Sunday, November 30, 2008

Number 5
When I returned to Gamba early last week I heard that another manatee carcass had been found in Sette Cama. On Wednesday I was able to catch a ride back up there on a boat that was delivering gas and beer. On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving in the USA... I was reminded of my days working for the state of Florida manatee program, because in that job I always ended up dealing with carcasses on holidays) I went out with two ecoguides, Joesph and Eryc. We quickly found the carcass and although it was badly decomposed, it was in slightly better shape than the previous ones. It was a female, 243cm long, the biggest one I've had here so far. The cause of death appeared to be natural (no signs of trauma). I collected the skull and genetics samples. The previous 4 skulls all already have future homes in museums (3 in Gabon and possibly one in South Africa, if export permits are obtained).
The good news is that I finished up in time to join some friends for a nice feast hosted by a Dutch film crew that was filming in Sette Cama, and even though it wasn't turkey, it was fantastic fresh food, quite a luxury here! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.
While in Sette Cama I also started talking with the Eaux et Foret (Water and Forestry) guys who run the small ecomuseum here about expanding their manatee exhibit, which currently is just an incomplete skeleton lying on a table (below at left). Thanks to the generosity of my Wildlife Without Borders grant, I have money to produce permanent display panels, educational posters and pamphlets. I will also provide them with a complete skeleton (we may try to articulate it and hang it from the ceiling if we get adventurous) and old tagging gear to show some research equipment.
Gislain and Yvan run the Sette Cama Ecomusee and are excited to help with a refurbished manatee display.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rembo Bongo, Part 2
On our second day of surveys we returned to Lac Mafoume, the one lake we were able to boat into last year. It was incredible to see how much the water had risen.

Early morning view of the Moukalaba-Doudou mountains from Lac Mafoume.
View of the channel leading into Lac Mafoume, September 2007
Photo taken in almost the same place last week. The tip of the log sticking out of the water is the top of the large fallen tree in the background of the photo above.
Where there were fields divided by channels of water last year, there was now an enormous lake 3 times the size. Grassy areas along the borders were shallower, only a few feet deep. As we started around the lake we began to find a few manatees feeding and swimming among the grasses.
There was also plenty of feeding sign- below is a photo of a big area where they had uprooted papyrus plants to eat the tender roots. All the floating plants in the picture were probably pulled up by manatees- there are simply no other grazers around at this time of year. We surprised one feeding here, but it quickly swam out to deeper water towards the center of the lake.
A manatee swims off through the Polygonum plants but never graces us with a view! We had 3 sightings in this lake which was a bit lower than I expected, but because I wanted to see the entire lake, we didn't have time to really sit and wait for long periods in any one spot. At least I know they're there for next time.
We saw some other nice wildlife on Lac Mafoume as well:
Hartlaub's Duck. We also saw large flocks of these guys flying up the Rembo Bongo.

We saw several groups of Putty-nosed monkeys along the lake edge. This one was quite curious.
Tiny bird's nest built out over the water. It probably belongs to one of the little flycatchers we see flitting everywhere along the lakes and rivers here.
A young water monitor Lizard (Varans ornatus) relaxing on a log.
The following day was bright and sunny and we went to Lac Gore, the closest large lake to Ingoueka, the village where we stayed. This lake was basically a sea of grass that stretched for miles.
Another view of Lac Gore. There were also huge coves filled with water lilies, another favorite food of manatees. But despite enough food for herds of manatees and sighting recent feeding sign, we only had 2 sightings in this lake. I'm not sure why, although as with Lake Mafoume, I wanted to get an idea of the entire place, so we didn't sit in any one spot for very long.
On our last morning we surveyed two small lakes, Mouaga and Marimossi (view below), before traveling back down the Rembo Bongo to Gamba (a 3 hour trip). We didn't see any manatees or recent feeding sign, and the close proximity of these likes to the village might deter manatees from using them as much.

