Field Life

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Nzunda setting up a weather station

 

 

Recently, as those of you who follow will know, I have been talking about the different people who work for the project in Tanzania. Reading about their daily lives working in ecology and conservation is about as close to visiting Africa as many of us will get. Their lives seem so fascinating I think because they are so different to most of ours (though that is a bit of an assumption of course!)

I talked to Ozward Nzunda, one of Dr Michael Andersons Tanzanian field assistants in the Serengeti. Michael’s project looks at vegetation and the interactions between herbivores and their savannah habitat. In order to study this a wealth of environmental data is needed and of course Michael, like many professors, is not based in the Serengeti. He relies on Nzunda to keep things running whilst he is not there. I asked Nzunda about his work and what it was like living in the famous Serengeti National Park.

He told me that most of his work in the field involves the collection of data from all over the study area. There are camera-traps that are checked once a month in order to down load the data and check for any maintenance issues. This is the data which we are busy classifying now on season 9.5. He must also collect weather and soil moisture data on a monthly basis in preset locations. He has to install the weather stations and soil moisture sensors and keep monitoring them until the data is collected. These jobs take up most of his time but he also has the unenviable job of keeping the project vehicles running. Tree and seedling surveys are done on a yearly basis.

So how does he manage all this and what does he think about it?

He told me that the days are long in the field, the drive to the study plots is long and so a lot of time is spent in cars and when you get to the study plots there is a chance you won’t be able to get out the car to do anything. Many a time he says, he has arrived to find lion sleeping or with a kill near his plot and is forced to wait for the lions to leave or move on to another plot. Of course so much time in the field also means he gets to enjoy seeing lots of game on a regular basis.

The study is a continuous study and that means that the data must be collected come rain or shine and in the wet season that means mud. Nzunda told me that the hardest part of the job is wet season driving when you can easily get stuck in the black cotton soils. The mobile signal is poor, as you can imagine, in the park and he has been forced to sleep in the car on occasions until help arrives the following day.

In fact he says they regularly camp out in order to visit the remoter plots and has some interesting stories to tell. Camping in an area with a full complement of wild animals is not for sissies! But on this particular occasion it was the ants that kept them awake. A swarm of biting ants invaded the campsite and had them jumping up and down, shaking out clothes and acting like mad men until they finally left. Itching and scratching they finally got to sleep only to be woken up a few hours later by a rampaging hippo careening between their two tents. Now a canvas tent is no match for a hippo but luck was on their side and the hippo kept running and didn’t return. He says he will never forget this night and they named the campsite “one eye open and one eye close” in honour of the fact no one really slept that night.

His family and friends think he is mad for working alongside wild animals, they think only of the risks but Nzunda loves the challenges field work brings and says that the Serengeti is a beautiful place to be.

Life in the field can be a little lonely. His family live almost 1000km away and he only see’s them about once a month if he is lucky. But they are all accepting of this and are happy. A good job is worth it. He prefers the park saying it is a very good place to live, far better than town where there is too much noise and pollution. He gets his fill of social once a month when he leaves the park to go on a shopping trip for supplies. The rest of the time there is a small shop that caters for the parks staff and resident researchers and the little community gets by fine.

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Nzunda checking out the mud situation.

The Data Game

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Team member checking a camera-trap

 

So we all know there are millions of images on snapshot Serengeti and that it is us citizen scientists who do all the work classifying them. The scientists can then get on with the task of figuring out what’s going on out there in the animal kingdom, hopefully in time to save some of it from our own destructive nature.

But… have you spared much thought as to how the images go from over 200 individual camera-traps dotted around the Serengeti to the Zooniverse portal  in a state for us to start our work.

Firstly the SD cards have to be collected from the cameras and as this is an ongoing study replaced with fresh SD cards. This is done about every 6 to 8 weeks. A camera traps batteries can actually go on performing far longer than this but as the field conditions can be tough you never know when a camera may malfunction. This time frame is a good balance between not ending up with months worth of gaps in the data and not spending every minute in the field changing cards.

