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Updates From the Field

Over the next four months, Hadrien Vanthomme, an SCBI ecologist, has an ambitious schedule of field activities planned in Gabon and will be spending most of his time in the forest itself, experiencing and observing an incredible diversity of forest wildlife. Throughout this time Hadrien will be sharing his field experiences here, so that you can follow his adventures, challenges and successes from his own perspective. This will provide a unique view into the day to day life of one of SCBI’s own scientists as he works in the field. Check back here for regular updates from the incredible landscape of Gabon’s coastal rainforest.  


March 2011

Alarm ringing at 5 am. Bathing. Dressing. Breakfast. Prepare the equipment. Start the car. Get the other driver. Turn on the radio. “Radio Ndougou, la radio de toutes les générations, RN c’est la reine!" It’s not an ordinary day, but I don’t know it yet. Today we go into the Vera plains, in a forest block behind a hidden savanna we recently discovered. We can’t reach this savanna with our vehicle, as the ancient forest road is now completely blocked by fallen trees. So we have to go by foot, a nearly 15-kilometer trek on elephant trails with three transects to cut today.

Hadrien and Francky "Moses" taking a break from cutting transects
Hadrien and Francky "Moses" taking a break from cutting transects. Courtesy of Lisa Korte.

Radio Ndougou provides the entertainment during the one-hour drive to our parking spot. People wake up slowly, shaken by the jolting of the bad road. After parking the car along a gallery forest in a quiet piece of nature, JEAN! starts complaining about his back. It’s the signal for some mocking from the other team members, which somehow ends with JEAN! proclaiming that he is fit enough to have fathered 23 children. To avoid the traditional complaints about the work I ask: “But yesterday you said your retirement will be a problem because you have no children to take care of you! So what? Do you have children or not?” What follows is a tortuous explanation which ends with JEAN! playing the offended party and complaining to his machete.

All this ritual delays a little more the start of the walk, which appears to be difficult today: abrupt hills, treacherous lianas and lazy rivers complicate our way. Finally we reach the starting point of the first transect.

The last few weeks have been difficult, and even though this stretch of forest is ”good,” (not so thick) the transect progresses slowly. As I am the leader, I finally reach the end point first, followed by le vieux, in charge of the paint. I decide to borrow his machete to help the guys cutting the understory toward us. It’s incredible how bad I can be at manipulating the machete compared to them. When it takes me four strong hits to put down a small shrub, they cut down a small tree in apparently effortless seconds with one or two adjusted hits.In my defense, I’ve seen five-year-old children carrying machetes in the Central African Republic, while I started with it only at the age of 20. Nevertheless their effort and mine (mostly theirs) makes it possible to finish the work on this first transect of the day. I’m now looking at my GPS to see how far the next transect is when I suddenly discover a filaire fly on my hand. Filaire flies are blood suckers and transmit an unpleasant parasite. But more importantly, their bite is very itchy. So, by reflex, I try to chase it away with my right hand, which carries the machete, blade up in the hollow of the elbow. Then everything goes very fast: I drop the machete, it falls down to the ground, the blade cuts one of my fingers, the filaire escapes with a loud laugh and a river of blood bursts out of my right hand. Kling! Fly 1; Hadrien 0.

The cut is deep, indeed, but it bleeds abundantly, much more than it should. After waiting for a while, I finally lose patience and make a pressure bandage, calling on my veterinary background. The wound looks much better when hidden with a clean white bandage. As it is not hurting at all and because everyone can be very stupid sometimes, I decide to continue the work. After two hours, the end of my finger is disturbingly blue and cold, but the second transect is cut. And when the third transect is finished, the end of my finger is back to normal, but a terrible pain starts. The return trip to the car is a nightmare, climbing hills up and down with the pain radiating into my arm and shoulder. On the way back to the clinic we cross the path of two forest buffalo, which run in panic in our direction. The light is beautiful, so is the landscape, but I only think of my cursed finger.

Nearby forest buffalo unaware of the drama
Nearby forest buffalso, unaware of the drama.

