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The Good and the Sad

It seems there’s always a mix of good news with bad and sad for African wildlife, and the African manatee is no exception.

The sad news is that manatee hunting is still almost a daily event in Lambarene, Gabon, a town on the Ogouue River in the central interior of the country (and in many other places in Africa as well). Despite full legal protection under Gabonese law, specialist manatee hunters operate year round, and manatee meat is openly sold in local markets and restaurants. When I was in Lambarene in 2006, I was chased out of the market for trying to photograph crocodile and monkey carcasses for sale, but now I’m told tourists can photograph in the same market at will, which means that fear of wildlife law enforcement is nonexistent for the vendors. I’ve worked with a Gabonese colleague in the area off and on for a 5 years now and have tried to get him to collect samples of manatee meat so that I can do genetics analysis on this population to help me to determine the population size, their relatedness to other manatee populations in Gabon, and the impact of hunting in the region. However, the fellow has documented numbers of hunted manatees in some surrounding local villages, but hasn’t collected any samples. I’m not sure why, but partially I think it’s because he doesn’t understand all the information genetics can tell us, and that it can lead to a direct effect on conservation actions.

So I was thrilled when some friends / colleagues recently moved to the area to start an ecotourism NGO. Not only are they interested in creating community-run ecotourism, but in studying the wildlife and ecosystem in this lush and remote area. Heather and Cyrille have started l’Organisation Écotouristique du Lac Oguemoué (OELO) which offers camping trips, lake paddling tours, forest walks, wildlife viewing and experiencing traditional Gabonese village culture (check out their Facebook page here). I hope to join them there next summer. But they’ve also been documenting bushmeat for sale in the Lambarene market and are ready to start helping to study this vulnerable population so that we can finally begin to understand the manatees in the Ogouue River and the impact of heavy hunting.

This is Cyrille & Heather when they received their African manatee t-shirts from my project at Christmas…

And this is what they’re seeing in the market… manatee meat in a wheelbarrow

So while I’m horrified at the amount of manatee slaughter taking place in central Gabon, I’m very happy to have energetic colleagues joining our African manatee network!

In other sad news, I just heard from my colleague Kouame in Ivory Coast that their office was looted and completely destroyed during the political violence that occured in Abidjan last year, and all their equipment stolen, including the new field sampling gear I had just given them in 2010. Also lost were genetic samples they (and their former leader Akoi Kouadio who passed away) had been collecting for years for me to analyze. The good news is the violence has finally ended there, but the African manatee program (which was the longest continuously running research project for the species) has lost its funding and is over for now. Sometimes it feels like 1 step forward, 2 steps back…

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