Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Towed to Dakar

Sunday afternoon we got the news that the local mechanics were not going to be able to adequately repair the electrical system in the car to work with the new engine. The advice of our friends Billy and Mamadou (who know alot more about engines than I ever will) was to have the car towed back to Dakar and get the rest of the work done by the garage that sold me the engine, while it's still under warranty. There was no question that this was the right course of action, the car simply needs to be fixed correctly before we can continue our work. We quickly packed our gear and Tomas arranged for us to be towed behind another car going to Dakar that evening. There are cars here called "sept places" (which means "seven places" in French), usually ancient Renault station wagons, that are basically bush taxis that provide inexpensive travel between towns and cities. So this was our best bet. My vision of a tow truck quickly vanished!

Towing involves a metal pole attached to the two cars, and someone to steer the dead car.  It's a bit crazy because the driver of the second car (us) has steering and brakes, but the first car obviously controls the speed and most of the direction. So if he swerves around a corner, our driver (in this case Mamadou) has to follow. Several times it felt like we were on 2 wheels! Since our car was dead, there was no ability to close or open windows (luckily they were open) so we were blasted by dust and heat for the first several hours until night fell.
But most of the 6 hour trip went fine, and once the sun set and we reached the road along the coast, the cool night air was very refreshing. We got the car to the garage in Dakar around midnight, and now we are at home awaiting the repairs and planning our next steps back to the Senegal River.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lac de Guiers Manatee Rescue, Part 2

Late yesterday morning Tomas got a call that another baby manatee had been found entangled in net in Lac de Guiers. It was near the location where the first one had been caught the other day, so we wondered what was going on with the nets there, and hoped it wasn't the same calf caught again. It took several hours to arrange a truck to get back to Toleu, and once we got there it took awhile longer to round up a few men to come with us, because most people were already out fishing or away from the village in the rice fields. The wind was stronger today and it took awhile to paddle out to the site, but we got there and pulled up the net.
Unfortunately, it was the SAME manatee calf, caught a second time! We could easily tell by the distinct scars on its tail that it was the same individual.
We put him in the boat and paddled him into nearby Tocc Tocc Reserve, which has fewer nets. We are worried that he doesn't seem to have found other manatees, but unfortunately there was nothing else to do but release him once again and hope he can find his way around the nets and back to his mother, or at least other manatees. He does seem big enough to be eating some plants on his own by now, but may he still need his mother to teach him some life skills.
Release number two...
Nets are a big problem in Lac de Guiers. There are so many of them that it must be a constant maze for manatees. Adult manatees can easily break through the thin netting, but calves must have difficulty avoiding it all. Unfortunately fishermen never clean their old nets out of the lake, they just leave them there, where they catch lots of fish and turtles that end up rotting, and are obviously also a danger to young manatees. Tomas led a net cleanup in Tocc Tocc last year, but already there's so much derelict net back in there, you'd never know it had been cleaned up relatively recently. We need to do another clean up, but we also need to work on a bigger initiative for the lake. Tomas and I spoke to the local Fisheries Dept head about it, and he agrees it's a big problem, but getting people to change their habits is a huge challenge.

In the meantime I hope this is the last we see of that poor little manatee, he's had a tough time!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

While we wait in Richard-Toll...

On Thursday the new car engine was put into our car. Yes, that's it hanging from a tree in the photo above! The mechanics spent hours hooking up the various tubes and wires, and I naively thought this meant we were close to being finished with the repairs. Tomas and I discussed where we would drive first- should we continue our original plan to drive down the eastern shore of Lac de Guiers, or head further east to Matam, where I need to collect critical samples? We felt optimistic that we'd be on the road within hours.

The engine installation has been a team effort-Tomas's mechanic friend Billy (on right in black shirt) came up from Rufisque to oversee the repairs, and our friend Mamadou (in red shirt) came with him since he knows the owner of the car. Both are here to make sure the local mechanics do a good job.
But the mechanics tried the new engine and found that several important components weren't working. Tomas called the place in Dakar where the engine had been purchased, and  they told him they'd be happy to exchange the parts for free... but of course they are 9 hours away in Dakar! In the end we sent the defective parts by car to a friend in Dakar so he could take them to the shop, exchange them and put the new parts back in another car to Richard-Toll. This process has now taken 2 days. The local mechanics basically shrugged because this is the norm here, surely you can't expect something to work correctly on the first try!