So all in all we had 10 sightings comprising 13 individual manatees in the lakes over 3 days. For this part of the world, that's a pretty high sighting frequency and it's obvious there is plenty of great habitat. I feel privileged to be able to see this amazing remote place where so few people ever get to go.
Rembo Bongo, Part 1

Last week I went back up the Rembo Bongo (river) on the north side of N’dogo Lagoon for 5 days. I was there in September 2007, but it was still the dry season, and I found out through interviews with villagers that the manatees only come up in the rainy season. So this year I waited until well into the rainy season before heading back up there.

Map detail of N'dogo Lagoon and the surrounding area, all of it is located in central Gabon. The Rembo Bongo and most of the lakes (Longa Longa is north of Kivoro, off the map) are in the upper right.
This time a hippo researcher named Sylvie joined DeDe and I on the trip. We boated across the southern end of N’dogo Lagoon to the mouth of the Rembo Bongo, then boated about 2 hours up to the only village, Ingoueka, where we set up camp.

Forest and hilly savannah view in southern N'dogo lagoon as we head to the river. The Rembo Bongo divides into 2 channels at it's mouth into the lagoon- one is a palm-lined corridor (below), the other is a deeper, wider channel lined with papyrus and grasses.
Early morning view of the river from the top of a hill at Ingoueka
Our campsite was actually on the front porch of the infirmary because there's a nice roof to shelter us from the constant rain. That's Sylvie on the front step.
Tents on the front porchEach day we set out from Ingoueka to survey the six lakes that are adjacent to the river. In the dry season the lakes are very shallow and are bordered by open fields that are then surrounded by pristine forest. Elephants, buffalo and antelope graze the grasses. When the rainy season comes, however, the lakes flood and the water level rises 2-3 meters (6.5-10 feet), submerging the grasses. The terrestrial animals move back into the forest and the manatees arrive to graze on the abundant plants: papyrus roots, grasses and water lilies.

The first day we went to the northernmost lake, Longa Longa. On our way upriver we found a large dead softshell turtle (Trionyx triunguis), a dead snake that had gotten caught in a fishing net while swimming across the river, and a dead juvenile elephant. Suffice it to say the elephant was so decomposed that it took us several minutes to identify it, so I’ll spare you a photo. We were relieved that it wasn’t another manatee! We also saw some beautiful wild orchids and lots of neat birds. The river is fast-flowing and the color of chocolate milk, so that combined with the sound of the motor mostly precludes us from seeing any manatees that might be there.

DeDe with the dead turtle Wild orchid with pretty yellow flowers Long Longa turned out to be spectacular. We boated among partially submerged trees and up coves into the forest. We spent most of the day surveying all around the lake and had 5 manatee sightings (6 individuals) which is fantastic! A couple times we were able to follow them across the glass smooth water by their bubble trails, made as they swim across the very fine sediment, releasing bubbles trapped under decaying foliage on the bottom. At one point two manatees surfaced together and I had about a millisecond to snap a picture. I finally captured a manatee nose, but of course it’s blurry.

trees in Lac Longa Longa Bubble trails allow me to see where the manatee is swimming, even when they make u-turns!
Yes, that's the nose. Trust me, it is really hard to see these guys, much less photograph them! But I'll keep trying. Later that afternoon we went to Lac Kivoro, just south of Longa Longa. I had underestimated the size of these lakes (they literally increase 3 to 5 times their size from the dry season), so we were only able to survey part of it before afternoon thunderstorms chased us back to the village.

Rain shower heading towards Lac Kivoro
Lac Kivoro in the rain. Despite the higher water level, there are still some shallower places where grass protrudes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Other Highlights from Sette Cama

On Thursday we surveyed mangrove channels where manatees are often seen, and in a quiet cove we found a lone manatee calf. There was no adult anywhere in the area but the brief glimpse we got of the calf told us it was certainly active, because it zipped off and we could not relocate it. In Florida mother manatees sometimes leave their calves in a quiet area and go off to feed elsewhere, sometimes miles away, returning later to the calf. So it’s possible that that is what is happening here as well.

