After living here for the last three years, I’ve finally dragged my mother into the bush. At 69 years old, I don’t think she is thrilled about our seatless (squatting required) outhouse, or the fact that she can’t blow dry her hair, but she’s been a good sport about everything so far – from layers of dust that covered all of her luggage to the relentless rattle of my noisy Land Rover.
Arusha was harrowing (to be fair, it is hard to remember to look the “wrong way” when crossing the street)
but I can’t complain, as pretty much all we’ve done since she got here is eat AWESOME food. And you all know how I feel about food.
Grocery shopping was a little less fun than eating out…
But we broke the trip from Arusha to Serengeti into 2 days, and got to stay at the super fancy Serena Manyara along the way.
And we got a personal welcome into the park…
I’m just glad my mom is here, squat-choo or not. More pictures to come!
### Craig, his wife Susan, and lion researcher Daniel and I went camping at Barafu the other night. These are Craig’s thoughts as we all sat on top of Barafu kopjes, watching the wildebeest out on the plains. ###
The rains have been especially good this year. We are camping at Barafu Kopjes, at the eastern edge of the lion study area. The wildebeest have moved very far east, as I type this, I can hear them grunting loudly. The noise will only reach greater volume in the coming weeks as the rut approaches. The grass is green, the sky is full of rain clouds, and this is really the most glorious time to be in the Serengeti.
Back within the camera trap grid, the grass is getting tall, and Ali has to mow it every time she checks the cameras. There is almost nothing for the lions to eat inside the grid; most of the lions have moved very far to the south and east. This is the happiest time of year for the wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle – they are out on the open plains where they can see any danger approaching. They can easily move off away from a hyena, a lion, and still be in the lush green grass –so short it’s like the fairway of a golf course. For the lions, though, having to shift so far outside of their usual territories, this is a time of uncertainty. They may encounter rivals, unwelcoming territory holders, and so they move quietly across the land, always on edge. Further to the east, across the park boundary, into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, there is also the danger that our study lions may encounter the Masaai warriors. Several years ago we lost three of our study lions in a wet April like this one.
All the grazers are drawn eastwards by the extraordinary richness of the volcanic soils immediately downwind from the Ngorongoro highlands. Without the wildebeest, the grass would be nearly as tall here as anywhere else, but it is so sweet, that it is mowed right down to the ground. The vistas here are breathtaking; every animal looks as though it’s floating in green space. It’s almost like snorkeling – the bright orange of the gazelle from head to toe, the vivid black and white stripes of the zebra, the dull brown of the wildebeest but in such mass it’s like a living train as the herd flows across the landscape. And lions, when we see them, stand out a mile. Usually they look like the bulls-eye – a large green target with a concentric circle of brown wildebeest around them.
This is the wet season.
I am back in Arusha. The drive this time was 9 hours long; the broken shock and my jua kali repairs didn’t help matters. Jua kali means fierce (kali) sun (jua), and is often used to refer to the type of repairs you get in the bush. Me tying my broken shock into place so it wouldn’t rub against the tire, and tying the coil spring down with twine in hopes that it wouldn’t pop out is a prime example of jua kali repairs. Wire, twine, mpira (old tire rubber) and duct tape. But a jua kali mechanic is worth his weight in gold – he can fix your Land Rover anywhere, anytime, and the rest of us who live in the bush strive for jua kali proficiency.
To be fair, the broken shock was easy. Last trip in, Norbert and I not only got two punctures, but broke the high-lift jack! That slowed down the puncture repairs some…
So. I am exhausted. Back in Arusha, and while there are a million project errands to run – filling our butane gas tanks, getting cash from the bank, and of course buying fresh food — the biggest reason I’m back in civilization, elbowing my way through a sea of people trying to sell me maps and newspapers, is because my mom is coming to visit. And while I’m absolutely thrilled to share this place with my family, I will admit I’m a little apprehensive. My mom is 69 years old. How is she going to like braving the outdoors for the long walk to the choo when nature calls at night?? At least this time I won’t let Daniel set out Fabio for her walk back…
## Follow up to Chickens have necks? ##
If he didn’t look so earnest, I would swear Hamisi was getting us lost on purpose. He’s now 40 steps ahead of me, my legs feel like lead (can lead burn?), and he turns around – “Are you tired?” he asks. A mischievous smile darts across his face and I give him my best withering death stare. “You’re killing me, Hamisi,” I grumble, plodding after him. Hamisi is my guide in Gombe. He is tiny, grew up in Kigoma not far away, and manages to trek these hills every day, in blue jeans (!), without so much as a pause. We are climbing to some waterfall that simply cannot be worth this. These are not hills; they are mountains. And I am pretty sure my legs are about to fall off. Like, detach from my torso and fall off.