It is still bleeding when the doctor in Gamba removes my pressure bandage. With a bit of anxiety in her voice, she declares herself incompetent for what she calls ”vascular damage.” Apparently the blade cut an artery, and I have to go to Libreville to get it fixed by a surgeon. The case starts to escalate: the incident is reported up in the hierarchy. Everyone is worried; someone proposes to evacuate me in a helicopter; but at the end I take the next regular flight to Libreville where I have an appointment with a surgeon. After 48 hours it finally stops bleeding and the wound has begun to heal, but to be sure, stitches are sewn, antibiotics are given, and before long I’m back to Gamba—with a one week ban from walking in the forest.

February 17, 2011

This is important. I am about to meet the people who will work with me for the opening of the transects (the pre-planned walking paths made in the forest to monitor wildlife). Marguerite Butler, our project’s technical manager, has already pre-selected the team. I need seven people to make two teams of four, me being the leader of one team and an experienced Gabonese biologist the leader of the other. One of the men, who is living in Tchibanga on the other side of the terrible road exiting Gamba, is not supposed to be here before tomorrow, the first day of the work. So I am very surprised and happy to see seven people at the meeting, all perfectly on time.

“Hello everybody, let’s go to the conference room,” I say. Everyone sits down around the large table amidst the scraping noise of the chairs. I start to present the study, to explain the job. Everyone is very attentive. After that, I ask the people to present themselves, to talk about their experience in opening transects. After my words, a slight malaise settles in the room. Two men confess that they just entered the meeting because they were in the corridor when I arrived and because I invited them to, but malheureusement they are not available for the study. And another one - who looks at least 60 years old and arthritic - says he was told a job was opening and came to apply. The encouraging thing is that the four remaining people are actually here for the right reason and were pre-selected. Four out of seven is more than half!

With a lot of thanks and encouraging words, Marguerite and I eject the three “visitors” from the room and look at the situation. Remaining is the problem of finding three people in 12 hours to be able to start the work the next day at dawn. After unsuccessful phone calls it is decided 1) that the people present will be in charge of contacting the two absent guys who are in Gamba and tell them to be at the meeting point at 6 a.m. to go in the field and 2) to leave the case of the Tchibanga guy to God and the ruts of the road. Good plan for me, given that I have no time at all: I have to arrange the logistics and equipment to make this first day in the field a success.

Alarm ringing at 4:30. Ouch. Everything is dark and quiet. First days in the field are always difficult to start. Bathing. Dressing. Breakfast. Prepare the equipment. Start the car. Get the other driver. I finally start to wake up when I install our driver in the second car. I turn on the radio. “Radio Ndougou, la radio de toutes les générations, RN c’est la reine!". Wow! Too loud for now. At the meeting point, six people are present. Obviously, it’s improving every day! Thankfully, the road released the Tchibanga guy and the other has an unintelligible excuse. But the seventh macheter disappeared, and nobody knows where he is, even his wife and children. The team leader offers to ask one of his neighbors to replace the guy tonight. OK, case solved, let’s go to the field.

  Cutting transects  
  Cutting transects.  

From the perspective of the office in Washington, the work is simple: we get to the randomly assigned starting point of the transect; the team leader walks in the forest while unrolling a 50-meter measuring tape; macheters open a path by following the tape; and those responsible for paint mark trees every 100 meters. After 500 meters, we locate the next transect and start the process again. But in reality, inexplicably, the random point seems to fall systematically into unpleasant environments or inaccessible areas and map inaccuracy becomes your worst enemy.

A young and sometimes disturbed tropical forest is a complex mix of life and death, where one is feeding on the other and where the environment can change dramatically within a dozen meters. The area around the Gamba town is an complex assemblage of grass savanna and forest galleries, dotted with swamps and plantations of different ages. If you go further in the direction of the Moukalaba Doudou National Park, it becomes hilly and steep cliffs can rise up (or down) unexpectedly on your way.

