Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Francisco Dallmeier

Q: As Director of the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, please describe how the Center is contributing to one of the four main goals of the Smithsonian's new strategic plan, that of “understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet”? 

A: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute contributes to the understanding of biodiversity through research, conservation and education to promote the sustainability of biodiversity and habitats. Within the new Institute, The Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability is dedicated to studying and understanding the complex relationship among biodiversity, people and the environment, and training the next generation of conservation practitioners. We do this by developing strategic partnerships, academic and professional programs in conservation related disciplines and working with stakeholders to achieve conservation solutions that minimize their environmental impact. Our program includes the Gabon Biodiversity Program, the Peru Andes Biodiversity program, the Peru Amazon Program, the Global Tiger Initiative, and Professional training programs. 

Q: The Into Africa program will take our travelers along 2,500 miles of African coastline, from Namibia to Ghana. What are you most looking forward to exploring with our travelers on this program? 

A: The coastline from Namibia to Ghana provides a unique opportunity to explore the exceptional cultural and biological diversity of the region. We will travel through the home of hundreds of species of birds, mammals and wildlife which are unique to the region. Several species of primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees, forest elephants, several species of duikers, buffaloes, hippos, wild boars, and African crocodiles are some examples of the mega-fauna of the region. 

In Namibia, we will explore the spectacular Namib Desert, with unique plants and animals adapted to this extreme environment, and one of the most important bird sanctuaries in Southern Africa, hosting more than 150,000 birds. The savanna of the Kissama National Park in Angola has several species of birds and other wildlife species such as kudu, bushbuck and duikers. 

While cruising along the impressive Congo River, we will see the legendary rainforest and the multiple land use practices by local communities. At sea, we may be see whales, dolphins, marine turtles and a great diversity of marine bird species. 

São Tomé and Príncipe islands will present us with a unique forest and bird species mixed with coffee and cacao plantations. These islands are home to a number of endemic bird species similar to the Galápagos Islands, including the Giant Sunbird, the São Tomé Short-tail, the São Tomé Grosbeak and the São Tomé Fiscal. 

While in Gabon, we will visit Smithsonian's field station, where researchers have been studying and understanding wildlife and habitats for conservation. In Equatorial Guinea, we will see more of the Central African rainforest, and in Cameroon, the conservation challenges of the region. We will experience the entire spectrum of habitats of the Central and West African coastline. A most memorable experience! 

Q: The Namib Desert is reputedly the oldest in the world at 55 million years and the driest, having no surface water. What makes it possible for the hardiest of species to maintain a foothold there? 

A: The Namib Desert is an area of approximately 31,200 square miles that ranges from Namibia to southwest Angola, and is one of the driest deserts in the world with yearly precipitation of less than 10 mm (0.4 inches). This dryness is caused by dry descent air that is cooled by the coastal currents of Benguela. Because of the extreme dry conditions, the species of plants and animals that inhabit the desert need to be adapted to these conditions to survive. There is an ancient shrub-like plant named Welwitschia that is considered a living fossil. The plants have a very long life with some references to over 1,000 years and as with other desert species, it has adapted to collect water from the night dew on special structures located in the leaves. Many animals and plants, including insects, have adapted to collect water from the night dew. Other inhabitants of the desert such as snakes, geckos, hyenas, and jackals obtain the water directly from their prey and reduce dehydration by hunting during the cooler night temperatures. The heavily built gemsbok (Oryx gazelle) obtains its water directly from the vegetation it eats. 

Q: Smithsonian researchers work in Gabon's Gamba Complex of Protected Areas. Can you describe the research that the Smithsonian is currently carrying out there? 

A: The Gamba Complex of Gabon, where Smithsonian's field station is located, supports a rich shoreline of long exposed sandy beaches and extensive freshwater, tidal or brackish lagoons and highland rainforest fauna, including monitor lizards, genet, mongoose, ghost crabs and shore birds. Smithsonian work in Gabon started ten years ago with the undertaking of extensive surveys of the Gamba Complex to map the species and habitat diversity and understand the connectivity of the different environments for conservation. 

Since the baseline information was created, Smithsonian researchers have been studying the impact of development in the Gamba Complex to recommend mitigation strategies for sustainable development. Researchers have been studying the impact of roads, logging and hunting on wildlife, the effect of introduced fire ants from South America on native species, the diversity of freshwater fishes, the movement and distribution of forest elephants, the impact of oil development and the species composition and structure of the region's forest, this last as part of the Smithsonian Global Earth Observatory Network. 

Q: Our travelers will visit a tropical rainforest (Monte Alen National Park in Equatorial Guinea) and savannah (Kissama National Park in Angola). What are the differences between the two species of elephants that inhabit these areas? 

A: The savanna African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) is the largest living land wildlife species. They are grey/brown with a sparse covering of hair. They have a head and body length between 6.4 and 24.6 feet and weigh between 3.9 - 6.9 tons. Males and females have two, forward curving tusks, more developed in males. Their neck is short and they have a large barrel-like body. Their tail is relatively short (3.5 to 5 feet) and it has long black hair on the tip. They inhabit the savannah grasslands and desert areas of sub-Saharan east and central Africa. 

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is a different and smaller species from the savanna African elephant. They are grey in color and have straight, downward pointing, yellowish tusks. They have a head and body length between 9.75 and 13 feet, a tail length between 2.3 and 4 feet, and they weigh 0.88 - 3 tons. The smaller size and less bulky body allow them to maneuver much more easily inside the forest. They are normally found in the dense, lowland forest of west and central Africa. Males are generally solitary and females live in small groups with one or two of their offspring. The ivory of the tusks of African Forest Elephants is harder while retaining its elastic properties, which make them more highly prized by poachers than those of the savanna or Asian elephants. 

Q: In the Republic of Congo, Smithsonian travelers will visit the Tchimpounga Reserve, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa, founded by the Jane Goodall Institute. Are efforts at chimpanzee conservation making progress? 

A: Chimpanzee rehabilitation requires a long-term financial and institutional commitment to match the approximately 60 years of life expectancy of chimpanzees. The Jane Goodall Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre has been an enormous undertaking and has been very successful. Over 140 chimpanzees are being given a second chance at life. However, large scale deforestation, bush meat hunting, and infectious diseases such as Ebola have dramatically reduced the chimpanzee populations from their original Central and West Africa range. A combination of efforts for land management and protection, reintroduction of chimpanzees to newly protected areas and rehabilitation efforts such as the Jane Goodall Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre are needed for the long-term survival of one our closest relatives.