Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



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.  

April 2011

After the “finger incident,” work slows down but continues. Fatigue is probably the main reason it happened in the first place. After a week circling in the lab like a hamster in its wheel, waiting for my finger to cicatrize (heal and form scar tissue), I am finally authorized to go back to the field. I’m full of energy, but the teams show signs of tiredness. The rhythm, already reduced when I was convalescent, has to be re-adapted. So I enjoy the long walks in the forest, the sudden encounters with wildlife, and stay away from the machetes. Against all odds, we finish the transect cutting on time: 102 transects opened; each one 500 meters long; so this gives more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) of path opened in the forest in one month of work.

The first day of the monitoring phase, I sleep in until 7 a.m.! Now that the paths are made in forests, I have to monitor each of them for signs of wildlife and install camera traps. An equivalent number of transects will be travelled in savanna. We plan to monitor each transect twice, with 15 days in between, during which camera traps will be installed. Arnaud, the intern I hired in Libreville when I arrived, is landing in the morning. The team I requested for this work is greatly reduced: a tracker, myself, and Arnaud who needs to be trained. The tracker will be Christian Le Vieux, as he is very good at the work, and Clothaire who will NOT be in charge of the orientation of the team, fortunately. They will work alternately.

A thunderstorm in Gamba
A thunderstorm in Gamba. Courtesy of Carlton Ward Jr.

Arnaud’s plane lands beneath a menacing leaden sky. The thunder rumbles in the distance when we pick up his luggage and heavy drops of rain crash on the windshield when we reach Vembo. Tropical rains give the impression that they are personally angry at you. This one poured its rage against every single living creature for five apocalyptic days in a row. Five continuous days and nights of blind punches in the head each time we are out and systematic harassment of doors and windows when we are in; five days and nights followed by the continuous noise of the hate-filled drops that missed their target and hit the leaves or the corrugated iron roof nearby. The sixth day, finally, the sun comes out. The sky is incredibly transparent, with perfectly pure colors and nearly unnatural contrasts. The late clouds disintegrate with grace, as if they were immersed in an acid bath. But the land is devastated: water triumphed everywhere. Every single depression is turned into a pond, small rivers burst their banks and invade the plains and swamps are gorged with mud. This is bad news: now every road can become a trap for the car and new rivers and channels run freely everywhere and isolate even more our transects.


Morning swamp bath
Morning swamp bath. Courtesy of David Korte.

Suddenly it is the wet season, and we have to start the monitoring in a completely new environment. The first days are difficult: in most of the cases, we have to cross inundated areas on foot to be able to reach the transects, which are sometimes themselves partially flooded. The good thing is that we are able to come back to Vembo every night, and to enjoy the luxury of a shower, hot food, and clean clothes. Every morning, at 5 a.m., we never know what’s awaiting us on the road: will we crash the car into the mud? Will a fallen tree close the access to the area we are going? How many times will I have to raise my sensitive equipment above my head to protect it from the water? Very soon, the clean white car loaned by Shell takes a brown hue, as do we. We finally get used to the daily swamp bath and a routine is set up.

Probably by following our muddy footprints across their impeccable facilities, people in charge of vehicles for Shell find us one day: “What are you doing with this car?” They ask. “We are driving long-forgotten roads to reach remote random locations.” I answer, absurdly. “But you don’t have the right to use this car for off-roads exploration of the area! It’s a professional vehicle!” I try to repair the misunderstanding: “Precisely: I am here to assess the impacts of roads on large mammals. This vehicle was loaned to me by Shell for that purpose.” But this answer inevitably causes incomprehension: “Impact of roads on mammals? But what impact? I see elephants every morning on Yenzi’s road!” Again, there is no chance I can make my point: Shell is cutting budgets in every of its departments and is funding a study on mammals? This is impossible to understand for the engineers of Vembo.

But the messy discipline of the team eventually pays: after a few weeks of trapping, in between pictures of rats and squirrels, chimps and gorillas are photographed in the young disturbed forests near Gamba!

Read more of Hadrien's updates from Gabon.

Our first picture of Gorilla!

Our first picture of Gorilla!

An entire family of chimps.
An entire family of chimps.

Read more of Hadrien's updates from Gabon.

Smithsonian scientists from the Center for Conservation and Sustainability (CCS) 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.