Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Dispatches from Africa, Part 4: Cameroon to Benin

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Click here to read the other dispatches  from this journey.

Friday March 11 and Saturday March 12, 2011. Limbé, Cameroon

We arrived in Limbé by 7:30 am near Mount Cameroon, which was hidden by clouds. The broken peninsula is a row of equatorial forest covered small islands. Limbe is situated at the foot of Mount Cameroon in the Gulf of Guinea in the east and Bioko Island, which is part of Equatorial Guinea, in the West. Mount Cameroon and Bioko Island are part of the dominant volcano formation of the region. Limbé was founded in 1858 when the Baptist Missionary Society of London purchased land around Ambas Bay from King William of Bimbia. The city was known as Victoria until 1982.

Our morning visit took us through several villages, local markets and miles of oil palm plantations with no original rainforest left. We arrived in Buéa where the Tole Tea Plantation is located. The area is over 1000 meters above sea level and located on the lower slopes of Mount Cameroon. Between 1901 and 1909 Buéa was the German colonial capital and still maintains some of the German colonial architect including the current palace used by the president that was built by the German architect Jesco von Puttkamer. The plantation is about 4 km from Buéa and it is several hundred hectares carefully trimmed by the harvesting crews. Men and women cut the fresh tea leaves by hand or pruning tools and gathered the leaves into large baskets on their backs. The young tea leaves were then placed into big sacs that were transported by trucks to the drying tables in the metal roof buildings.

After lunch at the Fini Hotel, we visited the Limbe Wildlife Center. The Wildlife Center was established in 1993 by the Pandrillus Foundation and the Government of Cameroon. It houses gorillas, mandrills, red-capped mangabeys, chimpanzees, and various reptile and bird species that often come here as orphan young animals.

Across from the Wildlife Center we had a tour of the Limbe Botanical Gardens founded in 1892 by a group of German horticulturists as an acclimatization centre for the introduction of exotic crop species such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, oil palm, banana, teak and sugar-cane for distribution in Cameron and other German colonies. It was the most important tropical botanic gardens in the world. The Garden hosts a herbarium, laboratories, classrooms, a museum, a library and staff accommodation. The British took over the responsibility for the Garden from 1920 to 1932 under the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In 1988, a British-Cameroonian partnership led to the renovation and development of the 48 hectares of the Garden. The role of the Limbe Botanic Garden has evolved to conservation, education, science, tourism and recreation. We enjoyed the living collection of many old trees that were the prototypes of the propagation program.

Back on board and before dinner I led a discussion on the functioning and future prospects of the Limbé Wildlife Center and the complex issue of managing wildlife populations in captivity and controlling bush meat hunting while protecting conservation areas.

Saturday March 12, 2011. Limbé, Cameroon

We visited the Molyko Banana Packaging Unit and plantation and learned the complex process of how bananas are processed and packaged with international standards before they are sent to Europe. From here we drove to Bova Village to discover some local Cameroon way of life with the Bakweri people; the indigenous people of Buéa. After lunch the group split up to visit the Mount Cameroon lava flow site or to chill at the beach. The ecological succession of the site was impressive after a 12 years old lava flow. Much of the area is covered by pioneering plants that are colonizing the area and abundant mosses. Several lizards were also observed on the rocky terrain.

Sunday March 13, 2011. Sailing from Cameroon to Benin

We had a busy day at sea starting off with my lecture on Conservation and development in Central Africa: Challenges and Opportunities. In the afternoon George Brooks offered a talk on European conquests and colonial rule. Then Marius Burger showcased the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment program. This was followed by Roger Mitchell who presented a short discussion on the volcanic eruption of Mount Cameroon in 1999. One of the highlights of the day was being serenaded by Marguerite and Robert Marsh, accompanied by Eddie on the piano.

Monday March 14, 2011. Benin, Cotonou

The Republic of Benin borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. The majority of the population is located in the southern coastline. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo and the government offices are based in the country’s largest city of Cotonou. Benin covers an area of approximately 110,000 square kilometers (42,000 sq mi), with a population of approximately 9.05 million. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture. The official language of Benin is French, however, indigenous languages such as Fon and Yoruba are commonly spoken. The largest religious group in Benin are the Roman Catholics, followed closely by Muslims, Vodun, and Protestants. The land of current-day Benin became known as the Slave Coast during the early 17th century.  In 1892 France took over the area and renamed it French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, bringing in a democratic government for the next 12 years.


