Monday, December 30, 2013

Society of Marine Mammalogy conference, Dunedin, New Zealand

In early December I attended the biennial Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in New Zealand and presented the preliminary results of my (mitochondrial DNA) genetics work in a spoken presentation as well as a scientific poster. It was fun to finally be able to share some of the results of all these past years of work, and to be able to show how I'm beginning to identify distinct manatee populations across Africa. My hope is that once populations are defined and their genetic diversity is known, that it will help to direct conservation and management efforts and funding towards the most critical places and populations. To see a pdf of my poster, see Links on the right side of this page (you can zoom in on the image to enlarge it).
My project was also able to sponsor travel costs for Aristide Kamla from Cameroon, who also gave a spoken presentation at the Sirenian Workshop before the conference, as well as a poster during the main conference. Aristide also received an award from the SMM International Student Committee that covered his lodging and registration costs at the conference. He did a great job with his presentations and had a lot of interest from other researchers in the Society in his work.
Here Aristide explains the stranding network that he initiated in coastal Cameroon to Dr. Randy Wells, a dolphin expert from Florida.
My colleague Maggie Hunter also presented a poster on work we've just started, with a new marker using coding and non-coding DNA to provide perspective on the divergence of all the Trichechids (the three species of manatees).  Exon-priming intron-crossing (EPIC) primers have been shown to accurately identify species and subspecies in cryptic populations. We hope that this method will give us much greater insight into how the living manatee species evolved.
I'd like to thank all my funders, who make this research and conference participation possible!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Cameroon Training Workshop

I'm very late in posting this, but I'm proud to report that this project was able to support a four day manatee training workshop in Dizangue, Cameroon held at the end of October and led by researcher Aristide Kamla. The 17 attendees included the manager and all the Ecoguards from Lake Ossa Wildlife Refuge, as well as local fishermen. Aristide reported that "it was the a great opportunity to bring together conservation officers and fishermen who usually don't talk to each other, and we were able to discuss together about manatee conservation in Lake Ossa and to resolve some issues of misunderstanding  between them".  All photos below are courtesy of Aristide Kamla.

The group in the meeting room.
 Rodrigue (who attended the training workshop I taught in Gabon in September) giving a manatee presentation to the group.
Practicing standardized measurements

Learning how to use a GPS
Group photo... it's so rewarding for me to see former trainees become trainers and pass their knowledge on to others in their countries!
The group also went out on Lake Ossa to practice surveying for manatees

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Victor is released!!

Yesterday Victor was released into Banio Lagoon in southern Gabon, just outside the enclosure where he has been raised for the past 3 years. In the past few weeks, thanks to the supervision and dedicated effort of Jonathan, Victor was able to re-gain some weight and was deemed to be in good enough health to be released. He was fitted with a specially made belt and VHF radio transmitter tag so that he can be tracked locally. Jonathan will remain in the area for a bit longer to track Victor, but he's also trained local Gabonese staff so that they can monitor his progress. Victor's belt is made with special safety features so if it gets entangled and he tugs it, it will break and free him. Additionally, manatee educational outreach programs have been, and will continue to be, conducted in villages around the lagoon to make people aware that it's important to protect manatees, and specifically to notify them that Victor is being monitored. We had originally hoped to release him in a very remote location without any people or villages nearby, but his change in health over the past 6 months precluded us from doing that. We hope he'll join up with some of the other manatees living in Banio Lagoon and learn from them.

In the photo above Victor is taste testing a water lily shortly after he was released, so we hope he'll soon be munching away on the native plants he learned to eating in the enclosure for over a year. We are very hopeful that this little manatee, the first of his species to ever have been successfully raised in captivity, will have a long and wonderful life in the wild!