The team are able to check about 6 to 10 sites a day so with 225 cameras in play it takes around a month just to get to each site. Mostly the cameras are snapping away happily but there are always some that have had encounters with elephants or hyena but actually some of the most destructive critters can be bugs, they like to make nests of the camera boxes. As well as checking the cameras themselves the sites need to be cleared of any interfering foliage, we all know how frustrating a stray grass blade can be.

 

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Snake camping out inside the camera-trap

 

So with a hard drive full of all the data it then has to wait for a visiting field researcher to hand carry it back to the University of Minnesota, USA. It means the data is only received every 6 months or so but it is far safer than trusting the post. Once safely received it is up to Meredith to start the painstaking work of extracting the date time stamps. As sometimes happens there are glitches and she has to fix this by figuring out when the camera went off line or when capture events got stuck together. She says it is much like detective work. The images are then assigned codes and stored on the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute (MSI) servers.

Once it is all cleaned up and backed up it is sent to the Zooniverse team who then format it for their system giving new identifiers to each image. Finally it is ready for release to all the thousands of classifiers out there to get to work on.

So as you can see it really is a team effort and a massive under taking. It is no good collecting tonnes of data if there is no one with the time to do anything with it. I will take this opportunity again to thank you for all your help with the project. Keep up the good work.

Dante’s Inferno; Savannah Fire

 

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Fire ecology is a fascinating subject. I always get a bit of a buzz when I find a fire image in Snapshot Serengeti. Fire is a major component of savannah ecosystems and the grasses and trees within them have evolved along with fire, some to such an extent that they cannot exist without the occasional burn. I will return to this topic in a future blog but for this week I want to recount my personal experiences of the fire season in a remote Central African nature reserve.

As the dry season progresses the deep verdant greens start to fade to yellow, the temperature mounts into the high 30’s and the strong Harmattan winds pick up. The landscape is a mosaic of tall savannah grasslands divided by fingers of thick lush riverine habitat. The climatic conditions bring violent lightning storms which, given the tinder dry grasses, can trigger natural bush fires. Of course this process is random, not every patch of grass will burn every year unlike the human induced fires that sweep this part of Central African Republic year after year.

Historically this area saw very little pastoralist activity due to the tsetse fly (lethal for cattle) but in recent years Sudanese cattle herders are flocking to the area during the dry season driven by increasing desertification in Sudan and availability of medicine to combat the effects of tsetse fly for their cattle. They set light to every bit of grassland in order to make movement easier creating a green flush for their cattle to feed on and to make hunting for bush meat simpler.

Each day our plane goes up searching for signs of the approaching herders. We all anxiously scan the horizon for signs of smoke. The weeks drag on like this with everyone under a nervous tension waiting, waiting for something to happen. One day the pilot returns having spotted a huge fire to the north and just like that it has started. Every flight brings more fire reports and we see a daunting change in the clearness of the air around us. Sitting in the central base looking at the fire map it seems we are now surrounded by either fires or herds of cattle numbering in the thousands. With the scent of scorched vegetation getting stronger by the day things start to feel very claustrophobic.

By night we see an ominous glow to the horizon as the distant fires glow and we dread the change of wind that could bring the wall of flames towards camp. We have a wide airstrip almost a kilometre long so I know that we will not be in danger of being burnt alive but it does not quell the primal fear.

The day I have been dreading finally comes. Fire is spotted 5km from the camp and it is racing towards our fire break, a team rushes out to light a back burn to try and stop it in its tracks but the wind does us no favours and within hours we can see the flames as they burn behind the camp perimeter. I am feeling panicky but although it looks like Dante’s inferno the danger has passed as the fire makes its way along the north side of the airstrip. Then disaster strikes the wind, capricious as ever, changes direction just as the fire reaches the end of the airstrip and a great gust of hot ash and embers jumps the fire break and the fire starts racing up the south side of the airstrip. And all hell breaks loose; we never expected it to get into this block. The fire is now making a bee line for our temporary accommodation camp and my own tent. Never have I run so fast, 400 meter sprint in 40 degrees heat in a herculean effort to reach my tent and evacuate my worldly goods. I wrench open the canvas and start madly flinging stuff into bags, meanwhile some clever person arrives with a wheel barrow and we start moving the bags to the safety of the airstrip.