I work out, I really do. Mostly to keep my sanity in the otherwise sedentary Serengeti. We can’t run, we can’t hike, we can’t do our fieldwork on foot; we spend all day behind the wheel of a dusty, power-steering-less Land Rover, and return home exhausted despite sitting for 10 hours straight. But apparently my kickboxing bag and TRX routines are no match for the hills (ha, mountains!) of Gombe. I can’t believe Lisa and all of the Jane Goodall Institute chimp researchers do this every day. These people are machines!
Despite the lactic acid leg burn, Gombe is kind of awesome. I feel like I am in the jungle, whatever it is that makes something actually a jungle. My mom calls me sometimes on Skype. “Are you out in the jungle?” she’ll ask. I’ll tell her I’m in the bush, Mom, but it’s a savanna, not a jungle. Though without fail, next phone call it’s the same question again. But here in Gombe, if anything feels like a jungle, it’s this. I am clawing my way through vines and chest high grass, tangled, disheveled, and entirely ungraceful, trying to keep up with the chimpanzees that glide seamlessly like little jungle fairies through the forest. Apparently not only am I out of shape, but I am also really uncoordinated.
If you read Chickens have necks? you’ll know I’m visiting my good friend and colleague, Lisa O’Bryan, at her research site in Gombe Stream National Park. It took three days to get here, and it will take two more to get back home. Which leaves me only two precious days to explore this magical place before getting my weary legs back into the (Serengeti) bush and back to my camera traps. Going out with Lisa on her observations, we follow Freud – an old male who spends most of his time alone. Eating.
As it turns out, chimps are only marginally more exciting than lions; whereas lions spend 90% of their time sleeping, chimps spend 90% eating. We watch Freud high up in an msilote tree, plucking the yellow flowers and stuffing them in his cheeks. 4 hours later, he descends, pauses on a rock to let out a looooong chimp fart (which, having the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy, I couldn’t help but laugh at), and then he starts walking. And eating. So, either chimps eat while the sit, or they eat while they walk. That’s a lot of eating. And the adults are big, and the babies are cute. Just as cute as they look in the movies. But not cute enough to make my legs stop aching. My Land Rover never seemed so comfortable before…
### Cameras have been keeping me busy — and the relentless rain that turns the landscape to soup isn’t helping me move quickly. I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open, and am frantically prepping for another several day camping trip. So! Thought I’d pull up and old post about ants. Although often a nuisance, they are pretty awesome creatures. You can learn more about ants here. ###
I keep flinching and slapping at the invisible bugs that land and leap away so fast I can’t tell sometimes if they are real or merely a figment of my imagination. By the time I slap my arm, they are gone, and all that lingers is that faint distant tickle on my skin. Craig peers up at me over his little wire glasses. We are wading through 25 years of radio-collaring lion data and I am playing the dusty, bugbitten, in-desperate-need-of-beer secretary. He gives me a withering stare as I twitch murderously at the bugs that seem to molest only me. “It’s all in your imagination,” he says with a playfully dismissive wave of his hand as he hunches back over the dusty files. Seething in indignation, I am finally successful in my arthropod assassination attempts and throw my tiny offender at my academic advisor. “I don’t want your pickings!” he squawks. Merciless, I catch another and drop it in his lap. Satisfied, I resume recording.
I think the bugs are the only thing I dislike more than the baboons that crap on our veranda. The ants recently invaded our drop toilet (the only one in town where you still have to squat), milling about on the concrete slab in typical ant frenzy. African ants seem to be generally unstoppable. They swarm across our kitchen countertop so thick that the white laminate is completely obscured. Yesterday I saw them dragging a dead tsetse fly across our windowsill. They are tiny pinprick ants, so ghostly as they crawl across your skin that you’re never quite sure if you’ve merely imagined them. But we don’t imagine them in our food. They are baked into our bread, spooned into our leftovers, drowned in our drinking water…They even invaded my canister of refrigerated Lindt chocolates. They flail hopelessly in our wash water and get stuck in the little holes of our makeshift shower bucket. I think sometimes they bite – the backs of my legs are covered with little red itchy bumps, and if they aren’t ant bites then they might be tick larvae, which is even more disgusting.
