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Honey badger:1 chicken:0

 

Honey badger don't care

Honey badger don’t care

Have you ever seen the look on a dogs face when confronted with a cat that fights back? There is utter confusion about his role in life, “hang on a minute that cat is way smaller than me, I could stomp her in a second, but now she’s scaring me?” our imaginary dog says. Well that’s about my reaction the first time I came face to face with a honey badger.

Honey badgers are small, reaching somewhere between your ankle and your knee and no more than 1 meter long. They weigh around 10kg but don’t let these dimensions fool you; a honey badger is full to the brim with confidence.

Most small animals will run when they find themselves face to face with a human; a sensible option given our species general nature. A honey badger on the other hand probably won’t and this can be very disconcerting.

One night I was sat round a fire in what classed as my garden, though in reality there was nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the bush surrounding us as home was in a nature reserve and there were no fences. It was a crisp, for the lowveld in South Africa, winters night and the stars were shining brilliantly as we sat in the sand by the fire waiting for the chicken to finish cooking. From the other side of the river the hyena started their whooping and the hippo disputed the rights of some patch of dry grass. Winter is the dry season here and things get difficult especially for bulk grazers. The African night sounds had as captivated as usual.  The chicken smelt good. My husband was just about to rouse himself to check it one last time when we both heard something moving behind us in the dark.  As it got closer we saw it was a honey badger moving at a lopping determined gait that they have straight towards us. It was a wonderful treat to see one of these guys close up and for a few seconds we were rapt.  But it didn’t stop.  It trotted straight to the grill, a small pause to give us a low growling warning and chomp, there went half our chicken. We couldn’t believe our eyes, this wasn’t a hand reared animal or an animal in a public campsite in a national park that gets used to people, this was a real live wild animal. It had no fear of us, it totally wrong footed us as we were not expecting it to just bull doze its way in. Needless to say we grabbed the rest of our meal and took it into the safety of the house to finish in peace.

Honey badgers really are remarkable creatures. Whilst in search of food they can cover up to 30km in a night. They eat a varied diet of mammals, birds, reptiles and some roots and berries and of course honey when they can get it. They climb well and can swim; they will dig furiously to follow a rodent down a hole and just don’t seem to give up in their pursuit of prey.

Honey badgers are tough and there are many stories about them killing buffalo, fighting lions, being bitten by cobras and surviving.   One of the tricks they use to help evade predators is by having very loose skin around the back of their necks. A lion or leopard will grab for this area, coming up with a mouthful of skin but leaving the vital bones and muscles untouched. The honey badger can then twist round and start biting and scratching with it all its might often inducing the dog/cat scenario from the start of this blog i.e. predator dropping honey badger in utter surprise.

So next time you classify a honey badger on Snapshot Serengeti remember it’s not always size that counts.

The lost lions of the Transect Steady pride

### Today we’ve got a guest post by our very own Daniel Rosengren, lion tracker (& photographer) extraordinaire. ###

It started with some mysterious footprints around the Loliondo Kopjes. There were a lot of fresh paw marks in the mud following the road. I could tell it was a big pride but the only big pride with a territory nearby was the Young Transects. But I could not hear their collar. Neither could I hear any of our other prides. I drove around for a while looking for lions, especially on the rocks and under trees. I didn’t find any and guessed it could have been the Young Transect lions anyway, only without the collared female.

A couple of weeks later I was headed out east when I soon caught eye on a big group of lions. As I drove closer I realized they weren’t any lions I knew. I tried to get photos of all of them but it wasn’t easy knowing who you’d already got in a group of 17 lions. Luckily they all started walking along the track. All I had to do was park ahead of them and take photos as they passed one by one. Once I had photos of all their left sides I went home to try to figure out who they were.

Transect Steady_DSC9847

I concentrated on the older females as the youngster probably never had been seen before by the Lion Project. After a while I found a couple of matches. It was TR86 and TSF from the Transect Steady pride, not seen since December 2009, almost three and a half years earlier. But the last time they were seen regularly in our study area was in 2008.