We also stopped by a house on the lagoon owned by a Dutch man named Herman who often sees manatees feeding in the cove in front of his house. There are large beds of aquatic plants here, primarily Crinum natans. I stopped by here last year but Herman wasn’t home. This year I met him and we sat overlooking the cove while he told me stories about seeing mating herds and adults with calves frolicking in the clear water. Of course they never seem to be there when I am, but DeDe did spot 2 manatees much further out in the lagoon while we were there. Infact, people in the nearby village of Pitonga see manatees year round in this area and it's one of the places I'm considering as a capture site when I finally get funding to tag manatees.
The manatee cove at Herman's house
Crinum natans with cropped leaves. We often find plants floating on the surface where manatees have recently fed. In this case we were told manatees had been seen at Herman's cove the previous night.
DeDe keeps watch for manatees from Herman's lawn.
Friday and Saturday we surveyed another small lake, Lac Simba, and a river near the mouth of the lagoon called Moune Mouelle. Both were good habitat but we didn't see any manatees this time (one sighting at Lac Simba last year).

Moune Mouelle habitat
Forest Buffalo on the river
On Sunday I went out with 2 guys from the BBC and Richard (one of the mangabey researchers) to forest on the lagoon where the BBC is planning to build a platform in the tree canopy to film wildlife here. After the documentary is finished, the platform will be donated to the national park for use by ecotourists. The BBC guys selected an enormous sacroglottis tree that overhangs the lagoon. Sacroglottis fruits are a favorite of elephants and red-capped mangabeys, so at certain times of the year the wildlife will come right to the platform. It might be possible to even see manatees from this site, since they have been recorded feeding along the banks here.

James, one of the BBC guys, climbed the tree on a reconnaissance mission. Unfortunately he also discovered a bee hive and was bitten about 25 times in the face before he could descend.
Cool lizard in the forest
In the afternoons I spent time entering data and writing on my computer, and then going for walks on the beautiful beach near the house.
One day I noticed fresh elephant tracks as I walked out to the beach. The next thing I knew, I heard a big "crunch" sound on my right, and I looked over to see a big bull standing in the bushes eating fruit right next to the trail. After taking a quick photo I moved away. Later, as I came back from my walk, 3 elephants crossed the path right in front of me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What Happened at Lac Sounga?

A WWF boat was waiting for us at Sette Cama and DeDe and I set out first thing Tuesday morning. First we went next door to Sette Cama Safaris, where I stayed when I was here last year. Alain, the manager there, had found a manatee carcass last week. So we said hello to him & then got directions to the carcass, which was only a couple miles up the lagoon. It was very badly decomposed and many of the bones had already fallen out, but we were able to collect genetics samples and the skull.

Collecting the skull
Next we turned in the other direction and headed north up the lagoon to Lac Sounga, a large lake near the lagoon’s mouth at the sea. This is where 3 manatee carcasses were reported in October by national park ecoguides working in the area, so we had GPS points of the locations. Just as we arrived there, a torrential rain started, and in seconds we were drenched. It was raining so hard we could barely see where we were going, but as soon as we reached the location of the first carcass, I saw it under some bushes. We pulled it out and it was even more badly decomposed than the first. Unfortunately it was impossible to tell if it was male or female, and although we searched for the pelvic bones (small bones that are uniquely shaped in males vs. females), we couldn’t find them. So again we collected tissue for genetics and the skull, including the ear bones, which are used to determine age in manatees. After that we headed back to the house, because there was almost no visibility and sitting in an open boat with the sensation of a giant faucet over your head starts to lose its novelty after a few hours.

