Watching For Whisker Spots

I recently met with Meritho, who has to have one of the best jobs in the world; he is paid to watch lions.

Yes it does sound like the dream job, following lions all day, observing their behaviour and trying to identify them but Meritho’s job is not quite the dream it would seem. For various reasons the long running Serengeti Lion Project was put on hold for three years which meant that all the diligently followed lion prides known intimately by researchers have done a lot of growing up, giving birth and dying. Not surprisingly it’s hard to work out who’s who and who belongs to whom.

Meritho has inherited the arduous task of re-establishing the family connections and splits within the Serengeti’s lion prides. Armed with some old scribbled maps and a stack of cards with drawings of lion whisker spots he has to compare each lion he sees with these cards to help him workout just who is still out there in the Serengeti lion society. Of course the camera trap images help a little but only if they capture the perfect close up, in focus image of the lions muzzle showing the spot pattern. In reality its all down to traipsing around the Serengeti looking out for lions and comparing each and every one with the hundreds of hand drawn cards.

 

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I asked Meritho how he tackles this mammoth task. Making a plan is key, he says, with most of the tracking collars non functional you have to think hard where the lions might be and just drive around looking for them.

Ok you can narrow it down a bit as Meritho does by getting up by 5 am, making sure your vehicle is puncture free and stocked with fuel and water and then heading out to try and catch the big cats as they finish up for the night. At this early hour they are often looking for a good spot to spend the day or joining back up with young cubs that have been left somewhere safe whilst mothers where out hunting. All this movement increases his chances of running into lions.

Most of the time Meritho is far from base so eats lunch in the car only returning home around 5:30 as it starts to get dark. Its long hours and most of the time you are either sitting waiting or driving, briefly interspersed with spells actually watching the lions. In return they themselves are often infuriatingly sleepy and won’t lift their heads for you to get good pictures of their whiskers meaning even when you do find lions you cannot always see who they are.

So far he has managed to identify around 150 individual lions and is monitoring around 18 prides. Monitoring lions gives him a sense of pleasure that he is out there doing a scientific job he never dreamt, as a Tanzanian, he would get the chance to do. He says ‘ when I look at where I come from and where I am going as a researcher it brings a lot of value to my life, knowing what research means is one thing but doing research makes me feel like I am contributing something to the world and my home environment’. He is gaining knowledge and experience daily and hopes to continue doing great things within conservation, an inspiration to aspiring local scientists.

It’s great to know that Meritho is out there following the lions again and that the Snapshot Serengeti cameras are still going to be clicking away for sometime to come.

 

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Wildebeest Season

Wildebeest on the open plains. Credit Lucy Hughes

 

People all around the world know about the great wildebeest migration through the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem. Those of you who classify on Snapshot Serengeti are more than familiar with the thousands of wildebeest and zebra images. A few of you will have been lucky enough to witness the spectacle.

For myself working here in the greater Serengeti ecosystem I have been eagerly awaiting the event since early November and boy, I have not been disappointed.

Having spent most of my time in Southern Africa I haven’t experienced this kind of mass migration before, sure I have seen large herds of buffalo in Kruger National Park and seen the elephant migration from Botswana into Namibia through Khaudom National Park but this here in the Serengeti is something else.

Up until recently the area I work in has been a dust bowl with a few blades of grass and bare branched thorn trees. It didn’t look like it could support much and the lions were becoming thin. Only the little dik dik looked healthy. The area is also home to Maasai herders and so scrawny cows, sheep and goats filled the landscape, conflict between lions and humans was running high.

Then the rains started. Slowly at first, not the dramatic down pours you see in Nature documentaries but teasing splatters that have you willing for more. By mid-December though enough had fallen to tip the balance and the vegetation began to grow.

Shortly after the rumours began, so and so saw a large group of wildebeest to the north, then so and so was camping and heard the distant gnu-ing of wildebeest on the move. Then out of nowhere they were here. Everywhere you look there are hundreds, in fact if the bush was less dense you would soon realise there are thousands. Zebras are here too but not quite so many. Meanwhile the Maasai herders with cows have vacated the area. They avoid the wildebeest who can pass on disease that is deadly to their cows.

With the herds finally here, the lions can relax. They have gone from skin and bones to full and fat seemingly overnight. I am following one particular pride, two of its females have given birth in the last two weeks, absolutely perfect timing (of course this was down to luck rather than judgement as lion don’t have set breeding seasons). I haven’t seen the cubs yet as they are tucked very safely away in some extremely prickly dense bush which is a good thing because the place is teaming with milling wildebeest, zebra and elephant. The mums don’t have to go far for dinner, its more like a home delivery at the moment and the satellite tracking shows this well, they haven’t moved more than about 1.5km from the denning spot! These cubs have a good chance at life.