Now I contacted TANAPA and the vets to organize a collaring of one of the females. They were coming. I drove back to the place where I’d seen the lions and hoped they hadn’t walked too far. I found them in the shade of a tree. Then a long wait started for the vets to organize themselves and drive all the way from Fort Ikoma. Once they came, the collaring went smoothly, the rest of the pride watching from a distance.

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All of the lions of the TS pride, watching us warily as we try and create enough space to safely collar our lion.

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Daniel fitting the collar.

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TANAPA vet preparing to take samples.

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It’s pretty exciting to to be this close to a lion. Their paws are BIG.

About a week later I found the pride just outside the northern edge of our study area along the Pipeline track. Two more old females known since before had joined them, TR93 and TR106. Then they disappeared. So two weeks later I decided to search for them and drove along the Pipeline track north. But instead of driving on the actual track, which in many places was disappearing because of little use, I drove parallel to it, hitting all hilltops to be able to pick up the radio signal from a greater distance. The drive was terrible as the hills in the area are specked with large rocks and I had to drive dead slow. I held on the the steering wheel as little as possible. Having no power steering means that every time I hit a rock I risk breaking thumbs or worse.

I picked up the signal after a while but I still had to pass several hills before finally finding them, right by the track at a river confluence. That was quite far north of our study area and too far to go and see them on a weekly basis. The future will have to show where they finally settle.

The sound of silence?

## Today’s guest post is from our moderator and regular contributor Lucy Hughes. ##


African sunset 1

What does silence mean to you? Maybe it’s that moment at the end of the day when the telephones stop ringing and the office hubbub finally stops and you can hear yourself think. Maybe sitting in your garden listening to the insects and aeroplanes pass overhead. Or maybe it’s that first 5 minutes of waking before the baby starts howling. Whatever it means to you the point is silence isn’t really silent. Something is always making a sound even if it’s a leaf rustling in the wind or a cricket singing.

In the African bush night time silence is deafening.  Just before sunset there is a rush of activity. The day shift starts looking for a place to spend the night whilst frantically searching out that last mouthful of food. Young banded mongoose are scolded into their burrows by older siblings. Antelope take a drink before heading to thicker cover. Francolins are calling out their staccato calls whilst sandgrouse flock to drink. As the sun sets and darkness looms everything quietens down, the last to make a noise are the guinea fowl who wait till it is just dark to, one by one, barrel up to adorn their favourite roosting trees like giant Christmas baubles. They finally settle down, and the nearby baboons stop squabbling and there is a moment’s peace before the night shift takes over.

African sunset 2

The Scops owl is first with its ‘poop poop poop’ call sounding almost like an insect.  Then the night-jars join in. A distant rasping bark and the jackal are off calling ownership of their territory. They stop suddenly and a moment later there it is, the slow wo-oop! Woo-ooop! and the hyena clan are declaring they are up for business.

There has been no respite to the constant noise of the African bush during this transition between day and night; a seamless mix between the two sound tracks. As the evening wears on and the night shift are out hunting in earnest it gets quieter.  If you are lucky enough to experience this it is unforgettable. The silence is thick, it hurts your ears and you want to shake your head to clear it. You are straining to hear anything out there in the blackness and your senses have you on high alert, never mind that you are in a vehicle your primal instinct knows this is Africa and beasts roam that want to eat you.

The only sound is a cacophony of insects and it is this that gets in your head, it is a relief when a spotted eagle owl calls breaking the pitch and giving you perspective again. Staring into the blackness you see a shape move , you can’t make out what it is, then comes a noise that goes right through you, a guttural, low sawing sound, a leopard is calling broadcasting its presence using the ground as a sounding board. He walks out in front of you, pauses for a moment, then strides off purposefully into the night.

The silence of the African night is palpable. You could slice it with a knife. It is so full of promises of wonderful animal encounters that I never want to sleep. It’s my favourite sound of silence; what’s yours?

