The most recent African manatee training workshop was held in Lambarene, Gabon, from September 2-6. Lambarene sits at the edge of the largest river in Gabon, the Ogooue. Downstream from Lambarene are several very large lakes, lots of smaller ones and a quite a few villages, upstream are many tributaries, smaller lakes and fewer villages. Manatees are seen in this region throughout the year, but no one knows how many are in this population or if they migrate anywhere else. Lambarene is unfortunately the center of the bushmeat trade for Gabon, and manatees are seen in the markets here regularly, along with elephants, primates, crocodiles, and many other supposedly protected species. Enforcement of laws for wildlife is almost non-existent in this country that traditionally has lived on bushmeat and has almost no agriculture. Change is coming slowly; there have been some recent and well-publicized crackdowns on elephant poachers, thanks to new leadership in the national parks authority and the hard work of an NGO called Conservation Justice, but most hunters quickly pay their way out of jail and other species currently get little attention. I scheduled the workshop in Lambarene because I wanted to train and inspire the local biologists here to start documenting manatees, both in the wild and in the market, so that we can begin to understand the Ogooue River population and have accurate data to pressure law enforcement to really crack down on the illegal hunting and sale of manatees in Gabon.
Although I’ve worked in Gabon for 7 years, all my previous training activities have been done individually or with small groups. This time there were 12 participants from 6 organizations (including Oganisation Ecotouristique de Lac Oguemoue (OELO, Gabonese NGO), World Wildlife Fund, Gabon Fisheries, Gabon Water and Forestry, University of Dschang, Cameroon and African Marine Mammal Conservation Association, Cameroon). Five of the participants were women, the highest number I’ve ever had in a workshop since I started doing training in 2008. Lectures covered manatee biology and evolution, field techniques (boat and village interview surveys, sampling from carcasses and live manatees, environmental sampling, etc.) and presentations by participants about the work they have already started. We also had two boat days to practice taking environmental data, surveying for manatees and feeding sign, and village interviews. The last day we had a round table discussion about how the researchers could begin tackling the poaching / bushmeat issue. Although most of the trainees are new to manatee work, with some coordination and continued communication I hope they will become a force for good for manatees in the region. Some have already collected genetic samples from manatee carcasses that I’ll analyze this Fall to get the very first genetics data about this population. Those that contribute samples and document manatees in the market will share authorship with me when we publish the genetics research I’m leading to identify distinct manatee populations across Africa.
This was one of the best groups I’ve ever trained- they asked great questions, everyone was very positive and engaged, and everyone really seemed to enjoy spending time together, which I hope will encourage them all to stay in touch and discuss their work. Believe me, this doesn’t always happen, so it was really nice that it did this time!
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