Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gratitude for all that's come

As Joss posted, today is our last full day in Kopeyia. Tomorrow we must go to Accra to prepare for our departure back to the U.S. on Monday. The last three weeks have brought great progress on the Dagbe Antelope Project, leaving me greatly impressed with the abilities of the Ewe people to move a project forward quickly and effectively. Three weeks ago, all that existed of the project were many ideas and plans; now, the hunters have a net and are already in the bush working to capture animals, and the enclosure is rapidly growing.

As with all projects of this nature, much remains to be done, both here in Ghana and in the U.S. Joss and I will continue to raise funds for the project once we get home, and Emmanuel and his staff will continue to build and arrange for the antelope. But I am not daunted by the work that remains. If anything, what has taken place her over the last three weeks has given me more energy than ever.

Happy New Year. Long life and prosperity to you and your families.

Pre-Departure Update

Somehow three weeks have flown by, and we are scheduled to leave for Accra tomorrow, and will fly out on Monday.  So much has been accomplished - we have procured a net for the hunters, almost 200 feet long, which will be used to corral them in the bush.  Had we acquired it earlier in the trip perhaps we'd already have antelope waiting in the temporary enclosure, but things move here as they will.  But we're excited to know that at any moment, we could get news of our first antelope.  Who knows, maybe we'll see one before heading out!

In addition to the net, the mason (Moses) has finished forming the additional blocks needed for the foundation, and the crew has begun laying them out into the trenches that were dug over the past week.  Soon the other cement and gravel will fill in and create the base for the chain link fence - although we'll have to arrange for more funding to purchase the needed metal piping for the supports once we get home.

Today we met with the chief of Kopeyia, Torgbui, at his palace home on the other side of Kopeyia.  Kopeyia isn't just a small village - it's a conglomeration of compounds and smaller village-areas, and he is the head of the whole area.  He is an avid supporter of science education and is enthusiastic to help us succeed in our project, for which we are quite grateful.  After our discussion, Torgbui took us on a walking tour of his village area, which is where the Ewe initially settled 600 years ago - there is a mango tree there that is said to be that old, and seeing its size, I believe it!

If we are able to get online in Accra we'll post further, but for now, this might be the last until we arrive home and can more easily post video, pictures, and a fuller story.  We hope you've enjoyed the ride, it certainly has been amazing for us!  More soon, Akpe!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Photos of construction

Trenches dug!  And, the local school's soccer team came this morning and moved all the blocks (a lot.  of blocks!)  Here are 2 photos of the beginning of construction.

Ruben pouring libations into the ground.

Christian and Moses survey the land after the first level of ground was broken
(note the 2 intersecting lines meeting)

We'll be posting photos of some similar structures soon so you can get a sense of what the overall gestalt is for the fencing - meanwhile, today we procured a net for the hunters!  Who knows, maybe we'll luck out and an antelope will be procured before we leave.  Doubtful, but regardless the endeavor feels successful and we both feel great about progress.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Construction begins

Yesterday we began construction on the enclosure. The cement blocks made last week were now finally dry enough to be used to build the foundation, and so on the day after Christmas, work began. The first step, of course, was to pour libations to ask the ancestors for their blessing and on-going engagement in the project. Reuben Agbeli, senior member of the Agbeli family, presided over the ceremony, and all of the staff of the Dagbe Center participated. During the ceremony, Joss and I read out the names of the major donors to the project so far, and they were thanked by Reuben and the staff for their vital participation in the project.

After libations, the hard work began. We marked out the lines for the foundation, which will create an enclosure that is 100 x 100 feet. With machetes, we cleared the vegetation along the lines, and then Moses, the primary mason directing this part of the project, marked out the dimensions for the trenches that need to be cut for the cement blocks: about 14 inches wide. With picks and shovels, the Dagbe staff, Joss, and I began the task of cutting the trenches to a depth of about 18 inches. I cannot possibly describe completely how hard the ground is, baked by the sun and bone dry in this season of no rain. All of the work here is done manually (which is a subject I want to explore on this blog at a future time); while in the States we would be looking to rent mechanical devices to do the trenching and stump removal, here in Ghana, such devices are unavailable or priced out of the reach of projects such as this. We do the work by hand, or it doesn't get done at all.

By the end of the day yesterday we had one side completely trenched, and today we completed two more sides. I anticipate that we'll complete the trenching by tomorrow if we can get an early enough start. (Today we began at about 7:30 in the morning, but by 11:00 it was way too hot to continue; by the time we stopped, my clothes were completely drenched and I was beginning to feel a little light-headed.) Then we have a few stumps to remove, after which I think we'll be ready for the cement blocks.

