Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gabon: Fernan Vaz surveys

Unfortunately the first 3 days at Olako were an exercise in frustration. The lodge manager could not seem to organize a boat to take me out on the lagoon and just kept putting me off. The boat drivers were unwilling to talk to me until I finally called the owner, who I had originally made my arrangements with. The staff at this lodge is only used to dealing with tourists, not researchers, so I don’t think they knew what to do with me, but it still shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. Fortunately the owner was able to remedy the situation immediately by assigning a driver to me. In the meantime I had plenty of time to catch up on other writing, but that’s not what I came here to do.

Finally on Tuesday afternoon we got out on the lagoon. We headed to the southwest corner where there were no villages. As we cruised around the coves I was surprised to find that even at the furthest reaches we would see logging roads cutting through the forest to the lagoon. The habitat was good for manatees but we didn’t see any.

Boat traffic going by in front of the lodge. Fernan Vaz definitely has the most barge traffic of any lagoon in Gabon.
logging road at the end of a quiet cove
There are some very pretty areas where the savannah comes right down to the edge of the lagoon
For the next week I surveyed different parts of the lagoon and it was evident there is a larger human population, because there are only small patches of forest or savannah between each group of houses or village. We did go up several beautiful rivers that had no human inhabitants or signs of fishing, and there we saw more wildlife, including the relatively rare African Finfoot (the male pictured below as well as a female and chicks) and a turtle. I was happily surprised that these animals didn’t flee at the site of our boat as they do almost everywhere in Gabon, and I was told later by a local guide that almost no one goes up these rivers so the animals are more tame. He also said both manatees and hippos are reported in these places. Unfortunately I didn’t see any the day I was there.
Male African Finfoot, Podica senegalensis
West African Black turtle, Pelusios niger, resting on a log
The rivers were much more peaceful than the lagoon
I was able to interview several fishermen and local guides in Ombooue who told me that they see manatees here throughout the year, but only at night. Fishermen see them feeding along the grassy areas as they set nets, and one man said he sometimes sees a couple at a time, but they always flee. He told me there are no specialist manatee hunters here because there aren’t many manatees, but that occasionally one will get caught in a fishing net and then it is eaten. A local guide told me he had seen 3 manatees rolling with tails flapping at the surface of the water (he described it as playing, but it was likely mating behavior) in the Rembo N’komi, the river at the south east corner of the lagoon. Of everyone I spoke to, only one person had a recent sighting (several months ago) of a manatee in the lagoon during the day, all other sightings reports were at night and in rivers.

On a survey up the Rembo N’komi I visited the small town of Ndougou, which really only exists as a place where roads lead into the interior so barges unload trucks and equipment for logging and oil companies, and smaller boats are loaded with bananas from nearby plantations headed to market in Gabon’s bigger cities. In just the 2 hours I was there, five big barges came to unload. All are coming from Pt. Gentil and traversing the length of Fernan Vaz Lagoon to the river, then going upriver to Ndougou. The river is deep, I recorded 11m and 10.6m in several places, but with the amount of boat traffic I would imagine manatees stay away from the village. The smaller boats have 6 engines on the back, which as I know all too well from Florida, could be very lethal to a manatee, but there are no reports of manatees being hit by boats and I suspect they avoid the area because of the noise. The good news is the barges and most other boats all follow the same course through the lagoon. The river had several smaller quiet branches with no villages and the mouth at the lagoon was a broad shallow area with miles of papyrus plants, so some habitat was good.
Another logging road. You can see the size of the logs (huge!) in comparison to the children playing at the river's edge.
Another day we went up the lagoon to its mouth at the ocean. There is a huge area of mangrove habitat and some human presence, but the owner of Olako Lodge told me this was where he most frequently has seen manatees. I was also happy to see no evidence from the oil spill that happened here a year ago.
mouth of the lagoon to the sea
At the end of my two weeks we had several days of non-stop torrential rain, making visibility very poor. Rainy season is kicking into high gear again after the annual shorter, drier period here known as the Petite Seche (little dry season). So unfortunately I will leave here without seeing a manatee, but from all my interviews I am sure they are here, although I suspect in lesser numbers than the N’gowe and N’dogo Lagoons south of here.
Gabon: Port Gentil to Olako Lodge

I’m back in Libreville after 2 weeks working on Fernan Vaz Lagoon. There was no internet there, so here’s my update…

I flew from Libreville to Port Gentil on 13 February. On Valentine’s Day I woke up in Port Gentil and went to the fisherman’s wharf to take the boat to Fernan Vaz. It was a small open boat with only 8 other passengers. We crossed Nazareth Bay passing oil rigs and tugboats moving logs, and then moved into one of the many river channels that winds south to the Ogooue River delta. The vegetation there is mostly mangroves and palms with a few grassy areas along the river edges. The land is marshy so there only a few houses here and there, but no villages. We passed several other boats taking people and goods back and forth between Pt. Gentil and Ombooue, the biggest town in Fernan Vaz.

