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Detour to the Spice Islands

Hey all! Sorry for the delays in posting – I’ve been doing a bit of traveling recently, in the quest to obtain all my permits. Last week, I took the bus (a 12 hour ride each way – no mean feat) from Arusha, the city where we are in northern Tanzania, down to Dar es Salaam, a large city on the coast. Tanzania’s largest city, in fact, and it certainly contains all of the qualities of city living that I find distressing. It’s an overwhelming, crowded, busy, noisy place, not anywhere I’d care to visit again any time soon. The upside to this business trip, however, was that when I finished up dealing with my paperwork on Friday afternoon, I hoped on a ferry and took a ride out to Zanzibar, the “Spice Island”.



The Zanzibar archipelago is located about 3 hours boat-ride off the coast. Persian traders used Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa, and the island later became a center for the Arab slave trade. There’s even a small rock in the archipelago which holds the remains of a prison built for rebellious slaves (named, appropriately if not unimaginatively, “Prison Island”). I spent the weekend in the main island in the city of Stone Town. The city is old, its architecture rife with Arabic influences – towering buildings and narrow alleyways, ornate doors and carefully constructed windows.

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Stone Town claims to be the only function ancient town in East Africa. I was just happy to return to an island and get some quality time out on the beach to refresh and de-stress. The major appeal of Zanzibar for me was what was going on under the waves – I took the first opportunity I could to hop on a boat, don some SCUBA gear, and check out the island’s beautiful coral reefs.


Cephalophods, sting-rays, beautiful shimmering leaf fishes, and pulsing corals. We even got to check out the wreck of a ship that sank over 60 years ago! It was hard enough to drag myself back onto dry land, let alone voluntarily get back in the bus for another monumental drive home. My business was completed successfully, though, so knock on wood I should be seeing the Serengeti soon…

The no armed monkey

I am being consumed by envy. Ali is in South Africa and Meredith is in Tanzania. I am stuck in front of my computer working away on assignments with the prospect of an exam looming fast, in fact days away. I want to be finished with my degree and get back out there where the wild things are.
So to distract myself I have been reminiscing about my life in the African bush, it’s been a good exercise as it has reminded me what all the studying is for. Whilst we are waiting for Ali and Meredith’s blogs I thought I would share with you the story of the no armed monkey….

This is actually a true story involving a troop of vervet monkeys whose territory included my house. I would see them at least once a day as they moved from the tall sycamore fig trees along the river, their nightly refuge spot, into the bush to feed. Vervets are fascinating to watch, they are always up to something and that often involved trying to get into my house to steel fruit. I remember one cold winter morning watching a heavily pregnant female on the stoop reclining with her back propped up on a chair leg, her arms and legs spread out warming her swollen belly in the sun. She looked so at home there I thought I may just get to witness a birth, no such luck. So when the troop moved through I would always stop and watch.
It was on one such vervet induced pause that I noticed one sub adult monkey run across the garden on its back legs, almost lemur like. Grabbing the binoculars I got a better look only to discover it was missing both its arms. There didn’t appear to be any sign of trauma nor scarring. The next thing I knew it had run, on its back legs, straight up a smallish tree through its branches and leaped up on to the thatched roof of my house. My eyes could not believe what they had just clearly seen. Obviously having no arms was no impediment for this little monkey.
On subsequent occasions I watched various other members of the group help the no armed monkey by giving it food or just simply waiting for it to catch up. It was able to use its feet to feed itself quite effectively and seemed to get on just fine. My feeling was that it was born this way, I just can’t think of a scenario where it would lose both arms in an accident and recover enough with no scarring. Whatever the truth of the matter, this little monkey was an inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Made it to Tanzania!


I arrived in Kilimajaro airport last week, disembarking in the foothills of the famous peak itself. As you can see, by the time we finally touched down, you could hardly make out the mountain in the darkness. It was a long day (3 connections, 35+ hours) of air travel, followed by a final hour of bus-ride before I made it to Arusha and was picked up by the delightful Susan (of the Savannas Forever organization), whose home I have invaded for the time being.

My luggage, of course, was lost – all of it. Mechanical issues on one of my first flights made the resulting connections more than a bit close (I counted those airport sprints as my daily exercise), so I image my bags were sitting neglected in some corner of the Amsterdam airport for a few days before they eventually made it back to me. Poor Susan had to put up with me smelling pretty ripe in the meantime!

