Olivia Diaz, a Natural Resources Junior, is currently participating in a 12 week IE3 internship in Gabon, focusing on the work of the Smithsonian Lab for Biodiversity. Her tasks during this experience include working with the Gamba community in raising the efforts of environmental education; she visits with primary and secondary schools, takes students on field trips, and assits in the efforts of the biodiversity program in Gamba to partner with school teachers and intigrate environmental education into the school curriculum. Additionally, she assists in tracking the movement of elephants and other large animals, as well as helping to promote the work of the Smithsonian Lab in Gabon, which includes promoting existing work, showcasing local biodiversity, and engaging the public in conversations about their environment.
Read below for a peek into the progression of her amazing journey!
“For the past week, my work at the Smithsonian has mainly been to update the elephant camera tracking database, by identifying the location of the photos of the elephants, and distinguishing age characteristics and gender. This database is utilized for long term studying of the socialization of elephants, as well as human/elephant conflicts in the area.
Last week, I had my first meeting with Dr. Lisa Korte, the Gabon Biodiversity Program Director. She highlighted potential projects that I could work on after I expressed an interest in environmental conservation education and working with the natural biodiversity of the area. This included: the creation of informational signs for public tours at the Smithsonian Lab and the natural history collection, creating a more curriculum-based tour for conservation outreach through organization and utilization of surveys, development of an educational nature trail to showcase the biodiversity through interpretive signage, creation of recreation signage for trails of forested areas, and creating a more streamlined user-guide and process for identifying individual elephants for the elephant camera trap database.
I will also be designing educational signs for the mini-jungle that is outside of the Smithsonian lab, which educates the public on the diverse plant life and rich history behind many of the plants in Gamba. I also hope to work with the beehives the Smithsonian has, which have been used to alleviate elephant/human conflicts around the plantations in Gamba.”0
“I have become in charge of updating the elephant camera trap database, along with each week, checking the 11 different cameras placed throughout the Shell concession here in Gamba. This monitors the human-wildlife interactions, as well as tracks the socialization of groups of elephants, along with individual elephants over time. Each Friday I exchange the batteries and SD cards of the cameras, and from there I sort through thousands of photos. I have created a report for mitigating elephant-human conflict utilizing the photos as evidence for necessary changes.
For a few weeks, there was a visiting crocodile biologist working with the Smithsonian for tagging Nile crocodiles (second largest extant reptiles in the world!), and I was fortunate enough to be able to join the team on a boat excursion. We were not able to tag the Nile crocodile, but we did see two Slender-snouted crocodiles, who were not afraid of us whatsoever. The presence of Nile crocodiles are indicators of good environmental conditions (especially along the Shell concession). With that, I was also able to observe the amazing riverbank ecosystems of Gabon, and was taken aback by the massiveness of the palm leaves of the Raphia sp (which are some of the largest leaves in the plant kingdom), Laccosperma secundiflorum-climbing palm, and the endless amounts of Cyperus papyrus.
More recently, I have started going out to do fieldwork in the plantations in various areas around Gamba. Up until the 1960s, there were no plantations in Gamba, mainly just small groups of fisherman. After oil was discovered, however, many people flocked here to seek out opportunity not only in the oil, but in plantations- despite the soil not being good for agriculture. To cope with soil that is not conducive to plantations, they utilize slash-and-burn practices, wherein an area of the forest in charred and mixed into the soil for nutrients, and planted for up to 3 years until the area is no longer able to be farmed. Not only is this unsustainable (along with current research on the economic vitality of this practice), but also contributes to deforestation and habitat loss, especially of irreplaceable chimpanzee habitats. And since these plantations are situated in forests with large populations of forest elephants, human-elephant conflict is abundant. In the current program I am working with, we access elephant crop damage in the plantations, and there are also surveys and communications between the Smithsonian and various plantation workers. With this data, the Smithsonian can make recommendations of sustainable practices that involve community members to make a change for the better, both environmentally and economically.
I have also started fieldwork in the forests and savannas, working on a project which entails the movement of large wildlife (buffalo, elephants, and gorillas) throughout 20 different transects in Gamba, which has data for the dry season, and now we are collecting data for the wet season. Along 500 meter transects, we look for recent signs of wildlife- mainly feces and footprints within a 20 meter boundary. There are also camera traps set up at the 250 meter mark to do some of the wildlife observations as well. Today I saw multiple prints of sitatungas, a swamp-dwelling antelope. This work is important because it studies the impacts oil industries and the population of Gamba has had on the wildlife.
Sara, the past intern, renovated the mini-jungle exhibit here at the Smithsonian lab, and I was able to collaborate with her on designing the educational signs for display. This Friday, I will be giving a short educational presentation of the mini-jungle. In these next few weeks I would like to develop an educational material for visitors to the Smithsonian to highlight the biodiversity of the local area.
So far, I have gained technical skills in databases, observed the mosaic of ecosystems in Gamba and their disturbances, conducted fieldwork in a multitude of settings, and contributed to research to promote biodiversity and seek solutions for Gabon's developing resources. I have also improved my French in the workplace and beyond - which I am quite happy about!”
As of Winter 2016, Olivia completed her internship and has returned to Oregon to complete her degree. You can read her student report here on all the amazing things she learned through the Gabon Biodiversity Program, and check out her presentation on elephant identification and what to do in case of a chance encounter!