Thursday, October 22, 2015

Manatee Calf Rescued in Nigeria

 On October 9 our colleague Dr. Edem Eniang rescued  a 2-3 week old manatee calf that had been caught in a fishing net by hunters. The hunters had kept the calf in a well for 3 days and were planning to eat it, so the timing of the rescue was very lucky! This is the calf in the well... if you look closely you can see a small turtle above its nose.
Unfortunately, there was no way to release the calf back to the wild. There were too many manatee hunters and nets in the area, and no adult manatees had been seen. A calf as young as this would not be able to survive for long without its mother. Although we don't know yet how long African manatee calves nurse from their Moms, it could be as long as for their cousins the Florida manatees- 2 years. Dr. Eniang brought the calf back to his house, took some measurements and its weight, and placed it in his fish pond. He then contacted me to ask how to care for it, and we began searching for an aqaurium that can raise the calf and provide it proper veterinary care.
The pool has now been filled with plants, which the calf is eating (we think African manatees may start eating plants much sooner than Florida manatees) and Edem and his graduate students are feeding the calf a special milk formula developed for baby manatees.
We are grateful to our friends at the Manatee Conservation Center in Puerto Rico and my graduate student Jonathan Perez (who helped raise Victor, the orphan manatee in Gabon, a few years ago) for two care packages sent to Nigeria with bottles & special calf nipples, milk powder and vitamins.
We also started looking for a long-term home for the calf. Unfortunately there are no public aquariums in Nigeria that have the ability to care for a manatee, but within two days we had heard from 5 aquariums around the world who offered to take the calf. We chose the facility we believe will best be able to care for the calf, while also contributing to African manatee education on the African continent. We're now in the process of obtaining the correct permits for the calf, and once that's done we can announce the facility.

In the meantime I'm traveling to Nigeria next week to help Edem care for the calf and to meet with officials to discuss the transfer of the calf to its new home. I'll write more as I travel! 

New Home for the African Manatee Project

We are very excited to announce that the African Manatee Project has joined forces with the African Chelonian Institute and formed a new non-profit organization for research, conservation, and education of all African manatees and turtle species! We are now the African Aquatic Conservation Fund. Our mission:

Through focused research, conservation, and education actions, the African Aquatic Conservation Fund is dedicated to the preservation of African manatees, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife and their habitats throughout the African continent. We work in close partnership with local people, scientists, governments, and other stakeholders for the benefit of both wildlife and humans. 
Our website is coming soon, but for now please check us out on Facebook!

Friday, October 09, 2015


For the past month I've been having trouble posting pictures on this blog, but today I finally fixed the problem! So here's another very overdue post....

Last June, before I went to Gabon for the MENTOR training workshop, I made my first trip to Cameroon. I've been working with two very energetic manatee researchers there, Aristide and Rodrigue, for several years now and was very happy to fionally get there! We started out at their main study site, Lake Ossa in southern Cameroon. This is Rodrigue, on the porch of their office.
We did several surveys on the lake and were lucky enough to see over 10 manatees! This is amazing for Africa, where sightings are very few.
This is a photo of a manatee fleeing, it's very hard to get photos of them...
Fishermen in Lake Ossa have filled the lake with bamboo poles attached to traps used to catch small fish. The problem is that the bamboo causes silt to build up, making the lake shallower and less hospitable to manatees. The lake is a protected area, so Aristide and his group are trying to find ways to work with the fishermen so that the manatees continue to have enough good habitat, but the local community can still continue to fish there.
Aristide's organization, AMMCO, is working to understand where manatees spend their time in the lake, identify "hotspots" and manatee diet, and study water quality in different parts of the lake. Aristide is the first person in Africa to use side scanning sonar to detect manatees. It's an amazing technology that finally allows us to count the numbers of manatees in the murky chocolate milk water.
Water sampling probe
Aristide is also working on his PhD, and is studying manatee hormones to see if pregnancy can be determined. To do this he collects manatee feces (poop!) and then tests it for hormones.
I checked the poop for any signs of fish bones or mollusk shells, but these samples were 100% plants.
Rodrigue and Aristide's group have created 7 different public awareness posters to educate people that manatees are protected and hunting them is illegal. This one's my favorite- the manatee is saying (in French), "set me free, I'm not for dinner!"
After Lake Ossa we visited a coastal fishing village, Londji, where Aristide's stranding network is working with local fishermen who report live and dead stranded manatees and other marine mammals. We met with the fishermen to discuss their challenges and progress, and then they gave us a really nice tour of the beach and a mangrove forest. 
Finally, I traveled to the University of Dschang in western Cameroon, where I gave a talk about my PhD research to the Animal Ecology graduate students. They were, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic audience I've ever spoken to!
Group photo with the Animal Ecology Dept. after my talk. I look forward to future collaboration with this university.