Guinea-fowl flying to roost

The short and happy life of a Serengeti lion

### Last week Craig spoke for Cafe Scientifique about lions and shared the research that Lion Project has been conducting for the last 45 years. Check out the video here. Peter and Faith, UMN undergrads conducting research in the Lion Lab, attended the talk and share their experiences as well. ####

Peter and Faith here! Last week we had the opportunity to attend the Bell Museum’s Cafe Scientifique. Cafe Scientifique allows scientists from all disciplines and specialties to share their research directly with the public in the form of a casual presentation given at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN. This past month’s talk was given by Snapshot Serengeti’s own Professor Craig Packer, giving a historic rundown of some of the highlights of the lion research conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Center.

As prospective lion researchers ourselves, it was both interesting and valuable to hear the conclusions of past research from the perspective of the researcher. Not to mention having it be told in a casual and humorous way, which is a refreshing break from the stack of scientific papers we are usually reading!  The audience, which was made up of local community members, was also engaged in the talk. Even though Dr. Packer presented complex graphs and maps, he explained the research in a way that was accessible to everyone.  The studies that were discussed during the talk included the lion’s mane study, why lions form prides, and even a bit about lion conservation and the potential use of fences to protect vulnerable populations.  In addition to reviewing past research, Dr. Packer also talked about the lion project’s current research–Snapshot Serengeti. The audience was amazed by how fast volunteers sorted through the millions of images on Snapshot Serengeti. (To all of you that have contributed to the success of “Snapshot”, cheers to you!) By the end of the talk, the entire audience, (including us!) had loads of insightful questions, and left with a piqued interest in the world of lion research.

Close Encounters

## Margaret and I are both recovering from a crazy week at the Ecological Society of America conference and the incredibly successful Save Snapshot Serengeti campaign, so we’re posting a fantastic story from our regular contributor and Snapshot moderator Lucy Hughes. Thank you all again for helping us to make Snapshot Serengeti so successful. ###

When you live in the African bush you imagine it will be full of close encounters with wildlife like lion, hyena and elephant. It’s true to say there is a fair number of these encounters but in reality it’s the small critters you encounter more frequently. Often these can be far more heart stopping. I am talking about snakes. What’s more, they don’t relegate themselves to the bush; they tend to congregate around your house.

Black mamba in the road.

Black mamba in the road.

My house was a thatch and stone affair that nestled in amongst rocks, very scenic but also perfect snake habitat. Snake encounters were an almost daily occurrence on the reserve and life with them took a bit of getting used to.

My first encounter just weeks after I moved in was right by the front door.  Coming home one day I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and realised I had just walked past a snake sticking its head out of the rock wall. I went hot and cold as my ankle must have been inches away from it. Fumbling with the key I burst through the door and from the safety of its glass watched the now empty hole to see if the snake would reappear. Oh yes, it came out alright, a Mozambique spitting cobra. To cut a long story short Sid the Spitting cobra and I became friends. I didn’t disturb my door sentinel and he didn’t bite me. I regularly saw him peak out of the same hole. Learning to live with snakes is important in the bush. Killing any wildlife is frowned on in a reserve.

Sid, the spitting cobra.

Sid, the spitting cobra.

One night whilst doing the dishes idly gazing out the window the rock wall suddenly seemed to move. Once my brain readjusted to the image I realised a rock python was making its way out of the thatch and down to the ground on a night time foray. Now a 2 meter python in the roof is not a bad thing. For a start it keeps the tree squirrel population down and that in turn keeps the black mambas away (who love tree squirrel snacks).  As long as it’s a small python you don’t worry about it finding its way into your bed at night, a black mamba on the other hand caused me quite a few sleepless nights after I saw it disappear into the thatch.

Spotted bush snake at home in the roof.

Spotted bush snake at home in the roof.

My shower was out doors and had a resident foam nest frog living on a shelf. One morning going for a shower I heard a terrible squealing. A spotted bush snake had my frog and was busy devouring it. It took over an hour to swallow my friend.

Spotted bush snake eating a gecko

I once had a pair of orphaned baby tree squirrels (yes mum fell afoul of a Mamba) When they where big enough I would sit in the garden with them whilst they ran around exploring. The little female was quite brave and was scampering around on the rocks. Next thing I hear a piercing squeal and the little squirrel shot up into a low branch. I raced over and scooped her up and sat with her in my hand for about a minute whilst she breathed her last. A Puff adder sitting in a crevice had struck her.