In order to keep from beating my head repeatedly against a wall, I asked Tomas if he could think of anyone else we could talk to about manatees in this area. He made some calls and found out that an older gentleman, Mr. Badji, who had worked here with the Water and Forestry Dept. (the equivalent of US Fish and Wildlife Service in the USA) for 11 years during the 1970's and 1980's, happened to be back here now as a consultant for the local pisciculture station (fish farm). Tomas had heard about Mr. Badji previously, because everyone had said he had the best local and historical knowledge of manatees for this area (lower Senegal River and Lac de Guiers). Tomas gave him a call and he was happy to meet with us, so we took a taxi over to the fish farm (which was an impressive place!) and talked with Mr. Badji for several hours.

Suffice it to say Mr. Badji had an incredible wealth of information about manatee projects, unpublished reports, and basic habitat use before and after the construction of the Diama dam in 1984. This is important because the dam greatly altered the Senegal River and Lac de Guiers ecosystems, and changed the behavior of many species of wildlife forever. Water flows that had been highly seasonal are now mechanically controlled, and in many cases this results in a benefit for manatees because there is year round water in Lac de Guiers, and more plants to eat. Mr. Badji had many personal observations of manatees, their former migrations, and known favorite habitat locations. Many of these were new to me, but everything made sense based on the former water flow patterns of the Senegal River.

I showed Mr. Badji (in red) some of my recent genetics and tracking data from the Senegal River. We talked about what I'd like to do in the future, and my hopes for a better understanding of this permanently isolated population. He is a very personable man, but what I liked most about Mr. Badji is that he's clearly a real field biologist, someone who has spent alot of time in the field and carefully observed the wildlife and patterns of behavior. I hope we'll be able to meet again in the future, because I think Mr. Badji has much more information to share!
Group photo of Niaga, Mr. Badji, me and Tomas outside the fisheries center.

Our meeting with Mr. Badji was definitely a highlight of our time in Richard-Toll, and has made me even more eager to get back on the road! Fingers crossed it'll happen soon!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Manatee Rescue at Lac de Guiers

Late on Tuesday evening we got a call that a fisherman had found a manatee calf entangled in a fishing net near Tocc Tocc Reserve in Lac de Guiers. He said the calf was able to get to the surface to breathe and that there were other manatees nearby. Since it would take us several hours to get to the site, and working out of a tippy pirougue in the pitch dark seemed a tad risky, we decided to go first thing in the morning. Tomas called the local wildlife officers and they agreed to take us by truck to Toleu. Of course everything happens in "Africa time", so the truck was late to pick us up, then once we arrived in Toleu everyone had to eat breakfast before work could begin.

The guy who was supposed to go check on the calf at first light hadn't gone, so I was worried about it as we paddled several miles across the lake to it's location.

When we got there luckily it was still in the net, able to surface and breathe, and it could move around quite a bit, so it took a few minutes to pull in the net.

It turned out to be a small male calf, I estimate he was about 1 year old and weighed ~40-50kg (we didn't have a scale). He had fishing net tightly wrapped around his right flipper and neck, but luckily it hadn't cut into him and he was in good shape.

After getting the calf on board, I took standardized measurements including lengths and girths at various locations. These can be used to compare with other manatees from other places to give us baseline information for the species. This was the first time I used my new GoPro helmet cam to video manatee work (that's the large thing strapped to my head), so now I have high definition video of the entire rescue. This will be very useful for both training and educational purposes.

I also collected hair samples, which I'll analyze back in the lab in Florida to determine the types of food this manatee is eating. The hairs on a manatee are very fine and hard to transfer from the tweezers to the tiny storage vials, especially in a rocking boat!

I also took the manatee's body temperature, a genetics sample, and a complete set of photos to document all sides of the little guy. These are the first samples to be collected from any manatee from this region, so they will be important to compare from the other manatees I've previously sampled from the Senegal River, to learn more about this population.

The calf had a distinct scar on his tail, plus several notches on the tail margin, which could help identify him if he's ever seen again in the future. Usually calves don't have many markings, so this was lucky for us. The tiny orange marks on his side were made by a grease pencil to mark the location of his umbilicus so I could take measurements from his dorsal side. These markings will wash off after a couple days.
This manatee had 4 fingernails on each flipper, a remnant of the long ago days on spent on land by manatee ancestors. You can see the outline of the finger bones inside his flipper. A piece of trivia for you: West African and West Indian manatees have nails on their flippers, but Amazonian manatees have lost them entirely.
Tomas and Niaga pose for one happy shot with the little fellow before he was released.
The moment of release! Definitely a great feeling. Hopefully the other manatees seen nearby will soon reunite with the calf.