As soon as I can, I will upload photos of this process, but right now I am not able to establish a secure enough link to the 'net to handle the upload. But trust me, the photos make clear that the people involved in the project here at the Dagbe Center are totally committed to bringing this to life ... as are Joss and I.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Photos for you

A Maxwell's Duiker, one of the most common antelope sold as bushmeat 
in Ghanaian Markets.  We photographed this one in Ho - didn't see any others.

We did, however, see plenty of grass-cutters (Greater Cane Rats) for sale.
And we bought one for dinner.

Men making the first batch of cement blocks for the construction of the base of the antelope enclosure.

Sand and cement for the blocks.

Meeting with local Hunters

Progress, continued!  The concrete block makers arrived and formed a LOT of blocks for the base of the enclosure.  (I'll post a photo soon.)  The well is dug, but we haven't connected a motor for the pump yet since we still need to dig the trench and lay the piping.  Stacks of fencing and wire are stored in Emmanuel's spare room and waiting to be formed into the main walls of the enclosure, which hopefully will begin to rise up on Monday.  Before beginning to dig the foundation lines, we'll pour libations and request a successful path for the endeavor.

Meanwhile, we are taking various tracks for acquiring the actual antelope: the first track has the game wardens helping us find and anesthetize the antelope with a dart gun, and then move them to the finished enclosure.  The second path, which is concurrent with the first, requires the help of local hunters.  On Wednesday we went to Ho, a larger town north of Kopeyia -  you can see it on Google Earth.  We met with five of the area's traditional hunters and also one of the regional chiefs, who also is a hunter.  After introductions, Emmanuel explained our project and they felt very enthusiastic about helping us procure antelope.  We're working on finding them a proper sized net, and then they assure us that within a few days they can corral the antelope and catch them live and unharmed.  So now that various folks are actively helping with that end of the work, we are able to continue to raise the walls as quickly as possible.  One other positive result of the meeting is that the hunters were able to tell Emmanuel specific trees and other habitat needs that would be preferable for duikers, which will help greatly.

More soon!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sand arrives!

Sand arriving at Emmanuel's house today - two full dump trucks full (I have no idea how many yards that translates into.  Let's just say A LOT.)  This sand will be mixed with the concrete to form the blocks of the enclosure.  Progress!

Here We Are

Well, that took a bit - we've been in Kopeyia for a week+ but it's been so fast and furious that getting online in the little internet room has been a challenge.  All good work, though.   We arrived safely into Accra on the 10th and met Emmanuel there, stayed at the Afia hotel that night and then headed straight back to Kopeyia the next morning.  That was Sunday, and there were a lot of events happening around the area (market day in Denu, 2 funerals, etc. - so we didn't see most of our friends until late that afternoon.  I thought we'd just be spending some down time and resting, but ended up getting invited to a ceremony that night - great entry!

So by Monday/Tuesday, we were beginning to meet with Emmanuel and Christian, who is a local hunter and Emma's good friend.  He's been helping us procure supplies, and even brought us some bush meat (grass cutter) to try that night (he'd just shot it that day).  Through him, we've discovered a lot more about some of the issues surrounding bush meat hunting.  I videoed a lot of those meetings, plus the site for the new antelope enclosure, and some of the work done on the new well (which goes almost 40 feet down, all by hand).  Right now we are waiting for the cement bricks for the enclosure's base to set, and hopefully today we'll break ground on site and start preparing the boundary. 

Meanwhile, we wait with a bit of anticipation and hope for news of antelope for the enclosure - it's the very beginning of dry season and they are only starting to come out of hiding as bush fires and the need for greens and water drive them into the open. 

The most impressive aspect so far has been Emmanuel's preparation and organization, both before and during our visit.  Once this enclosure is built and the antelope secured, I feel strongly that this will succeed thanks to his solidity.

Today I will work to upload some photos of the area, if I can (low bandwidth here and spotty connections taken into account).

We are definitely still welcoming donations to Emmanuel's cause if you haven't yet been able to contribute - feel free to purchase a DVD or CD of audio and video taken at events during this trip (ceremonies, the antelope work, etc.)  Links to the right) - all profits go directly to costs here!

Akpe and more soon!

... and let there be progress!