DeDe collects his first genetics samples
Heading home with a bucket of skulls. If you stand in a cold shower with the aroma of rotting meat while viewing this photo, you'll know exactly how I felt. But I'm not complaining- whenever I have field days like this, I remind myself that I could still be in a nice clean office selling dental malpractice insurance (one of my first jobs after college), but I would be bored out of my mind! Wednesday was sunny and after Tuesday’s soaking we were glad. In the morning we went back to Lac Sounga (a 30 min. boat ride) to look for the remaining 2 carcasses and to survey the lake for live manatees. Sampling carcasses is important, but it’s much more fun to find live manatees! When we reached the two GPS locations for the remaining carcasses near the mouth, they weren’t there. The water has risen several feet since they were first reported, so by now they could be completely submerged in the coffee-dark water, or they could’ve floated away. So we started around the edge of the lake and about an hour later we came across a really badly decomposed carcass on the north shoreline. We sampled it for genetics and skull, started off again and about a minute later DeDe spotted another! We’ll never know if these are the same ones that were reported elsewhere in the lake, and suffice it to say they were literally giant bags of lard. The bad news is that for 4 carcasses I was unable to determine a cause of death (all organs were gone and most bones), and I couldn’t find pelvic bones on any of them, so I couldn’t determine much, other than they were adults. The good news is that we were able to collect 4 skulls, all with ear bones, and 8 genetic samples (I double sample every carcass because samples are so hard to come by for this species). There were no obvious signs of trauma (if they had been hunted or killed accidentally they wouldn’t have still been there) and since they were all in approximately the same state of decomposition, it’s likely they all died around the same time.

Lac Sounga on a placid morning
After sampling the carcasses we moved along the rest of the lake edge and had 2 live manatee sightings, which was cool. The sightings were near places I saw manatees last year, but they swirled away through the dark water before I could get any photos (the story of my life in Gabon).
Off to Sette Cama

It literally took all day last Monday to buy gas and food, pick up the boat motor and pack car with all the supplies for Sette Cama. Since I’m getting used to this pace by now, I don’t worry about rushing, and work on my computer between trips to the various grocery stores and other locations. The gas station was low on fuel so they limited me to 100 liters, but I was able to leave money to have more bought the following day and sent up to us later.

“DeDe”, a great Gabonese guy who worked with me last year, is working with me again this year and is the recipient of one of the stipends I am giving to train Gabonese biologists in manatee research techniques. He has previously worked with “Ibonga”, the local sea turtle NGO in Gamba, so he has a background in conservation work. He has eyes like a hawk and can spot wildlife at insane distances, and since he grew up on this lagoon, he knows every little cove and mangrove island like the back of his hand. Which is saying something in a 60km long lagoon with literally thousands of islands.

We finally left Gamba at 6pm, just as the sun was setting. The sun sinks like a stone here on the equator, so within a few minutes we were zipping along the dirt road in the dark, 3 of us packed into the front and one poor guy packed in back with the gas drum, the boat engine, a kitchen stove we were bringing to the house, and all our other gear. After the road ran out we bumped across the savannah on a sand track with wheel ruts that were sometimes so deep the car lurched like a carnival ride. But the air was cool and the track was remarkably clear for the rainy season (sometimes it floods and is impassable). And just before we reached Sette Cama we came upon an elephant grazing on the savannah, lit by the almost full moon. Elephants don't like surperises, so flash photography is unadvisable unless you want to get flattened. So I don't have any photos- I just enjoyed the moment.

We arrived at the WWF house, part of the Eaux et Forets (Water and Forestry Ministry) Brigade, which sits at the edge of the lagoon with the ocean behind it. We were greeted by the 3 other researchers living there- Cathy, an American PhD student, Richard and Joseph, her two Gabonese assistants. They are studying the red-capped mangebeys in the forest here.

The WWF field house at Sette Cama- very comfortable!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Return to N'dogo

Tomorrow I finally head back out into the field! It's been a good but long 3 weeks of logistics planning and I'm ready to get outside. On Friday afternoon I arrived in Gamba, a town located at the southern edge of N'dogo Lagoon. I'm being hosted here by WWF who very generously puts me up at their guest houses in Gamba and Sette Cama, helps me with logistics (transportation to buy boat fuel, food, assistance in finding a boat driver or ecoguides to come with me, etc.) and provides me a boat for my work. Sette Cama is about 40km from Gamba, at the north end of this huge, beautiful lagoon. Some of you may recall that I spent a week there last year and had a very high sighting frequency of manatees. This time I'm trying to get there quickly because I've had 4 reports of dead manatees there in the past month (3 in 1 small lake just off the lagoon, which is strange). Unfortunately none of them have been sampled yet, the people who saw them took GPS points and photos, but that's it. Hopefully I'll be able to locate the remains. There is no targeted hunting in this area, so the deaths are a mystery.