Arusha itself if a fairly busy town, and I’ve spent most of the last week plugging away at my permits and catching up on some reading and writing that has been neglected over the last semester. The permitting is, as anticipated, a fairly slow process. There have been a few almost ridiculous set-backs: the wildlife institution had misspelled my email address, so I was completely unaware that Permit #1 had even been granted (!) and I’m experiencing a few snags getting my fees transferred to the right people. C’est la vie, thankfully, nothing insurmountable as of yet. I’m optimistically hoping to get things sorted out before the next two weeks are up, as I’m dying to get out of civilization and into the real outdoors.

However, it would be a lie to make it seem like completely drudgery out here! I did allow myself to take a short break this weekend and headed up to a nearby reptile park with a Maasai friend I met through Susan. I have a soft spot for the scaly critters and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to handle these gorgeous sand boas:

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(My friend, Lemmy, was not as enthusiastic)

I’m posting mid-week not only to report that my travels ended well, but also for a bit of a self-plug: today is my 24th birthday! Couldn’t ask for a better place to spend it in!

Heading out

Sitting in the airport with my field gear all packed, waiting to embark on the 30+ hours of travel that await as I hop over to Europe and then down to Tanzania! My suitcases are stuffed with everything from duct tape – so much duct tape, it’s not even funny – to pruning shears, sleeping bags to mosquito netting. And snacks, plenty of those. I had to delved into the depths of my closet to dig out some of of my equipment, where it has been languishing since I got back from Guam last year. And I have to confess – I did use this trip as an excuse to splurge on some fancy new gadgets as well. Hello, multitool. How’s it going, camp stove I’ve always wanted!

I believe I’ve mentioned before that this will be my first time in Tanzania. My prior experience in Africa has taken place primarily in South Africa and Namibia – cold, deserty places where I spent almost a year on projects ranging from large herbivore and cheetah conservation to the social behavior of mice. Entering into the “unknown” is giving me a few butterflies, but I’m excited to get out of the office and do some actual hands-on research again. Ali and Margaret have been extremely helpful in my preparations for this trip, especially so with advice on how to navigate the process of obtaining the rest of my field permits. It sounds like my first few weeks will be a distressingly uneventful time in which I hang around the cities filling out paperwork, paperwork, and if I’m lucky, more paperwork. But after that, I hope to have a slew of decent stories to report back on the progress of our project and the the goings-on out in the Serengeti! Wish me luck on my travels, hopefully my next post will be from Tanzania.

What does the fox say?

By now, you have probably heard of this silly (but hilarious) video that’s been making the rounds of the interwebs lately:

It’s pretty catchy, not just because it’s ridiculous, but because it’s a pretty good question.  I mean, how many of you out there have actually ever heard a fox?

The sounds of the bush are one of the many, many things I miss being back here in civilization. From my slightly sketchy corner of Saint Paul, I hear fire crackers and unmuffled engines roaring. Occasionally I get chattered at by an angry squirrel in the back yard. But that’s about it. Nothing like the otherworldly chorus of the Serengeti savanna that Lucy so beautifully described.

The sounds really are incredible and often unbelievable, and I thought I’d share some of them with you. I couldn’t actually figure out how to upload audio files, so I scoured Youtube for the best audio clips I could find and embedded them as videos here.

Zebras: Nothing like horses, these stripy equids sound something like a braying donkey crossed with a barking dog.

Wildebeest: I believe that somewhere in the annals of Zooniverse blogs, there is an audio or video clip of me doing a wildebeest impression. This is better.

Hyenas: Despite being hell-bent on devouring all of my camera traps, these guys are pretty cool. They have a rather large repertoire of very…unusual…vocalizations that are used to communicate in a number of situations. The whoop, which you hear at 0:05 and 0:55, is a long-distance call often used to rally scattered clan members. The laugh at 2:33 is a sign of nervousness or submission. Similar to human voices, hyena vocalizations are individually recognizable to clan-mates. To learn more about hyena vocalizations, check out this blog by hyena expert and director of Masai Mara’s long-term hyena project, Kay Holekamp.