I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank all the different people who were involved with Victor's rescue and care along with me for the past 3 years: Jonathan Perez-Rivera, Ricardo Zanre, Brice Louembet, Davy, Junior and Robby, Dr. Ken Cameron, Rich Parnell, Aimee Sanders, Dr. Tony Mignucci, Dr. Greg Bossart, Caroline Pott, Wynand Viljoen, and Matt Shirley. We are also very grateful for the support of the following organizations: Wildlife Conservation Society, Sea to Shore Alliance, Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center, Inter American University of Puerto Rico, Georgia Aquarium, Columbus Zoo Conservation Fund, Sustainable Forestry Management, Save the Manatee Club, and Green Butterfly Designs.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Save Our Seas Foundation Visitor

Yesterday I spent a very pleasant afternoon talking with Michael Scholl, the Director of Save Our Seas Foundation. Michael happened to be in Florida for meetings and asked to come by Gainesville to meet with's not everyday that the Director of one of my funders stops by! It was a really nice opportunity to hear about some of the new initiatives the organization will be starting in the next year, and it's always great to be able to talk about my project in person. Michael and Tomas also found out they have some turtle connections in common. I really appreciate the interest Save Our Seas has taken to get to know me and my project over the past few years!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Gabon: Victor's setback

It's been awhile since I've written about Victor, the orphan manatee being raised in Gabon. Unfortunately there's been a setback in his care that has resulted in his losing quite a bit of weight. Last winter and spring, Victor's local caretakers were left on their own to do their job without supervision. They had been fully trained and knew their job, so it shouldn't have been a problem. The national park person who had been supervising them as a courtesy left the job, and the position wasn't re-filled for 6 months. Also unfortunately, others who said they would check in, did not. During this time the caretakers became very lazy and stopped collecting the daily amount of plants they were supposed to be feeding Victor. They stopped sending information to Victor's care team and so it was August before the reality of the situation became clear to us. By this time, Victor had lost almost half his body weight.

As you can imagine, we were very upset and frustrated. Plans were being discussed for Victor's release back to the wild, and Jonathan, the Masters student from Puerto Rico who had been to Gabon twice over the past 2 years to work with Victor and his keepers, was planning to return to tag Victor and track him post-release. As it turned out, Jonathan's return to Gabon has worked out well for him to assess Victor's condition and work to get him back to gaining weight. Jonathan arrived last week and immediately conducted a health assessment. He sent photos, a few of which I'm including below.

Although this has been a very difficult situation, I'm grateful that Victor is still alive, and that Jonathan was able to raise his own funds to return to Gabon at what turned out to be a critical time. My project was able to sponsor his two previous trips with generous support from the Georgia Aquarium, but for this one he's been able to raise the funds himself. I'm also very thankful for the continuing care consultations provided by veterinarians Greg Bossart of the Georgia Aquarium and Ken Cameron, as well as Tony Mignucci of the Manatee Conservation Center of Puerto Rico. We're now back on track to get Victor ready for release back to the wild!

Jonathan listens to Victor's heart rate while monitoring his breathing (photo courtesy of J. Perez-Rivera)
 Standard measurements and Victor's weight are taken during each health assessment (photo courtesy of J. Perez-Rivera)
 Jonathan watches Victor as he moves through his enclosure, which is now filled with many species of plants that African manatees are known to eat. His diet will now also be supplemented with fruits and vegetables including apples, mango, spinach, cabbage, papaya, bananas, potatoes and avocado, in the hope that this will help him quickly regain weight. (photo courtesy of J. Perez-Rivera)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gabon: sample export