We are now in Ghana, and have been at the Dagbe Cultural Center in Kopeyia for about a week. It was been wildly productive, in my opinion. We've spent a fair amount of time working with Emmanuel and Christian, the hunter who will help us procure the breeding animals as well as the general contractor who is helping to procure the supplies for building the enclosure. I am excited about the plan we've put together for the enclosure: We will construct it right across the trail from the Center and the existing poultry farm, so regular access to it will be easy. It is currently unused, so no land is being taken out of food production. Also, it is only about 100 meters from the elementary school here, and Emmanual wants to make the facility available to the school to help teach the children about their own wildlife. As a biologist who teaches local natural history to my own students in the States, I absolutely LOVE the idea that we are able to build in an educational component to this project. The enclosure will be about 80 feet on a side, constructed of concrete blocks up about 2.5 feet, then continued upward about another 6 feet with galvanized pipe supporting chain link fence, and topped with rolls of razor wire for security.

We hope to begin construction on the enclosure this weekend. We have procured the chain link fence and razor wire; now, we are just waiting for a deliver of sand for the concrete. Apparently there is SO MUCH construction going on in the Volta Region due to economic expansion that getting a dump truck delivery scheduled takes time. Once we get the sand, however, we start digging.

Based on my research, we ought to be able to house as many as 20 small antelope in the enclosure to begin with. That number might grow or shrink based on what we learn from our initial results over this first year, but I think it's a good place to start. We'll have mixed species, but all of them will be of the small antelope, which are refered to just as "antelope" in Ewe (the large antelope being called "deer") and as "duikers" in English.

We completed the digging of the well to supply water to the enclosure this week. It took two men three days to dig a 30+ foot deep well. I'll post pictures of it as soon as I can, but for now I just want to say how impressed I am at the capacity of these men to drive a straight, narrow-bore (about 12 inches diameter) hole down deep through clay and mud. We've placed the well inside the compound so that the pump can be secure against theft, but this means that we'll also need to dig a trench from the well out to the antelope compound to hold an underground pipe. The distance isn't far (about 100 feet), but it's a good example of how the on-the-ground realities of what has to happen to make this project work grows and evolves over time.

So ... progress is being made. So far, we've had no bad surprises, and everyone we've talked to here about the project is excited about its potential. I've seen more and more drums at ceremonies here with broken heads, so it's really true that the future of the music here depends on some attention to sustainable agriculture, conservation biology, and ... as Emmanuel likes to say ... a vision of the future.



Sunday, December 4, 2011


I should be speaking with Emmanuel this coming Tuesday; really, at this point, it's down to getting there, finding out what species are there for us to raise, and to begin building.  I wish Emmanuel could post here, he's done so much in preparation - we even know what water/well pump we need to make water (dedicated) available to the antelope within the enclosure.   Emma has also figured out a really economical way to construct high walls for the enclosure that allow light and airflow - but we'll post photos and info on that once we get there and it's actually started.

Can we go now?  Yes?  COOL!

Learning a new natural history

The risk in spending most of your life practicing natural history in one region is how easy it is to become complacent about what you know or how to go about learning what you don't. For example, I know the birds of North America pretty darn well, and if I encounter something I don't know, I know how to look it up.

Preparing myself to work on antelope in the Volta Region of Ghana has given me a much needed jolt out of my complacency. Emmanuel provided to me the Ewe names for the species that are used most often for heading drums. They are:


What's known about captive breeding of those species? Who knows; without knowing what the English or Latin names for them are, there's no way to explore the scientific literature that describes their breeding biology.

So translating the names from Ewe into English/Latin should be straightforward. Just (a) find someone here in North America who has done research on wildlife in Ghana, (b) get them to provide names for their Ghanaian colleagues, (c) contact those Ghanaian wildlife professionals to see if they speak Ewe, and if not, (d) get them to arrange for translations with their colleagues who do speak Ewe.

Simple. Except that it took me two months to accomplish this. As a result, I am no longer complacent. And for the record:

AVUGBE - Grey Duiker
KODZOE - Red Flank Duiker
DZAKE (Djoke) - Maxwell Duiker
ESE - Kob
DABO - Oribi

Now I have a much better idea of what we need to do.

And I also have an idea for a side project while we are there: start to develop an Ewe-language natural history. More on that later.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Speeding up

So last night it apparently snowed over much of Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire. (In October - THAT is scary!)  While I saw a couple snowflakes twirling through the air on my way home from the college, we didn't see any real weather here.  I can, however, say that nothing motivates excitement for a trip to West Africa like the onset of winter cold.  I'm ready to go!

Many things are on the "to do list" before that is going to happen, though.  Right now we're in the "nuts and bolts" preparatory part of our trip.  Visas, immunizations, and continued fundraising are all in motion.  Steve is getting some great leads on breeding potential of various species from a number of experts that he's in contact with, which we'll share as soon.  Emmanuel and I are going to talk on Sunday and hopefully begin to see what aspects of the work can start ahead of time.

