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Gabon: Fernan Vaz surveys

Unfortunately the first 3 days at Olako were an exercise in frustration. The lodge manager could not seem to organize a boat to take me out on the lagoon and just kept putting me off. The boat drivers were unwilling to talk to me until I finally called the owner, who I had originally made my arrangements with. The staff at this lodge is only used to dealing with tourists, not researchers, so I don’t think they knew what to do with me, but it still shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. Fortunately the owner was able to remedy the situation immediately by assigning a driver to me. In the meantime I had plenty of time to catch up on other writing, but that’s not what I came here to do.

Finally on Tuesday afternoon we got out on the lagoon. We headed to the southwest corner where there were no villages. As we cruised around the coves I was surprised to find that even at the furthest reaches we would see logging roads cutting through the forest to the lagoon. The habitat was good for manatees but we didn’t see any.

Boat traffic going by in front of the lodge. Fernan Vaz definitely has the most barge traffic of any lagoon in Gabon.
logging road at the end of a quiet cove

There are some very pretty areas where the savannah comes right down to the edge of the lagoon

For the next week I surveyed different parts of the lagoon and it was evident there is a larger human population, because there are only small patches of forest or savannah between each group of houses or village. We did go up several beautiful rivers that had no human inhabitants or signs of fishing, and there we saw more wildlife, including the relatively rare African Finfoot (the male pictured below as well as a female and chicks) and a turtle. I was happily surprised that these animals didn’t flee at the site of our boat as they do almost everywhere in Gabon, and I was told later by a local guide that almost no one goes up these rivers so the animals are more tame. He also said both manatees and hippos are reported in these places. Unfortunately I didn’t see any the day I was there.

Male African Finfoot, Podica senegalensis
West African Black turtle, Pelusios niger, resting on a log

The rivers were much more peaceful than the lagoon
I was able to interview several fishermen and local guides in Ombooue who told me that they see manatees here throughout the year, but only at night. Fishermen see them feeding along the grassy areas as they set nets, and one man said he sometimes sees a couple at a time, but they always flee. He told me there are no specialist manatee hunters here because there aren’t many manatees, but that occasionally one will get caught in a fishing net and then it is eaten. A local guide told me he had seen 3 manatees rolling with tails flapping at the surface of the water (he described it as playing, but it was likely mating behavior) in the Rembo N’komi, the river at the south east corner of the lagoon. Of everyone I spoke to, only one person had a recent sighting (several months ago) of a manatee in the lagoon during the day, all other sightings reports were at night and in rivers.

On a survey up the Rembo N’komi I visited the small town of Ndougou, which really only exists as a place where roads lead into the interior so barges unload trucks and equipment for logging and oil companies, and smaller boats are loaded with bananas from nearby plantations headed to market in Gabon’s bigger cities. In just the 2 hours I was there, five big barges came to unload. All are coming from Pt. Gentil and traversing the length of Fernan Vaz Lagoon to the river, then going upriver to Ndougou. The river is deep, I recorded 11m and 10.6m in several places, but with the amount of boat traffic I would imagine manatees stay away from the village. The smaller boats have 6 engines on the back, which as I know all too well from Florida, could be very lethal to a manatee, but there are no reports of manatees being hit by boats and I suspect they avoid the area because of the noise. The good news is the barges and most other boats all follow the same course through the lagoon. The river had several smaller quiet branches with no villages and the mouth at the lagoon was a broad shallow area with miles of papyrus plants, so some habitat was good.

Another logging road. You can see the size of the logs (huge!) in comparison to the children playing at the river’s edge.

Another day we went up the lagoon to its mouth at the ocean. There is a huge area of mangrove habitat and some human presence, but the owner of Olako Lodge told me this was where he most frequently has seen manatees. I was also happy to see no evidence from the oil spill that happened here a year ago.
mouth of the lagoon to the sea
At the end of my two weeks we had several days of non-stop torrential rain, making visibility very poor. Rainy season is kicking into high gear again after the annual shorter, drier period here known as the Petite Seche (little dry season). So unfortunately I will leave here without seeing a manatee, but from all my interviews I am sure they are here, although I suspect in lesser numbers than the N’gowe and N’dogo Lagoons south of here.
1 Comment
  • Penny

    March 5, 2009 at 2:18 am Reply

    Great job, Lucy!! That is too bad that you didn’t see any manatees, but now you know so much more about the activities (logging, tugboat traffic) that influence the presence and behavior of the manatees that might frequent Fernan Vaz. And you’ve got more people interested in manatees and your project. Your photos are terrific! I love reading about all of the work you are doing and the trials and tribulations that show how truly dedicated you are to the manatee project. You’re the best!

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