I think the Eaux et Forêts (Water and Forestry) Ministry building in Libreville is the coolest government office building I've ever seen; it was clearly modeled after the Weebles tree house kids used to play with in the 1980's! Complete with the Weeble-like giant plastic flat-topped trees out front. I like the sense of fun this building exudes. It's just ironic that everyone inside it takes themselves way too seriously. In the past I've been turned away from entering for not wearing a skirt or dress and closed- toed shoes.
I spent last week in Libreville having planning meetings for future work, but mostly working to get my CITES export permits to take my manatee samples back to the USA. This means I spent a lot of my time at the Eaux et Forêts Ministry. If you think bureaucracy in the American government is bad, well, let's just say it's a cake walk compared to trying to get anything done at the African government level. It once took me 13 months to get an export permit for 9 samples from Mali, and then DHL lost half of them when they didn't properly reseal the package after checking them when they got to the USA. On a previous trip to Gabon, my export permit request was rejected because I listed "West African manatee, Trichechus senegalensis" and they told me "we have our own manatees here in Gabon!". When I explained that this is the scientific name (which one would hope they'd know since they are Gabon's CITES representative!) they told me they'd allow it that time, but in the future I would need to list it as a Gabonese manatee! Mind-boggling, and unfortunate that the person who is in charge of permitting protected species for an entire country can't understand that we don't just make up scientific names. In 8 years of exporting samples from six countries, despite trying everything I know of to get the permits issued with all the correct information, I have yet to get a permit that's 100% correct. I'm not complaining really, I'm just astounded at the whole process and how difficult it is to do things right. If the permits aren't right, USFWS will confiscate my precious samples that I work so hard to collect. A lot of the problem boils down to the fact that CITES representatives in Africa don't seem to be well-trained by CITES, and personnel change over in these jobs frequently, so no one stays long enough to learn the processes.
So I was prepared for another ordeal of begging and bribing in order to get a permit before I departed. I had tried going to the E&F ministry when I first arrived in Gabon, in order to give them 3 weeks advance notice, but everyone was on August vacation and not a single secretary or other living soul could be found to deliver my request letter to. When I returned last week and dropped off my request, everything went smoothly, but when I checked back a few days later, they had decided I might not have enough time for them to issue my one page document. I asked if the Director (who signs it) was on vacation? "No, he's here" was the reply. "Do you have all the information you need from me?" I asked, trying to figure out what the problem was. "Yes, we do" she told me. When I visited their office, the ladies were sitting at their empty desks, putting on make-up and starring off into space...literally no work was happening. In the end it boiled down to paying $40 and begging someone to fill out the form, which takes all of 5 minutes. So I'm very thankful to my friend in the national parks office who made a call on my behalf and basically told the CITES office to "make it happen" because the samples are important for knowledge of manatees in Gabon. I got the export permit the morning of the day I left (nothing like getting down to the wire!), and after that the rest of the export and import went smoothly.
I flew back to the USA, which took a total of 44 hours from start to finish, because Gabon had run out of jet fuel, so the plane I boarded had to go south to Pointe Noir, Congo to refuel before we flew to Frankfurt, Germany. This refueling detour made the flight 3 1/2 hours late, which then caused a domino effect of 3 missed connections and a night at an airport hotel (although that was a welcome break from travel). It is also not fun to discover, as you begin 44 hours of travel, that you have giardia! I'll spare the gruesome details, but suffice it to say I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy!
 This Fall I'll be finishing my lab analyses of the genetics and stable isotope samples for my dissertation... aside from Gabon I'm hopefully about to get samples from Cameroon and Benin thanks to my colleagues Aristide and Josea who are slogging through their own export adventures!  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Gabon: Ogooue Lake surveys

After the workshop I accompanied Heather and Cyrille out to their ecotourism site on Lac Oguemoue for a few days. Even though it's dry season and I didn't expect to see manatees, I'd never been to most of the large lakes off the Ogooue River before, and it was a chance to talk to local people and see the habitat. Although many of the lakes are connected, their character and the plants that occur in each can be quite different.