Some really cool folks have been assisting here outside of the science, too - Jeremy Cohen, who leads groups to Ghana with his organization called "This World Music," helped spread the word about our kickstarter campaign and then last night he let me know that the group had raised funds and installed some computers for internet access right at the Dagbe Center.  It will make it much easier to post updates, since the next nearest viable internet access is 40 minutes further!  Knowing that internet in the Volta Region will be a lot slower than what we'd find in the cities, we'll see about the kinds of media that I'll be able to post there.  But many thanks to Jeremy for his continued support and information, which is a huge help.

Also, Mary Brust, who heads the board for the Vermont Global Village Project, is helping us out a lot with funding.  Mary has led many trips to Dagbe, and we often combine my college ensemble with her dancer friends from previous trips for local performances.  We'll be performing some Ghanaian dances at the Vermont International Festival this December, right before Steve and I leave - a perfect send-off!

On this blog page will soon be a button where anyone interested can pre-purchase a DVD of our video or a CD of our audio recordings from the upcoming trip.  This will include footage of the work we do with antelope, but also local performances of drum and dance.  If you made $20+ contributions to the Kickstarter campaign, you'll get a DVD automatically.  But if you aren't a part of the Kickstarter campaign but want to support our work, please feel free to pre-order a DVD and/or CD, which will be delivered in the spring after we return and have had a chance to edit and create the discs.   The profits from these discs will all go into the antelope project fund.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Questions about the project

Over the course of our fundraising effort through Kickstarter, we have been asked a number of questions about the project, both in terms of the biological complexities of what we are attempting to do and the sociocultural connections of the project with the Ewe people. Here are the answers I've been giving.

I've read that antelope can simply be bought in local markets. Why raise them yourself? The goal of this project is not simply to raise antelope acquired in markets, which are only there because hunters captured them in the wild. Our goal is to BREED the antelope so that (a) the Dagbe Cultural Center has a sustainable supply of skins, and (b) the use of antelope skins for drums does not contribute to on-going hunting pressure on these species.

I've read that antelope can be raised like goats. So why all the fuss? Again, the goal is not simply to raise the animals but to breed them. The fact that some species of antelope can be domesticated and raised like known livestock is good news; it means that individual antelope can adapt well to captivity, do not have profoundly challenging needs, and are hearty in the face of human settlements. Our challenge is in capitalizing on these benefits to create a self-sustaining population.

Aren't antelope wildly different from other domesticated species? No. Antelope are in the same family (the taxonomic group above the genus) as sheep, goats, and cows.

Are antelope even edible? Yes. Like other closely related species such as sheep and goats, antelope are edible. This is why they are hunted and sold in markets, and is a large part of the reason their populations are declining in the wild.

Will raising the antelope take grain out of the mouths of people? The species we are targeting are browsers, normally feeding in the wild on leaves, bark, and fruit, typically not on food items that would otherwise be used by humans. While we are still researching which species it would be best for us to concentrate our efforts on, we are committed to not using a species whose rearing would compete with humans for food.

Could this project successfully solve the bushmeat crisis in Africa? Highly unlikely. The magnitude of that problem is so great that it is unlikely that even one strategy, let alone one initiative, will accomplish that. The primary goal for the project is to ensure a sustainable supply of antelope skins for the Dagbe Cultural Center and, by extension, to the Ewe people of the Volta Region in Ghana to promote the maintenance of a musical tradition. We believe the project can also contribute to reducing the demand on wild antelope if the techniques we learn for raising them can be shared and disseminated to other farmers and villages, but an ultimate solution to the bushmeat crisis will require much more than just this one effort.

Has anyone ever successfully bred antelope? Yes. Numerous zoos and a small number of wildlife centers in Africa have breeding colonies for a number of different species. We are in contact with a number of them, learning what we can about what species would be best for us to start with and what is known about how to be successful.

Other questions? If so, leave a comment, and I'll answer them as they come in.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Well both Steve and I are feeling pretty good - check this out!  I will be calling Emmanuel later today to give him the news:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Less than $500 to go!

It is very, very exciting to see that with 12 days left to go in our Kickstarter project, we have less than $500 to go before we reach our goal.  Hope is in the air!

Now that Steve is back from a month of sabbatical research and writing in South Carolina, we are beginning to gather needed data to help us create a solid plan that can be implemented when we arrive in Ghana (and hopefully a lot of initial work can be prepped even before we get there).  Emmanuel sent the following about the local antelope species names, in case anyone is curious:

Hi Joss & Steve,

I hope everything is going on well with you guys.
We are also doing great.

I went to Ho in one of the village called TAVIEPE and met with a good hunter
called Atsikpi.