MENTOR Manatee Team

Team MENTOR Manatee: Samuel, Aristide, Constant, Bridget, 
Cyrille, Pascal, Christy, and Rebecca (in costume)  
I'm very late in writing to announce an exciting new initiative that I've recently begun. Thanks to funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I'm leading a two year long fellowship training program for 8 Central African manatee biologists, called MENTOR Manatee. MENTOR (Mentoring for ENvironmental Training in Outreach and Resource conservation) is a signature initiative of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders Program to build the capacity of multidisciplinary teams of African conservationists who can work together to address complex conservation challenges. In addition to three training sessions over two years, the MENTOR Manatee participants have two team projects, as well as an individual African manatee project that they will complete over two years. The team projects focus on manatee hunting/bushmeat documentation and manatee education programs. Between workshops each fellow is expected to carry out a manatee bushmeat study and manatee education programs at sites in their home country. Fellows receive a stipend towards their individual projects and also receive field equipment and educational supplies. 

MENTOR Manatee officially began with the first group training session in Gabon in July. The 8 participants were selected for the program through a lengthy application process. They are a super enthusiastic group of five men and three women from Cameroon, Gabon, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.   

We started the first week of training off in Libreville, with lectures on conservation and education in Central Africa, given by Dr. Kate Abernethy (University of Stirling), Luc Mathot and staff (Conservation Justice), Marie Claire Paiz (The Nature Conservancy), Dr. Hugo Rainey (‎Central Africa Marine Program Director at Wildlife Conservation Society), Heather Arrowood (OELO), and Aimee Parnell (Green Butterfly Designs, she designed our African manatee education materials and programs).

For the second week, we moved to Lambarene, on the Ogooue River in Central Gabon, where each participant gave presentations about their conservation and research background and their MENTOR project proposals. With our partner organization OELO the group visited a local market and restaurants where manatee meat is sometimes sold (we didn't find any), and helped post a sign in the market about the African manatee's protected status. 
The team also met with students from high school nature clubs to talk about careers in conservation... 

The team spent the third and final week at Tsam Tsam, an ecotourism lodge on beautiful Lake Oguemoue. There we focused on team building activities and I met with each fellow individually to plan their project activities for the next 6 months. 
Afternoon hike to a nearby savannah... we saw signs of elephant, pangolin, and duikers

While at Tsam Tsam, we did several manatee surveys and visited a village of known manatee hunters, for the team to practice their interview skills.
By the end of three weeks, we had a very close and cohesive team! Now everyone is back in their home countries working on their projects. The next training workshop for the team will take place in Cameroon in April 2016. 

For more on our July training program, see the awesome blog written by our partner, OELO:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Senegal: Quick trip to Delta Saloum

Earlier this week I spent two days in the Delta Saloum region of central Senegal to meet with the director and staff of Bamboung National Park. Two years ago they found a dead manatee (the cause of its death was not due to humans as far as they could tell) and Tomas was able to collect samples from it, which I analyzed in Florida. Now it was time to go back, meet the guys who work there, share the results of my analyses, see their site, and talk about future manatee work. As you can see by their logo above, the manatee is the emblem of their park, and everyone I met was super enthusiastic about manatees, and excited to hear the results that came from a few carcass samples. The results included the manatee's age (29 years old), diet (seagrass and clams), and genetics information (the manatee turned out to be a new mitochondrial DNA haplotype for the species which I also identified from a manatee from Joal, a town in northern Delta Saloum)

Here's the team I met (I later also met the director in his office). The guy in the brown shirt was absolutely thrilled to hear I had proved (using stable isotope analyses) that the manatee from their park had eaten mollusks in addition to plants. His grandfather was a manatee hunter, and he remembers as a child his grandfather telling him about the manatees eating clams, but when he tells tourists that story, they tell him he's mistaken. He was so happy that there is now scientific proof! During our meeting we decided we'd make a manatee information plaque for the park. Two years ago they buried the dead manatee to clean the skeleton, so we'll dig it up and set up the bones for a manatee educational display.   

