Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gabon: Sette Cama Surprises

On the morning of 3 December, our team left Gamba and crossed the huge N'dogo Lagoon in 2 boats loaded with all of our gear. It took us just over an hour to reach the Eaux et Forets (Water and Forestry) brigade where we stayed in two houses on the lagoon, thanks to generosity from WWF. After arriving and unpacking all our gear, we scouted locations where manatees had previously been sighted, looked for and found fresh feeding sign (cropped and uprooted grasses along shorelines) and worked on our nets (which needed extra floats attached so we could see them well when something gets caught, and we tied together shorter nets to make 2 longer ones).
Loading gear and fuel into the boats in Gamba...
Anselm, Patrice and Stephane untangled nets and later Stephane and I added floats (old empty soda bottles... a different kind of recycling!)
Tom scans a cove where manatees are often seen feeding. We did see a group of three that day, just off the point of trees in front of Tom. You can see the aquatic plants (dark against the sand) under the water.
Uzoma holding one of the aquatic plants, Crinum natans, a manatee favorite. These are tiny ones, they grow to be the size of a leek.
I had a good team of 6 others with me: Stephane (Gabonese manatee researcher), Uzoma (Nigerian manatee researcher), Ken (WCS veterinarian who has previously worked with manatees in the USA), Patrice (Gabonese veterinarian), Anselm (WWF biologist) and Tom (a photographer from Save Our Seas Foundation, who funded the telemetry equipment, the boat engine and some of the other logistics). We began setting nets for manatees on the 5th. For the first 8 days of setting nets around the clock in 6 different locations (we had 2-4 nets going at once) we did not catch any manatees, despite seeing manatees in close proximity to nets everyday and setting in the same locations used by former hunters. Unfortunately some of the nets were old (they had been confiscated from hunters) and the manatees (or in some cases possibly crocs) broke through at night, leaving large holes for us to find most mornings, a very unpleasant surprise. So we were more than a bit frustrated and very tired.

Anselm casts net into the water during a set at the open cove with the aquatic plants...
Uzoma sets net at one of our mangrove sites...
...and we also set nets along grassy areas where manatees feed. As you might guess, we spent alot of time setting nets, checking nets and re-setting nets. Also second guessing where the manatees would turn up (the answer is, at almost every site, but not in the nets!)
Tags were ready to go in the boat in case we caught a manatee. Here we also had the GPS unit and some mangrove samples in theucket.
Patice and Uzo waiting in the boat in case a manatee is captured. On this day they had manatees socializing next to the boat and nets for over an hour, but none got caught!
Waiting, waiting and more waiting... Simplice (Gabonese ecoguide who came out with us one day), Anselm and Stephane watch from the mangroves.
Some people passed the time dozing, while others played with their cameras (Ken & Tom). We all fought the tsetse flies!
Anselm displays a large hole in a net made overnight
The biggest surprise for me was how hard the manatees were to catch. They were seen everyday and were definitely near the nets, yet they did not get caught. This gave me flashbacks to the captures we did in Costa Rica in 2005 (and other captures I heard about in Panama), where nets were set for weeks without catching a manatee. Anyone who thinks these elusive beasts aren't also savvy should think again!!

Here's the whole team (minus Tom, who took the photo): Patrice, Uzoma, Anselm, Ken, Lucy and Stephane.
I gave the team an A for effort, and could not help but share their disappointment. We all fell into bed exhausted everyday and nothing seemed easy. Patrice and Uzoma had to depart on 10 and 11 December, so we were left with 5 people after that. But then on the 9th (and last) day.........

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Gabon: The long trail to Gamba

We arrived in Gamba last night after 20 hours of driving most of the length of Gabon. Of the whole trip, only 6 hours of it was on paved road (albeit with huge potholes), the rest was sand tracks across the savannah, driving down riverbeds through the forest, flooded elephant paths and 2 tiny one-car-at-a-time ferries.