Several of the fishermen with us had wanted to kill the manatee to eat it, and it's hard for them to see the benefit of conservation when they struggle every day to catch enough fish for their families and villages. Fortunately manatees are not hunted here, and we will continue to help the local community build Tocc Tocc into an ecotourism and wildlife educational center so that the people can see a direct financial benefit of preserving the manatees and other animals here.

Off to a great start, but then there was a big bump in the road...

We left Dakar last Saturday, in a car loaded full of supplies for manatee sample collection and camping,  thrilled to be getting out of the crowded city for a couple weeks of fieldwork in northern and eastern Senegal. Tomas had found a private businessman willing to rent us a car for a reasonable rate, which was lucky, because none of the car rental companies will rent to us when we tell them we're headed to remote eastern Senegal. The car's owner just asked us to make sure we got an oil change before we headed out to the desert. We drove north to the pretty colonial town of St Louis and had lunch at our favorite burger joint while waiting for the oil change to be done at the local chain gas station. When it was done, we headed east towards Lac de Guiers, a huge lake in northern Senegal where Tomas worked with the government for many years to establish Tocc Tocc wildlife reserve for manatees and the endemic Adanson's mud turtle (plus many species of water birds, fish, and other animals). We noticed some extra smoke coming out of the car's exhaust pipe, but thought it might be normal after an oil change for a diesel engine.

After spending the night at Toleu village on the edge of Lac de Guiers, two boys and I paddled out to the reserve to collect manatee food plant samples. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, there were lots of birds on the lake and lots of manatee feeding sign in the plants along the water's edge.
Manatee feeding sign is easy to spot, because it looks like a bulldozer ripped plants out by their roots... which is exactly what the manatees do. There are also areas of grass pushed in where manatees nose inside floating grass islands to eat.
I returned to the village with an armload of manatee food plant samples (about 20 different species). 

Back at the village, we had a short manatee educational program for the villagers who are working to build the community-based ecotiourism site at Tocc Tocc. I gave out the new manatee conservation t-shirts and they were a big hit! In places across Africa where people have no TV, newspapers, or much other access to information, t-shirts are a great way to spread a conservation message. Also, I noticed that conservation t-shirts in Africa never seem to come in kids sizes, and in my mind they're the ones we most need to convince that the environment and wildlife are worth saving. So most of my t-shirts were made for kids, and they say "Let's Protect the Manatees! Save Our Future!" Huge thanks to Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and the Save Our Seas Foundation for making these shirts possible through their grants to my work!

After a successful first day, we continued our journey to the eastern side of Lac de Guiers. The lake is huge (~30 miles long), and although Tomas and I have worked with the villages on the northwestern side of the last for several years, we had never been to the eastern side. We drove north to the Richard-Toll, the last big town as one heads east, then started down the eastern side of the lake. With us was Niaga, the chief of Toleu village, who knows the area well. We've heard reports of manatee using several areas on this side and we planned to camp for a couple days, do interviews, collect plants, and hopefully see some critters. (the yellow line on the map is the Senegal River)
Photo courtesy of Google Earth

Unfortunately, about half an hour after we left town, a rattling noise that we had been hearing started to get alot worse. We stopped the car to check the engine, could see nothing amiss, but then the car wouldn't start again. Luckily for us, just at that moment a young guy drove by, stopped and introduced himself as an auto mechanic (he is now known by us as "the saviour" because it turns out very few cars use that road, there is literally nothing for miles, and we could've been in serious trouble if not for him). A quick check of our engine and the problem was found- the guys who did the oil change the day before had barely refilled any oil into the engine, and the oil they used was also much too light for a diesel engine, so it had quickly evaporated. Our saviour offered to return to Richard-Toll to purchase oil and engine coolant for us (since the engine was overheating), so Niaga went with him & they returned about 45 minutes later. Unfortunately the addition of a full tank of the correct oil didn't work either, signalling that more severe damage to the engine had been done.
Our saviour again returned to Richard-Toll to get a rope strong enough to tow our car back to town. In the meantime we tried to stay hydrated, but it was like sitting in a convection oven- hot wind blew across us, and after pushing the heavy car to turn it around for the tow back to town, I started to feel feverish. Tomas and I decided that while his ancestors had had thousands of years to adapt to living in the harsh Sahelian climate, mine had adapted to the cold, wet conditions of Scotland and Ireland, which afforded me no help in this situation! It was amazing, Tomas was warm but basically comfortable, while I was feverish and almost fainting even after drinking over 3 gallons of water!

