Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mission Senegal

Happy 2009! I hope everyone had wonderful and restful holidays! I've been busy here in Gabon, finishing end of the year reports and grant applications and planning for manatee rescue captures in Senegal (see below for more about the situation there). I leave for Dakar on Sunday night and I'm very excited. Aside from helping these particular manatees, the opportunity to finally see a live West African Manatee up close is something I've been waiting 3 years for! And we should also be able to collect valuable data from these guys.
In the past two weeks I've been working with a Spanish NGO, Fundacion CBD-Habitat, who wants to tag some of the manatees when we release them, in order to understand their movement patterns. This is important both so that manatees will not get trapped behind this dam in the future, but there are also 3 other dams planned, so understanding their seasonal habitat use is a high priority. CBD-Habitat normally works with Mediterranean Monk Seals (near and dear to my heart since I spent 4 years working with Hawaiian Monk Seals in the 1990's) but they have never tagged manatees before, which is entirely different. Seal tags are glued directly to the seal's fur, but a manatee tag is a floating buoy attached to the manatee by a belt around the tail and a tether to the tag. So I agreed to help them buy the correct tagging gear from colleagues in Florida (there isn't enough time to order new equipment, which can take 6 months to build, but it is very important to use equipment that has previously been used for manatees in order to insure the safety of the manatee and the accuracy of the data) and I will attach the gear to the manatees in Senegal, training Pablo from CBD-Habitat at the same time.

Getting tagging gear bought and shipped from Florida to Spain to Senegal over the holidays when most businesses are closed and alot of components are required has taken a monumental effort from my friends and colleagues who work with Florida manatees, so I want to especially thank Monica, Chip and Margie for making this happen! And also Pablo for working so quickly and well to achieve this.

So here's an overview of where I am going. On this Google Earth map of Senegal I've put a red box around the rescue location at Matam, which is a 10 hour drive from Dakar. The yellow line is the Senegal River, the border between Senegal and Mauritania. Despite the patches of green in the photo, Matam is literally at the western border of the Sahara, or Sahel as it is called in Africa. It will definitely been a new part of the world for me.
More news when I get there...

Friday, December 19, 2008

I just received a nice Christmas present- Columbus Zoo has notified me that they have awarded me a grant for my work in Gabon! This is my second year of funding from them, and I will always have a special place in my heart for them, because they were the first funders to award me money for my work in Gabon. This time the money is especially appreciated so that I can continue my work here this year... in these tough economic times it is hard to sustain a project like this. So a huge thanks to Columbus and the people there who made this funding possible!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gabon Magazine

My first popular article on West African manatees has just been published in Gabon Magazine. To see the interactive web version, click here and then "turn the pages" to the story on page 28. Or you can select "Jump to Page" from the menu in the upper left hand corner and select page 28.

Unfortunately they had to use photos of Florida manatees, because there really are no good pictures of wild West African manatees in clear water in all of Africa! Like Florida manatees, they mostly inhabit murky, dark water where it is hard to photograph them, and they are much shier than their American cousins. The editors made the text alot more "British" than my original writing (it's published in London), but it's still a decent article and gets the basic facts across so I'm happy with it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Meanwhile, in Senegal...

For the past month my colleagues in Senegal have been dealing with a difficult manatee situation. Thanks to a new dam built on an arm of the Senegal River at Matam (a town on the northeastern border of Senegal), some manatees are now trapped above the dam. It is believed that waterway is an annual migration route for the manatees, so they swam through the dam gates when the water was high, but now the water level has fallen and the manatees are stranded as the water dries up. At this point I don't think it is possible for them to swim back through the dam, even if the gates were opened and/or herding them to the dam would be impossible. It has now been determined that there are at least 15 manatees trapped in this area. The water is very muddy so it is only possible to see manatee noses when they surface, and some areas are still quite deep, but as the waters dry up the animals will eventually be stranded. One manatee has already been found dead up against the dam grates.

Several organizations in Senegal have been coordinating efforts to rescue the manatees and transport them back out to the main part of the river. In late November they went out and were able to capture 2 manatees using local fishermen's nets and a pickup truck to transport them. However, there was also alot of chaos as many people tried to help with almost no expertise and very little equipment.