Dispatches from Africa, Part 3: São Tomé

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Read the other dispatches from this journey.

Monday March 7, 2011. São Tomé

We arrived in São Tomé around 6:00 and with an early rain. Several dolphins welcomed the ship and a beautiful mist and clouds covered the island. The archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe comprises the two main islands and dozens of tiny islets scattered about 180 miles off the west coast of Gabon. The islet of Rolas straddles the Equator. After disembarking via Zodiacs, we traveled through the densely vegetated slopes of the island’s mountain. The volcanic island has a very fertile soil and altitudinal gradient that makes it very favorable to all kind of tropical plants including coffee and cocoa. The steep slopes have extensive coffee plantations shaded with very tall trees. The São Nicolao waterfall is a beautiful sight surrounded with a large variety of ferns, mosses and many other plant species thriving in the humid environment. Buffet lunch at the “Pestana Hotel” was excellent with a variety of tropical fruits.

At the Mote Café plantation, once a prolific colonial agricultural state, we visited the complex building and machinery to transport, dry and grind the coffee beans. Several local people performed colorful local dances with music from traditional instruments. In the afternoon we visited the cathedral while a musical funeral drove by.

The national museum has a wealth of colonial artifacts from the colonial times including European furniture and weapons used during that time. The fort that hosts the museum has a magnificent view of the bay and contains several old cannons. From the museum we continued our visit to the fishing village of Panfuto where dozens of large dugout canoes in all conditions filled the shore line. Many fishermen were preparing the nets for the night fishing and others played cards while waiting for the right time for departure. On the way back from the fishing village we enjoyed the “Danza Congo” at the “Plaza of Independence.” Men and women dressed with masks and colorful costumes performed an artistic and complex carnival dance.

Tuesday March 8, 2011. Príncipe

Príncipe is the smaller of the two major islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. It has an area of 136 square kilometers and a population of around 5000 people. Its highest peak is the Pico de Príncipe that rises to 948m in a dense forest area that is part of the Obo National Park. The northern and center part of the island were formerly coffee and cocoa plantations and have now reverted to forest. The town of Santo Antonio is the capital of Príncipe with an estimated population of 1500 people.

We arrived in Príncipe very early in the morning and soon after several fishing dugout canoes began to arrive after night fishing. Several of the villagers installed their canoes by the M/V Corinthian IIwith loads of fresh fish, coconuts, bananas, and many other fruits.  Disembarkation was by Zodiacs and we had the opportunity to observe all different lava formations partially eroded over years from the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful Bom Bom island resort and large beach to drive to Santo Antonio. The town has colorful houses from the colonial times and a lively market with fresh fish and vegetables. This day was the last day of carnival and also International Women’s Day  and celebrated with colorful dances, food and drinks. We also visited the once magnificent colonial housing and coffee processing building that supported the economy of that time. The buildings have been abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.

In the evening I presented the lecture on “Smithsonian’s Ten Years of Biodiversity Research and Conservation Program in Gabon”.


Dispatches from Africa, Part 2: Angola to São Tomé and Príncipe

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana, where he’ll be leading Smithsonian travelers until March 17th. Read the dispatches  from the first few days of the journey.

Thursday March 3, 2011. Lobito, Catumbela and Benguela, Angola

Our first stops in Angola were Lobito, Catumbela, and Benguela, which are pretty and relaxed towns several hundred kilometers south of Luanda, the capital. The first Portuguese landed on the Benguela coast around 1601 in search of the silver and copper mines. Lobito at the time was one of the finest natural harbors on the African coast and its deep water port linked with the Benguela Railway. Mineral exports from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia coupled with corn exports from the Bie Plateau, made Lobito Angola’s chief port before it was taken by Luanda. Lobito was built on a sand-spit and reclaimed land and the town was founded in 1843 by order of Maria II of Portugal. Benguela started as a Portuguese fort and became an official town in 1617. This town was a trading post for black African slaves, sold to Portuguese merchants who sent them to Brazil for cheap agricultural labor. The city is the capital of Benguela Province, and the second most populous city.

