Nicholas School Internship Blogs

The adventure begins…
by -- June 23rd, 2014

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My adventure in the jungles of central Africa began as most journeys rather un-romantically must these days, leaving an airport.  If only airports had the intrigue and odors of a dock or even the stature and storied ambiance of a train station I would embrace them but their sterile environment and odd combination of efficiency with sluggishness make for a ‘hurry up and wait’ vibe that leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, my relief for getting two bags laden with metal traps, wire, and field gear uneventfully through customs makes me quite alright with having little story to tell of my passage. I was particularly glad given that three consecutive sleepless nights, the first packing in California, the second re-packing in Durham and the third on a bumpy plane over the atlantic had left me largely delirious and my French sounding closer to Lithuanian.

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After a night’s rest in Libreville we began our 11 hour journey by car across Gabon. At the helm for that not inconsiderable voyage was the eternally chipper Joseph Charlie Moulet Moukani. The indomitable Joseph worked for the national parks agency and had served as driver for our Spring break field course. It was excellent to have a familiar face to guide us from the airport to our new homes, and Joseph seemed equally delighted, at regular intervals proclaiming “Monsieur Markham! My frehnd!” and providing handshake high fives in abundance whenever his hands were not actively on the wheel. In fact most of the need to learn all four of his names was to have some kind of response to the continual announcements of my own for which merely repeating “Joseph!” seemed insufficient. My fellow passengers, for the journey were two new field assistants for my advisor Dr. John Poulsen’s ongoing field research, a trunk full of luggage and a roof adorned with petrol containers. Some of these passengers were to prove more unruly than others, namely the petrol containers two of which couldn’t wait to relieve themselves and the third kept from the vehicle at full tilt.

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Enviably both Ruby and Megan, freed from the shackles of classes, are set to spend an entire year in Gabon. Both seemed excited without much of a hint of reservation, which impressed me greatly given neither had spent time in tropical rainforests previously. Megan, an Irish lass from the countryside outside Dublin, seemed pleased with the comparative R&R having just come off of final exams for her closing year at university, while Ruby, who manages to find the insect offerings of her native land of Ohio exhilarating, was needless to say thrilled with the prospect of entomological exploration in Gabon.

Our transect across the country began rather slowly wending our way through the regular traffic of Libreville. The capital city holds about 1.8 million of Gabon’s approximately 9 million people and is considered the hub of opportunity by most all. The intensity of the traffic reflects reflects the prosperity of the country which allows a surprising proportion of Gabon’s populace to become car owners. Unlike the scenes from my childhood in Nigeria, the cars were sleek and modern, not beat up jalopies whose better days were decades past. Thankfully, also unlike Nigeria, the tactic of gesticulating ‘I have no breaks!’ while driving the wrong direction down the opposite lane was also uncommon to nonexistent leaving the traffic irksome but predictable. On the other hand traffic does have the upshot of forcing one to observe the surroundings rather than clipping along a motorway with eyes fixed on the road.

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Leaving the hustle and bustle of Libreville behind, the metal-concrete grey colorscape shifted decidedly to hues of greens and browns. We passed first through a stretch of rural area surrounding the city with cheerful little houses whose gardens thronged with breadfruit, banana, and mangoes. After an hour or so the houses became more sporadic and the walls of green forest began to close in around us. For several hours the road snaked along the Ogooué river that stretches across the forested heart of the country under various names. The watershed of the Oougué makes up most all of Gabon and conversely 98% of this mighty river’s watershed is under Gabonese jurisdiction. The Water Resource Managers at the Nicholas School (affectionately known as ‘WoRMs”) would recognize the tremendous inherent potential in this scenario and indeed it is one of the features that make the opportunities for effective conservation action in Gabon so promising. Such a large watershed under a single principality remains an exceedingly rare situation and puts the government of Gabon in an almost uniquely powerful position to control the fate of their landscape. Moreover, the Ogooué river basin is biologically distinctive from the Congo and contains many known (and likely countless yet unknown) endemic species (i.e. they live nowhere else on Earth).

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Aside from a brief stop in a small riverside town and small villages dotting the roadside, we drove for nearly 10 hours with lush tropical rainforest always at hand. Though inarguably still wild, it was not as though the landscape were untouched. Wherever one found a small house or roadside shack, always beside the road sits an old oil drum with a stick angled and propped in it.  The first few were a curiosity but their purpose soon became clear. From the first hung a single small antelope. A blue duiker. Then the next held a pair of yellow back duiker. The third a grey cheeked Mangabey and another antelope. As we carried on, a remarkable diversity of mammals were presented to us on the roadside including several more species of monkey, a brush tailed porcupine, and a crispy pair of anomalures, an ancient group of large flying squirrels that persists only in Africa. In central Africa, people will hunt any of their forest mammals small rabbit size or above, a range which happens to include several species of what are referred to in The Princess Bride as RUS’s (i.e. Rodents of Unusual Size), and they will very proudly vend their wares beside the road.

