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Victor the orphan African manatee

By Lucy Keith Diagne, 11th November 2012

On September 24, 2010 a live male West African manatee calf, approximately one month old, washed up on the beach in Mayumba, a very remote section of southern Gabon in central Africa. It is unknown where the manatee originated from, but evidence suggests he was traveling with his mother in the ocean and became separated. Staff from Mayumba National Park rescued the calf, which weighed 27 kg and was 117 cm long. This was the first documented record of a West African manatee in the Atlantic Ocean in Gabon.

After stabilizing him in a bath tub overnight, the calf was transferred to a corral, which the staff quickly built in the nearby lagoon at a quiet location. Lucy Keith Diagne was contacted since she has been studying manatees in Gabon since 2006, and she has led his care and fundraising efforts since. The manatee calf was named “Victor”, and he has now survived for 2 years, becoming the first of his species to be successfully raised in captivity. None of the people on site had worked with manatees previously, and all are to be commended for huge efforts over the past 2 years, including feeding the manatee bottled milk every 3 hours around the clock, treating wounds until they successfully healed, finding and housing volunteers, building Victor a new enclosure after he outgrew the first one, and locating and transporting supplies to the remote location.

The West African manatee project sponsored Puerto Rican manatee Masters student Jonathan Perez-Rivera to travel to Gabon twice, for 4 months each during 2011 and 2012. Jonathan trained Gabonese biologists in Victor’s care and conducted health assessments. This summer Jonathan helped transition Victor from bottles of milk to an adult manatee diet of native plants. Jonathan achieved great success and we are thrilled to report that as of the end of September Victor weighs 103 kg, he has now been completely weaned from the bottle, and he’s eating a diet of 100% plants! Victor is healthy and on track to be released back to the wild in a few months. Jonathan was able to collect a range of important samples from Victor during his time in Gabon, including blood, urine and hair samples, weekly weights, and length and other measurements to document Victor’s growth. This is the first time any of these samples have been routinely collect and analyzed for a West African manatee calf over time, and this is the first ever data on the growth and normal health parameters of this species. Jonathan will use this data for his Masters thesis, and he and Lucy also plan to publish it in a scientific journal. Lucy will use the hair samples to verify Victor’s diet over time using stable isotope analysis as part of her doctoral work at the University of Florida.

This has been an exceptional opportunity not only to help this individual, but for scientists to learn more about this elusive species, to promote educational awareness for manatees in Gabon and throughout Africa, and for international collaboration between manatee researchers from around the world. Unlike West Indian and Amazonian manatees, our physiological knowledge of this endangered species is literally nonexistent, thus Victor is a true ambassador for his species.

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