If I would have to classify the most challenging environments we went through during the study, I would say the worst are the old plantations. Local people are clearing patches of forest by cutting down trees and understory and burning them. Some larger trees are kept in place. After some time, they plant their crops (manioc, corn, peanuts, bananas, yams, and taro) in between the charred trunks. The parcel is used for two or three years and then abandoned. From there, very rapidly, vegetation colonizes the old plantation. Species developing in the light, especially the invasive weed Chromolaena odorata, take all the space available as soon as possible, creating a wall of impenetrable vegetation. These areas are shelters for numerous species, including mammals. Unfortunately unsympathetic insects also inhabit these zones, like aggressive wasps or the tiny, itchy Wasmannia electric ant. In such environments, you’re happy if you can cut 100 meters of transect in one hour without throwing yourself head first in a wasp nest. Compared to old plantations, swamps are refreshing episodes, yet inhabited by snakes and leeches. But they are really beautiful, especially those along the coastline with their brownish transparent water and large trees.

My plan is to work with the two teams mixed for a couple of days, in order to better appreciate how people work and to be sure everyone understands the security rules and their specific job. I can say at least at this point that the guys have character: after only a few days each has their own nickname. The instigator of this idea is Monsieur Gydean, the driver-macheter, a natural leader. He is assisted by his two lieutenants, the “Nganga” Jean-Paulin and the “Homeless” Abel. The first is called the Nganga (sorcerer) because he spends his time in the forest looking for leaves, bark or roots (like the famous bois sacré) known to restore the “vitality” of young men. His first customer is the Homeless Abel, so named because we have to pick him up in a different house every morning.. We don’t ask why. Then comes Clotaire the formal leader, called the “quiet,” or “ça arrive” (”it happens”), after he lost his team for half a day. My own team is composed of Francky (renamed Moses because of his habit to carry a long stick to lean on during the work), Christian “le vieux” (because he is the eldest and because of his tendency to “moralize” people) and Jean, just called JEAN! (to be shouted loud and clear). JEAN! is the funniest of the crew: always smiling, grumbling, telling details about his life without question, asking for details of your own life, tangling in his imaginative lies and talking to his machete. Magic Africa: those nicknames made the work easier, bringing everyone closer, creating a team dynamic. Still now, I wonder what nickname they used for me.

  Moses   La Vieux   JEAN!  
  Francky "Moses"   Christian "Le Vieux"   Jean "JEAN!"  

January 2010: First Impressions of Gamba

It takes one hour to go from Libreville to Gamba by plane. Gamba is an oil city situated along the coast south of Libreville, but in the other hemisphere. Don’t let your imagination wander: people don’t travel in an old biplane and there is no elephant on the airstrip. The plane is a twin engine propeller and has all the features you would expect from a regular plane, but reduced in scale.

Some people say that Gamba is the third city of Gabon economically speaking, because of the implantation of the petrochemical giant company Shell. And indeed, my first impressions of Gamba make me think it is possible. To tell the truth, I first thought I had arrived in Legoland. The Gamba airport is a pretty little building topped with a typical control tower surrounded by glass. The parking lot is full of clean white cars, all exactly the same, except for their registration number. Cute paved roads, delimited by newly painted red and white barriers meander in the landscape and give you access to all the places Shell’s employees need to go. Glittering signs remind you that the speed is limited to 60 km/hour (35 mph) on every road. As Shell is extracting reserves from several oilfields onshore, production wells are spread everywhere. But they don’t look like those disturbing metal birds that can be seen in Texas. No no. They are just complex assemblages of pipes bristling with manometers and emitting a discreet and regular hiss.

pipe walker
A Shell employee walking the pipes. Courtesy of Carlton Ward Jr.

Shell’s employees are easy to recognize: they wear an orange jumpsuit with the Shell logo on it, a white helmet, orange gloves, and brown security boots. They are working on wells or pipes along the roads, with slow and concentrated movements. They are often using large trucks or engines to perform mysterious technical tasks that seem part of a solemn ceremony.

All wells are connected by a network of pipes to the Terminal, the technical, administrative, and ideological center of Shell’s concession. After some procedures, I am authorized to enter this high-security zone. Inside the Terminal, speed is limited to 40 km/hour (25 mph), and an electronic road sign controls every single clean white Shell vehicle: happy smiley face if you’re under 40 and sad face if you’re above.