But for all the horror stories snakes are fascinating things and it is a thrill to see them in action so close.  I would rather they stayed out of my house though, the garden is close enough! When we learn to live with nature it offers us such rewards.

Stuck. Part 2.

##### Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s adventure, written by Patrik Dousa. #####

When we left off the story from last week, all of us in the Serengeti team were out deep in the sour tern range of the Serengeti trying to free a land rover from thick mud. All we accomplished was securing the range rover even deeper in the mud. From 1/4 of the wheel being submerged to a half, with the bumper touching the ground. Good going. A beautiful sunset was going to occur in an hour or so and the last place to be at that point was in the middle of a hazardous plain with a large pride of lions waking up for their nighttime prowls.

This is actually muddier than it looks...

This is actually muddier than it looks…

The lions are still watching us from their mesas to the north and Ali is figuring out the next move. I thought it was a clear decision. Leave. Now. Have I described to you the fortitude and diligence of a lion researcher? A job that requires you to spend most of your time in the dry plains with the only the basic minimum requirements to sustain you doesn’t attract individuals who give up too easily. No, Ali and George see the sunken rover as a challenge that must be faced. We aren’t leaving, not without a fight.

Just then a tourist vehicle pulls up along a road about a half-mile from our area on the other side of the uncrossable mud plains. The guide is in the process taking them back home to one of the southern lodges and apparently decided to stop, having spied the magnificent example of male lion that was observing our vehicle. The new arrival attracted King Simba’s attention and the powerful elegant beast starts walking towards the tourists. I can see their excitement mount through my binoculars — this moment is going to be the highlight of their trip. George and Ali are laboring through shovelfuls of the thickest, reddest, peatiest mud you can imagine and only a short distance away, well-scrubbed observers are preparing themselves for the the apex of their Serengeti experience. Such is life.

I see a bold cub follow his master lion and play around his feet incurring his wrath for a moment. The king playfully swats back and raises his head to the heavens letting out an immense roar to the delight of the tourists. The greatest show on earth — with our little car-trouble side-show of going on right in the background. “Who are those crazy people back there?” they must have asked their guide. “Well, they’re professionals, so they must know what their doing.” the guide is certain to have responded.

The lion’s roar triggered a slow migration of the lionesses and their cubs from the low mesas to the area closer to the tourist vehicle where the male lion had settled. As the single file procession began, we felt a wave of relief since the pride was now headed away from our rover. A few more attempts to drag out the stuck vehicle failed. By now the sun is steadily growing larger and more rosy as it begins its decent. The sky eventually reaches the particular hue that Ali reads as our signal to leave.

We secured the vehicle and took all the valuables and began a slow retreat back thinking, “please don’t get stuck” on repeat until we got back on the main road. The pink sun blossomed into a deep red bloom that backlit the acacia tree line creating the beautiful silhouetted postcard image that the Serengeti is so well know for. The mood in the car was impervious to these romantic supplications. Exhausted and temporarily defeated, the crew made the long journey back toward the research house.

And all we've done is get ourselves in even deeper.

And all we’ve done is get ourselves in even deeper.

Being the visitor who expended the least amount of sweat that day, I suggested that we stop at the local canteen Seronera and that I’d treat everyone to a chicken and rice dinner and a Stoney Tangawizi (the extra spicy ginger ale that is everybody’s favorite drink in Tanzania). This turned out to be a very cost effective way to turn the sour mood sweet — just a few bucks per plate and brew to get everyone back to their happy place. Soon the team was back to the bantering with the locals and planning tomorrow’s adventure. That was my last night at the Serengeti, the next day I was back on the road to Arusha. Ali messaged me later and mentioned that they were able to round up a crew to go back and successfully drag out the rover the next day. This did not surprise me since I had well learned: you can’t keep a lion research team down for long.

Stuck. Part 1.

Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.

This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does.  Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.

We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.

Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.

Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap  that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.

How we found George.

How we found George.

Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.

The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.

A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.

The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.

Step 1. Let's see if we can tow George out...

