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Building a researcher network for the West African manatee

By Lucy Keith Diagne, 3rd February 2012

How do you study a highly secretive animal that lives in some of the remotest parts of Africa, in water that resembles chocolate milk? One answer is to train as many African researchers as possible to study them, from as many countries as possible. And then make sure they have the basic field equipment they need to collect accurate data- binoculars, GPS units, depth sounders, life jackets, tents and more. Then you build a network to facilitate communication and collaboration for these researchers. This is what West African manatee researcher Lucy Keith Diagne has been doing for the past four years, in addition to her own distribution surveys, genetics and stable isotope research on the species. Her work has been supported by Save Our Seas Foundation since 2009. She started out doing surveys throughout Gabon, central Africa in 2006 and quickly realized that the manatees, which we know very little about but which are heavily hunted throughout their enormous range (most of west coast of Africa, from Mauritania to Angola, and inland countries including Mali, Niger and Chad), needed more people studying them. So she began leading one to two week training workshops as well as bringing local biologists along on all of her field activities. She’s trained over 44 biologists from 17 countries in the past four years. The network is still in its infancy, but research and conservation activities have begun or increased in nine countries.

This past November Lucy began another phase of training by helping to support some of her African colleagues to come to Florida for advanced training in manatee field techniques such as carcass necropsy, collection and analysis of biological samples, live capture and health assessments of wild manatees, and tracking GPS tagged manatees. This hands-on training is provided by Florida manatee colleagues from multiple government and non-profit research organizations, and trainees are able to get more experience in three weeks than would be possible in several years in Africa. Aristide Kamla of Cameroon was the first researcher to come to Florida for this training, which is specifically for researchers who have started studying manatees in their home countries, but need more specialized skills to continue to develop their work, and to be able to train others. Aristide recently completed his Masters degree studying manatee distribution and habitat use in Lake Ossa Wildlife Reserve in Cameroon, and he is now planning to begin his PhD studies with the species. He hopes to become the first marine mammalogy professor in his country.

In just a few days the next trainee, Dawda Saine, will arrive in Florida from the Gambia. And with Lucy already busy planning the next training workshop in Africa for later this spring, the West African manatee researcher network is now building on both sides of the Atlantic.

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