On the paved road near Lambarene, only 500 km to go!The car was stuffed with an incredible amount of gear including my new boat engine, 500m of manatee net, 5 trunks of equipment, a centrifuge, all our personal bags, coolers of food, cameras, 2 propane tanks, and 8 people. We were crammed in like sardines, but there was still room for gear to fly around as we jolted across a zillion potholes- I go hit in the head by flying objects 3 times and the driver was almost knocked unconscious by a flying spare car air filter at one point! I wish I had more photos, but most of the time I was holding on for dear life. I did take a video of the car "swimming" through one flooded area, but it's too big a file to attach here.

The car on the savannah. The "snorkel" can be seen on the passenger side, just in front of the door. This allows the car to drive through water that completely covers the hood, without flooding the engine. The driver and another passenger test the depth of water before we drive through it
The first night we arrived at the place we had reserved to stay, after 12 hot & dusty hours on the road, only to find out there were only 3 beds for 8 people. I was lucky enough to get one of the beds, but it was poor planning and most people had to sleep on the tile floor. The next day we had trouble finding food before we left the town so we went all day on 1 soda and a few crackers each. Every small town had a "security checkpoint" (apparently due to the recent elections all the local police are flexing their muscles) so I also had the pleasure of paying a $10 bribe to get our car through one checkpoint. At least it wasn't worse!

The car loaded onto the do-it-yourself ferry to cross the Panga River. A couple guys pulled ropes to get us across. While waiting for the second/motorized ferry, Stephane (right) discovered the villagers had a brand new manatee net. Hopefully we can talk to them at a later point to understand where they are hunting.
Uzoma and Stephane relax on the motorized ferry as it takes us upriver to Mayonami, on the last leg of our trip. We arrived, battered and bruised, at sunset last night, and as we pulled into Gamba there were 25 elephants feeding at the edge of town, which was a nice welcome! Luckily the 3 guys who came with me (Stephane and Patrice from Gabon and Uzoma from Nigeria) are all very easy going and helpful, so they remained cheerful throughout it all. Now we are here for 3 days to put the new boat engine on the boat & break it in, buy gas, food and other supplies, and to await the last 2 members of our team, Ken and Tom, who arrive by plane later this week. On Thursday morning we'll boat up the lagoon to our base at Sette Cama, my favorite place in Gabon. After a day of set up we should finally be ready to start captures on Friday or Saturday!

Elephants at sunset just outside Gamba (sorry, I know they look like blobs, the telephoto lens was buried somewhere in the car!)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Gabon: On my Way to Tag Manatees!

I left Dakar early this morning and am now enroute to Gabon. I'll be there until the end of February and the big plan for this year is to try to capture manatees in N'dogo Lagoon, do baseline health assessments and outfit them with GPS tags to track their movements. They won't be easy to catch, they're secretive and the water is murky, but after scouting locations near Sette Cama for the past two years, I think we have a better chance there than almost anywhere else in Gabon. There are lots of manatees, no targeted hunting and lots of great habitat. And if we are successful, this will be the first time GPS tracking has been done with the species. I have a great team that will assemble for the captures in a couple weeks (after I finish preparing logistics in Libreville), and I'll introduce them shortly. I'm really looking forward to it!
Aerial view of some of the many islands in N'dogo Lagoon.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Ghana: Manatee Training Workshop 2009

I just spent an action-packed two weeks at Lake Volta, Ghana teaching a research and conservation training workshop for the West African manatee! It was great. This is my second year participating in the workshop, and co-teaching it with Patrick Ofori-Dansen from the University of Ghana. It's funded by Earthwatch and coordinated by Nature Conservation Research Center (NCRC, a Ghanian NGO). As always, it was a wonderful experience that left me energized and hopeful for the future of West African manatee conservation.

This year we had 28 applicants for 16 spaces in 2 workshops; the second one will be taught in mid-November. Most of the applicants have already started manatee work in their countries, and Earthwatch funds participants to attend, so it was a very competitive selection process. This team ended up with participants from 7 countries: Mali, Guinea, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Benin and Senegal. And over the past three years this program will have trained researchers from 18 countries. Not bad considering the range of the species is 21 countries! For quite a few countries we’ve also trained more than one researcher, so I think we have achieved a lot of capacity building. Aside from helping train people for field research, my greatest hope is to build a cohesive network for manatee research and conservation in West Africa, and I plan to continue to work with these dedicated folks long after the training workshops have ended.