This is a view of the Ogooue River from Lambarene. In the rainy season the large sandbars are underwater.
These river boats in Lambarene are definitely potential manatee killers (12 engines!), so I guess it's a good thing manatees mostly seem to stay out of the main river. These boats run 6 hours down to the coastal town of Port Gentil.
On our way to the lakes we saw numerous hippos (10 in one day!) but since I only had my point & shoot camera they're mostly specs. There are 4 in this photo, 2 are submerging...
 Several species of manatee plants the rainy season the water floods this whole area and the manatees have an underwater salad bar. I need to come back in the rainy season!
 Same thing in the forest, there are lots of areas here where manatee can swim into the flooded forest in the rainy season. But now it's easy to see why they aren't seen in the dry season, the mud banks are 15 feet high!
Rainy season is coming! This is a view of Lac Onangue, the largest lake in the region
Water lines on the boulders at Lac Oguemoue. Unlike Lac Ezanga that had lots of grasses for manatees to eat even at this season, boulders line the shoreline of this lake and there are no aquatic plants, so not much reason for them to be here now.
 We set up our tents on a very pretty strip of beach along Lac Oguemoue with old elephant prints in the sand nearby.
Heather and Cyrille are building permanent tent platforms at their Tsam Tsam ecotourism site. Each platform will be in a slightly secluded place at the edge of the lake so that you can't seen any other platform from each other. Eventually each will have a roof. There will also be a platform for dining and hanging out, and in the rainy season guests will each have their own canoe to explore the lake. I can't wait to go back and look for manatees from my very own platform!
 The villagers had captured a turtle because they think they eat all the fish. I offered to pay for it so I could release it back into the lake.
Freshwater mussel shells wash up on the lake shore... I wasn't able to find any live ones but I did collect a bunch of shells, because if manatees are eating them I should see the chemical signature in the stable isotopes (photo courtesy of Heather Arrowood, OELO)
On my day off we took an early morning walk to a beautiful savannah nearby.
Down by the creek in the center of this photo, we saw fresh tracks from elephants and antelope. Heather and Cyrille have also seen gorilla tracks here before. In the future they hope to build an observation platform.
On the last day while we were out in the boat we saw a huge troop of red-capped mangabeys coming down to the edge of the lake. They seemed very tame (especially since right across the lake was a logging company sawmill)
If you'd like to learn more about visiting Tsam Tsam, please visit their Facebook page at:

We also did a night survey, but unfortunately didn't see any manatees. I wish I could've spent more time exploring the lakes, but hopefully I'll get back here next year in the rainy season!

Gabon: Manatee Training Workshop

From September 2-6 I held a manatee training workshop in Lambarene. There were 12 participants from 6 organizations (including Oganisation Ecotouristique de Lac Oguemoue (OELO, Gabonese NGO), World Wildlife Fund, Gabon Fisheries, Gabon Water and Forestry, University of Dschang, Cameroon and African Marine Mammal Conservation Association, Cameroon). Five of the participants were women, the highest number I've ever had in a workshop to date. Lectures covered manatee biology and evolution, field techniques (boat and village interview surveys, sampling from carcasses and live manatees, environmental sampling, etc.) and presentations by participants about the work they have already started. We also had two boat days to practice taking environmental data, surveying for manatees and feeding sign, and village interviews. I have to say, this was one of the best groups I've ever trained- they asked great questions, everyone was very positive and engaged, and everyone really seemed to enjoy hanging out together which I hope will encourage them all to stay in touch and discuss their work (they chose to eat lunch together as a group every day, people went out for beers together in the evenings...). Believe me, this doesn't always happen, so it was really nice that it did this time! 

I'd especially like to thank Heather and Cyrille from OELO who helped arrange most of the logistics including the meeting room at Direction de la Peche (the Fisheries office), the boat trips, the food for the breaks and packed lunches for the boat days, and even the coffee maker. WWF also generously loaned us their Power Point projector for a week. Here are some photos from a very productive week!

Rodrigue giving a presentation about his manatee survey work in Lake Ossa, Cameroon
Cyrille from OELO giving a presentation about their work in the Ogooue lakes and market surveys to document manatee bushmeat in Lambarene.
The measurement exercise during necropsy training is always a fun event (even if we have to use an inflatable dolphin because I can't find a life-size inflatable manatee). Here Aristide explains the measurements, since he had previous training at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab in Florida.
Solange and Regis practice taking a standard measurement (snout to umbilicus length, for those of you who are wondering! ;-)
Aristide, Arlette and Samuel taking a Secchi disk measurement (which measures water clarity) on our first boat day
 Stephanie taking depth and temperature measurements
Excellent manatee habitat near Lac Ezanga. Unfortunately we didn't see any, but we did find lots of feeding sign in the grass and were also able to see hippo feeding sign, so the participants could compare the two different types. What's the difference? Hippos tend to crop all the grass like a lawnmower, while manatees tend to select particular stems and crop individual leaves. Manatee also uproot plants such as cattails and papyrus to eat the roots.
Looking at manatee feeding sign in a common grass along the entrance to Lac Ezanga (Vossia cuspidata, or Hippo grass)
 The group in the boat looking for manatees
 At one point the boat got badly stuck in the mud, and the guys all got in the water (well, mud up to their knees and a couple inches of water) and worked for almost an hour to push the boat across a super shallow lake. Despite it being very difficult, they gallantly would not allow any of the women to help and laughed the entire time...such a great, positive group! Rodrigue kept shouting "Yes! THIS is fieldwork!"
 Rodrigue and Regis covered in mud afterwards... but still laughing
Cyrille took us to a village where we were able to see an old skull and some ribs from a manatee hunted a long time ago. After Cyrille explained that I was doing studies, they allowed me to collect a piece of bone for genetics and an ear bone for age and diet determination. (Photo courtesy of Heather Arrowood, OELO)
Lunch group
And finally, here's the whole group on the last day with their new posters and t-shirts. Congratulations to the newest group of trainees on a very successful workshop! I have high hopes for future manatee work in the region!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gabon: Lambarene