Step 1. Let’s see if we can tow George out…

To be continued

All in the name of science

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).black-divider

Arrhhh, that really hurts! A three inch thorn had just penetrated my, admittedly inadequate, footwear and was stuck deep in the sole of my foot. Thorns are a serious hazard of camera trap placement in the South African bushveld where plants with thorns or hooks seem to make up about 90% of species.

My colleague Michelle ran back to the landy to get a first aid kit whilst I set about extracting the thorn, there seemed to be an awful lot of blood. I watched the path eagerly for Michelle’s return but as she got near she seemed to slow down and as she opened her mouth to speak I knew exactly what she was going to say. “Luce, if it’s not too painful, what about spreading your blood around a bit?”

Callous as it may seem it wasn’t a bad idea. We had been having trouble with capturing clear night shots of leopards. They always seem to be in a hurry and the shots we had were often blurry making it impossible to id the individuals. We needed a way to get the leopards to pause for a second or two in shot of the camera trap.

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We had been advised that scent was the answer and were experimenting with various different ones and now it seemed human blood was to be the next test. I dutifully hobbled out in front of the camera and scraped my bleeding foot around on a nice flat rock Michelle had procured, wondering about the sensibleness of using human blood as bait for a predator. My slight discomfort was all in the name of science.

In the end it didn’t work, It rained a couple of nights later and my efforts where washed away. We never did find the perfect scent.  We were told that tinned sardines worked wonders as well as catnip and perfume. We tried them all. It seems our cats where immune to these. The only thing that stopped them in their tracks was the scent of other leopards. I did learn however that the scent of tinned sardines was particularly interesting to giraffe of all animals. My method was to bury a plastic cup up to its rim in sand and put a blob of sardines in the cup. Now you would have thought that giraffe would have walked on by but as the picture below testifies, giraffe just have to take a closer look. You always learn something new!

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Safari Phil Goes to the Serengeti

Today’s guest post is by Phil Thiesse, the KSTP video photojournalist who shot the footage for the TV report on Snapshot Serengeti and the Lion Project.

I am a television photojournalist from Minnesota currently operating under the nom de plume “Safari Phil,” at least during my visit to the Lion Research Center in The Serengeti.

Action Phil

My colleague Safari Chris and I traveled all the way from the Twin Cities to spotlight the Snapshot Serengeti project for KSTP TV’s 5 Eyewitness News. We just happened to be in the neighborhood, working on a series of reports in Arusha, Tanzania. We were able to sell the story to our bosses because one of the researchers, Ali Swanson, is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and would be our tour guide amongst the lions.

The plan was to rendezvous with Ali at a restaurant in Arusha as she passed through on a supply mission. The thought was to ride with her the following day in her well traveled Land Rover to the middle of The Serengeti, about seven hours on a good day. The restaurant we were meeting at was closing early, so Ali suggested we move to the Impala Hotel, a full two blocks away. We rode there in the Land Rover, the three of us in the front seat…the only seat, Chris bravely straddling the gear shift. It was after that 5 minute ride we decided to fly to the Serengeti instead.

Daniel Rosenburg, another lion researcher, picked us up at Seronera Airport and in another well worn Land Rover, brought us to Lion House, where we would wait for Ali. She eventually arrived with all of the supplies necessary for lion research: food, cameras, batteries, a punching bag. Wait, what?? For kick boxing. An excellent workout, I’ve been told. We were treated to a satisfying dinner of pasta, bacon and tomatoes. And a sip of Scotch. Or two.

We hit it early the next day, heading out at sunrise to get video of lions and of Ali and another researcher, Stan Mguzu, tending to the hundreds of game cameras that provide images for Snapshot Serengeti. The cameras were easy to find, but the lions proved to be a little more elusive. Daniel’s expertise at tracking finally got us in the middle of two prides. In addition, we were up close to zebras, impalas, cape buffalo, dik-diks, giraffes, topi, an eagle, warthogs, gazelles, mongoose, baboons, monkeys, hippos and hyrax.

