Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Happy New Year!!

I have no idea where the time went this past Fall! I apologize for my silence the past few months. I'm now wrapping up my work and life in Gainesville, FL and preparing for the big move back to Africa in March. I'll be based in Senegal and am very excited to get back to African manatee fieldwork.

Big things are coming for the African manatee project in 2015!  These include:
- continuing development of long-term study sites and partnerships in Senegal
- in collaboration with the USFWS, I'll begin a new two year training program for manatee graduate students from Central Africa, called MENTOR Manatee 
- continuation of support for our projects in Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, and Mali
- work on 7 manatee scientific manuscripts...hopefully several will be published in 2015!
- continuing African manatee population genetics in collaboration with colleagues at the USGS Sirenia Project
- and much more!

Wishing everyone a successful and happy 2015!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Senegal: Tocc Tocc Reserve update

It's been a busy summer and autumn for the EcoGuards and Community leaders at Tocc Tocc Reserve in northern Senegal. The EcoGuards are now patrolling the reserve full time, and we're fortunate to have raised enough funds for a second boat for the reserve, which allows more wildlife monitoring and patrols.
The EcoGuards confiscated and destroyed the first illegal fish traps in the reserve (after giving the owners warnings to remove them, which they did not). The installation of buoys marking the reserve boundaries now guarantee people are aware of the protected area, which aids in enforcement of the regulations. However, because the local community supports and oversees the reserve, there have been few instances of broken rules, and most of those cases came from seasonal fishermen from outside the community. Ten fishermen have been arrested and fined for violating no fishing rules within refuge. Funds collected from fines were used by the community conservation committee towards refuge costs. So we believe the reserve is now protecting all the wildlife that uses it.
Additionally, since educational programs began last year, we have received five reports of manatees entangled in fishing nets from villages outside the reserve. In four cases, the EcoGuards were able to safely release the manatees back to the wild, and in the fifth case the manatee had unfortunately drowned, but genetics samples were collected that are helping us further understand the Lac de Guiers manatee population. We believe the increase in the number of reported entangled manatees (none were reported before this project began) is a direct result of our educational outreach and awareness programs in the area. Now that all the abandoned nets have been removed, manatee sightings within the reserve have also greatly increased. Between April-June 2014, manatees were sighted almost every day, which is a very large increase over the previous year, when they were sighted only every few weeks.
Photo courtesy of Modou Diop Boh

In September, the first observation tower was completed, and eleven members of Senegal's parliament visited the refuge to see a good example of community-based conservation that can be used as a model for other sites in Senegal. It was a grand occasion with lots of speeches by the politicians and tours of the new tower.  
photos courtesy of Tomas Diagne
Next, we begin raising funds to build an education center at the reserve for the public and tourists.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Welcome to Florida Aristide!

In late August, Aristide Kamla began his Fulbright scholarship towards his PhD at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida. The college has just posted a very nice story about Aristide, which can be read here. I'm excited to continue collaborating with Aristide for African manatee baseline health and population studies in Cameroon!

Saturday, August 09, 2014


It was a very happy and emotional day for me yesterday- I graduated with my PhD from the Aquatic Animal Health program, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida! Eight years of sample collection and analysis, and 5 years of PhD program are finished! I'm incredibly grateful to all the many collaborators both in Africa and the USA who worked so closely with me to make this possible. My greatest hope is that the results will help the conservation of the African manatee, and I look forward to many more years of work with this unique and fascinating species.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Recent African manatee network activities

In the past few months several network members have been very active with training, educational outreach and data presentation activities. Here are a few brief updates!

 In April, Aristide Kamla held his largest training workshop yet in Cameroon. This workshop was specifically for Biology Masters students from the University of Dschang, where Aristide completed his Masters degree several years ago. One young manatee researcher from Nigeria also attended. I was very happy my project could support this workshop, and to hear all the enthusiasm both from the students as well as the university faculty for the training, and for the opportunity to get out into the field. Apparently the university doesn't offer practical training to graduate students in the field, so this was a rare opportunity for Aristide to show them an active study site and how manatee research is conducted. The photo below shows participants, university staff and several invited speakers. Photo courtesy of A. Kamla.

In early July in Mali, Soumaila Berthe had a manatee educational booth at the World Environment festival in Bamako, which lasted for 2 weeks. He was able to raise awareness and give manatee information to hundreds of people. The project designed and distributed manatee stickers, informational pamphlets, and key rings. This was the first manatee awareness campaign in Bamako. Photo courtesy of S. Berthe.