This isn't the way I like to see manatees, but carcasses are extremely valuable to help understand the genetics, life history and physiology of these rare animals.This photo was taken by Jerome Xavier, who was in Sette Cama last week. I met with him in Libreville to discuss some GIS map work here's doing, and he offhandedly mentioned he'd seen a manatee carcass in Sette Cama. It's amazing how much I find out through word of mouth here.

There is no internet in Sette Cama, so my next postings will come when I return to Gamba next week.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Mayumba Ecomusée

Here in Gabon my friend Aimee, who has been doing fantastic outreach work for Mayumba National Park for several years, has been given a very generous donation to build the country's first ecomuseum. It will sit near the top of a hill overlooking the beautiful wide beach and the ocean. Sea turtle nests (Mayumba is one of the most important nesting beaches in the world for Leatherbacks, and Olive Ridleys nest there as well) and breaching humpback whales will be visible from the center, as will the lagoon where manatees live. I'm hoping the center will begin to raise awareness about manatees in Gabon and am excited to help develop a permanent exhibit. I've donated one of the skeletons that I collected here several years ago and we are planning to articulate it (a big job) and hang it from the ceiling. Wildlife Trust and USGS Sirenia Project also donated an old tag, belt and tether which we'll display along with a description of techniques used to study manatees in the wild.

Yesterday was an exciting day for the future center, because the Mayor of Mayumba signed a letter to donate the land it will be built on! It should be completed in about a year and a half. I'll write more as it progresses. You can check out the plans and photos of the site here!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What a Fantastic Day!

I usually keep this webpage fully focused on manatee conservation and related topics, but on this historic day I have to make an exception. It was incredible to wake up here in Libreville, Gabon this morning to find out Obama had WON! I couldn't believe it was real until I'd watched an hour of CNN at the American Embassy celebration I attended with fellow Americans here. Everywhere in Libreville people are cheering for Obama. I do wish, on this one day, that I could be in the USA to experience the excitement with everyone there. But the African perspective is neat as well, because hopes have been so high for Obama on this continent (and from what I read, in most other countries in the world as well) that I feel bouyed by a sense of hope and expectation for the world that I have never experienced to this extent before. I hope that Obama can live up to the potential we all dream of. Like many of you, I hope for a better economy, an end to the war in Iraq, more real emphasis on protecting the environment, and so many other things. If he does lead as we hope, it has ramifications that literally can reach as far as wildlife conservation, including for some very rare manatees (and the other species they share their rainforest and lagoon habitat with) living here in West Africa.

Monday, November 03, 2008

...And Re-Planning

Sometimes logistics are difficult here. I can spend weeks setting up plans for fieldwork- which includes flights, boats and other transport to a location, alot of gear that also has to get transported, lodging, food, planning camping for survey trips, buying hundreds of liters of boat fuel, arranging boat guides/drivers, trainees or other people who come along (sometimes I collaborate with other researchers), etc. Unlike the USA, nothing gets arranged on the internet, so everything is in person or over the phone. And sometimes despite the best effort, it all falls through at the last minute.

This happened late last week when the lodge I was planning to work with had 3 boat engines break at the same time and also miscalculated the number of tourists coming this week. So suddenly I was left with no trip to the Fernan Vaz. I'll reschedule it later, because I still need to go there, but for now I've switched gears. I'll spend this week in Libreville and on Friday I'll go to Gamba, and from there I'll start work at N'dogo Lagoon.

Here's an aerial view of part of N'dogo Lagoon, taken last year. I'm really looking forward to getting back there.