Sunday, May 19, 2013

Arrival in Guinea-Bissau

On Friday morning I flew from Dakar to Bissau, which was a short 40 minute flight, but as usual in Africa the process at the airport beforehand took several hours, most of which I spent with my fellow passengers standing on the bus that eventually transported us from the terminal to the plane. They loaded us onto the bus and then left us there for an hour while the airport staff loaded the plane. In classic Africa fashion, some passengers got annoyed with the delay and disembarked the bus to wander around the tarmac, yell at the driver, and head back into the terminal to buy food. Most of the passengers were a Christian group returning to Guinea-Bissau from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so when we finally boarded the plane they began to sing hymns and chant “Obrigado Deus” (Thank You God) accompanied by clapping for the entire flight.

As I looked out the window, it was easy to see why Guinea-Bissau seems to be a manatee paradise: the entire coastline is a series of wide rivers and mangrove channels, apparently sparsely populated by humans. As we got closer to Bissau many rice fields were evident, and previous reports tell of manatees raiding flooded rice fields at night, which obviously does not endear them to the farmers (this is also a big problem in Sierra Leone).

A close-up of the mangrove canals in northern Guinea-Bissau

When I arrived in Bissau I discovered that although my equipment was there, the bag with my clothes had not made it from Dakar. Apparently about half the baggage wasn’t loaded onto the plane, and we were told it would come on Sunday night (I’m not sure whether or not to believe the airlines, but I have no choice but to wait and see). Fortunately I had a few extra t-shirts in the bag with my equipment and I was able to buy a few toiletries at a shop.

I was met at the airport by Tome, the local CBD-Habitat employee, and Aissa, who works for IBAP, the Guinea-Bissau equivalent of USFWS. They drove me to the IBAP office and introduced me all around- IUCN has offices there as well as several other collaborating organizations. Both Tome and Aissa will be part of the manatee capture team and are very enthusiastic. After IBAP they brought me to a very pleasant hotel where I settled in for the weekend. The rest of the Spanish team from CBD-Habitat arrives on Monday, so I have time to catch up on other work and visit with my friend Betania, who I worked with in Angola a few years ago and who is now working here with IBAP’s sea turtle program. Since Betania’s work is focused in the Bijagos Archipelago, where we’re headed to try to capture manatees, she was able to tell me a lot about the habitat and the realities of working out there.

Bissau is a small city, and actually it feels rather more like a small town than a national capital. The buildings are mostly colonel era but reasonably well-maintained, and brightly painted in oranges, greens, yellows, and pinks. It’s hot and dusty here now, although the rains are due to start any minute, so the air has a feeling of heavy humidity. From my hotel’s rooftop tiki bar I can see the main Canal do Geba that drains out to the ocean not far from here, and where we’ll boat out to Bijagos.    

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Brief Visit to Senegal

I've now been in Senegal for 10 days, and tomorrow I continue south to Guinea-Bissau. While here in Dakar I had a productive meeting with Captain Abba Sonko at the Water and Forestry to discuss future plans. Captain Sonko was the person who submitted the proposal to CITES to up-list the African manatee to Appendix I, so he's very proud that it succeeded, and we're now both working with the Species Survival Network to implement activities to try to increase protection for manatees. In addition I showed him some of my preliminary genetics and age determination results for Senegal. I'm sure he's going to be a great partner for my long-term work here.
Tomas and I also went south to Saly for a couple days to check on the progress of our future base there, and I met some very enthusiastic people who are interested for me to do manatee outreach programs with school children there, so I look forward to starting that when I come back next year. Now I'm just packing up the crazy amount of equipment I need to bring to Guinea-Bissau for captures. Hopefully I'll have internet for at least the first few days so I can post more before we take off to the remote Bijagos.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Time To Go!!

It's been a busy spring, I've just finished my very last class for my PhD and a lot of lab work for both my genetics and stable isotope projects, and now it's time to get back out to fieldwork in Africa! On Sunday I fly to Senegal where I'll spend a couple weeks and will have some meetings about project sites there (the Senegal Ministry of the Environment has pledged some financial support and they're trying to leverage more, which Tomas and I are very excited about). In mid-May I'll travel to Guinea-Bissau to join my Spanish colleagues in an effort that has been over 3 years in planning- we will attempt to capture and satellite tag manatees in the Bijagos Archipelago. This will be the first time anyone has studied African manatees in a marine ecosystem, so all our fingers are crossed that we'll catch a few. This is where we'll be working:

We are all aware of the difficulties we face... just getting all the equipment, people, and camping supplies out to the very remote capture site will be challenging. And capture efforts in other similar remote places such as Costa Rica, Panama, and Cuba have had teams that have made multiple capture attempts over many years and were not successful (in Cuba they just tagged their first manatees last year, after something like10 years of trying! And in Costa Rica they have not yet been successful despite 3 capture attempts).

We'll be working at a spring in a mangrove channel that manatees regularly use to drink freshwater. Manatees are seen in these islands year round, so we hope to discover if they live there permanently, feeding on the extensive seagrass beds and depending entirely on the springs, or do they travel back and forth to the mainland 25 miles or more away to use the river systems there? I also hope to collect genetic and other biological samples since previous results have shown that manatees here are very genetically diverse, and I'd like to analyze their diet.

So I'm packing up, and will post my adventures as often as I can!