Once everything is safe I sit down and watch the chaos from atop my possessions. It is a scene out of apocalypse now. There is a helicopter and cargo plane belonging to the American Special Forces grounded on the airstrip. Smoke rises in front of me like a billowing curtain, our staff are running around beating out flames as they try to control the back burn. In the midst of this someone brings me a very angry chameleon, rescued from the path of the flames. There are gun shots ringing out from the Ugandan army camp who, instead of helping us, are trying to shoot rabbits and other small game as they dart from the onslaught of flames. Our guys win the battle and the fire comes to a slow stop just 70 meters from my tent. My heart has calmed down now but it is with sadness that I look around me at the blackened ground. I wonder how many chameleons and other small creatures lost their lives in this battle.

That night I slept once more in my tent. I lay there watching the beautiful glow of the fire through the trees, looking just like a glowing sunset. The spitting of flames and the cracking of exploding trees reminding me of the truth but the fire was on the other side of the strip of riverine trees and I knew its rich damp interior would keep me safe as well as countless other birds and animals that night.

Click here to see drone footage of the fire heading towards camp. https://youtu.be/WtRj8u7vEts

 

Meet the People #2

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Ingela showing camera-trap images to local Maasai

Photo: KopeLion

In my last blog I mentioned Ingela Jansson and the KopeLion project and promised to tell you more.

Ingela spent three years working for the Serengeti Lion project as a research assistant monitoring lions in the Serengeti National Park as well as the Ngorongoro Crater. Although working in the park was an amazing experience it was the work she did in the crater area that was to prove a more urgent calling. The very real conflict she saw between humans and lions persuaded her that if someone didn’t do something the Ngorongoro lions were headed towards extinction. And so KopeLion project was born in 2011.

The Ngorongoro conservation area was gazetted in 1959 and designated a multi use landscape. The pastoralist population were permitted to continue living there alongside the wildlife. Since this time the population has risen 10 fold and the once harmonious coexistence with lions has collapsed. Lions have disappeared from much of the area and the connection to the Serengeti lions is all but extinguished.

Enter KopeLion. The project aims to foster human – lion coexistence through community engagement, science and mentorship. One of the most successful outcomes so far is the recruitment of former lion hunters as lion protectors, we heard Roimen’s story last week.

But just how do you ‘engage with the community’ to try and change their minds about living with a dangerous predator. Well KopeLion do this in many ways. Firstly most of the employees are local which means they already have the community’s ear. To the Maasai their live stock are sacred so KopeLion spend a lot of time trying to reduce lion conflicts. They follow the model developed by Lion Guardians Ltd ( http://lionguardians.org )by helping local herders to build sturdy bomas,  searching for missing livestock, treating injured livestock and warning herders when lion are nearby. The lion guardians or Ilchokutis are assigned an area of between 60 and 200km2 where they monitor lions or signs of lions scientifically. They also try to prevent young warriors or Morani from carrying out lion hunts. Part of their role is as mentors to the younger generation.

The Maasai still hold strong traditional beliefs and have strong community ties, recognising and embracing this is one of the reasons for KopeLion’s success so far on its mission to help humans and lions live in peace. The strong local ties mean KopeLion have won trust amongst the local herders and in 2016 they were able to stop more than 20 lion hunts from going ahead and have seen the evidence that their efforts are working in the fact that two of the monitored lion prides now show complete survival.

Ingela and her team at KopeLion are doing such valuable work that I urge you to head over to their incredibly informative website to read more about it.

http://kopelion.org/

 

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The KopeLion team immobilizing a lion

 

Photo: KopeLion

Meet the People

 

Over the next few months I would like to bring you a few blogs about the many people that work to make Snapshot Serengeti possible. Without them there would be no data for us to pour over but what exactly do they do and who are they?

Dr Michael Anderson is currently in the Serengeti collecting data and checking up on how the various projects that make up Snapshot Serengeti are getting along. As part of the projects commitment to engaging with the local community Michael has begun a National Geographic funded intern program. Its aim is to give young locals valuable training and research experience in the fields of ecology and conservation.

