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Gabon On Assignment

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Gabon's Coastline
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Gabon's Coastline @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By J. Michael FayPhotographs by Michael Nichols



In Gabon, where Mike Fay's epic walk across central Africa ended four years ago, a brand-new park is up and running. Fay and photographer Michael Nichols return to the continent's great unspoiled coastline.



Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

By rights this should have been a good night for leatherbacks, with a waning moon and the tide incoming, but by the time we reached the stick marking the three-mile (four-kilometer) limit of the study beach, we hadn't found a single one. So we had a bit of a snooze on the moist sand, then headed back down the beach. By now I'd gone from my trance to doing incantations to see a turtle.
 
When we were about half a mile (one kilometer) from our starting point, an ominous black thing loomed ahead of us like an apparition in a horror movie. A leatherback! She was head-to-land about 20 feet (6 meters) above the tide line on a nice wide patch of beach. Clement instructed us to stand back while he checked how far along she was in the nesting process. "She's dug the egg chamber," he whispered. Just behind her was a perfectly cylindrical hole about six inches (15 centimeters) in diameter and a foot (30 centimeters) deep. "Sit quiet for a minute until she lays, then we can approach, no problem."
 
I heard the turtle make what sounded like a gasp, and Clement was up in a flash. Huddling up behind her, the low beam from his headlamp defining the chamber, we could see that she'd dropped several eggs. Clement looked distressed. "The hole isn't nearly deep enough," he said, pointing to the turtle's back right flipper, most of which was missing. The loss must have handicapped her ability to excavate, a task that calls for all her strength and dexterity.
 
I watched spellbound. This old girl was pushing hard, and she already looked exhausted. Bloop—more eggs fell. They were the size of billiard balls, round and white. Every time mom pushed, out came eggs, up to four at once, covered with a gooey mucus. As the hole filled, we counted: 30, 50, 80, and, finally, 84 eggs. Clement was right—the egg mass overflowed the hole.
 
As soon as she'd finished, the turtle team hopped into action to record her vital statistics. Her carapace was measured: 143 centimeters (56 inches) long and 105 centimeters (41 inches) wide. Clement estimated her weight at 300 kilograms (660 pounds), suggesting she was no more than 20 years old. (Leatherbacks, which range widely in the open ocean, feeding on jellyfish, their staple food, can reach more than a ton and live 50 years.) Loading a stainless steel ID tag into his pliers, Clement grabbed the skin between the carapace and the damaged flipper and squeezed hard. She didn't even flinch. The turtle was duly christened ASF2637, according to the tag number. Because tags sometimes fall off, Feree then applied a second one to the opposite flipper. Seemingly oblivious to all this activity, the turtle started covering the eggs by alternately scooping sand over the pile with one hind flipper and tamping it down with the top side of the other.
 
I glanced at Clement questioningly. He nodded. I touched her flipper, and my heart stopped when she almost grabbed my wrist with it—that flipper seemed prehensile! I'd expected the limb to be hard and scaly, but it was fleshy and supple as a seal's. The baby-soft skin was slate gray, with what looked like sponged-on blotches of white latex. Diligently, she continued sweeping and tamping, working with such eerie dexterity that she struck me not as a turtle at all but as a person dressed up in turtle costume. Any second now she would start talking: "Hey Mike, can you push that egg into the hole for me?"
 
I thought about all the things ASF2637 must have seen in her decades at sea: giant passenger ships, trawler nets, sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, oil spills, and tons of garbage. Where had she been, and what had injured her flipper?
 
She finished tamping, but two eggs remained exposed. Clement grabbed them and removed them far from the nest, lest they alert predators like civets, ghost crabs, or monitor lizards to the nest's location. The covered eggs would incubate, unattended, for 60 to 70 days. The hatchlings would break through the nest chamber at night and head for the water. Crabs would be lurking on the beach, and for the tiny turtles that made it to the sea, jacks and mackerel, not to mention trawler nets, would be waiting.


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Sights & Sounds
Revisit Mike Fay's Megatransect across Africa.
Multimedia
VIDEO Michael Nichols shares the experience of returning to Gabon for this six-month assignment this time with his family in tow.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia
Video
Watch a hippo swim through the surf and
elephants stroll the sands.
Forum
Gabon is relying on tourism to support its new parks. Is this a viable option for other cash-strapped developing nations? What other types of development projects could help boost their economies?


More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Possibly the most abundant animal at Loango National Park is the humpback whale. For four years a team of scientists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been observing, photographing, and collecting data on Gabon's humpback whales. The team's goal is to assess the population of the whales when they're in Gabonese waters during their winter breeding season from June to mid-October. The WCS is working with the International Whaling Commission to determine the worldwide whale population. This is an important step in being able to make recommendations to countries on whale-hunting limits.

The WCS whale research operation is small, but it's the most comprehensive study in the eastern Atlantic. The researchers are discovering that Gabon has a large population of humpbacks, possibly as many as 1,500 to 3,000. The whales have had a chance to thrive since whaling in these waters stopped in the late 1950s and early '60s because there were no longer enough whales to make it economically feasible.

The WCS project is working with Operation Loango (the park's ecotourism and conservation initiative) to develop whale-watching guidelines for Gabon. The high density of whales off Gabon is great for ecotourism. There are at least 14 different species of whales and dolphins off Gabon's coast, and visitors are guaranteed to see these marine animals from boats and sometimes from shore. Tourists will not only get to see these animals, but they'll also get to help save them. An economically successful whale-watching tourism program will protect Gabon's whales from one day being hunted again.

—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
Gabon National Parks, Loango
gabonnationalparks.com/gnp-home/gnp-nationalparks/loango
Explore all that Gabon's parks, including Loango National Park, have to offer.

Operation Loango
www.operation-loango.com/eng/loango/history.html
Learn about Operation Loango's history, projects, and tourism opportunities.

Wildlife Conservation Society
www.wcs.org
Through science, education, and conservation, the Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild lands. Discover what projects they are working on around the world.

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Bibliography
Barnes, James F. Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy. Westview Press, 1992.

Gardinier, David. Historical Dictionary of Gabon. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1994.

Kaczynski, Vlad, and David Fluharty. "European Policies in West Africa: Who Benefits From Fisheries Agreements?" Marine Policy (March 2002). Available online at
data.fisheries.ubc.ca/Dakar/pressReleases/KaczynskiFluharty.pdf.

Patterson, K. David. The Northern Gabon Coast to 1875. Oxford University Press, 1975.

Ward, Carlton, Jr. The Edge of Africa. Hylas Publishing, 2003.

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NGS Resources
Quammen, David. "Saving Africa's Eden." National Geographic (September 2003), 50-77.

Clynes, Tom. "The Gabon Experiment." National Geographic Adventure (September 2003), 38-46, 79-82.

Kingsley, Mary Henrietta. Travels in West Africa. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Frank, Aliette. "Incredible Journey." National Geographic World (September 2001), 26-8.

Quammen, David. "End of the Line: Megatransect, Part III." National Geographic (August 2001), 74-103.

Quammen, David. "The Green Abyss: Megatransect, Part II." National Geographic (March 2001), 2-37.

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