As much as I would prefer not to share my shower with a thousand tiny freeriders, I have this strange love/hate/admiration/disgust relationship with the colonial creatures. Philipp tells me how some ants raise aphid “livestock,” carrying their little aphids around to leaves and then milking them of their leaf-juice. Some ants live in little black balls on the whistling-thorn Acacias and attack hungry ungulates that dare to browse on their branches. One day while scouring game trails for fresh carnivore sign, I discovered a series of 4-inch wide paths that wove between the trees. I turned to the camera trapping guru by my side, the funny German who’s spent the last decade in the remote west-African bush. Ants! Philipp says.Yes, the ants move in such volume that they create barren little tracks through the woodland grass. Sometimes we can see the ant army marching in rigid formation outside the Lion House. They appear out of nowhere against our cinderblock corners and trudge across the dirt. I don’t know where they are going, but they look like they’re on a mission. Perhaps they heard that there was something in the outhouse.
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.
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.
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.
I often forget that chickens have necks. I mean, who eats neck? You buy chicken breast in the stores, barbecue some drummies, get wings at your local bar, or pick up a bucket of fried (yes, I’m originally southern and have a weak spot for fried chicken). But never eat neck. You can’t rock up to KFC and ask for a 2-piece meal with a neck.
But as it turns out, they are surprisingly tasty. I am gnawing on one right now, trying not to dance to the music.
What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.
Yes, that’s right. I’m sitting at a hotel in Mwanza and “What is love” is blasting behind me. Apparently it is Easter, and there is a big celebration. It’s kind of amazing. And surprisingly hard to not groove along. Now Ace of Base’s “I saw the sign” comes on. I feel like I am 10 years old again.
I’m on my way to Gombe Stream National Park, home to Jane Goodall’s long term chimpanzee research center, and temporary home to my dear friend Lisa O’Bryan – a fellow UMN grad student who does the same long field stints there as I do in Serengeti. Lisa’s just received a competitive grant from National Geographic (read her blog) to study some of the ins and outs of chimpanzee communication. I’ve been meaning to visit her since we both first came out in 2009, but whenever I’m out here the months just slip away. I mean to go to places like Selous and Katavi, but before I know it I’m frantically finishing the last round of cameras, revising our data backup procedures, trying to figure out who the last 20 lions were that I saw, devise new hyena-proofing strategies, and board my plane home in a rush of papers, data entry, accounting, phone calls and goodbyes.
And so, even though I don’t have time for it any more than I ever do, even though I’m already counting the days I’ll need without rain to finish my vegetation assessments before leaving Serengeti for good, I’m taking a week and going to Gombe. For the record, by “week,” I mean four days in transit, and two at my destination. But that’s okay; it’s all part of the adventure.
For example, I caught a lift with a Tanzanian researcher – Chunde, a disease ecologist – out of Serengeti, west to Lamadi. Nearly two hours late, because the 10-minute job at the garage turned into 90 minutes, Chunde picks me up with a roll of his eyes. “Tanzanian time,” he says, and grins. We’re in Lamadi by noon, and soon I’m on a bus to Mwanza. A very, very, very full bus. I’m standing, gripping the luggage racks for dear life, chickens squawking at my feet, admiring the variety of decorative hairstyles in front of me. Several hours later, after some games of peek-a-boo with kits in the nearby seats, we’re there.
And I’m here, at the amazingly local Lenana hotel. With Ace of Base fading into horn music into the deep thumping base of Tanzanian dance music. For the first time in a long time, I’m on holiday. Chicken neck, 80’s music, and a lot of stares – and tomorrow? Kigoma, and then to Gombe. Not too shabby. Just like this chicken neck.
The rain is crazy. Not as windy as yesterday, when it blew our furniture off the veranda, but crazy nonetheless. I could see it coming, not just your typical clouds stretching to the earth in the distance – I could see the waves of water hitting the ground between the scattered trees, moving closer with every second. It was a race – I wanted to reach the valley, with its low profile and scattered trees, before the storm reached me. I know that in a lightening storm, you’re not supposed to seek shelter beneath a tree. But in my giant Landrover, with its 4.5 foot antennae beckoning to the sky, I don’t like being the only blip on the plains. Logical or not. (Comments from lightning experts welcome.)
And so here I am. Somewhere between cameras L05 and L06, hunkered down as the torrents of water wash over Arnold & me. The endless tubes of silicone sealant have done their job – most of me, and most of my equipment, is dry – there are only two leaks in the roof.
