reptiles du Gabon

We received a call on Saturday morning from Philip Lawry, a friend in Yenzi. While traveling along the beach approximately four kilometres north of the terminal, he came across a carcass of a sea turtle. Leatherback turtles have begun to come ashore to lay eggs since late November, mostly arriving on a high tide during the night and returning to sea before daybreak. It is rare to see Dermochelys coriacea during daylight hours. These turtles are enormous, can attain a length of just under two metres and weigh close to a ton. Other than egg-laying season and as hatchlings crossing the beach, they will spend their entire lives in the sea.

Lisa and I headed for the location to assess the condition and decide if Smithsonian could benefit from a collected specimen. We arrived and were immediately aware of the location, not only from the smell, but from the hundreds of crabs scattering for the surf as we approached.  The turtle washed ashore, or died while onshore, possibly three to four days earlier, and while alive, weighed perhaps a third of a ton. It was holding together along the high-tide line, not in immediate danger of being washed away. We decided to attempt a recovery on Monday morning when Tobi, curator of collections, could assist with the logistics of dragging the beast from sand to jeep-track, then hoisting it into the back of the Smithsonian pick-up to be transported to a location near the lab.

a death of a leatherback turtle, unknown circumstances, along the Gabonese coast

Monday morning we arrived with ropes and bamboo poles and managed to load the carcass into the pick-up.  By carving away sand on either side, we could force bamboo poles beneath the specimen, and with a rope to the back of the pick-up, lift and pull the deceased from its sandy grave.  A fitting example of the meaning of “dead weight”.  It will be several weeks before the bones will become cleaned enough to warrant further care.  Not your typical Monday morning at the office, surmised Lisa.

Later that afternoon, I was on bicycle, pedaling out to recover my stealth camera. The savannas along the way are now submerged from the torrential rains we received over the weekend.  Flocks of egrets, recent arrivals from the Northern hemisphere, circle the shallow waters, mixing with storks and herons and a few palm-nut vultures that appear to be searching out the snails clinging to the grasses.  The track to my camera is inundated with water, and I slosh through several low crossings up to my knees in run-off, finally abandoning my bicycle to skirt a log crossing a rain-swollen stream.  One of the culvert washouts presents a pool containing a small Ornate monitor lizard.

juvenile Ornate monitor lizard

I kneel across its avenue of escape, and the lizard has no choice but to offer itself to my study and photographs. The immature lizard, Varanus ornatus, is 14 inches long, mostly tail.  It becomes quiet and patient once it realizes it has nowhere to go.

The results of my stealth camera are not very compelling, for only one night-capture of undisclosed subject awaits me.

bleached terrapin shell graces edge of savanna

Returning along the same track, I spot the bleached shell of a terrapin beneath a lone savanna tree. The ten-inch forest and lagoon-dwelling reptile appears to have been slow to escape the savanna burning that happens near the end of dry season in June or July.  Edges of its bony carapace show signs of burn damage.  Unfortunately, pulling into its shell will not ensure survival during a savanna fire.  The domed shell stands as a hollow reminder of the unintended consequences of human activity.

2 responses to “reptiles du Gabon”

  1. Hi David, thanks for sharing this. Pleased to know the turtle shell was recovered and added to the SI collection. Would be interested to see and before and after photos one day. Cheers, Phil.

    1. Phil,
      We have more work scheduled as the carcass dries out. We need to start processing it before the feral dogs do our work for us. Not something you want to do before lunch. I’ll try to keep a record of the progress.

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