At the edge of the camp area the staff showed me a freshwater spring (it's not visible here but is just in front of the small beach in this photo). There are hundreds of freshwater springs in Delta Saloum, which allow manatees to live in a saltwater environment but drink the freshwater they need to survive.
I also noticed lots of oysters growing on mangrove roots, another possible source of food for manatees. I'll sample those next trip because I didn't have preservative with me this time.
On our boat trip back from Bamboung to the mainland I collected samples from three species of mangroves, which I'll add to my stable isotope analyses to determine if manatees in this area are eating them. In all likelihood they are, but stable isotope work will allow us to see whether or not the mangrove's signature is found in the manatee samples.
I should also mention that I met with Karim Sall, a longtime manager of the marine protected area at the north end of Delta Saloum. He has seen manatees several times in the reserve's extensive seagrass beds, so I'm planning to go sampling there next summer. It's great to reconnect with folks in Senegal and get manatee fieldwork started again! Lots more to come.....

Friday, April 03, 2015

Manatee Hunter Arrested in Togo

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Segniagbeto

A well-known manatee hunter has been arrested in Togo and over 20 skulls and 17 other bones confiscated, thanks to the great work of a Togolese organization called Alliance Nationale des Consumateurs et de l'Environment (ANCE). Click here to see the story and photos. I heard about this hunter as far back as 2008 when I was in Togo to attend the Convention of Migratory Species meetings where we wrote an MOU and Action Plan for the African manatee. But at that time the Togolese people I met felt there was no way to have the guy arrested. Here's hoping this will greatly help conservation of Togo's remaining manatees, which appear to be in extreme danger of being hunted out. I'm in contact with ANCE and hoping to help them get manatee research and educational programs started there.

Detecting African Manatee Populations

A new genetics study just completed as part of my dissertation research has defined African manatee populations across their large range (21 countries) for the first time. Over eight years I collected 78 manatee tissue samples from eight countries and successfully isolated DNA from 63 of them in order to determine where distinct populations of the species occur. Collecting the samples was actually the hardest part of the study, because manatees in Africa live in very remote places, and even when samples were collected (from carcasses, live manatees rescued or captured for studies, and from manatee bushmeat in markets) it sometimes took over a year to get the proper export permits to send them to my lab in the USA for analysis. Most of the samples came from Senegal and Gabon, because those are the studies where I have long-term study sites. Other samples were collected during trips to other countries or provided by collaborators working in those countries. I studied two mitochondrial genes which are commonly used for population genetics because they can inform us about deeper evolutionary levels, and populations rather than individuals. I identified different haplotypes, which are a unique combination of forms of a gene found on same chromosome. That sounds complicated, but think of haplotypes being ice cream, and the different combinations are like different flavors. For example, mocha chip and mint chocolate chip are more similar to each other than to strawberry ice cream because they both have chocolate chips. In the same way, some haplotypes are mostly closely related to each other and are from the same population, whereas others are more distantly related and are from different populations.

My research identified 25 new haplotypes for the African manatee, which is exciting since only five had been identified prior to this study. The study identified four populations: one in West Africa (coastal Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau), a separate population in the Senegal River, an inland Niger River population that included samples from Mali, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and a large population in West and Central Africa (Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, and Gabon). This study is a first step and once it is published, we will continue collecting and analyzing samples in order to continuing defining more fine-scale population structure.  

Here's a map of DNA (control region) haplotypes identified in 63 African manatee samples. Sixteen new (solid colors) and five previously published haplotypes (patterns; Vianna et al. 2006) are shown in pie charts. Circle size corresponds to the total number of samples per country, and slices are proportional to haplotypes found (see inset table). Asterisks (*) indicate previously published haplotypes identified by this study at four new locations.

By defining manatee populations across Africa, this work aids conservation efforts for the species by informing wildlife managers in many countries about where unique populations exist, where they can focus trans-boundary conservation and management efforts (when populations occur across borders), and where efforts need to be targeted to specific locations where manatee populations are isolated. My co-authors and I are very excited to publish this work in the scientific literature soon!

Friday, March 13, 2015

African Manatees Are Omnivores!

