Scouting for Gambeya lacourtiana
by Trisha Gopalakrishna -- June 15th, 2015
Tropical ecosystems of the world are home to half the Earth’s described species and a larger number of unknown species. These ecosystems provide crucial ecosystem services such as timber production, provision of food and non-timber forest products, carbon storage and sequestration and climate regulation. However, overexploitation of tropical forest systems due to unsustainable logging, hunting and poaching, is driving “defaunation”- the loss of all but small mammals from forests. This extirpation of wildlife is disrupting ecological processes, such as seed dispersal, seed predation and herbivory that may, in turn, modify the recruitment dynamics of tropical forests.
As part of my Master’s Project, this summer, I am doing field work in Gabon trying to understand the extent to which hunting-induced changes in the faunal composition disrupts recruitment dynamics of a tropical tree species Gambeya lacourtiana. This large seeded tree species attracts beautiful megafauna including gorillas, chimpanzees and a range of monkeys such as the white- nosed guenon, crowned and mustached monkeys. Its fruits also form a tasty meal for duikers, wild hogs and myriad of rodents. Lastly, this tree species is not only important to the animal community; it is also an important non-timber forest product (NTFP) that is eaten by forest dependent people throughout Central Africa. Locally known as abam, bambou or longi rouge (varies across Central Africa), when ripe, these large red juicy fruits cannot be missed in the forest.
After a fun filled and amazing learning experience with my classmates on the Gabon field ecology course last month (Course Instructors- Dr. Connie Clark & Dr. John Poulsen), my first order of business was to scout for Gambeya trees inside and outside Ivindo National Park. My sampling design includes 10 trees in pristine areas i.e. where the faunal community is intact and 10 trees around villages where there is hunting pressure.
With the assistance of Therese Lamperty (graduate student, Rice University, Texas) and field botanist Monsieur Nicholas, I scouted for Gambeya around the research station. This formed a practice session for both of us as we learnt how to identify Gambeya, take preliminary notes on tree structure, practice using our equipment and get a sense of distance for the remaining two objectives that I hope to address with this project (and will introduce in later blogposts).
Having studied Gambeya while preparing for this project back in the States, I assumed it to be like any other tropical tree and that I would have a hard time identifying it. But Gambeya has her own personality. She stands tall at about 17-22m with beautiful and not alarming fluted buttresses supporting her. One would think that considering her height, she would support numerous and a variety of small and large branches with a heavy canopy. But no, she hardly has 2-4 main branches and supports a circular and sometimes teardrop shaped light canopy. She bleeds white sap when you slice her (confirmatory identification sign) and has a comparatively smooth brown bark. Though, I am amazed by the majestic protected timber species such as the Okume of Gabon, that have their own stories to tell, Gambeya equally amazes me. One can never miss her while walking through the forest because of this remarkably clear and bare ground that surrounds her. The culprits being elephants are not to blame as they trample the under story around Gambeya while foraging for the fruit.
Having gained some confidence practicing and after discussing all the villages that the research station works with (shout out to Amelia Meir-graduate student, Duke University!), we set off the next day to the village of Nstibelong to scout for Gambeya.
Working around villages and with communities has become a controversial idea due to the emerging practice of ‘parachute science’. Scientists and researchers from various fields (for example, ecology and medicine) use tribal and village folk for fieldwork and data collection. Once that phase of the project is completed, the scientists take off and leave the village folk hanging, never giving back to the community in terms of sharing their results or outreach. To avoid this, the Duke University Tropical Field Station in Ivindo always employ a guide from the village they work in, as a means of continuous engagement with the community and to maintain good relations for future work.
Amelia introduced Therese, Monsieur Nicholas and I to the village chef, explaining our project and what we needed. The few Gabonese village chefs that I have met are characterized by this interesting blue shirt that have light orange bird motifs on it and this oh so conspicuous and authoritative wooden badge that says Gabon with a tiny national flag engraved against the white background. He then introduced us to our village guide Monsieur Albert who would help us scout for Gambeya around the village.
Monsieur Albert is this scraggly, funny looking chap with a machete and a tiny cigarette who hacked the way into the forest helping us find Gambeya. He was over enthusiastic when measuring the diameter at breast height and spoke a lot to himself while walking. We walked in the forests not very far from the village covering about 7 km for the rest of the day. All in all, we ended the day having found a surprising 10 Gambeya trees! After the preliminary data analysis, I hope that we have at least 5 Gambeya that we can use for this project.