Pt. Gentil oil refineries
Logs floating in the bay as seen from the air as I flew into Pt. Gentil
The view across the water from this park was all logs as far as the eye could see
Despite the boat traffic passing through, it seems to me that manatees could easily live in these here, there are so many small channels winding back into the mangroves off the main rivers and other areas of flooded forests where the rivers have overflowed their banks. And there are almost no permanent human residents. As we zipped along we saw a water monitor lizard and also a large Nile crocodile! This was the first live Nile croc I’ve ever seen in Gabon, they’re usually very shy and not seen during the day. It jumped off a log into the water as our boat came around a corner, so I only saw its head, but judging by that (the head was about 2 feet long!) it was a pretty big one! Even the boat driver was excited, so I think it was a lucky sighting.
View of the Ogooue river channels taken on an earlier flight over the area... it was neat to see it from a boat
After a 3 hour boat trip we arrived at Fernan Vaz Lagoon. On the far shore I saw radio towers and some houses, gas flares and a couple helicopters. The oil business is much more obvious here than at other lagoons (although we also see lots of helicopters shuttling workers to oil fields at Sette Cama as well). After crossing the lagoon for another half hour we arrived at Olako Lodge, which is situated on the water in Ombooue, halfway down the lagoon.
Open gas flare on the lagoon

The centerpiece of the lodge is a beautiful restaurant that sits over the water.
The main lodge

The boat houseI settled into a room at the annex, which is about 200 meters down the road from the main lodge and had a large kitchen and living room.
It's an enormous lagoon!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gabon: Fernan Vaz

On Friday evening I'll take a short flight south from Libreville to Port Gentil, a large town on the coast of Gabon. Saturday morning I'll take a 4 hour boat ride south from Port Gentil and it will snake along inland river channels to Ombooue, a town in the center of Fernan Vaz Lagoon. (photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Fernan Vaz is Gabon's biggest lagoon at approximately 65km long. It also has the largest human population of any of Gabon's lagoons, it's the only lagoon in the country that has no protected area adjacent to it and many people tell me not to expect to find many manatees there. But I've also had other reports that lots of manatees are regularly seen in the rivers that connect to it, and a paper by Nishiwaki et al written in 1982 reports that in their interviews in Port Gentil they were told manatees were quite common in Fernan Vaz. I think reality will be somewhere in between...

I am staying at Olako Lodge for 2 weeks and will try to get on the water most days. This is the only lagoon in Gabon that I haven't been to yet, so I'm looking forward to seeing and learning about a new place. I'm not likely to have any internet while I'm there, but as always there will be stories and reports when I get back to Libreville at the end of the month.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New article

Save the Manatee Club asked me to write a short article about my work in Africa, and it just came out on their website (click here to see it). They produced French manatee coloring/activity books and "Sauvon les Lamantins" stickers for me to use as educational tools in West Africa's French speaking countries, so I really appreciate their help!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Senegal: Lac de Guiers and Tocc Tocc Reserve

After the manatee captures I went to northwestern Senegal, to Lac de Guiers. This huge lake is situated south of the Senegal River in an agricultural area near the town of Richard-Toll and it provides water for many cities in the country, including Dakar. It connects to the Senegal River by a manmade channel.

Several years ago Senegalese turtle biologist Tomas Diagne was surveying a cove on the northwestern side of the lake when he sighted manatees there. He was fascinated by them and this led him to start working to establish the area as a refuge. Manatees, turtles and many species of water birds will benefit from the protected area. At this point the paperwork to make it an official site has mostly made its way through government channels so it will be created soon. As far as I know, this will be the only protected area in all of West Africa created specifically for manatees. In the short term Tomas is hoping to get grants to do manatee surveys and to buy a small fiberglass boat to be used to conduct them. His long-term goal is to build an education center there which would be run by the local people. He envisions having kayaks and pirogues that people could rent to paddle out onto the lake and to bring school children out to learn about the ecosystem. Local fishermen would earn extra money by guiding trips. He has worked with the residents of the nearby fishing village of Toleu to understand their relationship to the lake and its animal inhabitants, so that the refuge will be a positive thing for them.