With my Gabon research permit in hand and a week of meetings completed, I was finally ready to leave Libreville on 31 August. My Cameroonian colleagues Aristide and Rodrigue had flown in from Yaounde and met me in Libreville. I’ve written about Aristide before, he’s leading manatee research in Cameroon, starting the country’s first marine mammal stranding network, and training other Cameroonian students in manatee research techniques. He’s also currently in the running for a Fulbright scholarship to do his PhD in the USA, so all my fingers are crossed for him! Last year Aristide introduced me by email to Rodrigue, who is a Masters student in Cameroon now studying manatees at Lake Ossa, basically taking up where Aristide’s Masters project left off. Both guys are extremely motivated and enthusiastic, so I invited them to join me in Gabon for the manatee training workshop I’m leading; Aristide to help me lead the workshop, Rodrigue to participate, and for both to expand their manatee contact network in the region.

So on the 31st we got a ride in a pickup truck from Libreville to Lambarene, a trip of about 5 hours into Gabon’s interior. The roads are now much better than I remember thanks to some newly paved areas, and the pickup with only 5 of us packed in with all of our luggage was still much better than the 15 passenger bush taxis that are the other way to travel here.
Lambarene sits at the edge of the largest river in Gabon, the Ogooue. Downstream from Lambarene are several very large lakes, lots of smaller ones and a quite a few villages, upstream are many tributaries, smaller lakes and fewer villages. Manatees are seen in this region throughout the year, but no one knows how many are in this population or if they migrate anywhere else. Lambarene is unfortunately the center of the bushmeat trade for Gabon, and manatees are seen in the markets here regularly, along with elephants, primates, crocodiles, and many other supposedly protected species. Enforcement of laws for wildlife is almost non-existent in this country that traditionally has lived on bushmeat and has almost no agriculture. Change is coming slowly; there have been some recent and well-publicized crackdowns on elephant poachers, thanks to new leadership in the national parks authority and the hard work of an NGO called Conservation Justice, but most hunters quickly pay their way out of jail and other species currently get little attention.

Map courtesy of Ramsar

I came to Lambarene because I want to train and inspire the local biologists here to start documenting manatees, both in the wild and in the market, so that we can begin to understand the Ogooue River population and have accurate data to pressure law enforcement to really crack down on the illegal hunting and sale of manatees in Gabon.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gabon bound

I'm flying to Gabon on Thursday, my first trip there since 2011. After a short stay in Libreville to get my permits and have some meetings, I'll be heading to Lambaréné in the interior. I haven't spent time in Lambaréné since 2006 and it's an important place as the unfortunate center of manatee hunting for Gabon. Lambaréné sits on the mighty Ogooue River and lies west of a chain of large lakes where it is believed there is a large manatee population. There are manatee specialist hunters in the area who provide the market in Lambaréné with fresh manatee meat almost year round, and there's basically little if any enforcement to stop the illegal trade. There is lots of other bushmeat in the market there as well, and some effort is starting to try to crack down on some of the sale of protected species, primarily elephants and primates. Hopefully the government can someday be persuaded to enforce the laws for all protected species, but I think I'll wait many more years to see that happen.