In the administration’s white corridors, I spend the morning meeting people. Shell has been Smithsonian’s partner in Gabon for ten years. They provide logistics and grants to better study the Gamba Complex’s biodiversity. Everybody at Shell seems very excited about the study of the affects of roads on large mammals I’m starting around Gamba. The numerous signatures I need to start the research are quickly obtained. But I will have to wait a couple of days to have my own clean white Shell car to be able to drive around and start the work, as the entire fleet is currently being used. So Marguerite, the Smithsonian’s administrator and technical manager in Gamba, drives me to Shell’s Yenzi camp to have some breakfast.

The Yenzi camp is the place where all the senior managers of Shell and their families live. With its winding roads, its small streetlights, and its comfortable houses surrounded by flower gardens, it looks pretty much like a posh American suburb. It is equipped with a restaurant, a bakery, a clinic, a school, tennis courts, a stadium, a swimming pool, and a golf course; you can even go boating on the Yenzi Lake, along which the most beautiful houses of the camp are built. At the entrance of the camp, a smiley face reminds us that the maximum speed is 30 km/hour (less than 20 mph). In Yenzi’s club, next to the swimming pool, most of the people are speaking in English, and I wonder when exactly I fell into the rabbit hole.

Marguerite tells me that I’ll live in another camp, called Vembo. Vembo is designed to provide everything needed by Shell’s employees: predominantly single males with a work schedule of 28 straight days followed by a 28-day vacation: single rooms with double beds, a bar, a fitness center, a restaurant, and squash courts. But unfortunately, no rooms are available for now, and I will stay for a couple of weeks at the Missala Lodge in the town of Gamba.

Gamba used to be a small fishermen’s village that didn’t appear on the maps before the 1960s. But since oil was discovered it grew exponentially to reach more than 10,000 inhabitants in 2006. Most of the people come from elsewhere in the country and are employed by Shell or its satellite companies. When the oil operations started, everything was provided by Shell: water, electricity, transportation, and food. But as the town grew, Gabonese administration recovered its responsibilities while Shell was disengaging itself from these sovereign missions.

The situation nowadays is still very strange compared to other towns in Africa, mainly because Gamba is very isolated. The only road that exits the area is very bad and the only way to have goods enter the town is either by plane or on Shell’s boats. That’s why all the economy of the town relies on Shell’s employees and logistics, and why Gamba is certainly the most expensive town of Central Africa. So in Gamba, you have very wealthy people living in comfortable homes alongside very poor people living in plywood houses.

My hotel, the Missala Lodge, is somewhat offset from the town. For my first night in Gamba, someone working at the Terminal and living in town kindly dropped me off with his car in the hotel’s courtyard. As it is after 6 p.m., it is already dark. The car leaves as I go to the reception desk. Unfortunately, nobody is behind the door. No lights, even in the rooms. No guard. I try to call Marguerite, but I have no more credit in my cell phone. While I’m seated on my bag in the dark, the moon looks like the grin of the Cheshire cat. After a while, and as nobody arrives, I decide to go buy some phone credit somewhere in Gamba. I hoist my bag on my shoulders and start walking on the dark road.

After a few meters, someone wearing a long dress materializes out of the trees, like a forest elf. “Hello, where are you going?” “I’m looking for phone credit, do you know where the nearest shop is?” “Wait for me a minute, I have to go to the Malian myself, let’s go together.” In Gabon, most of the shops are run by Malian people, and ”going shopping” is said ”going to the Malian.” She disappears on a sandy path to join a brightly lit house; a bar called La Belle Etoile. After a few minutes we are walking together on the road. “Nice to meet you, my name is Hadrien. Are you working at this bar?” “I am the owner of the bar, my name is Bibiche.” What a strange name for a forest elf owning a bar, I think. We arrive at the Malien, a small shop filled with products from floor to ceiling. While I’m buying some phone credit, Bibiche buys some spaghetti, a corned beef can, and some concentrated tomato sauce. “Stella, my daughter, is fond of Bolognese.”