During the forty-minute drive to Benguela from Lobito we observed construction everywhere including a new airport, the recently built stadium, a new bridge and many other buildings. These were all signs of very rapid economic development. The first stop was at the government palace, an old thick-walled building typical of the old Portuguese architecture, that houses important government meetings and events. It has beautifully landscaped gardens with tropical palms and fig trees. The building is located close to the ocean. Next to the government building is the slavery museum—a large building that was once used to gather, hold, and process slaves before transport to Europe or America. The tall building and large open areas now host a collection of wooden art and two very old jeep vehicles. Outside the building, we enjoyed a music and dance performance by local musicians.

We drove by the new cathedral and visited the 1748 Portuguese church of Nossa Senhora do Popul, and were impressed with the very old architecture and beautiful wooden structures, made from wood from Brazil. The last stop before boarding Corinthian II was the old fort in the small town of Catumbela that is under reconstruction and which provides a great view of the area and the port.

Friday March 4, 2011. Luanda, Angola

Angola, the “Republic of Angola,” is 481,351 square miles, and is slightly less than twice the size of Texas. The country has some 1,000 miles of coastline on the South Atlantic. There is an estimated 10 million people, a population density of 18 people per square mile, with much higher density in the cities and more urbanized areas. The population overall is very young, less that 3% over the age of 65 and 43% below the age of 15. Forty-two percent of the population over 15 can read and write.

First to settle the Angola region were the Bushman, then the Bantu. The area now known as Angola was a part of the 13th-century Kingdom of Congo, which stretched over a large range of southwest Africa. The aristocratic “Mani” people held power over a unit of designated land, in a system much like feudalism. In 1483 the Portuguese established trade relations with the King of Congo; firearms and Christianity for slaves, minerals, and ivory. The Portuguese settled on Luanda (now the capital city of Angola). However, Spain occupied Portugal, and the Dutch took the opportunity to take Luanda in 1641. The slave trade from Angola was important to Portugal, so the Portuguese in Africa built up an army and took Luanda back, as well as the rest of the Angola territory in 1665. In the 1950s, residents of the “Overseas Province of Angola” began to demand rights. After many years of conflict, the nation gained its independence on November 11, 1975. After gaining independence, Angola was launched into a civil war between the aforementioned groups until 2002 when a ceasefire was called. Currently, Angola has a modified republic with a president, a prime minister, and a Council of Ministers. In 2010 a new constitution was adopted, giving more and ultimate power to the President, who is elected by a majority vote in parliament. Economically, Angola depends on fish and fish products, mineral resources, and oil export. Angola provides 9% of US oil.

Luanda is situated about a quarter of the way down to Angola’s Atlantic coast. It is a vast and sprawling city, and the gap between rich and poor is very evident. The shiny new tower blocks owned by the oil companies stand in stark contrast to the modest living quarters where the vast majority of Luandans live. Luanda is the capital and largest city of Angola with a population of at least 5 million. Luanda is a seaport and administrative center. Until 1836, Luanda was a main center for slave trade. Most people speak Portuguese and one third of the population of Angola lives in Luanda. The main exports are coffee, cotton, sugar, diamonds, iron, and salt.  57% of the population lives in poverty.

The visit to the city included driving past the impressive National Bank Building constructed in a colonial style with clay roof tiles and an impressive façade. We continued to the Museum of Anthropology, housed in a typical colonial building with a fascinating collection of masks representing many of the traditional rituals including circumcision, traditional hunting tools, baskets to process, store, and transport products and babies, traditional musical instruments, and a variety of pottery artifacts for cooking and other uses. I led the Portuguese-English translation of the tour at the museum for and was interviewed by the local TV station about the nature of the visit to the Museum and its value for education.

From the museum we walked, escorted by the police, to the Church of the Remedies which was built by the city merchants in 1655. It was the first and oldest cathedral for Congo and Angola. The cathedral hosts many 200-300 year old saints and we were greeted by Father Apolonio and the gospel choir of the ladies dedicated to support church events and mission. Father Apolonio provided a detailed history of the church which I translated to English, that included the damage caused during the country’s civil war.

We visited the Fortaleza which was the 17th-century Portuguese Fort that provides a comprehensive view of the city and the many new buildings under construction. The fort is now the military museum that hosts old military equipment and statues of Angolan and Portuguese heroes. The museum was currently being remodeled. We had a delightful lunch at the Moulin Rouge restaurant located by the beach at Ilha de Luanda.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by a colorful carnival dance and drum music performance by local dancers. We dined with David Brooks, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy, who provided a short overview of Angola and the challenges and opportunities that this beautiful country offers.

