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Busy days on the Congo

I haven’t had much time in front of the computer over the past few days- we’ve been out on the water all day everyday and I also got a nasty cold, so I’ve been doing nothing but working and sleeping with a few meals somewhere in between. We’ve made three trips up the Congo River looking for manatees and talking to people in villages along the way. On the first trip (last Friday) we stopped in at several villages I had visited last April. People are so friendly and remember us from last spring (of course they probably don’t get many white visitors looking for manatees!), and tell us they still see manatees mostly every day. Unfortunately we haven’t seen any ourselves this time, but random people have gone by in canoes yelling “there were 2 here yesterday”, so I’m sure they’re around. Even though they may be prevalent, they’re still shy, and we also can’t get up here at dawn and dusk, which are usually the best times to see them. But you never know (and we did see that one manatee at mid-day in April), so we have spent quite a bit of time quietly drifting and waiting in different parts of the river in hopes of spotting one.

We have explored several new tributaries, and all are great habitat for manatees. The more I see of this area, the more I realize manatees here have an enormous network of mostly undisturbed mangrove and rainforest channels with relatively few villages and very few motorized boats, so it’s no wonder that they have managed to survive so well in this area. We’ve also gotten 4 reports about hippos from different villages (spread far enough apart that they are not likely to be the same animal), and then on Sunday we were lucky enough to actually see 2 of them! Seeing hippos here feels very special because almost nothing is known about their numbers in this part of the world and few scientists (if any) are able to get here to study them.

This tributary was 10m deep! Overhanging vegetation provides both food and hiding places for manatees. We also saw a water monitor lizard and several cool species of birds along this river.


At our first village stop on Friday, a guy told us that the manatee hunter had died the previous week. I was surprised, because he had seemed in perfect health in April, but I later learned that he died from an infection in his leg. I had conflicting emotions about this news- he was an interesting man and had a wealth of knowledge about manatees in this area, their behavior, movement patterns, etc., but of course he was also killing several a week, so I was also somewhat relieved that he won’t be able to kill any more. He does have 2 sons though, and Joao speculated that they may want to take over the family business.

Yesterday we went to the hunter’s village, N’Tutu. There was only one man there when we arrived, and he showed us the hunter’s hut, his cooking area and his harpoons. Behind the cooking area, which backed up into the mangroves, we found manatee bones scattered everywhere! Tim, Warren (staff biologist here, a great South African guy I first met at a sea turtle conference several years ago) and I searched around and ended up collecting 101 bones! Some are old and weathered, but others were very fresh. This will hopefully be a treasure trove of genetics information. Of course the guy who was showing us around the village thought we were completely crazy to want to pick up the trash bones. We asked about the manatee hunter’s sons, and he told us that neither are interested in becoming manatee hunters; one has gone down river to Soyo (the biggest town here) to look for a better job, and the other lives in a nearby village but has other work. This is a huge relief to me since Mr. Domingo was the only hunter in this whole area stretching at least 40km.

Searching the mangroves for bones
Warren starts piling bones on the beach

The manatee hunter’s cooking hut

We collected 101 bones and 1 tissue sample from N’Tutu, which represent a minimum of 13 individual manatees, but the number could be alot higher than that. It makes me excited to do the genetics work! We collected 12 lower jaws, 7 upper jaws, 43 ribs, 2 sterums, 5 vertebrae, 2 partial scapulas and numerous other skull bones. I’m fairly certain this is the largest number of West African manatee bones ever collected for genetics.

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