I'm going there to lead a manatee research and conservation training workshop for biologists from several local organizations. Two Cameroonian manatee biologists will also join the workshop. My other mission is to try to collect manatee samples for genetics analysis, so that we can begin to understand this population for the first time. By having more trained biologists documenting manatee occurrence in the surrounding area and the amount of meat coming into the market, as well as sampling carcasses when they can, hopefully we'll be able to learn about the size, genetic diversity and other biological attributes of this population (their diet, their age structure, etc.). The hope is that the information can be given to the government and other organizations trying to end hunting as documentation.

Anyway, I'm packing now and have 30 hours of flights ahead of me before I get there, but I'll post more once I arrive!   

Monday, August 05, 2013

SMM Travel Awards

Some good news for the start of the week:

I received notification from the Society for Marine Mammalogy that I've received a student travel award to attend their conference in New Zealand next December. I'll present some of my African manatee genetics dissertation work as a poster, and I also hope to give a talk at the Sirenian Workshop before the conference.

Also, my colleague Aristide Kamla from Cameroon, who has started his country's first marine mammal stranding network and is applying to PhD programs to continue his studies of manatee in Cameroon, has received an award from the Society for Marine Mammalogy's International Relations Committee to support his attendance for the same conference by paying his accommodation expenses and registration fees.

Thanks to generous funding by my USFWS and IUCN/Save Our Species grants, our airfares to this conference will also be covered.   

Friday, July 12, 2013

Senegal: Tocc Tocc Community Reserve's New EcoGuards

While I've been working in the lab analyzing samples, Tomas has been working at Tocc Tocc Community Reserve at Lac de Guiers in northern Senegal, outfitting and training the reserve's new EcoGuards (the African equivalent of park rangers). Although the reserve has existed for a few years now, we have only recently secured the funds to hire and train staff to monitor the wildlife (particularly the manatees and the endemic Adanson's Mud Turtle, but also the birds and other wildlife as well), collect scientific data, and enforce the rules agreed upon by the communities. The 20 EcoGuards were hired from within the five villages surrounding the reserve, they've lived there all their lives, and are very enthusiastic to protect this area and its wildlife for the future. We also hope to expand ecotourism activities here (particularly guided tours and canoe/kayak rentals) and eventually to build an education center. I've written about Tocc Tocc on this blog ever since I first visited there with Tomas in 2009, but for those of you who aren't familiar, here's a map:
Here are some of the new EcoGuards posing in their new uniforms in front of an informational sign about the reserve. Also shown is the new motor scooter that will help them patrol the land part of the reserve. Funding for training, the uniforms, the scooter and also several bikes (not shown) was provided by our Save Our Species grant.
 Two of the EcoGuards heading out on patrol. We also now have a boat outfitted with a trolling motor (thank you Save the Manatee Club!!) for patrols and research activities on the water.
Scanning along a new irrigation canal that was just built along the reserve boundary. You can also see part of immense and beautiful Lac de Guiers outside the canal.
Another activity Tomas coordinated was a community meeting held on July 2 for representatives and leaders from all five surrounding villages to agree upon the refuge rules. These include ceasing all fishing inside the reserve (all fishing nets have been removed and no new ones are allowed), as well as no grazing of livestock on the reserve lands (which is important to keep the habitat undisturbed). We are thrilled the communities all agreed to these changes so readily, especially when we know it could impact their livelihoods! We hope that ceasing fishing inside the reserve will allow more fish to spawn and mature, leading to better fishing in the future, and we also hope future ecotourism dollars will benefit these communities.
Shown speaking in the photo below is the new park Conservator, who was assigned by Senegal's Ministry of National Parks. He is very supportive of Tomas's grassroots efforts to build capacity in this reserve over the past few years.
Group photo from the community meeting, including local government officials from nearby towns, and representatives from Senegal National Parks and Ministry of Water and Forestry.
 If you'd like to stay informed about Tocc Tocc's progress and activities, please check out and "like" our new Facebook page: