Gabonese researcher Christy Achtone Nkollo was on a lake in Gabon trying to figure out what to do with her career when she found out that African manatees live there – now she helps study and conserve these mysterious creatures.
“I would say it was the manatee that found me to study it,” said Nkollo, based at the Université Omar Bongo in the west African country.
The West African manatee, is a usually shy, nocturnal mammal, whose range is spread across 21 countries along Africa’s Atlantic coast and is little studied compared to the North American manatee found in Florida and the Caribbean.
Nkollo says that on her sabbatical year before enrolling in a Masters degree, she was thinking about where to go in life.
“Then my dad suggested that I go on a trip to relax and find answers to my questions and I went to the edge of the N’dogo lagoon in southern of Gabon to join friends working in nature conservation,” she said, “During one of my discussions with them, I was stunned to find that the manatee is abundant in Gabon, but that it has almost no data on the species itself.”
This was Nkollo’s “Eureka” moment, saying “Like a click, I wanted to work on it!”
Now, Nkollo’s main project is to understand of distribution and the conservation of the manatees in the RAMSAR protected wetlands of Petit Loango and Setté Cama in Gabon.
“This work allows the identification of variables explaining the spatial distribution of the manatee,” she said, “I am developing a model to relate the manatee and the set of environmental conditions that allow it to live and reproduce.”
Nkollo says this project is special because it has not yet been done in Gabon and her research area, the N’Dogo lagoon is unique in having an exceptional manatee population.
Nkollo grew up and studied in Libreville, Gabon and says despite many opportunities to learn elsewhere, she insisted on staying home to study.
“With globetrotting parents, they passed on their love of geography and the environment to me, I’ve always wanted to be a geographer,” she said, “I wanted to do geopolitics at the start, but bio-geography took over.”
It turns out Nkollo had a deeper connection to manatees than she thought.
Eight years ago, when Nkollo’s family found out she was working on the manatee, her maternal grandmother and great-aunts asked her to study another species, like hippopotamuses, but didn’t say why.
“It was only a few years later after this conversation with my grandmother, that I learned that the manatee is considered a benevolent spirit of my tribe and that my second name has a connection with the epic of manatees among the Ngwémyènè peoples from which I come from.”
Nkollo says the the biggest challenge in her work isn’t physical or financial, it is psychological.
“What I consider the biggest challenge of the project is not the search for funding or the tedious work in a dugout canoe in a remote corner in a flooded forest with extreme conditions without a telephone network,” she said, adding that since the beginning of her manatee project, she’s been funded by the World Wildlife Funds’s Education For Nature Program.
She said the disdain that some held for her project was “psychologically difficult” and the biggest hurdle to overcome.
“It was the disdain that the project aroused: very few people believed in this project, I got ridiculed condescending taunts,” she said, “People that I highly regarded did not hesitate to denigrate this project to the authorities who were supposed to issue me research authorizations.”
In contrast, Nkollo’s work has also been recognized at the highest levels, including as a Young Francophone Scientific Talent in 2018, an initiative endorsed by French President Emmanuel Macron and she was able to exhibit her project at the headquarters of the International Organization of La Francophonie in Paris.
In the neighboring west African country of Cameroon, another scientist is also investigating African manatees.
Despite not learning how to swim until he was at university, Aristide Takoukam would go on to become the first person from Cameroon to earn a PhD studying this endangered mammal and found the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (AMMCO).