After a long day of monitoring lions, I found a quite camping spot in an area of more open bush. I took a moment to lay on the ground and close my eyes for a 10 minute nap before dragging myself up again to make tea and set up camp. As I got up, I looked out to a crowd of wildebeest about 40 meters away gently gnu-ing and all looking at me. They seemed so confused that I was there. After a short standoff they turned 900 and continued on their way towards goodness knows where.

That’s the strange thing, when you watch nature documentaries the migration looks so purposeful but when you are in the middle of it, particularly when you are not on the open plains but in thicker bush its harder to tell. Its more of a swirling pattern than a straight A to B and the herds just keep moving round and round the area looking for the freshest new grass. So sometimes you see 100’s moving south only to see another group heading North.

Wherever they are going it is hard to describe how it makes you feel to see such numbers of wild animals. For me it is hope and relief that at least somewhere in this world wildlife seems to be doing ok. For a moment you can lose yourself and imagine what this planet used to look like when things where in balance.

The wonder of nature.

 

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Wildebeest massing. Credit Lucy Hughes

Merry Christmas from the Snapshot Serengeti Team

The last month has seen a new batch of Snapshot Serengeti Images uploaded to the Zooniverse. There seems to be a high portion of really stunning images amongst the 40000 odd that were uploaded in this batch. Now there is no rhyme nor reason for this as the camera-traps are impartial, they simply snap away when an animal triggers them. It is pure luck if the resultant image is a perfect portrait or a tip of a horn or tail.

Of course, as scientists we don’t so much care about pretty pictures as being able at least to id the animals involved but no one is immune to a great image and so we at Snapshot Serengeti give a great big thanks to the animals of the Serengeti for being so cooperative when it comes to our camera-traps.

As you classify the images do remember to flag any really special ones for everyone to enjoy.

Christmas is approaching and so from all the team at Snapshot Serengeti Merry Christmas. Its been a big year for us moving over to the new system and joining up with Snapshot Safari, thanks for sticking with us through the teething problems and a big thank you for all your classifications over 2018.

 

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Trials and Tribulations

 

Data collection is the back bone of field research work and can sound glamorous and exciting to those who are office bound but I will let you into a little secret, it can be exhausting and frustrating and unrewarding too.

Firstly, you have to remember that researchers often work in remote places and whilst this is amazing it does lead to some logistical nightmares. Take for instance my recent experience. My task was to visit 18 Ilchokuti or lion guardians from KopeLion to collect the data they had recorded during the previous month. Now they are spread out over 1300k2, in itself quite a distance but when you factor in the rough at best, non-existent at worst roads you begin to have an idea of the task. I would be lucky if it didn’t rain, that would only add to the woes. Another thing to remember is that, barring a few lucky people working for high profile organisations, most researchers have to nurse their aged vehicles along, fixing things as you go. This trip wasn’t too bad as we seemed to only suffer from door catches failing so nothing a bit of string or a Leatherman wouldn’t fix. The budgets just never seem to run to decent cars.

Just as I was about to feel smug about the lack of rain hampering our journey it dawned on me that dry conditions held their bad points too. Dust! The fine dust covering some of the landscape here is deadly. It penetrates everything and with a three-day trip planned with no opportunity for a shower, boy does it get tiring. Forget enjoying the scenery as you drive, you mostly feel as if you are in a cloud only with a yellow tinge that makes it hard to breath in place of the fluffy white.

Anyway, I can’t really complain it was a wonderful three days and meeting up with a couple of our guys in the middle of nowhere under a great baobab tree acting as our office for an hour or so was something to make you smile.

 

Data collection Credit: KopeLion

Data collection. Credit: KopeLion

 

 

My colleague, Meritho Katei, over in the Serengeti has an even harder job under similar conditions. I was simply rendezvousing with other people, collecting and issuing data sheets and downloading GPS data. Meritho is trying to pick up on the lion monitoring for the Serengeti Lion project that has been on hold for a while.

His task is to reconnect with the prides of lions previously being followed and studied and to catch up on the family histories. New members need to be identified, files made on them and changes in pride composition noted. He is working with the Snapshot Serengeti camera trap data to see where the prides are hanging out but of course we aren’t quite up to date with the classifying so that’s not the greatest help. Instead he is relying on a lot of kilometres driving, following up on tourist sightings and tracking data and a good set of eyes to track down the prides and observe them.