Here are a few photos my friend Tomas Diagne sent: 3 manatee noses visible in the river

A manatee is transported by pickup truck at night to the release site

Releasing a manatee back into the Senegal River

So now the next round of rescues has been scheduled for early January. I have been asked to come up to assist with capture planning, training for rescuers and to participate in the whole operation. This is an incredibly valuable opportunity to help build capacity in the region, collect samples from this very rare species and train researchers there. So I am going to go for a couple weeks. Right now I'm spending a bit of time discussing logistics on email, but I'll write more as plans progress. I'm also back in Libreville now, after a successful 6 weeks of work at N'dogo Lagoon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


This past week ended well, despite not being able to get out on the lagoon for surveys. I did 3 training sessions for ecoguides, which included background on manatees and an introduction to collecting samples from carcasses (basic stuff: GPS points, photos, how to determine the sex, how to collect genetics and ear bones). It will be very helpful to have other people trained if a carcass turns up when I'm not here, and it will help increase understanding of the manatee population in this lagoon to have samples collected year-round. I was impressed with the questions the guys asked and look forward to working with them more next year.

One on one discussion with Anselm about sample collection
On Friday afternoon I went back up to Sette Cama. I drove up with Jean-Pierre Baye, an energetic guy who started the local sea turtle NGO here, Ibonga. He arranged for me to speak at 2 schools this weekend. So on Saturday morning I gave my first manatee presentation to elementary school kids and their teachers in Sette Cama. I had a power point presentation, some video clips of manatees, and I gave out the French manatee coloring books that I helped produce with Save the Manatee Club. It went well and they had interesting questions- there are alot of myths about manatees here so questions ranged from how long the gestation period is for a manatee (Answer: it is believed to be 13 months, but it's not scientifically confirmed for the species yet), to whether or not it is true that they eat human cadavers (it is not!). Unfortunately the second school presentation was cancelled at the last minute because the school director had a death in the family, but I'll be able to go there when I'm back in the area next Fall.

At the end the teachers and some of the kids wanted a group photo with the coloring books.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's been a challenging week!

Late last week I received news that 3 manatee carcasses had been reported within 1km of each other near Akaka, which is an enormous swamp area on a river system between the N'dogo Lagoon (where I am) and the N'gowe Lagoon just to the north. It raised red flags to hear about 3 carcasses in close proximity, especially after we have been experiencing similar mortality here in northern N'dogo. It is an extremely remote area (4 hour boat ride from the village where WCS has a base) and my colleague Ruth, who heard about the carcasses, could not get there due to broken boats, no fuel and staff issues. She will try to get there today, which is a hugely generous effort considering she is not a manatee biologist and has alot of other work on her plate. (And oh yes, HAPPY 30th BIRTHDAY Ruth!)

I'm in Gamba and managed to get a really nasty cold at the end of last week that kept me bedridden with a fever for 3 days. Meanwhile I was planning to do boat surveys of southern N'dogo Lagoon this week, but the entire town of Gamba is out of fuel. This is especially ironic because Gamba wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Shell oil concession here, but apparently the fuel has to go several hundred miles north to be refined and then is shipped all the way back here for use. So no surveys. Instead I am preparing a training workshop for ecoguides that I will teach here at the end of the week and a school presentation I will give at 2 schools next weekend.

I was talking to a new friend this morning who just moved here from Holland (her husband works for Shell) and we were discussing the fact that living/working here takes alot of getting used to. People in our home countries don't always comprehend why things take so long, why you can't just get your work done. She is in the frustration stage at how hard it is to accomplish even the simplest thing, like buying gas or having running water that works so you can bathe. I am more at the acceptance stage. It can still definitely be frustrating, but I have learned that I have to spend more time in Africa to accomplish the work. Logistics are never going to be easy, it's just Africa. But the reward is that the more I'm here, the more I learn and the more people realize I'm in it for the long-term, so they share more information, and they know to tell me when they hear manatee news. And there are so many great people here working so hard for conservation, that I am continually inspired and then I forget the inconveniences. So I'll keep at it...