The sky is gray for miles – I am done for the day. It’s only 5pm! In wet season, I can normally work until 7pm, and still prep my car for camping before it’s too dark to see. Today feels like one of those cherished half-days from elementary school – not as magical as a snow day, mind you, but exciting nonetheless. Except I am trapped in my car…
So, with that, I open a beer, shake out the ants and grass clippings from my shirt, and hunker down in the front seat to wait out the rain. And to think. I’ve been thinking a lot about trees lately. Mostly what they mean for the how the carnivores are using their landscape.
See, from the radio-collaring data, we know that lions are densest in the woodlands. Living at high densities that is, not stupid. But the cameras in the woodlands don’t “see” lions very well. Out on the plains, a lone tree is a huge attractant. It’s the only shade for miles, the only blip on the horizon. All the carnivores, but expecially the musclebound, heat-stressed lions, will seek it out. In contrast, in the woodlands, even though there are more lions, the odds of them walking in front of the one of 10,000 trees that has my camera on it are…slim.
This map is one of many I’ve been making the last week or so. Here, lion densities, as calculated from radiocollar data, are the red background cells; camera traps are in circles, sized proportionally to the number of lions captured there. As you can see, the sheer number of lions captured in each camera trap doesn’t line up especially well with known lion densities. Disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising. One camera really only captures a very tiny window in front of it – not the whole 5km2 grid cell whose center it sits in. One of my goals, therefore, is to use what we know about the habitat to align the camera data with what we know about lion ranging patterns. I think the answer lies in characterizing the habitat at multiple different spatial scales – spatial scales that matter to the decision-making of a heat-stressed carnivore who sees blips on the horizon as oases of shade. And so I’m counting trees. Trees within 20 meters, 50 meters, 200 meters of the camera. One tree in a thick clump is still pretty attractive if that clump is the only thing for miles. Once I can interpret the landscape for lions, once I can match camera data with what we know to be true for lion ranging, I can be comfortable interpreting patterns for the other species. I hope.
The rain is letting up now, and it’s getting dark. Time to pack the car for camping – equipment on the roof and in the front seat. Bed in the back. And a sunset to watch with beer in hand.
About a year ago, we received a very generous donation from James Brundidge at the TV Channel Nova that allowed to a) upgrade our solar power to support a refrigerator, and b) buy a refrigerator! Granted, it took several months (6?) to actually get the fridge, get the power, and get everything working – but by the time I left Serengeti last year, we had a fridge!! And a freezer. We made ice cubes! Ice cubes!!!
[These are the things that are exciting in the field. Sorry.]
See, before the fridge (and, more importantly, the freezer), our food was kind of limited. With someone traveling to “town” (Arusha – 6-12 hours away depending on the number of breakdowns and punctures) only once every 8 weeks or so, meat and fresh veggies and other delicacies (crackers, milk, cheese…) were a little hard to come by. Meat is wicked expensive here, so we don’t eat it a lot anyway, but beans and ‘soya chunks’ (meat flavored soy mince) gets old. Really. Old. So every two months, when someone came back from town, our meat menus (say, twice a week) would go something like this:
First day from Arusha: Chicken! Also, all the leafy greens, as they go off in about 2 days. Cheese.
Rest of Week 1: Any other meat (pork chops) we might have gotten, all the remaining leafy greens. Peppers, tomatoes, and carrots, as they start going quick if on the shelf. More cheese.
Week 2: Minced beef. Cut off the green bits and cook for several hours in spices to hide the taste. Cut off the moldy bits on the peppers & tomatoes. Finish the cheese (not because it’s going bad, but because it is just that delicious).
Week 3: Bacon & Sausages. They seem to last longer than the fresh meat. They don’t even turn green! I’d rather not think about why. Salvage what’s possible from the peppers. Cabbage.
Weeks 4-8: It’s back to only beans & ‘soya chunks’ (flavored fake meat), rice, and potatoes, and cabbage. At this point we start looking for reasons why we desperately need to go into Arusha…
So. Needless to say, the refrigerator was life-altering. The cheese still disappears by week 1.5 because a certain Swede [Daniel!] eats little else until it’s gone, but everything else has changed. No more green meat. No more warm beer. No more powdered milk. Now when I get home after a long day, I have cold beer. Among other things. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Epilogue: It is now week 4. Somehow, all of our vegetables, cheese and 99% of our meat have been consumed…by a week ago. I’m sure we need to go to Arusha for something…
Today’s guest blog is by Chris Egert, a reporter and anchor with KSTP 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
If you regularly read this blog, you know that there are some very hard working people behind the Snapshot Serengeti project. You know they have a great sense of purpose, and at times a great sense of humor. Both those qualities serve one well in Africa, where things run at their own pace.
