Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gabon: sample export

I think the Eaux et ForĂȘts (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 ForĂȘts 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.