The first student to be taken up on the program is Roimen Lelya Olekisay. He is a Maasai from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. His story highlights why the intern program is a vital part of both the scientific and conservation work we do. Many local people see wild animals as a threat to their own domestic stock as well as themselves and retaliatory killings are common. Living alongside wildlife is not easy. Without the good will of the local people it is very hard to change their attitudes to the work we do and the animals themselves.

Roimen grew up on the Western slope of the Ngorongoro crater, his family, like many Maasai are herders. As a young boy he roamed all over the Ngorongoro protected area (NPA) with the family livestock. The Maasai are permitted to live in the NPA where they can graze livestock but are not allowed to cultivate the land. Roimen spent two years away at secondary school before returning to the family to continue herding. This is a familiar story for many Maasai. The importance of livestock is paramount and many boys do not complete schooling.

As a young warrior, like many his age, Roimen speared and killed at least three lion. Tradition dictates that young Maasai warriors must kill a lion to become a man. He would have maybe carried on killing lions whenever he perceived a threat to his family’s livestock but he met up with Ingela Jannsen’s group Kope Lion Project in 2013 who work in the area trying to mitigate lion/human conflict. He helped fit a radio collar to a lion and this interaction with the king of beasts up close transformed him from a lion hunter to a lion protector. He became one of Ingela’s lion scouts (more about Ingela and the Kope Lion Project in next week’s blog) recording predator-livestock attacks in the conservation area and working to prevent lion conflicts and hunts. His enormous enthusiasm for lions and their research makes him a perfect candidate to further his scientific skills. This is someone with a natural ease and interest in the wildlife around him and its preservation.

In his new role as the first intern for the National Geographic-Serengeti National park program Roimen will be tracking lions and setting up a camera-trap network that hopes to dissuade human-lion conflicts and generally learning all the scientific skills associated with this work. He has just started and will be with us for six months, hopefully we can catch up with his progress in a few months.

 

Photo’s curtsey of Ingela Jannsen and KopeLion project

 

 

Black and White

 

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Grants Gazell

This past week I have been trudging up and down boggy slopes with armfuls of tree protection tubes, posts, tools and finally trees as part of a reforestation project in the Lake District National park, UK. With storm Doris fast approaching it has been a miserable week and my mind has often wandered over to snapshot Serengeti for some light relief.

 

The job I am doing, trying to help mitigate the over grazing of sheep and deer made me think of Michael Andersons work that has provided us with the images for season 9.5. He has written here about the project to study how herbivores affect vegetation patterns and you will have seen the enclosures around his experimental plots.

 

Some people have found that the images from this season are not quite as good as in previous seasons, they seem to be a bit fuzzy in places and there are a few less lions. On reflection though it does seem to be producing a lot of my favourite images, those taken during dusk and dawn when the camera is not quite sure if it is day or night and ends up taking a black and white daytime shot. These pictures can be quite exquisite and have the feel of being completely composed by a top photographer rather than just a random event.

 

Here are some of my favourites.

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Zebra/Wildebeest

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Impala

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Wildebeest

 

 

It is a good reminder to us all that although we are all waiting to discover that one truly great animal capture and it is gratifying to classify the more unusual beasts the aim of the whole project is science. Back in the old days of Serengetilive the classifying was done one camera roll at a time. Sometimes I would sit and classify 2000 capture events of….. grass. Seriously, you would be luck to maybe get a passing bird but it had to be gone through just in case the last couple of shots were of lion. At least with Snapshot Serengeti the pictures are randomised so you get shots from a mixture of cameras rather than being stuck on a tedious one.

 

Snapshot Rhinos

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One of the animals that continue to be a rarity on snapshot Serengeti is the rhino. We have had a handful of capture events over the years.

There are two species of rhino found in Africa; the white or square lipped and the black or hook lipped. The Serengeti is home to the latter. It is a large bulky mammal and as such many a hopeful #Rhino has turned out to be a blurry image of an elephant or buffalo.  Things can get confusing with some of the images but isn’t that half the challenge trying to guess those indescribable blobs? Surely it wouldn’t be the same if everything was easy to id?