We are a television news crew who visited recently from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Turns out, we were the first media in the world to see the Snapshot Serengeti setup in person. That gave us some unique perspective of the human element that makes this operation run every day.
What we are talking about is people like Ali Swanson. She regularly blogs on this site, and is one of the main engines that drives Snapshot Serengeti. You see her personality reflected on these pages from time to time as she talks about driving the hunk of junk Land Rover that is her office for half the year. But what you can’t get from a blog post is the energy this Ali brings the University of Minnesota’s Lion House. She drives around the wilderness all day servicing the hundreds of cameras you see on Snapshot Serengeti, then comes home after a long day, hangs up a punching bag, and proceeds to pummel it with kicks for 45 minutes.
If Ali were in the United States, we would compare her to the Energizer Bunny, the character created by a battery company that keeps going, and going, and going. However, there aren’t any pink bunnies wandering around this desolate place, they’d likely be devoured by one of the wild animals that roam this land. Wild animals that often wander right up to the front porch of this research lab, with no regard for the humans who regularly occupy this structure.
One morning as we walked outside to use the “bathroom” out behind the Lion House, there were several baboons running around. The boys from Minnesota promptly turned around and went back inside. Ali, fearless as usual, threw the door open and jaunted out to do her business. This is the same girl who drove 8 hours by herself in a Land Rover to their research lab near Seronera, while we took a 2-hour airplane ride.
One thing we could provide for Ali, Daniel Rosengren, and Stanslaus Mwampeta, the regular residents of Lion House, was fresh supplies. We came bearing gifts of cheese and meat. Something they don’t get to eat very much around here. Up until we arrived, Daniel and Stan had been eating rice and canned green beans for the last several weeks. Daniel and Stan were overjoyed to have some real food. They were also very happy to cook for their guests. We planned on eating granola bars the whole time, but were pleasantly surprised to get a warm meal at the end of the day.
Up until recently, the Lion House didn’t have a reliable fridge. They drink rainwater that is collected in huge tanks around the property. The water is boiled, filtered, and safe to consume. Although from time to time they say a dead monkey ends up in the tank, which as you can imagine is a real bummer. Sure, they are living a dream job, but it sure as heck isn’t easy. I will leave most the gory details out when it comes to the outhouse; except for one great bathroom related story that sums up how one survives in these parts.
After a long day of traveling for Ali, she was eager to catch up with her friends, so we sat around, and talked, and laughed into the early morning hours. Daniel shared stories of his bicycle rides from his native Sweden to the southern tip of Africa. He told us about the time he was attacked with a machete, and rode in a bus for days just to find a doctor.
Stan told us more about his native land of Tanzania. It is amazing to think that Stan is one of only a few people who live here who actually gets to see the wildlife. Lions, elephants, and giraffes are typically reserved for researchers and rich tourists, not the natives. Stan has a great smile, and he loves sweets.
In the midst of this mind-bending mix of brainy conversation about ecology and how it relates to the Serengeti, someone had to use the facilities. That someone was me … and I won’t lie, I was terrified to walk to the outhouse at 1 am, a 100-yard trip where one regularly encounters wildlife.
Nature called, so I grabbed the flashlight and headed out. Ali and Daniel assured me there was nothing to worry about. Things worked out – so to speak – and I peeked through the outhouse to make sure Simba wasn’t waiting to turn me into a late-night snack. (Lions rarely attack on the Serengeti, but one’s imagination runs wild in this environment.)
The coast was clear, so I went to head back, and race-walked to the lab.
Then, as I rounded the corner, I saw it. The furry golden mane of a lion, feet from my face! Knowing well enough not to panic, I quickly shuffled back around the corner and caught my breath. Then it dawned on me that something was strange. Flashlights typically reflect in the eyes of animals, but in the second I saw the lion, I don’t remember seeing a reflection.
I peeked my head back around the corner at Simba, and realized that I’d been had. Daniel and Ali decided to give me a little Serengeti hazing by pulling a life-sized stuffed lion out of the house, and putting it in my path back from the outhouse.
Vehicles break down. Hyenas eat your equipment. Monkeys break into your kitchen. Spitting cobras occasionally sneak into your sleeping quarters. And if you can’t laugh about it you won’t last long here… just ask anyone who has spent time on the Serengeti.