Lions: And finally, for the best, non-hollywood lion roar, scroll about halfway down through our lion research center’s page. This is what they really sound like.

I’ll take any of these noises over the sounds of the city any day.

The Little Guys

##### Today’s blog is a guest post from our own Lucy Hughes. ####

We all love the cats don’t we, the majestic lions, the graceful cheetahs and the elusive leopards. There is something about getting one of these cats to ID on Snapshot Serengeti that makes you feel you hit the jackpot. Then there are the elephants, buffalo and giraffe ‘the big guys’. Lions for instance always get the most ‘likes’ on our facebook page. Let’s not even talk about wildlife documentaries; they always manage to star ‘the big guys’, the crowd pleasers, elephants, tigers, lions, whales.

So what about ‘the little guys’? When was the last time you saw a documentary on aardvark or civets?



It seems that the documentary makers don’t think we want to see a whole hour on these little guys. Most people know that lions live in prides and that when a new comer ousts the dominant male he will kill any young cubs. They also know that thousands of wildebeest migrate through the Serengeti, preyed upon by lions, hyena and crocodiles. Who knows how many offspring aardvark have at one time? Or who knows how far a honey badger will walk in one nights foraging.

They are fascinating to say the least these smaller mammals and they are totally deserving of their own starring roles in documentaries and the media. Luckily for us they do appear regularly on Snapshot Serengeti’s camera-traps. Next time you get a porcupine, serval or aardvark stop and think what you know about them.

Zorrilla -- a rare find!

Zorrilla — a rare find!

For me one of the most fascinating small mammals is the sociable mongoose. On the camera-traps they are usually banded mongoose or dwarf mongoose. These guys bustle around all day risking ground based and winged predators. They have complex social lives that find them forever challenging each other of reaffirming bonds. To put it simply they are busy animals.

Dwarf mongoose! One of the cutest critters out there...

Dwarf mongoose! One of the cutest critters out there…

I once had the pleasure of a very close encounter with a group of wild dwarf mongoose. One super hot day I was ambling in the bush checking out camera trap spots, following game tracks, looking for likely spots when I came across a beautiful shaded clearing, not very big, a few meters in diameter. I decided to sit awhile and cool down so propping my back against a boulder and stretching my legs out I sat quietly listening to the sounds of the African bush. A sudden black flash and a drongo had flown into the opposite side of my refuge. Now these birds are adept at following mammals and catching any insects scared up by them so I was curious to see if anything else would arrive. Sure enough a rustle in the dry grass and here popped a dwarf mongoose into the clearing. The diminutive creature was followed rather noisily by about 10 or so more of its group. They fanned out each their own direction and immediately started searching for anything edible. I kept very still and tried not to breathe too much until one of the younger mongooses was sniffing my boot. A second scrambled right over my leg and I was entranced. Then the wind must have changed or an adult must have realised the strange rock might just be alive because a squeal was uttered and the whole group scarpered in one direction their drongo with them. The whole episode lasted about 6 or 7 minutes but it has endeared me to these ‘little guys’ for ever more.

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

Elles in the night

## I’m currently on a mini-holiday in the Minnesota wilderness (Boundary Waters Canoe Area). As I’ve lately been missing long mornings on the porch watching Serengeti wildlife, and Margaret wrote a recent post on one of the all-time most-watchable animals out there, I thought I’d share a story of a late-night elephant encounter from my first year in the field. I was in the car with Candida, a Lion Project Field assistant, and Philipp Henschel, a lion researcher for Panthera who has spent years working in west Africa, and the man who taught me how to camera trap, when we came across this…#

As we hurtled along the gutted road, we came face to face with a herd of elephants paying their respects to a fallen buffalo. At first, in the murk of night, we thought they huddled around one of their own, and concerned silence fell upon us. Ellies, for as aggressive as they can sometimes be, have earned our admiration and careful respect. They seem to me intelligent and emotional creatures; where they are not persecuted, they tolerate the roar of our passing engine with a casual glance. But they are supposedly nearsighted to the point of legal blindness*.  In heavily hunted areas we are sometimes charged by a protective female, but as we hold our breaths and brace for impact, they stop their charge short and listen…but give up and turn away. If we remain downwind in silence we are invisible…or so we hope.