On October 18 we packed ourselves and all our gear into a mini bus and left Accra. After a 4 hour drive and a short ferry ride, we reached the Afram Arm of Lake Volta. We stayed in a campground that was created especially for this program and is staffed by people from a nearby village. The camp has a dining and classroom hut, a kitchen, storage and bathroom huts. We stayed in tents under several large trees. Over the next 2 weeks we combined classroom lectures with an introduction to field sampling equipment and techniques. Participants also gave presentations about research in their home country, and in the evenings we also had “social sharing” where each person told their personal life story. So in a very short time everyone became close friends, there was lots of joking and laughing and comraderie. This team was different from the group I worked with last year in that it was all men, and almost everyone was from a Francophone country, and so most conversation was in French. I really enjoyed being "one of the boys!"

Here's a glimpse of the participants, where we were and what we accomplished:
The ferry that took us across the Afram Arm of Lake Volta
Ladies on the ferry, I just liked the way the sun lit up their colorful dresses
Pius from Cameroon and Cece from Guinea. Pius works with gorillas and will start manatee research in northern Cameroon for Wildlife Conservation Society; Cece is a veterinarian who has already begun manatee surveys in his country.
Abdoulaye from Mali works for the Niger River Basin Authority. Here he's laying a transect line for aquatic plant sampling in Lake Volta.
Mr. Ansah (in the crazy hat) is the class assistant and teaches the participants about environmental sampling equipment and water chemistry testing. Momar from Wetlands International in Senegal and Mendes from Angola record data. Boat trips are used to practice sampling methods.
This is Mendes doing cranial measurements on a manatee skull. Mendes works for the Angolan Ministry of the Environment and accompanied me in the field during Congo River surveys last year. He's eager to start manatee research in central Angola, where human impact is high.
Chris from Benin learns water analysis techniques from Ansah. Chris has been studying manatees in Benin for several years and is hoping to publish his data soon.
Stephane from Gabon is seen here giving a presentation on his work of the past two years: assessing the manatee bushmeat trade in central Gabon. Since he knows most of the hunters, he has been able to collect some of the most accurate data on manatee hunting anywhere in Africa.
And of course "Prof"! He's been studying manatees in Lake Volta since 1998. This was a discussion at the beginning of the workshop, to introduce the participants to all the sampling equipment: GPS, secchi disk, dissolved oxygen meter, depth sounder, etc.
Once on the water, everyone got a chance to use the equipment and record data.
We also went out very early one morning hoping to see manatees feeding. Unfortunately we didn't spot any, but we did get a beautiful sunrise.
Local fishermen
Did I mention it rained almost everyday? Camping in the mud loses it's novelty quickly! But luckily the ground dried quickly once the sun came out.
Abdoulaye from Mali in traditional garb
Enjoying the boat with Stephane and Momar...

And this is the whole team! Momar, Martin from NCRC (our awesome logistics coordinator), Ansah, Mendes, Stephane (with arms raised), Prof Patrick Ofori-Dansen, Pius, Abdoulaye, Lucy... and in front: Cece and Chris. Congratulations to the newest members of the manattee research community!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Senegal: Delta Saloum

Last week I spent three days in the northern part of the Saloum Delta, a huge mangrove estuary in central Senegal. It s a beautiful area with salt flats filled with flamingoes, savannah with giant baobab trees, countless mangrove channels and lots of fishing boats. I had a chance to talk to many fishermen about manatees there and to distribute informational posters, which they eagerly took. People were very curious to learn more about a creature they consider spiritual and mysterious. Manatees are still hunted in this area, although they are rare now and only one or two are caught per year.

Interestingly, most of the manatee carcass data that Buddy Powell was able to collect for the species in the 1980's and 90's came from this area. There is a marine protected area in the south of the Delta, but I wasn't able to get there this time. I hope to do more work here in the future.