After lunch we visited a local school and orphanage, Mama Maxima, which is home to 120 children, age between 3 and 19 years old. Other children from the nearby communities attend school at this location where they spend time learning English, cooking, sewing and mending clothing, participating in manual service, and religious practice. The voluntary teachers are mostly from the oil companies and the organization is run by the Catholic Church of Santa Barbara and is under the responsibility of the nuns. On the way back from the Mama Maxima home, we stopped at the Mausoleum Monument, constructed to honor the first president of Angola. The professional police escort service took us back to port and we sailed for Pointe Noire, Congo around 6 pm.

Note: Several people visited the Kissama National Park that is 3 million acres in size bordered by the north, Cuanza River and by the south, Longa River. Operation Noah’s Ark is an attempt to repopulate the park with wildlife from other regions including Northern Botswana to Kissama.

Saturday March 5, 2011. Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo

Saturday morning found us navigating the waters of Angola and Congo and crossing the mouth of the Congo River. The Congo River is the 10th longest river in the world and the deepest at more than 7850 feet deep. It crosses the equator twice and over 30 million people depend on the river.

We observed numerous oil rigs from Angola with large flares to the side, oil tankers and many support ships. In the morning, we had a lecture by Vincent Resh on “How African Rivers and Lakes Work” and a panel discussion with Vincent Resh, George Brooks and Francisco Dallmeier on “Central and West Africa African Art.

We arrived at the waters of Pointe Noire close to 2:00 pm and enjoyed the diversity of fishing vessels, oil industry vessels contrasted with several fishermen in dug out canoes spreading the nets. Pointe Noire (Black Point) is the second largest city of the Republic of Congo with 663,400 inhabitants and an autonomous Department since 2004. Before this date, it was the capital of the Kouilou region (now department). It is the main commercial center of the country and is situated on a headland between Pointe Noire Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The name originated from the Portuguese navigators who saw a block of black rocks on the headland in 1484. The city is the essential center of the oil industry in Congo-Brazzaville, one of the main producers in Central Africa. Congolese oil has been largely exploited by the French company Elf Aquitaine since its discovery in 1980. Pointe Noire is also known for its fishing industry.

Once in Pointe Noire, we drove for about one hour through a busy and colorful town. People were preparing for carnival, the markets were busy and many small houses offered meals and drinks with loud music. Traffic was very busy and the escort vehicles provided a great service in speeding up the traveling. We first arrived at the Museum of Diosso, a small museum that was the former residence of the King of Loango, a nation comprised of seven tribes in what is now the Congo. Behind the main Museum building, there are four similar abandoned buildings which housed the Royal Wives and the kitchen. We were greeted at the museum by its curator Mr. Kimfoko and assistant Mr. Taty. The first room of the museum houses a very detailed exhibition about the slave trade that prospered in this region. The exhibition also documents the flow of goods, both material and human. Several collections of artifacts from various tribes such as hunting tools, baskets, musical instruments, and masks for different rituals illustrated the cultural and historical traditions of the Kingdom of Loango and the recent history of Pointe Noire.

After the visit of the Museum we visited the Diosso Gorge, a vast and deep rock formation caused by erosion and one of the most visited sites in Congo where you can see the red clay erosion walls and the green forest vegetation in the lower end. We drove back through the busy town streets escorted by a skillful motorcycled policeman.  The town was loud with music and many people eating and drinking in front of houses along the road. We were on board of the M/V Corinthian IIabout 6:30 pm and started sailing to São Tomé.

Sunday March 6, 2011. At sea sailing to São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe are only 87 miles apart, 155 and 140 miles wide respectively with a population of about 176,000 inhabitants.  The islands are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range which provides good soil for sugar, coffee, and cocoa. In 1908, the islands were the world’s largest producer of cocoa. The country is the second smallest country in Africa and the smallest Portuguese speaking country in the world. It was originally colonized by Portuguese, and it gained independence and has a multiparty democracy since 1990. The capital and largest city is São Tomé.