     There’s a good reason manatees are also known as Sea Cows. They’re often seen feeding in seagrass beds or along the banks of rivers, much as cows graze meadows on land. The Florida manatee, the most studied species, is believed to be a strict herbivore (although there have been occasional observations of them eating marine invertebrates, and recently fish). But during my ten years of work with African manatees, in almost every country I’ve visited, I’ve repeatedly heard stories from local people that manatees steal fish from nets, and that they eat clams and mollusks, both freshwater and marine varieties. At first I was surprised, because I thought African manatees would be just like their Florida cousins, but I heard these reports so often from people in countries thousands of miles apart, that I decided I had to investigate.

Fishermen in eastern Senegal show catfish heads left in nets after manatees ate the rest of the fish.
      African manatees are very hard to observe in the wild due to their shy nature and the murky water habitats they live in, so I decided to research their diet using a technique known as stable isotope analysis. The name sounds intimidating, but the concept of stable isotopes is really quite simple: every plant and animal has a unique carbon and nitrogen signature, which differs for lots of reasons including the attributes of environment they live in (rainfall, water quality, soil quality, pollution, etc.) and many other factors. By collecting samples of everything we think an organism eats from each habitat they live in, these signatures can be used to determine what makes up an animal’s diet.
       In my case, I collected plant, fish, and mollusk samples throughout manatee habitats in Senegal and Gabon, as well as bone samples from manatees from the same areas, to determine their average lifetime diets in the different habitats in which they lived. I was also able to sample manatee bones collected 70 years ago from a museum collection, so that I could compare manatee diet in the past to samples collected recently. Then I took all the samples to the laboratory, processed them to get their stable isotope values, input those values into an analysis program, and got some exciting results.

This is a manatee ear bone, sectioned to sample average lifetime diet.
        African manatees sampled from both Gabon and Senegal, and both freshwater and marine systems, regularly ate mollusks and fish as part of their diets. For Gabon manatees living in lagoons and rivers in the Central African rainforest, the model estimated their diet was 90% plants and 10% invertebrates (fish were not sampled from Gabon). In the Senegal River, for manatees living in a desert environment at the edge of the Sahara, plants composed 46 - 57% of diet. The remaining diet proportions were composed of mollusks (19 - 24%) and fish (24 - 27%). Manatees living along Senegal’s coast indicated a diet of 48% clams and 51% seagrass. So for manatees in Senegal, approximately 50% of their diets were not plants! For a species considered an herbivore, this is pretty big news. There was no significant difference between historical and recent manatee samples for either the Senegal River or the coast, and although sample sizes were small, this indicates that sampled manatees had similar diets throughout life, and that diet proportions have not changed significantly over the past 70 years.
      So why is this important? The results of this study give us accurate information about the food resources manatees utilize over time in the different habitats they live in. This can help resource managers prioritize specific places where food resources are abundant for conservation purposes. This new information also increases the list of species we need to monitor as important food sources for manatees. For example, now that we know manatees in Senegal depend upon mollusks and fish, we need to try to resolve conflicts with fishermen and help to conserve not just the plants, but all the species manatees depend upon. This is the first dietary analysis study for the African manatee and I look forward to publishing the results in the scientific literature soon, and continuing my studies of manatee diet in other countries.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Back to Africa At Last!!

At the end of January I finished packing up and left Florida, which definitely was the end of an era for me. I moved there in May 1998 to begin a job with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission running a manatee research field station in southwest Florida. After 6 years I left that job to pursue international manatee work and began working in Africa in 2006. Although I've spent a lot of time in Africa since then, I returned to FL for my PhD in 2009, and my home base has been there until now. I'll miss my friends and colleagues there a lot, but it's time to get back to fieldwork and conservation on the ground in Africa.

After leaving Florida in early February, my husband Tomas and I drove north on our "Friends, Family and Funders" tour of the northeast. We spent 2 weeks in Washington DC and I gave presentations about my dissertation results and ongoing projects in Africa to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service. We also donated an African manatee skull to the Smithsonian Museum and were treated to an amazing behind the scenes tour of their marine mammal storage facility in Maryland by longtime curator Charley Potter and Dr. Daryl Domning.

Me, Tomas, and Dr. Domning with the skull we donated
Side by side comparison of West Indian (Florida), African, and Amazonian manatee skulls.
Ok, so it's not a manatee, but the blue whale skull at the Smithsonian facility was amazing!
On March 1 we flew back to Senegal, and we're currently setting up our home and office. I look forward to sharing more African manatee news and stories soon!