My internet connection time is limited at the moment, so here are a few pictures to give an idea of the place and what I did there:

Fishermen in Ndangane check out manatee informational posters in French to learn more about the species. They told me that only certain families are manatee hunters and that it is believed these people can communicate with the manatees. They also told me about a number of freshwater springs in the area where manatees come to drink.
Young boys with posters and stickers. Although the manatee is hunted here, it is also revered and there's a general sense of fascination about them. People say they are no longer hunted in the protected area because they know they will get in trouble. It's a start to protection!
Beautiful, brightly colored fishing boats at Ndangane
The view at the place where we stayed- gorgeous!
There are numerous intiatives to re-plant mangroves in the area- some efforts are led by NGOs while others are led directly by the people and their communities. This photo shows 2 species (the ones on top of the sandbar are a different species from the one in the water, I need to get correct species names!). It is great to see environmental initiatives going strong here, hopefully that will lead to awareness and protection for many species. We were able to go to one of the freshwater springs by boat but it was late in the day and I couldn't jump in and check it out. It is hard to see, but it's situated between the two sandbars in the photo below. Manatees generally come at night, and I am sure this is related to hunting pressure.
Flamingoes at sunset on the mudflat
I also met with village elders at Ndangane who had interesting perspectives on hunting techniques
At the end of the trip I met a very cool guy named Doudou at Joal (left). He has worked on fisheries bycatch issues previously and had reports of manatee carcasses going back many years. Here he shows me a manatee bone he took from a carcass in 2004 (that's his wife in the middle). As we drove along we came upon this sign purely by chance! Of course we searched for and found the place and met the owner, Anne-Catherine, who is a neat lady. After working in the pharmacutical industry for many years she decided to start an ecotourism venture that includes both environmental and cultural awareness. Eventually she hopes to open a hotel there, but for now there is a nice restaurant, a library and a beautiful lodge overlooking the water. We had a great conversation about manatees and I hope to plan future work together. This manatee trap was at Source Aux Lamantins and shows how hunters set traps in mangroves where manatees feed. They sit on top of the trap at night and when the manatee bumps the trap, they harpoon it. Luckily this one is no longer in use, it's only for educational purposes.
This morning I arrived in Accra, Ghana, and tomorrow I head out to the Afram Arm of Lake Volta to co-teach a manatee research and conservation workshop for African biologists. We have 8 participants from 8 different countries and I'll write lots more about it when I return to internet in 2 weeks!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Senegal: Diama Dam On our way back to Dakar we stopped at the Diama Dam, built in 1984 near St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River. This dam now traps manatees in the river and although they have well over 600 km of river to use, as well as Lac de Guiers and much more area during the rainy season when the river floods the plains, these manatees are isolated here with no way to leave or breed with other manatee populations. In the dry season, food plants can be scarce, and although there doesn't seem to be much targeted hunting, manatees do get caught in fishing nets and drown fairly frequently. And of course they get caught behind smaller dams near Matam and Kanel. At the southeastern end of the river they are hemmed in by a hydroelectric dam in Mali. So there are many challenges for this population.
The dam in Mali provides power far into the interior of Senegal; these power lines near Kanel are over 200 km away from the dam.

But there's good news too. There is very good habitat in Lac de Guiers (a huge man-made lake which provides the drinking water for all of Dakar and water for farm irrigation for hundreds of miles surrounding the lake) with lots of the manatees favorite food plants. Dams keep the water in Lac de Guiers high year round and the manatees have learned they no longer need to migrate back to the river during the dry season.
Lots of water lilies and grasses in Lac de Guiers

And as I mentioned in my previous post, they have lots of food on the flood plain during the rainy season. From what I've seen so far, I think the Senegal River supports a fairly healthy manatee population, and I'm happy that many people, government agencies and private organizations here are interested to conserve them.

Downstream and seaward of the Diama Dam is the Senegal River delta, and it is unknown if manatees still use this area as well. It will be interesting to try to find out!
Water flowing out of the Diama Dam towards the ocean.