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Tropical disease have thus far rendered livestock production in Gabon at any kind of scale untenable and aquaculture has yet to have major successes in the region. Therefore, bushmeat represents an essential source of protein to the majority of people in Gabon. Moreover, commercial hunting either as a primary source of income or as a supplement to other work remains incredibly common. In other parts of central Africa the human population density makes sustainable bushmeat hunting nearly impossible and many animals have been locally extirpated from human dominated landscape. But with vast tracts of forest, a comparatively small human population, and other forms of income for the populace, Gabon has potential for managing bushmeat for the foreseeable future. The government of Gabon is aware of the potential for losing this vital resource and the need for action. The problem lies in how difficult it remains to measure what might be considered sustainable take. With such a diverse assemblage of animals being harvested and such a scarcity of concrete research to inform management the policy makers are left somewhat scrambling in the dark.

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Joseph explained to us as we drove that several years prior, the government took more decisive action after consulting a number of researchers who believed game animal populations to be declining substantially. The government banned commercial hunting for an entire year to allow game populations to recover. After disseminating word of the closure across all media sources the national parks agency and eco guards began confiscating and fining individuals selling animals on the roadside. Of course practically, this probably meant that many just hung their meat behind the shack rather than in front and would continue to offer it to anyone who stopped not wearing a uniform but undoubtedly the policy led to some reduction in hunting. The closure however was meant to be a time to re-evaluate policy and since commercial hunting has been opened with distinct hunting seasons alternating with closures. These seasons are loosely based upon times when some of the focal animals species are thought most vulnerable because of food scarcity driven by weather patterns. The step is a good first attempt at pro-active policy but only more applied research and experimentation with different policies will yield better informed management. Though the flying squirrels did look tempting already cooked and kebab-ed, we ultimately opted to avoid the warm blooded offering and stopped for a delicious fried fish with plantain in a busy riverside town.

The other dead give away that the vast tracts of bush are indeed not trackless, were the frequent sighting of logging truck convoys lumbering by.  Always passing in the other direction, taking their loads to the sea, a small army of these powerful vehicles trundled along under five or six massive trunks.  If you were to plunk the tree any one of these logs once embodied into a forest in the Eastern US it would easily be the biggest east of the Rockies but in Gabon, massive tries are almost a dime a dozen. Actually they are worth considerably more than that and as a consequence timber is the other key forest resource upon which the Gabonese increasingly rely. As the oil reserves that have maintained the country’s quiet prosperity dwindle, the government looks now to expand their timber resource use. About 70% of the country has been set aside as timber concessions making it easily the most dominant projected land use. Only a portion of this of course has been or is currently being tapped but the extraction of timber is ramping up.

Now, having nearly three quarters of the country slated for logging at some point or another is a fact that will likely strike most nature lovers as rather horrifying. Yet increasingly the scientific and NGO communities are coming to recognize that the brand of logging practiced in Central Africa, if properly managed can be truly promising for conservation. When most Westerners hear logging, we think of tear-jerking scenes of clearcut forests, homeless bears wandering amidst tree stumps, and rain sloughing away precious soil. This is not really the case for Central African logging (and not just cause there aren’t any bears). I will go into the details in a future post but for now understand that in Gabon logging is selective. This means they pull a few trees out from larger patches of standing forest.  That’s not to say it is without its harms, but it does mean that, if managed properly, not only can logging in Gabon potentially be sustained into the distant future, but it can be done leaving large tracts of forest and intact assemblages of wildlife to boot!

But that is a big “if” and an “if” that will require a better understanding of the forest, of the wildlife, of the impacts of logging and bushmeat hunting and the processes that may produce the natural regeneration on which selective logging relies. That “if” is what makes the work that Dr. Poulsen and his team so very interesting. And yes, it is in large part of why I am here…to trap rodents…Make sense? Probably not. You will just have to keep reading and I’ll explain why. If you’re going to do field work, or if you’re going to read about mine, you’ll just have to trust the process and go with it. All will become clear in due course.

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After eleven hours and change of driving we arrived at Ipassa, the field station which is to be the closest thing to home when I’m not camping over the next two months in the golden hour before sunset. The white colonial style buildings gleamed against their green backdrop overlooking the Ivindo river which winds its way through the national park that bears its name. With the sight of my new home, the sound of pied hornbills and african grey parrots filling my ears, and the promise and challenge of my impending project on my mind, I was ready to get started…

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