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There was a dinner party to top off our last night in the Serengeti. Two people from Cheetah House joined us for sausage, fried egg plant, and some fantastic made-from-scratch mashed potatoes. Chris made a run to the outhouse as the evening wound down and the researchers made it a trip he’ll never forget. As we waited patiently for his return, I expressed my opinion that this was a really bad idea, but the others were confident in their decision. Like they had done this exact thing before. We heard the returning footstep stop dead in their tracks and even retreat a bit, but luckily, we didn’t hear Chris grab his heart. He did have a few choice words for the group, but survived yet another close encounter with a Serengeti lion.

Thanks to the expertise and hospitality of Ali, Daniel and Stan, we were able to bring the story of Snapshot Serengeti to our viewers in Minnesota. That story, along with others featuring Minnesota connections to Tanzania, can be seen on KSTP.com.

Secret Handshake

Spot that leopard!

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).

Trying to discover how many individual leopards used a reserve in South Africa was challenging work in more ways than one. Unlike the Serengeti Lion Project’s (SLP) 200-odd camera traps, I could count ours on one hand.  That said the study area was much smaller at around 2,500 hectares. The technique was also very different. Whereas the SLP is trying to get a snapshot of animal interaction over a vast area I was interested in individual animals, so setting the camera traps up systematically on a grid basis was not the best option. Instead, to make best use of our limited camera traps, I selected sites that I thought a leopard was most likely to pass.

These sites fell into two categories, the survey sites and the random event sites. Based on recent tracks and scats on game trails and roads, the cameras were moved around the reserve on a regular basis in an attempt to survey the whole area. One or two cameras were reserved for the random events: a fresh kill, old carcass, or hunches about certain water holes or koppies (rocky hills).

My job was to trundle around the reserve, mostly on foot, searching for signs of leopard.  Looking for tracks and scats on the network of sand roads was easy and for the most part it seemed these big cats do love a nice clear road to walk down. Wandering down a dry river bed following a set of tracks idly wondering if the leopard is asleep in one of the big Marula trees is one thing, but suddenly realizing that the pug marks seem to have doubled in size and that you are hot on the trail of two lions jolts you to a stop.  Finding signs off these roads was a little harder, the substrate of the game trails was often tangled with grasses and small thorny bushes and picking up tracks was virtually impossible.

Half an eye was always on the sky watching for vultures. Their activity often led  to carcasses but it was the sense of smell that served  best. The smell of rotting carcasses is fairly potent and travels far and my nose became super sensitive to the whiffs. Unfortunately not having the skills of a bloodhound I would flounder around in the bush turning this way and that trying to pin down the source of the smell.

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

Other than spending just a little too much time around dead things, camera-trapping carcasses lead to some great data. One surprise was just how often kills seemed to be ‘shared’. The following two shots from the same eland kill highlight this. You can see even without comparing spot patterns that these two leopards are different.

Female 1

Female 1

Male 3

Male 3

The first is a young female and the second is the reserve’s dominant male so it’s hardly surprising that he has stolen her meal.  At other kills, though, we had various combinations of leopard visitors including three different adult males within two nights to the same zebra kill. The fact that the leopards stayed put in front of the cameras, munching, meant we managed to get shots from every angle, which helped a lot in putting together ID charts. At no time did we tie down any of the carcasses so clearly the leopards where not fazed by the cameras.

This following shot shows a jackal at the same eland kill. The leopards on this reserve where under very little pressure from lions, which only passed through occasionally. They hardly ever resorted to stashing kills up trees as leopards in areas of high lion density would.

Jackal at eland kill

Jackal at eland kill

This meant that many smaller mammals took advantage of the leftovers. Other than the obvious spotted hyena, we recorded brown hyena, side-striped and black-backed jackal, honey badger, civet, bush pig, and mongoose. This following shot looks harmonious, but the series shows that the honey badger definitely had the upper hand on the jackal.

Honey badger and jackal

Honey badger and jackal

The one thing that fellow researcher, Michele, and I were always aware of was that we were spending a lot of time in places that big cats also spent a lot of time. When you are setting up a camera on a fresh kill you can’t help but wonder if the killer is laying somewhere close watching you!

Check out the time stamps on this next set of pics to illustrate this point!

12:35 - Setting camera

12:35 – Setting camera

15:58 - Leopard

15:58 – Leopard

Photos copyright Michele Altenkirk/Lucy Hughes, Lisssataba NR

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