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!)