When we are on our way back, I tell her my situation. “Don’t worry,” she says, “The guard should be back now, and you will get your room. Where are you having dinner tonight?” “Well, I don’t have any plan . . . ” “Then come to the bar and try my spaghetti Bolognese.” And then she vanishes again on the sandy path. As she predicted, when I arrive at the Missala the guard is there and opens a room for me. No need to call Marguerite

La Belle Etoile.

I know that in the fairy tales it is strongly recommended not to eat any food coming from the elves; otherwise you could remain their prisoner forever. But Bibiche is really a human, not an elf, and she did help me find my way out of Wonderland, so after a shower I decide to pay her a visit. La Belle Etoile is a small bar with a vast terrace. The only other customer when I arrive is a very strange figure, with skin spotted half white and half black, very thin, with brown stiff hair, and sitting in a corner in front of a beer. Stella—six years old—is drawing on a table while her mother is cleaning behind the counter. The TV is playing zouk music. The ambiance is strange; a discreet tension is in the air. Bibiche smiles at me when I arrive. I order a beer and the famous spaghetti of the place. I drink my beer while she is preparing the dish. I do my best to remember the taste of the other African beers I tried across the region. This one is obviously as terrible as the others. Then Bibiche’s spaghettis Bolognese arrives. A traditional Italian would certainly have felt personally offended, but as I’m French, I did enjoy the multiple additions to the original recipe. At the end, the dish looks more like a sauerkraut with pasta and tomato and without cabbage. Typical, enchanting, elf cuisine I guess.

During the entire dinner, the strange figure is looking at me, and it is only when I eat my last sausage that he finally stands up and leaves the bar. “Good night” I say. He does not answer and the night swallows him. Later, other customers arrive. Life slowly returns. I ask Bibiche how much I owe. “800 for the beer”. “And what about the dish?” “It is me who invited you”, she says with a final tone. While I’m coming back to the Missala Lodge, alone in the night, I feel suddenly that I’m waking up: the stars, the terrace, the painted wall, the neon tubes covered with colored plastic, the hot beer, the tropical music, the animated discussions of customers, and then this disinterested gift: I feel like I am back in Africa and that the Legoland spell is broken.

December 22, 2010

Cabs in Libreville are obtained at auction. You first have to signal your presence to the taxi drivers whose vehicles are continuously flowing on the main avenue, along the coast. By changing their lane at the last minute, making their way across the traffic in a concert of horns, they will finally stop, sometimes 200 meters away from you. As you’re not the only one looking for a taxi, you’d better hurry.

a market in Libreville
A market in Libreville. Courtesy of Jennifer Sevin.

For an unaware visitor, it could be surprising to discover, once you’ve caught a cab and opened the door, four pairs of eyes looking back at you. But no, the taxi is not full yet. Puffing and sweating in the hot and humid atmosphere, you have to announce your destination. The first time I told the taxi driver where I wanted to go, an unusually long silence settled in. Finally he asked, half-amused, half in a rush: “Combien? – How much?” After a confused moment, I realized he wanted me to tell the price of the ride. In fact, taxi drivers accept (with a horn) or reject (by going on their way) clients depending on the direction the other passengers are going and the price you’re offering.

The first time, when I announced a price at random, the taxi driver asked everybody to get out of the car so he could take only me. “No no, let’s go all together,” I said. The other guests were surprised; they were more than prepared to leave the taxi to the high bidder. After a very short five-minute ride, he dropped me off before making a U-turn to return to the airport, apparently without noticing the other cars and their bellowing horns. These days I’m slightly better in the art of traveling by cab in Libreville, mastering the hand signals to indicate my desired direction and shouting the expected mantra with my destination and price: “Montée-de-Louis-cinq-cents!

This first night, after I arrive at my hotel, I have only two ideas in my mind, little knowing that they will become so important during my stay: have a shower and go to bed. But unfortunately, the door of my room has a defective lock. The receptionist kindly advised me not to shut the door, otherwise I could become trapped inside the room. This happened to previous clients and he didn’t want me to be in the same situation.