Anyway back to Serengeti rhinos.

Just 50 years ago between 500 and 700 Eastern Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) roamed the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem but during the seventies the population was decimated by poaching to around 10 or so individuals.

A huge effort is being made by various conservation and government bodies with enormous donations by private individuals to save the population from total extinction. Notably a remnant population in the park was highly protected and slowly, over the next few decades the population made some recovery. In 2010 it was decided that the Serengeti area was being protected well enough to try and bolster the resident rhinos with new genetic stock. It just so happened that a private owner in South Africa had a breeding herd of Eastern black rhino that had been part of the attempt to safe guard the subspecies back in the 60’s, these animals had originated from Kenya. With strict controls by IUCN officials it was deemed these animals were of the right genetic stock to be reintroduced to the Serengeti.

The plan was to translocate 32 rhinos over the next few years and release them in a new site close enough to allow some overlap with the resident 30 or so rhino. Unfortunately the project has been affected by the recent escalation in rhino poaching and it is difficult to find how many rhino have been successfully translocated to date let alone the current Serengeti total population but you can bet it is still small. The IUCN red data list states Tanzania as having 88 Eastern Black Rhino in 2011.

If you are lucky enough to stumble across a rhino capture on Snapshot Serengeti you should definitely celebrate … and don’t forget to # it.

The Challenges of Field Work

 

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Hazard of the job; catching myself on camera-trap

 

If you have clicked through the seemingly endless captures on Snapshot Serengeti then you must have realized just how many cameras are snapping away out there in the Serengeti. Have you ever wondered who looks after those cameras?

Researchers sometimes go to extreme lengths to collect their data and not much deters them from their goal.

On a recent assignment working in Central African Republic I was tasked by our biologist to collect in an array of 40 camera-traps. The park was very large, the size of Wales and very remote, the nearest village was a 12 hours 4×4 drive away. It was also newly proclaimed and had little in the way of infrastructure like roads. Of course, Thierry wanted to survey the areas we didn’t yet know so obviously the cameras were nowhere near any of the smatterings of roads.

He presented me with a mobile phone resplendent with a mapping app which showed the camera trap locations overlaid with our rudimentary road network. I should really say temporal track system as these so called roads consisted of two tire tracks driven through the elephant grass and mud soon to grow over again in the coming wet season. The park consists of a mosaic of wooded savannah and tropical lowland rainforest so you are either struggling through 2 meter high elephant grass or deeply tangled riverine forest growth. Added to the physical challenges of working in the park was the fact of it harboring armed Sudanese cattle herders, poachers and Lord’s Resistance Army militia.

So equipped with the mobile phone, two trackers and 5 armed rangers off we went to collect the cameras. After three hours bumpy ride plagued with biting tsetse fly we got as close to the first camera as any road was going to take us. Using the phone to navigate I pointed us in the general direction praying that the battery would last. If it failed we would be completely lost with no landmarks. Two kilometers later we had narrowed down the camera location to about 20 meters and under the vigilant eye of the rangers myself and the two trackers began searching for the camera in the thick jungle tangle.

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Rangers caught on camera-trap whilst on patrol 

 

Once the camera was reclaimed it was bagged up and we set out for the walk to the next camera another kilometer or so away. The whole day was spent battling foliage and insects in the 40o c temperatures for a total of 8 cameras. We made camp for the night; the journey back to base was just too far with so many cameras still to collect. It took 4 days to collect half the array and it was with some relief that we trundled back into base camp having had no encounter with armed men.  A hot shower, something other than sardines to eat and the excitement of examining the camera-trap pictures was a just reward for all our foot work

The cameras were being used to assess what species were present in the park and as such were left up for short periods in small arrays. In the Serengeti however, there are 225 camera traps permanently running in an area of 1125 km2. Just think of the logistics involved with changing batteries, keeping vegetation trimmed back and changing SD cards. Our researchers work tirelessly to keep the project on its toes and over the next few months I will try to bring you their stories about the work we support from the comfort of our homes. We each have our part to play but together we are a team dedicated to furthering a scientific cause.