 In mid-July this project supported Rodrigue Ngafack's travel from Cameroon to participate in the African Marine Mammal Colloquium in South Africa. He presented a poster on the results of his Masters research in Lake Ossa, Cameroon. This is the first time an African manatee presentation has been given at this conference, and we hope to increase presentations by other researchers in future years. Rodrigue really enjoyed the opportunity to meet other marine mammal researchers working in other parts of Africa. Photo courtesy of R. Ngafack.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Manatee education campaign in Lambarene, Gabon

Last Fall the local Gabonese NGO OELO (short for Oganisation Ecotouristique de Lac Oguemoue) began an educational campaign in Lambarene, the largest town on the Ogooue River in Central Gabon. The educational campaign is greatly needed, since Lambarene and the surrounding villages along the river many adjacent lakes are the center of manatee hunting in the country. OELO was founded by Cyrille Mvele (seen below at the school he attended as a child) who grew up in the area and is concerned about the illegal hunting and decimation of Gabon's protected wildlife.
OELO hired a fulltime educational outreach coordinator, Stephanie, seen below giving a presentation. Cyrille, Stephanie, and OELO co-founder Heather all helped coordinate and participated in the manatee training workshop I taught in Gabon last September.
Programs start out by giving kids a questionnaire that tests their knowledge of protected species and then follows up by providing information on which species are protected and therefore shouldn't be hunted, sold, or eaten.
As part of a program on endangered species, kids were asked to paint their favorite wildlife species in its natural habitat. Many of the kids chose elephants and monkeys, but at least 6 kids in a recent program chose manatees. The trouble was, every painting showed manatees being killed as their natural habitat! So clearly OELO has their work cut out... but it's great that they are working so hard with younger generations to teach them the importance of wildlife protection. Here are some of the manatee paintings:
 Not only is the mother manatee in the painting above harpooned, but the man is saying "I like this"! Yikes... the reality is that many people in Africa consider manatee meat a delicacy.
In the painting above fishermen net a manatee. During the manatee education program, kids won prizes (manatee posters) for answering questions correctly.
Just recently, for World Environment Day in early June, OELO commissioned a mural to be painted by a local artist on the side of a local school. They had a big ceremony for the unveiling with presentations by school nature clubs and local dignitaries. I think it looks great and hopefully it will be a constant reminder to younger generations that wildlife is worth protecting! The artist is shown with the finished mural below. I like that the manatee is near the hippo, because we have seen the 2 species is close proximity in the wild in Gabon.
Dancers at the unveiling ceremony
Stay tuned for more great work from OELO!

Exciting News from Cameroon!

I am very happy to announce that Aristide Kamla has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship for his PhD at the University of Florida! He worked very hard over the past 2 years to achieve this scholarship- he didn't qualify the first time, but instead of giving up, he worked hard to improve his test scores, and qualified the second time he applied. Cameroon only gives one PhD Fulbright award each year and Aristide has won it, which is very impressive! My heart is bursting with joy and pride for all his hard work, and that he will be able to follow in my footsteps at UF. He plans to study baseline health of the African manatee. Congratulations Aristide for this remarkable achievement!
 Also, manatee researcher Rodrigue Ngafack will soon defend his Masters thesis study (University of Dschang) of manatees in Lake Ossa, Cameroon, and he has been accepted to present his results at the upcoming African Marine Mammal Colloquium in Western Cape, South Africa next month. My project will support his travel to this conference- it's the first time there will be an African manatee presentation there. Congratulations Rodrigue!
The new Cameroon marine mammal stranding network that Aristide started last year is also being profiled on the IUCN website- click here to read about it. Great work guys!! I'm really happy to be an advisor to this project.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Nigeria: Save Our Species news article

Project funder Save Our Species has posted a nice news article on the Nigeria component of our SOS grant and all of Bolaji's work to end manatee hunting there through aquaculture training. You can read it here!!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nigeria: Bolaji Dunsin works to end manatee hunting in Lekki Lagoon through aquaculture

It's surprising that there are any manatees left in Lekki Lagoon, which is located ~63 km east of Africa's largest city, Lagos, Nigeria (population 21 million!). Manatees are heavily hunted there and with the proximity of so many people, I'm astounded they still survive. A couple years ago, my colleague Bolaji Dunsin proposed a project to me:  he wanted to teach local manatee hunters aquaculture as an alternative livelihood to hunting manatees. Bolaji attended a manatee training workshop I co-taught in Ghana in 2008, but in his regular job he works as a fisheries officer for Nigeria's Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research. So he has both the fisheries expertise and an understanding of manatee research. Bolaji's project became one of three that I proposed to Save Our Species for funding, which we were fortunate to receive last year (the other project sites are Tocc Tocc Reserve in Senegal and Soumaila Berthe's manatee education and habitat protection project on the Bani and Niger Rivers in Mali).