I try to stay as calm as possible when I explain to him that the equipment I’m bringing from Washington is expensive and that I am responsible for it, so I can’t leave the room open. At this point he starts to explain that it could be possible to call a locksmith the next day, order the appropriate lock the following day, and finally, three days later, install a new lock. At this point I would be gone from Libreville, so I decide to tinker with the lock myself. Here I am in Libreville and I spend my first evening disassembling the lock of my room under the amused eye of the receptionist. When a spring suddenly jumps into my face I realize that it is going to be difficult. But after a long struggle, I finally manage to replace the lock and it seems to work. But exactly 32 hours later, while I’m leaving for a meeting, I hear distinctly the spring break down inside the door, by chance in the open position. For the rest of the stay, I lock my equipment in another room.

view from the hotel window
View from the hotel window.

Libreville has the advantage of being on the coast, so the Atlantic air is always refreshing the city. It’s relatively developed, compared to other Central African capitals, and walks on the beach are very pleasant. But I don’t have much time to enjoy or meet people as I have to interview candidates, and select the future intern who will be working with me in the field.

Interviewing candidates can be heart-breaking. One of them arrived without being invited. How was he aware I was interviewing people there and at this time? A complete mystery! As the next candidate was late and he seemed very motivated, I decided to interview him. However, he is a math and physics teacher, and has no experience with animals or the forest. I proceed through my list of formal questions and select an additional one: “In a professional environment, are you able to say ‘no’?” (A fairly common yet boring question in interviews). His answer was: “And what if I answer ‘no’?”. He begins his explanation: “If what I said is true, then it follows that I can’t answer ‘no’ to you, provided that we consider this interview as a professional environment. But I answered ‘no’, so it means that what I said must be wrong. But if it is wrong, it follows that I should have answered ‘yes’ to you, which I’ve obviously not done.” An answer not very relevant to identifying mammals in swamps, but smart, I recognize.

Of course, in the end, he didn’t get the job, but it’s a shame. In the end, we found an excellent intern to work with us in the field, Arnaud, and we are both excited to finally enter the forest and get started.

December 2010

Finally the day of my flight arrives. In the morning, the scent of adventure impregnates the desks in the office, and it’s as if the photocopier is making sounds of the African jungle. Everyone is very kind to me, wishing me good luck, some with envy and others with worry and concern. While the taxi driver tells me stories about his childhood in Italy, I’m looking at Washington DC with new eyes: isn’t that a woman walking with a washtub on her head? What was that animal running in the bushes? And those three old men sitting there to see the cars going by, I’m sure I’ve seen them on the other side of the ocean, on the red continent . . .

At the airport, my luggage is systematically inspected, and bizarre images are produced at the X-ray machine. A custom officer, wearing rubber gloves, cautiously manipulates the threatening cables, locks and C batteries; and inspects the contents of my first aid kit, finally deciding they are safe. I spend the flight trying to find a comfortable position, making efforts to keep all my parts inside the two cubic meters assigned to me. I’m not particularly fat, but it seems that I have unusually large knees (from an aircraft engineer’s perspective) that always bump in the seat in front of me or colonize the private space of my neighbor. Again my knees nearly trip a steward.

Now, for the next time you land in Libreville Airport, here are some tips: First, don’t be surprised if everyone is standing up while the plane is not park yet. Somewhere on the road, the safety rules relax; what was considered dangerous elsewhere seems trivial here, and passengers and the crew know it very well. If people are pushing to get out, it’s because they know that the procedure at the Gabonese customs has changed and that being one of the first three people there may save you two hours. Second, never follow the signs, but always the people. Don’t worry if you are in the line for residents provided you are surrounded by the crowd. And last, take a book, especially if you weren’t the first one out of the plane. If you don’t have a book, like me, talk with the quiet people that keep arriving even half an hour after our landing, with the satisfied air of someone who knows exactly how many tiles there are in the corridor that leads to customs. They’ll likely tell you these same three rules.