So as I washed the dust out of my hair, luxuriating in a hot shower after my three day successful, mission accomplished trip, I had to reflect that poor Meritho was in for many months of hard slog catching up with those lions and with the rains coming things are about to get even harder. Good luck Meritho!

 

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Serengeti lion pride

On The Trail Of Lions

I have been a little quiet recently and for that I must apologise but my excuse is good. I have been relocating to Tanzania where I am going to be based for the next three months working with Kopelion in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. One of Snapshot Serengeti’s partners kopelion (Korongoro People’s Lion Initiative) is a conservation organisation and research project that focuses on human-lion coexistence in the multi use landscape of Ngorongoro. I have written about the project in these blogs if you want to read more  https://blog.snapshotserengeti.org/2017/02/23/meet-the-people-2/

After a two week intensive language course in nearby Moshi I have finally made it to base camp on the crater rim. The office is perched at 2300m looking down on the Crater Lake and has one of the best office views I have ever had which makes up for being stuck indoors when you would rather be in the field.
It’s not all office based thank goodness and I have already had the pleasure of three days out in the Ndutu area learning about the work the project does. Although there has been some rain it is still in the grip of the dry season here and the scenery for the most part is a dry and dusty yellow. The lions are hungrily awaiting the rains that will bring a welcome flush of green that will draw the wildebeest in vast numbers and thus plenty of prey.
Saturday was spent following up on reports of lion spoor (tracks) found near to an area that Maasai bring their cattle to drink. We turned up early morning to start tracking the spoor to see if we could figure out if the lion where still in the area; if this turns out to be the case a lion guardian or Ilchokuti will stay put in the vicinity to warn herders about the lion presence and hopefully avoid an encounter.
It was obvious that several lion had been in the area, you could see depressions in the sand where they had lay down for a bit of a nap. The tracks lead alongside a small water drainage channel and the lions had wandered down to drink in a few spots. Further along the water channel the tracks of individual lions suddenly converged on one access path down to the water. Clearly something had excited their interest. After a careful look around we descended the same route to investigate. Lying in the mud at the edge of the water we found the body of a young spotted hyena, teeth marks around its throat and the surrounding tracks told the story. Most likely the youngster was drinking when the lions ambushed it, its small size meant it didn’t stand a chance and lions probably quickly dispatched it.
Despite the fact that the lions in the area are somewhat lean at the moment they made no attempt to eat the hyena. This is normal behaviour for lions; they will not tolerate other predators in their territory and will kill them if the chance arises. There was a lack of other hyena spoor in the area so this youngster was probably on its own, why we cannot say but it became an easy target for the lions.
It is a great privilege to walk into an area that has such a story written out for you in the sand and mud. In this instant the presence of a body left little to interpret but the trackers here are capable of reading far less obvious stories and it is this skill that is helping to mitigate lion-human conflict by acting as an early warning system to the people who live side by side with lions.
Our camera-trapping efforts afford us an unparalleled view into the lives of the Serengeti ecosystems animals but the work of conservation has many aspects and I hope to bring you a good view of what is going on here over the next few months.

Spotted hyena killed by lions

Lion Fight

 

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Photo Credit: Edward Lopatto

 

These incredible images of a major lion turf war have been taken by the team in the Serengeti and come with the fantastic announcement that the long running Serengeti Lion Project is back up and running.

Although the camera-trap aspect of the project has continued without pause, the main work of the Serengeti Lion project  has been on hiatus for the past few years. Now, it is finally being restored and the priority is to sort out who’s who in all the study area prides. Comparing existing id’s and adding new ones is going to take some time.

Looks like these boys are trying to shake up the genes even more. Two coalitions both looking strong have clashed over ownership of prime real estate. The team report that all the males involved looked strong and healthy so this is probably not the definitive battle.

We will have more news for you soon on how the work is going as well as reports from the field, so stay tuned. Meanwhile enjoy these stunning images.

A Team Effort

Snapshot Serengeti has been on the go since 2010 in one form or another and over those years a team of dedicated people has kept it running. The base of the effort is the 225 camera-traps that have been snapping away continuously for that whole period. Of course for that to happen there needs to be researchers and assistants on the ground physically looking after camera-traps, a scientific team who coordinate all data processing and analysis, a management team running the administration of the project  and generous funders to keep everything alive and kicking.

Snapshot Serengeti could also not work without all the thousands of volunteer citizen scientist who generously give their time and energy to classifying all the millions of images, ultimately helping the researchers to answer scientific questions we hope will aid in the conservation of all that we love about the Serengeti.