 

Why we do it

Congratulations, your time classifying images on Snapshot Serengeti has resulted in yet another scientific paper. Over 70,000 of you have contributed to analysing the millions of images produced by the 225 Snapshot Serengeti cameras over the last few years. Thanks to all your effort the cameras are still rolling, creating one of the longest running cameratrap studies going.  This data set is so important to scientists because of the size of the area it covers as well as the length of time it has been recording for. It allows them to ask many and varied questions about a naturally functioning healthy ecosystem and in today’s changing world it has never been so important to figure out what makes this planet tick.

The paper ‘The spatial distribution of African Savannah herbivores: species associations and habitat occupancy in a landscape context’ was published last year in Philosophical Transactions B. Visit here to read the article.

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1703/20150314

The Snapshot Serengeti team argue that if we want to predict the impact of changes/ losses of large mammals in the future we need to have a quantitative understanding of a currently functioning ecosystem. It just so happens that the Snapshot data set is perfect for this. The Serengeti National Park is representative of the grass dominated Savannahs of East Africa which are home to the world’s greatest diversity of ungulate (hoofed animals) grazers.

The team present a neat graphic that shows how the various elements interact to affect herbivore habitat occupancy.

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Predators, herbivores, termites, fire, grasses and trees all play a role in determining where different herbivores choose to roam.

It seems that herbivore body size is also important to habitat selection. For example large herbivores survive by bulk grazing whereas small herbivores concentrate on grazing quality over quantity. Recently burned ground results in new vegetation growth. This growth is relatively high in nutrients compared with unburned patches and the same can be found on and around termite mounds. Small herbivores were found to occupy these areas but the sparse coverage does not favour large herbivores that must eat more volume.

The paper highlights the complex relationship between predators, herbivores, vegetation and disturbance and is well worth a read. Next time you are classifying images see if you agree. Do you see many herds of zebra or wildebeest on burnt areas or is it mostly Thompson’s gazelle? It’s another way to look at the images you classify.

Serengeti Science-ing!

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We’re thrilled to announce another scientific paper from the Snapshot Serengeti team! This is one that has been a long time in the coming. It’s the revised third chapter of my dissertation, so you’ve heard me blog about these ideas time and time again. What’s especially exciting is that after several years of publishing methodological research about how camera traps and citizen science works, we’re finally turning your classifications into real ecological research, answering the fundamental questions about how species coexist.

“In the absence of a landscape of fear” has just been published in the Journal of Ecology and Evolution: you can check it out here. It’s an open access journal, which means you don’t need an academic library account to see the paper.

The short of the long is that we used camera traps to study how lions, hyenas, and cheetahs divided up the landscape in very fine scales. Our research before Snapshot Serengeti had indicated that lions exclude wild dogs from large areas of the landscape, so they lose out on access to the resources in these large areas and their populations suffer. Surprisingly, we found that cheetahs weren’t excluded from large areas nor did their numbers suffer in the same way.

We had suspected that this was because cheetahs were able to avoid lions on a moment-to-moment basis, but it was only with the camera trap data from Snapshot Serengeti that we’ve finally been able to test that!

Using Snapshot Serengeti data, we found that cheetahs actually show up more often in areas with more lions. This is probably because cameras reflect really desirable real estate — nice shady trees that attract prey and are near water sources. Instead of always avoiding those habitat hotspots because they have lots of lions (and lions are dangerous), cheetahs appear to just avoid those areas in the 12 hours immediately after a lion appears. So this means they’re able to get access to all the resources – shade, water, and prey – but still minimize the risk of actually running into a lion and getting chased or killed.

You can read more about the research here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.2569/full

In other news, I wanted to let you all know that I’m transitioning into a new position through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS administers a big fellowship every year that places scientists into government agencies. I’ll be joining the US Department of State in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science, to work on international environmental issues. It means I’ll be taking another step away from the academic research, but I hope to stay involved on Snapshot Serengeti in some way. The camera traps are still going strong – now maintained by Meredith and our new collaborators Tom and Michael, and there’s a whole bunch more exciting ecological research in the pipelines.