The tow back to Richard-Toll went relatively smoothly; the rope did snap twice but we were able to re-tie it and continue. We towed the car to the only hotel we knew in town, and Niaga and our saviour both recommended garages that could assess the damage. Long story short, the next day we found out most of the engine had been destroyed from running without enough of the correct oil. It was devastating news. The repairs are extremely expensive, the parts need to come from Dakar (hundreds of miles away), I don't carry alot of cash with me (I can't even dream of anyone taking a credit card), and there is almost no recourse with the two guys in St Louis who caused this entire disaster. This is what our engine has been reduced to! It's an unfortunate reality of working as a field biologist- we don't usually have much of a financial buffer for big disasters such as this.
We called the owner of the car, who was thankfully incredibly understanding, and who mobilized people to go to Dakar to buy the parts and bring them to us, which took several days. We stayed at the hotel for a couple days, then found a cheaper place nearby in order to conserve funds (we had expected to be camping on most of this trip). Thankfully my fabulous colleagues at Sea to Shore Alliance were able to send money to me, and I am also incredibly grateful to one individual donor who stepped forward to help cover a portion of the car repair costs so that we could continue our fieldwork.

In the meantine while we waited for the car repairs, I went to meet the local head of the Fisheries Department, Mamadou Sarr, and we had a nice long discussion of his knowledge of manatees in Lac de Guiers and the Senegal River. He had previously heard about my work from Tomas and already had a copy of the manatee poster I produced on his wall. He had some great ideas for training workshops for fisheries and wildlife biologists, which I will definitely follow up on. T-shirts are also great for networking!
Next I started thinking about what else I could do while spending some unexpected time in Richard-Toll... 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Back in business in Dakar

Time is flying! I've already been in Senegal a week and a half, but it seems much shorter. I hit the ground running and have had several very productive meetings while in Dakar.

Last week I met with Alain Seck, the curator of the mammals collection at IFAN (which stands for Institute Francaise d'Afrique Noir (the French Institute of Black Africa), a very antiquated, colonial title) which is basically the university's museum. It's a very dusty place with old specimens that were mostly collected prior to the 1950's. However, they've recently installed a new, state of the art air conditioning system to help preserve the specimens, and Alain gave me a full behind the scenes tour of their huge collection. Much of it was a bit depressing, because most of the large mammals whose skins I saw no longer occur in Senegal. The museum has the skin of the last giraffe and the last elephant that existed in Senegal, killed in the late 1950's. There were numerous primate and elephant skulls, stuffed birds, and all kinds of snakes and lizards in jars of formalin.

Here Alain Seck is posing with a Mediteranean Monk seal skin...these seals don't usually occur as far south as Senegal

Shelves of elephant skulls

Of course my eyes lit up as I rounded a corner and saw an entire cabinet of West African manatee skulls! The museum has 14 specimens, most collected by Bessac and Villiers in the 1940's. Alain and I discussed my taking samples from these skulls (there is also a skeleton and a mummified head, see below) for genetics, stable isotope, and age determination analyses. The museum has a record of where each of these specimens was collected (Alain thinks they came primarily from the Senegal River), so this will be a wonderful historical reference to compare to the more recent manatee samples I've collected from the same areas. In return for the samples, of course the museum will receive my analysis results to add to their data. We agreed that I'll return later in the summer to collect the samples. What a treasure trove!

This mummified manatee head was originally preserved in formalin for many years, so now it's rock-solid (although part of the snout has decayed). Although it's unlikely DNA could be extracted from these tissues after this kind of preservation, I'm hoping the vibrissae (small stout whiskers on the snout) will be able to be analyzed for stabe isotopes, to determine what this manatee ate.
I've also met with Helen Scales, the British journalist and seahorse researcher who interviewed me for the Naked Scientist podcast a couple months ago. She and her husband are here in Senegal and the Gambia for a couple months on a pilot trip, hoping to set up research study sites for the future. Today Helen and I are going to continue our discussion of West African manatees and record it for a BBC radio broadcast. I've also set up other meetings with the American ambassador (who I've known for many years, as he  happens to be the older brother of my college roomate) and Haidar el Ali, the new Minister of the Environment, who is also Tomas's old boss and mentor from Oceanium Dakar, so I look forward to seeing them both again and talking about long-term manatee work in Senegal.

Now I'm packing up my equipment and other supplies because on Saturday Tomas and I are heading up to Lac de Guiers and the Senegal River for 12 days of fieldwork. I'll be collecting manatee food source samples (plants, clams, fish), visiting many new sites, interviewing people about manatees along the way, and of course hoping to see some of the elusive beasts! I hope to have lots of stories to report.