The types we use on Sogo, Kidi and Kagans are:

(Here is an image of the Sogo, Kidi, and Kagan drums for your reference - Joss:)

Types on Bobas are:

(The Boba is a large lead drum used for social dances, and looks somewhat like the above drums, only much larger (up to 3.5 feet tall) and much wider.  You can hear it, and see it at around 2:00, being played here.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Editing, Editing

So over the past weeks I've been working on our Kickstarter page, where we are hoping to help raise some of our funds via public support.  It's close to being finished; the most time-consuming part of it has been the video, something we both feel will help communicate our intentions in a different way.  Once the video gets posted, I'll link it here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A beginning: Steve's view

Joss posted last week about the origins of our project. My role in our efforts is as a biologist, which doesn't really say much about what I do or know. Saying that one is a biologist is a bit like saying one is a musician. There's a world of difference between being the piccolo player in a marching band and a concert pianist, and which one you really want working with you depends on whether you are heading to the Rose Bowl or Carnegie Hall.

More precisely, I am a conservation biologist. As a science, conservation biology is a synthetic discipline that combines all of the biological sciences -- ecology, genetics, natural history, physiology, and so on -- toward an understanding of the causes of the decline of biological diversity and of the strategies needed to protect it. My specific training has been as an ecologist specializing on mammals, and I trained as a graduate student in a lab that specialized on environmental reproductive physiology.

For the project we are undertaking, that sounds just about perfect, doesn't it. Truth be told, however, the mammals I have studied are rodents and the landscapes I have worked in are all in North and Central America. I have little to no professional experience with antelope, livestock, or Ghana.

So what am I really bringing to this project? Something more valuable than ready answers. I bring what all good scientists can bring when something new needs to be discovered: a method to asking the right questions and discovering the answers. My role in this project will be to discover the biological aspects of how we can implement a successful antelope breeding operation on Emmanuel Agbeli's farm in Kopeyia, Ghana, one that will help him preserve the Ewe people's musical traditions in the face of the decline in wild sources of antelope skins.

Josselyne, Emmanuel, and I are beginning a journey together, and this blog will let you travel along with us. A good part of my journey, especially before Joss and I depart for Ghana to join Emmanuel, is intellectual and interior. What do we need to know? What is already known? Has any of this been tried before, and if so, what happened? Are there parallels to what we are attempting and other potential captive-breeding projects, such as in zoos or wildlife rehabilitation centers? What kind of infrastructure is needed on the farm, and how easy would it be for any farmer or villager to replicate?

I love questions. Questions are the core of every project's beginning. Welcome to our journey of inquiry ... and ultimately, of discovery.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A beginning

To begin, an Ewe (pronounced, "eh-veh") proverb:

 De bia, agɔ bia gake agɔ mefoa detsi o
(you can’t substitute one thing for another and think you can get the same results)

Music, dance, and song are incredibly important aspects of Ghanaian culture.  In the Volta Region, as elsewhere in West Africa, drumming not only provides musical texture - drums speak.  Ewe is a tonal language, and many instruments (and rhythmic patterns) literally emulate the spoken tones to the point where a proverb or statement can be understood by the listener.

Ewe drums, for the most part, are headed with the thick skins of local antelope.  During my last trip to Ghana I had intended to buy some replacement skins for the drums I use at the college where I teach.  My teacher, Emmanuel Agbeli, explained to me that we might not be able to procure the skins at all, and if we did, they would be incredibly expensive compared to what I had paid years before.  We did find some skins hours away and they were, indeed, very costly.  Why was this?

Over the years these antelope have been over-harvested for food (bush meat).  Hunters are having to travel further and further to find them, and often fail.   As Emmanuel and I spoke about the issue, he expressed his concern about this with a very startling statement: "I do not know the future of our music."

The skins are thick and have a distinct sound quality that gives them a melodic tone that can be manipulated with hand or stick, and that melodic tone is what enables a masterful player to emulate the speech patterns that bring so much meaning to Ewe music (I'll post some examples later on).   It is simply not possible to replace the heads with another material such as goat - they would not be able to create the same sounds.  Hence the proverb at the beginning of this post - "You can't substitute one thing for another and get the same results."

This blog is the record of the attempt of myself, Steve Trombulak (my partner and a biologist at Middlebury College) and Emmanuel Agbeli, master drummer of Kopeyia, Ghana, to create a sustainable population of antelope in his village.

Steve and I will leave for Ghana on December 9th.  It is our hope to raise awareness and funds to support this work - in part, reciprocity for the beautiful gift of music and dance that have enriched our lives for many years.