With my luggage recovered, I finally exit the air conditioning and take my first real breath of Gabonese air: hot, humid, of course, smelling of dust and sweat. This last scent announces the ‘porteurs’, a posse of young men who are struggling to carry your luggage and help you as if you were somehow handicapped. You need a considerable amount of energy to keep them away from your cab and to convince the few ones that were able to touch your possessions that they didn’t really help and thus don’t deserve a tip. But don’t think you will be able to hide from the porteurs safely in a taxi. And even if you could, navigating the world of the taxis in Libreville is an adventure in itself.

   
  The beach in Libreville. Courtesy of Elie Tobi  

November 2010

As a new post-doctoral fellow on the CCES team, I’m preparing to begin a study that will investigate the influence of roads and villages on local populations of large mammals including elephants, primates, and carnivores. The study area’s network of mostly unpaved access roads has been developed as a result of oil development in the region and the potential influence of these roads on wildlife is of concern to Shell Gabon as well as CCES and other NGOs who have been engaged in conservation research and biodiversity monitoring in this region.

After months of planning, it’s finally time to begin fieldwork in Gabon: four months in the field. From the perspective of my landlords, who have just bought their house in D.C. and work hard to make it more comfortable, I have the perfect job. I imagine they picture me spending my days in remote, pristine areas observing fabulous wildlife and probably wearing a cool, adventurous hat. But my work, as a scientist, is not always glamorous. Over these next four months, I’ll chronicle my stay in Gabon on this site, and I hope it will give a picture of how a real-life ecologist spends his days in the field.

A study like the one I’m conducting starts behind a computer, compiling all the data that already exists that I need to design the study. It’s a time of exaltation. Everything seems possible: statistical science provides the objectives; the budget fixes limits; it’s all a matter of playing with numbers. In that time kilometers are only a few pixels on the computer and no hills or swamps alter the flat surface of the computer screen glass. Forest is uniformly green and savannas are a beautiful yellow. To make it more real and grounded, I do my best to plan realistically. All the experience of the CCES team (ten years already!) mobilizes in everlasting meetings where definitive, reasonable decisions are made.

When the new equipment arrives, still smelling of the factory in its crisp packaging, it feels like Christmas; I feel that the study is nearly done.

Then it’s time to pack. On one side I have a mountain of assorted objects and on the other side, my travel containers (called “action packers”). The goals: take all the vital items with me; leave the less vital for others to bring later; meet the various airlines’ luggage criteria (50 pounds per bag from Washington to Paris and one bag allowed, then 23 kilograms from Paris to Libreville, two bags allowed); and protect the fragile items as if they were to fly on the wing of the plane. The two full days of packing are like an intense game of Tetris, struggling with Scotch tape and bubble wrap, placing each piece of luggage on the scale with me and discovering–horrified–how much weight I’ve gained since I arrived in D.C.

Now, the night before the flight, I’m still making some last-minute calculations, removing seven C batteries from this bag to spread them in others, and planning to take away some stuff in Paris and put them in my cabin luggage, hoping everything will go well.


Smithsonian scientists from the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES) have been conducting conservation research and education in southeastern Gabon for more than 10 years. They often work in collaboration with other researchers from throughout the National Zoo and the larger Smithsonian community. The Gabon Biodiversity Program is dedicated to advancing fundamental scientific discovery, building conservation capacity, and understanding biological diversity in what is known as the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas (Gamba Complex).

The Gamba Complex covers a huge area of 4,370 square miles (11,320 square kilometers). The area includes two national parks (Loango and Moukalaba-Doudou) and a partially protected zone between them, known as the industrial corridor, where selective logging and oil production takes place. This innovative program is a partnership with the government of Gabon, Shell Gabon and other stakeholders and plays an important role in the research, monitoring, conservation, and education programs for the region.

Over the years, Smithsonian researchers have taken broad inventories of a range of different animal groups including primates, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Most of these groups had not been studied in this landscape before. The team has also conducted research projects focusing on a range of conservation issues including elephant movement and human-elephant conflict in an extractive-use (i.e. oil, logging) landscape, and factors influencing the presence and spread of invasive fire ants.