Bolaji had already spoken with manatee hunters in the Ise community on Lekki Lagoon when he developed his project proposal, so once it was funded he returned and conducted education programs about the importance of protecting manatees. He talked to hunters about his proposal that they give up manatee hunting in return for training and provisioning with all the equipment they would need for catfish aquaculture. (All photos below are courtesy of Bolaji Dunsin)

 At first the hunters were skeptical and wanted the training without giving up hunting (of course!). It took Bolaji many trips to the community to convince the hunters they couldn't have the benefits of aquaculture without giving up hunting. This past summer Tomas Diagne was in the area doing turtle research, so he traveled to the community with Bolaji to talk about the success of Tocc Tocc Community Reserve in Senegal, to show that community based alternative livelihoods are working in other places. 
The hunters were convinced and took Bolaji out to mark their manatee traps for removal. All the traps were documented using a GPS to make sure they were removed and no new traps were set.
Then the training began. Bolaji brought all the supplies to the community and the hunters learned how to build fish cages. They assembled the PVC pipes to create the cage structures...

 They learned how to breed catfish...
 How to determine the sex of the catfish...
 How to prepare them for fertilization...
 fertilize eggs...
 ...and strip fertlized eggs from female catfish.
 Pens were set up and catfish were raised to market size, first in 2 demonstration pens so that everyone could learn, and later in additional cages.
Adult catfish ready for market.
Nine manatee traps were removed from the lagoon

 And the next step is teaching the village women how to prepare the fish to be sold in the market.
This project has been so successful that Bolaji has been approached by 3 other villages asking for the same aquaculture training and set-ups. We'll need to continue to raise funds to expand this effort, but we're very excited to see this working so well! I commend Bolaji for a huge amount of hard work and for building the trust of the community, and we hope his project can be used as an example for other places in Africa to show that alternative livelihoods to manatee hunting are achievable. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Senegal: Tocc Tocc Reserve becomes a Ramsar site!

Wow, when I said "stay tuned" I didn't realize how quickly I'd have more news! And fantastic news at that... today we found out Tocc Tocc Community Reserve has been designated as Senegal's newest Ramsar site (and only the 5th one designated in the country). This recognition will certainly help us to continue to protect this beautiful place and all its wildlife for future generations. And hopefully it'll help promote Tocc Tocc for eco-tourism!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Senegal: Great progress at Tocc Tocc Reserve!

In the last 6 months, big things have been happening at Tocc Tocc Community Wildlife Reserve in northern Senegal. With our 22 new EcoGuards trained, regular patrols are now occurring, they've confiscated and destroyed illegal fishing gear, set out new buoys to mark the edge of the reserve on the lake side, and are clearing an opening through the reeds to the lagoon to prepare for the construction of a new dock. Here are a few photos showing all their great activities....even more incredible when you consider we have no salary to pay the staff right now, so they are doing all this work as volunteers!

Tomas Diagne led a training session for the EcoGuards last Fall. Aside from monitoring the reserve and enforcing the regulations, they are learning how to collect and record scientific data on all the wildlife species using the reserve.
  Group photo of all 22 EcoGuards (including 4 women!), the national park Conservator, and some members of the Community Conservation Committee.
 Two EcoGuards scouting the reserve during a routine patrol
 We were also fortunate to have intern Albane Logiou this Fall, who cataloged all the fish species found in the reserve. Albane spent 3 months at Tocc Tocc.
 EcoGuards also document things like signs that manatees have been feeding at Tocc Tocc. This guard holds up reeds that have been uprooted by manatees (usually at night) so they can feed on the roots of the plants. The long shredded stems are left floating on the water's surface.  
 Clearing reeds to create a path for the new dock was a huge job! The dock will be installed very soon and then people will be able to access the lagoon part of the reserve from land for the first time.

 EcoGuards pose with the first illegal fishing gear they confiscated from the reserve after all the communities agreed not to fish there. Apparently the gear belonged to migrant fishermen from Mali, who were warned that they could not fish within the reserve, but who refused to remove their traps. The traps were destroyed.
In January cement blocks were made to anchor the reserve's new boundary marker buoys. Once they were ready they were brought by boat to the reserve...which is alot of work when you only have non-motorized canoes and the reserve is several miles away! 
 Guards getting ready to deploy the new buoys with the reserve

Toleu chief Niaga Boh participating in deploying the new boundary buoys!
 The buoys can be seen from at least 500 feet away, which will now make it easier to enforce Tocc Tocc Reserve regulations
 And residents like this Royal Tern already seem to be enjoying the buoys as well!
 Next up will be construction of the dock and two observation towers. Meanwhile Tomas and I continue to try to fund raise to create sustainable livelihoods for the hard-working EcoGuards. Stay tuned!