also quite a few estuarine clam species and oysters here, so it seems like this area is a giant manatee buffet. Oysters grow on mangrove roots and are also harvested by the local people. We saw some oyster aquaculture in the river as well. 

Behind the mangroves were some beautiful giant baobab trees...
On Sunday morning Lamin took us out on the river to survey several nearby manatee springs. Although we searched for manatees all along the way, we didn't see any. Not surprisingly, they seem very shy here.
We went to a beautiful area of the river that was remote (no villages nearby) and off limits for fishermen because it's within national park boundaries, so apparently few people come here. Lamin told us that on sunny afternoons, many large crocs can be seen basking on this beach.
Lamin showed us the main manatee spring where Mr. Jammeh used to hunt. Lamin has also seen manatees here several years ago when he brought British tourists and they waited til about 8pm at night. The springs are tiny and nothing is visible at the surface of the water... they don't produce a boil or bubbles that can be seen, so they are only known by where manatees and fish are found.
A better view of the main manatee spring which is just under the mangrove branch....
Using environmental sampling equiment Dawda and I could detect the springs by slight changes in depth and salinity.
One spring was marked by a lone palm tree, and I wondered if someone planted it there as a marker because there were no other palms for miles around.
On Sunday afternoon it was time to reverse the trip back to Banjul. We had some difficulty locating a car since most had left earlier in the morning, but we finally found one. All the rain the previous day had swollen several small rivers, so the water came up basically to the windows... 
The tide was high again so we had to drive behind the beach until we reached a wider section. We passed this observation tower on the beach that Parks and Wildlife built for monitoring... something like this near manatee springs (along with real protection for manatees so they feel safe to come to the springs) would be perfect for local ecotourism.
Dodging waves and cows we made it back down the beach to Barra, then got to the ferry just as it was about to leave. Missing a ferry means a 2 hour wait until the next one, so we sprinted down the pier and literally jumped on board just as they pulled away from the pier.
The rest of my trip to Gambia was less eventful, and unfortunately too short. I hope to get back there to survey other manatee sites further up the Gambia River, but for now I'm happy to know that the Gambian manatee network is growing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gambia Workshop

On July 14 I traveled from Dakar to Banjul, the capital of Gambia, by car. I traveled with my Gambian colleague, Dawda Saine, who had flown back into Dakar after a work trip to Europe. We took a taxi to the place where you can pick up a "sept place", the 7 person (plus driver) cars that provide local transport all over Senegal. They're all old Renault station wagons that get loaded down with people and their luggage, and leave once they're full, so your departure time depends on how fast the car fills. Dawda and I secured our places in a car, then waited for 4 more passengers to arrive. I was lucky to get a window seat so I could watch the countryside roll past. This is the car when we stopped for a quick break...
We drove south into the interior of the Delta Saloum region of Senegal, where long mangrove channels end in huge salt flats. In 6 hours we reached the border of Gambia, and after I cleared immigration on both sides, we took a taxi to the ferry that crosses the Gambia River. We were lucky to arrive just as the ferry was loading, so we got tickets and ran on board. People literally pack into every available inch of space. As we crossed the river the sun set, creating an eerie light through rain clouds.
Gambia is a small country surrounded on all sides by Senegal, and it's main feature is the Gambia River, which starts in southeastern Senegal and runs through the center of Gambia to the Atlantic Ocean. Banjul sits right at the mouth of the river. I'm staying down the coast a bit in Fajara, seen at the top of the red box on the map.
My main reason for coming to Gambia was to teach a manatee research training workshop. Dawda attended manatee training at a previous workshop in Ghana several years ago, then came to Florida last winter for advanced training in necropsy and other field techniques. Now he wants to continue to try to build a network for manatee research in the Gambia, so I'm here to train 6 other colleagues and hopefully see some manatee areas to help them start thinking about study sites. The first day after I arrived, we visited the Gambia Parks and Wildlife office, and I met some people there who I'd been talking to online for several years but had never previously met in person. In meeting with the Director and several of the other folks there, we decided that this training workshop would be made up entirely of staff from Parks and Wildlife, since some of them had already received some basic manatee training.