Today the program included lectures by George Brooks on “Symbiosis of Slaving and Legitimate Commerce during the 19th Century,” Vincent Resh on “São Tomé and Príncipe: Islands as Laboratories of Evolution,” Heather Arrowood on “Gabon: The Lake Oguemouen Ecotourism Project” and Drs. Brook, Resh, Dallmeier and Marius Burger provided a discussion session on “the ecological, environmental, social and economic variations of the region already travelled from Namibia to the Ecuador.”

Dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana, where he’ll be leading Smithsonian travelers until March 17th.

Monday, February 28, 2011. Walvis Bay, Namibia

Flamingos on Walvis Bay

Flamingos on Walvis Bay. Photo: Francisco Dallmeier.

After the first good night sleep in three days, we spent our first full day in the city of Walvis Bay located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert that also has a deepwater harbor. The Bay is very rich in plankton and other marine life and is commonly visited by migratory whales. Corinthian II was docked at the very large commercial port where we enjoyed the many granite and quartz rocks aligned in large (25 to 35-ton), carefully cut squares for export to Italy. Our first early morning stop was at a town beach which was at low tide and we enjoyed the high density of white pelicans and a small colony of flamingos.

Walvis Bay produces large amounts of salt for Namibia and South Africa and we observed the many pools at different stages of evaporation and colors where the salt was eventually extracted, piled up and processed. We drove 4×4 vehicles south for over two hours along the beach with the Atlantic Ocean to our right and immense sand dunes to our left.Sandwich Harbor

The Namib Desert is considered by geologists to be the oldest desert in the world, and it is also one of the largest conservation areas.  We had the opportunity to see several jackals close to the beach, many tracks of small lizards and abundant sea birds. Jackals are opportunistic and eat almost anything including dead seals, rodents, birds, insects, reptiles, fruits and berries and survive well in this environment. On the way back we were able to drive down very steep sand dunes. In Sandwich Harbor we observed the moving dunes and the gradual encroachment of the wetlands. Species have effectively adapted to utilize water and overcome the heat. We observed the head-standing beetle standing upside-down, back legs in the air to collect the mist that is carried in grooves to the beetle’s mouth.

In the afternoon we drove to the Mondesa Township and the Democratic Resettlement Community to enjoy a walking experience of the town and the meeting with the Damara Chief. At the town we met the Nama herbalist and had the opportunity to learn about multiple plants to cure a wide variety of medical needs. Friendly children joined our visit in the community. In the evening we enjoyed the sunset and dinner by the sand dunes west of the city. The sun was low and the shadows provided a soft outline of the dunes. Local young musicians played drum music while we enjoyed a buffet which included local venison.  We began to sail to Angola around 9:30 pm.

March 1 and 2, 2011. Sailing from Walvis Bay, Namibia to Lobito, Angola

Nama herbalist.

Nama herbalist. Photo: Francisco Dallmeier.

For the most part, our sailing to Angola was relatively smooth and the days were cloudy. We enjoyed the high abundance of dolphins and seals the first day and the frequency of observations diminished by the time we arrived to the warm Angolan waters. We dedicated the two days at sea to provide a series of lectures to the travelers, including “The Evolution of Africa and us,” “Early Maritime and Trans-Saharan Links between Asia, North Africa and Europe,” “Conservation and Development in Namibia: Connecting the Spots with Cheetahs,”  “African Landlords and European Strangers: The Atlantic Slave Trade, 15th –18thCenturies” and “Fascination with Herps.” The Captain’s Dinner was enjoyed by all.

Stay tuned for more from Dr. Dallmeier. We’ll post his next set of dispatches as soon as we receive them. To follow along with the tour, click here to see the itinerary.

The Lemurs of Madagascar

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

The sifaka is just one type of lemur that makes its home in Madagascar.

Madagascar is home to many unusual plants and animals, the most famous among them being the lemur. Lemurs are the smallest members of the primate family – the largest species weigh about 15 pounds and the smallest, the pygmy mouse lemur, weighs only one ounce. Lemurs have very sensitive noses, which help them to identify each other’s territory, find grubs, fruit, and other good things to eat, and stay safe from predators. Lemurs spend most of their time in the trees of jungle in Madagascar, and live in groups. The Smithsonian National Zoological park is home to three species of lemurs. Click here to meet them.

Lucky travelers will encounter lemurs on a trek through the wildlife reserve on Madagascar’s Nosy Mangabe island, home to several different species of this rare primate. Click here to find out how you can be among them.

What do you know about lemurs? Please share.