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!