Researching Manatees in West Africa
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Biologist Lucy Keith surveys a waterway in Gabon, accumulating research data that she hopes will ultimately help protect West African manatees. (Photo courtesy Lucy Keith.)

A biologist with over 19 years of experience, Lucy Keith has studied a wide range of endangered species, including green sea turtles, the Hawaiian monk seal, and both Florida and Antillean manatees. She is currently studying West African manatees in Gabon, Angola and Senegal and recently partnered with Save the Manatee Club to bring manatee education materials to people in local communities.

By Lucy Keith, Research Scientist, Wildlife Trust

I had worked with manatees in Florida and Central America for almost 10 years when I heard from a colleague working in Gabon, central West Africa, that he often saw manatees as he boated through lagoons. I knew that manatees are considered rare everywhere they occur in Africa, so I was intrigued. We were able to work out a collaborative agreement between Wildlife Trust, who I work for, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (which has research infrastructure in Gabon) and in 2006, I made my first trip to Africa.

Lucy helps to train Gabonese biologists in manatee field techniques. (Photo courtesy Lucy Keith.)

Over the past three years I have spent eight months in Gabon, surveying lagoons and rivers throughout the country, interviewing people everywhere I go, and training Gabonese biologists in manatee field research techniques. I’ve found that although manatees are still hunted, there are lagoons and rivers where they are abundant and can be sighted daily. Luckily many of these places are protected through the national parks that were established by Gabon’s president in 2002. I am now moving into more in-depth work to study manatee behavior and habitat use through Global Positioning System (GPS) tagging (the first time this technology will be used for this species), and to expand training and educational outreach in Gabon. Recently Save the Manatee Club helped me to develop a manatee coloring book and stickers in French that I’m using for school and other public presentations, and I’m working with two natural history museums to develop permanent manatee educational displays.

Save the Manatee Club helped to develop coloring books and stickers in French to aid manatee education efforts in Gabon. (Photo courtesy Lucy Keith.)

My interest in the species has also become more regional. In 2007, I began the first manatee surveys of the lower Congo River in Angola and in October 2008, I co-taught a two-week-long manatee conservation and research training workshop for African colleagues with Professor Patrick Ofori-Dansen in Ghana. I am building a collaborative network of African scientists in 14 countries for research and information sharing, part of which will include the first genetic analysis across the entire species range. In January 2009, I traveled to Senegal to assist and train colleagues there who are working to capture and release 15 or more manatees that are trapped above a new dam. This is a rare opportunity to both collect much-needed samples from live manatees as well as to plan for the future so that trapped manatees can be avoided.

There is still a long way to go to understand the West African manatee so that effective conservation measures can be made to protect the species for future generations, but I am encouraged by the dedication and eagerness to learn that I encounter from people everyday here. I’m working hard to raise money through grants and donations to continue research, training and outreach, and I look forward to many more years learning about this unique but little-understood species.

Aquasis Team
Lucy uses the manatee coloring book that she produced with the help of Save the Manatee Club at a school presentation to teach the students about manatees. (Photo courtesy Lucy Keith)

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