We had 2 days of lectures that focused on fieldwork/survey techniques and sample collection, and I included some interactive activities such as practicing standard measurements (no real manatees or even an inflatable toy manatee available, so we used my inflatable orca again). Even though it's not the real thing, I find that just having the opportunity to do measurements on a 3D scale gives the guys a much better understanding of how to accurately take the measurements in the correct standardized way. We talked about the realities of doing a necropsy (because manatees are heavy and hard to manouevre if you've never done it before!). We also went over equipment and how to use and care for it.
During mealtimes the group had a chance to talk about their experiences and ask questions. They were a very enthusiastic bunch!
On the last day of the workshop we took a boat out to Tanbi natural reserve, a protected area of mangrove habitat near Banjul. Everyone had the chance to practice using the field equipment, to collect environmental data, and to look for manatee feeding sign. We also visited several freshwater springs where manatees have been sighted in the past, but didn't see any (not surprising though, because we were there at mid-day and manatees here are mostly seen at dawn, dusk and night). This trip was more to focus on the skills they'll use when they conduct their own surveys.

Dawda shows Lamin how to use the refractometer (which measures water salinity) while Musa and Fabala look over their datasheets.
Dibba tries out the refractometer.....
Nuha using the GPS. Nuha is the park manager of Tanbi so he has great local knowledge of the area and has seen manatees there before. Hopefully he can start a year round monitoring project there.
Team photo of the whole group in their new African manatee t-shirts! I am also providing the team with field equipment for manatee surveys, including a depth sounder and other environmental sampling tools.
I'm very grateful to Dawda, who set up all the local logistics for the workshop, including finding a great room for the lectures, renting a power point projector, coordinating the food, and scheduling a boat for our field practice day at nearby Tanbi reserve. He has been great to work with and I look forward to seeing the manatee network grow in the Gambia!  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Victor's milk is on it's way

Thanks everyone for your responses! We found a whale researcher traveling to Gabon tonight and a very generous person donated 5 bags of milk powder to carry over Victor until we sort out the lost bags with Air France. So the milk is on it's way. All Victor's caretakers really appreciate everyone's ideas and help!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Anyone traveling to Gabon???

Africa friends: If you know anyone traveling from the USA to Gabon anytime soon, please let me know! Air France lost Victor's milk supplies & the situation is desperate... there's only enough milk left in Gabon for the next 10 days. We need to find a way to send milk powder to Gabon ASAP. Please comment to this post or email me at:


Monday, July 02, 2012

African Manatee Outreach Expands in Gabon

It's a bird, it's a plane... no wait, it's a MANATEE!
This past month an expanded West African manatee educational outreach program hit the streets, or more accurately, took to the water for a tour of Banio Lagoon in southern Gabon. My colleague Aimee Sanders, who has designed and produced almost all my manatee educational materials for Africa (posters, educational panels, t-shirts, and we're working on an educational video), has also developed a fun, interactive educational program for people of all ages to educate them about the importance of protecting manatees. My funding this year also allowed us to create a manatee costume to be used for skits, and it was a big hit with both children and adults when Aimee did her events.

Aimee visited 6 villages and had a total of 84 attendees this time, and she said people were very receptive to the programs. Discussion and skits included information about threats to manatees, their habitat needs, etc.
A boy acts out getting caught in fishing net, a common threat to manatees in Africa
Everyone got manatee coloring/activity books that were developed for my project in French by Save the Manatee Club
 Kids at Yoyo village with their manatee coloring books and the costume
 Even the adults enjoyed the coloring books!
 A little girl "feeds" a manatee toy from the bottle used to feed Victor, the orphan manatee.
Next time we hope to give out the manatee t-shirts we designed and printed this year (logistics have prevented us from getting them to Gabon yet, but we will!) to further inspire people to conserve manatees! We also plan to bring these educational programs to other African countries.  
Thanks to Naomi Parnell for all of the photos above!!