The elephants tonight are agitated as they mill around the buffalo. Philipp tells us that ellies often investigate death in the forests where he’s worked. In an eerie display of some sort of cognizance, they seem to recognize that something is not right and come to look at fallen creatures. When they come across the bones of one of their own, he says, they pick them up and carry them away. It is sad and scary and moving and beyond my comprehension, what must be going on in the heads of these big, gray, lumbering beasts.

The two tour vehicles that are blocking the watering hole eventually pull away, and the ellies step forward to drink. They cluster close, pressing together side by side. Hesitant lions slowly creep back to reclaim their half-eaten kill, and the matriarch whirls around, her ears flaring, watching the lions in a silent stand-off. The air is still. It is thick with tension and heavy with the severity of the moment. One ill-timed thud against the car window or a frightened squeal from any of us, and we could incited a rampage. Silence is imperative and we hold our breaths as the ellies file past within inches of our landrover.We can almost feel their fear and my heart twists as I wonder what it must be like to stumble blindly through a blurry world, sensing death and its bearers all around you lurking in the hazy shadows and around every corner. As they disappear into the acacias, we hear a long, lumpy-sounding elephant fart and giggle nervously. We can breathe again.

We drive closer to the buffalo carcass and watch the lions return. In the faint starlight, we see that an adult female has already resumed her demolition; her whole head disappears inside the opened belly to rip solid tracts of muscle from the ribcage. We fumble for our headlamps and cameras; I look around optimitistically for an onslaught of hyenas. I have yet to see them challenge a lion kill, and begin to question the feasibility of my research plans. The subadult males pad around our car, their massive paws falling silently in the sandy soil. They are full, and are now studying us. Our windows are open, as always, and we glance around with slight unease – where did the two subadult males go? Suddenly we hear a loud chomp from the back of our vehicle. Fearing that they’ve gone of one of our tires, and hardly in any position to fix a flat, we frantically turn the car ignition and pull a few meters forward. In the sideview mirror, we see a lion trot into the darkness with our plastic tire cover dangling from his teeth. Candida’s jaw drops. We are not quite sure what inspired them to steal such an inedible adornment, but it is late and we have company coming that night. So we chalk the loss up to a casualty of the field…and as we drive home along the corrugated dirt road, we remind ourselves that at least we are better off than the buffalo.

*Elephants do have pretty bad vision, but it’s not as bad as I believed it was on this ominous night at the buffalo kill.

The best view is from a balloon

Don’t get me wrong – it’s really nice to have running water, internet, and my pick of fresh vegetables from the weekend farmer’s market. But sometimes I miss the Serengeti. Watching from my window in Minnesota, I’m lucky if I see a squirrel. And let’s face it — squirrels are only so exciting, for so long.

One of my favorite ways to see the Serengeti was from the unbeatable vantage point of a hot air balloon. Yes, that’s right. We might not have an indoor toilet or fresh food, but we have hot air balloons. Okay, that’s not entirely correct: Serengeti Balloon Safaris has hot air balloons that fly tourists over the heart of the park. In fact, you’ve probably seen them floating past in the camera trap photos:


SBS has been flying balloons in Serengeti since the 1980’s, and has always helped us researchers out whenever they could, from letting us drag our hand-held tracking equipment up for flight to listen for lost lion prides, to letting us tinker with our Landrovers in their garage. In fact, they sponsored a lion cub during one of our fundraising campaigns a few years back – and now there’s a cub named “Balloo” living in the Mukoma Gypsies pride in the heart of Serengeti.

I went up for my first flight in 2010. George Lohay, Stan’s predecessor on the project, and I had to wake up at 4 am to make it to the launch field on time. That really is as terrible as it sounds, however, that morning it saved us from an invasion by the relentless carnivorous safari ants (siafu). Well, to be more exact, we were able to flee the house before the ants had invaded our beds, meaning we escaped with minimal damage. And by the time we returned that afternoon, the ants had already moved on.

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I’ve been thinking about balloons lately because one of SBS’s pilots and a dear friend of the Serengeti Lion Project & Snapshot Serengeti, Jason Adams, is currently preparing to defend his title in Canada’s upcoming National Hot Air Ballooning Championships.  Everyone in Serengeti and on the Snapshot team will be rooting for him.  Good luck Jay!

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.


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