Our first day in the area, two enthusiastic guys from Toleu paddled us out to the proposed refuge. It is off the main lake and can be entered either by a small narrow channel or a wider one. I was immediately amazed by the number and size of the water lilies carpeting the surface of the water, absolutely spectacular. The appropriately named Lily-trotter (or African Jacana) birds were everywhere as well as many other species: Little Bee-eaters buzzed above us, cormorants dove for fish and African Pygmy Geese flew by. A pair of African Fish Eagles have a nest there and called loudly as we passed. Big schools of tiny fish swam by, some minnows, others juveniles of larger species like Tilapia, an important food fish for people here.

Looking back at Lac de Guiers through the small entrance to the reserve
It seemed like there were a million water lilies!
Manatee feeding sign- the area of pushed down grass in the center is caused by the manatees pushing into the grass as they eat. (photo: T. Diange)
African Jacana, Actophilornis africana Another striking water bird, the Spur-winged Lapwing (and an unidentified friend!)Juvenile African Fish Eagle I saw at least 3 species of water lily that are known manatee food plants (Nymphea lotus, Nymphea maculata and Nymphoides indica) as well as several species of grasses and some new plants I still need to identify. We found one area with fresh manatee feeding sign but the villagers say they mostly see manatees during the rainy season from July-September. I realized at that point that in the places I’d been along the Senegal River everyone told me they saw manatees during the rainy season, but no one seemed to know where they went during the dry season. So I continue to be hopeful that the tagged manatees are going to teach us.

Another thing I noticed (unfortunately) were many old nets left in the water. Most had algae or plants growing in them, big holes and some had caught fish. Tomas told me he plans to have a clean-up day as soon as the refuge is created to remove all the old, abandoned nets left behind.
We spent several days in the village and the people there were incredibly welcoming. Each morning I took long walks along the lake edge, enjoying the scenery and the wildlife. We also handed out "Sauvons les Lamantins" (Save the Manatees in French) stickers created for me by Save the Manatee Club in Florida, to help raise awareness about protecting the species in Africa. The day after we gave them out, I noticed them stuck on front doors and window shutters all around the village.

Tomas (right) hands out stickers
Some other images to give you a sense of the place: a view of the village through the front window of the house I stayed at.
A sailboat on Lac de Guiers
Despite the nearby lake, the land around it is very arid- composed of both salt marsh and savannah.On our way to and from Lac de Guiers, we passed through the beautiful old colonial town of St. Louis near the mouth of the Senegal River. Just south of town we passed the exact place where Michel Adanson collected the first West African manatee specimen by a European during his travels through Senegal from 1748-1753, and this holotype was later sent to Europe. Unfortunately he didn’t get credit for describing the species, that honor eventually fell to Link in 1795. But don’t feel too sorry for Adanson, there are numerous other species named for him, including the Baobab tree, of which all 6 species worldwide have the genus name Adansonia. The African baobab is Adansonia digitata.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Senegal: Patowel

After we finished our work at Navel, we took a late afternoon drive to Patowel, near the town of Kanel and another place where manatees are trapped in a tributary. It is about 25km away from Navel, deeper into the desert. Patowel is completely different- the channel is much deeper, several miles long and the water does not completely dry up. There are definitely manatees there, but they would be very difficult to catch, and since they are not in danger of being left flopping in the mud, they are not caught. The only problem is they don’t have any food and the local fishermen say the manatees eat the fish from their nets (manatees will sometimes eat dead fish, especially if there is no other food available). So food may need to be provided, which is difficult in a place with so little vegetation.

Fishermen head out at dusk to set nets at Patowel.
The group discusses possible options for the Patowel manatees with Senegalese national parks and fisheries staff.In one area adjacent to Patowel there are at least 4 manatees, and that smaller area will eventually dry up, so this will be the next location for captures, probably in late February. Pablo hopes to get new battery packs so he can deploy the other 2 tags on manatees from this site. Unfortunately I won’t be able to stay in Senegal for this, since I have more work in Gabon. But maybe another year, because the problems of dams are not going away in this area anytime soon. They provide many challenges for the manatees, but also give us a unique opportunity to study this creature that is normally so difficult to find, much less capture and tag. Hopefully these studies will lead to solutions for the Senegal River population.