Here in these blogs we have celebrated all these people but it dawned on me recently that there is one group of people that seem to have been forgotten, our moderators.

Our amazing team at Snapshot Serengeti deserve a special mention. They, like our citizen scientists are volunteers, dedicating their time and expertise for free. Contrary to what some may think they are not part of the scientific team in as far as they are not university students who do the job as part of their studies. No, they are a mixed bunch in terms of back ground and do the job plain and simply because they love the Serengeti and love the project. They spend a huge amount of time online helping other users with their classifications, guiding new users through some of the pit falls they know only too well and sharing their collective knowledge through prompt responses to questions and great information posts helping others with less experience to understand the Serengeti and its wildlife. They also have to deal with the odd, luckily very infrequent, troll which is a thankless task in diplomacy. We are privileged to have such an amazing team and I know that they are greatly appreciated by Snapshot Serengeti’s participants.

So thank you to davidbygott, maricksu and tillydad who have been with us since the beginning and welcome to parsfan and nmw. You Guy’s are the best and Snapshot Serengeti would not be the experience it is without all your help.

 

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Hartebeest through a dislodged camera-trap cover.

Vulture Culture

Lappet-faced vulture

 

Of all the large birds out there on the Serengeti plains the vultures are probably the most recognisable, with their long barely feathered necks and large hooked beaks, you can’t miss them. For a lot of people they are ugly birds and their behaviour makes people shudder, all that frantic plunging of necks inside messy carcasses. Some cultures revere the vulture, instilling magical attributes to them whilst others vilify them.

But the truth is they are just birds with their own unique ecological niche, one that is absolutely essential to the health of the whole ecosystem.

Lets break it down. That neck, well the fact that the whole head and neck is either bare or only lightly feathered is a marvellous adaptation to keeping clean. Yep, not something people generally associate with vultures but they are in fact pretty clean birds. That beak, well it may look like it could kill quite efficiently but it is actually designed to grip hard and rip. Believe me I have been around rescued vultures and felt the effect, there is a lot of power there. A vulture will use its sizable feet to hold a tricky bit of carcase down when trying to tear off a chunk but the real power comes from the strong neck muscles and the powerful beak.

If you look closely at the different species of vulture you will notice that not only is there a difference in size of individual species but in the beak size. There is a hierarchy in vulture etiquette at a fresh carcase. If the dead animal is large and has a tough hide, say a buffalo, the larger species such as lappet-faced will be needed to ‘break in’. Their huge beaks and added bulk allow them to head straight for the good bits where lesser vultures would have to start with the natural openings such as the eyes, mouth and anus. Once the large vultures have broken in, the rabble takes over and fights it out for the good meat, the white-backed and Ruppell’s. Around the peripheries the hooded vultures will be waiting for the chance to snatch up bits of anatomy that are sent flying by over- zealous cousins or to dart in when the carcase looks almost clean to pick off the last bits of flesh in hard to reach places. It is not uncommon to see this species right inside the empty carcase and its slim lined beak is great at cleaning up.

Vultures search for food from the wing. Research has shown that in the Serengeti it is most often the lappet-faced that arrives first despite the numbers of this species being lower than the others. It seems they are extra vigilant or just have better eyes. The descent of this the largest African vulture draws in the other species who can be clued into the find from over 30kms away. It is quite breath taking to see many vultures on rapid descent with wings held inwards, feathers splayed it can also be noisy.

But other than cleaning up unsightly dead things how do vultures help the ecosystem? Like other organisms that consume dead animal matter vultures are immune to a lot of deadly diseases. Their stomachs are filled with very acidic digestive juices which can destroy diseases such as anthrax, cholera and rabies. Most scavengers would not be immune to these types of disease and what’s more, diseases such as anthrax can lay dormant for decades posing an ongoing risk. Of course vultures alone can’t keep the Serengeti disease free but with their ability to fly over 100km a day they do a darn good job of patrolling the plains and keeping them clean.

But outside of protected areas vultures are in decline. In places like South Africa there has always been a value placed on vultures with Sangoma or witchdoctors prescribing vulture heads for people needing to see into the future to answer big life questions. Of course this has modernised, now people purchase vulture heads to see the winning lottery numbers. Vultures are also targeted by poaching gangs who, in an effort not to have their poaching camps discovered, place poison bait to attract and kill the vultures. India, several years ago nearly lost ALL its Gyps vultures. 95% where thought to have died and the main cause discovered to be adverse effects from a drug called diclofenac that was widely given to domestic stock. The drug has since been banned in India but its use as a veterinary drug in Africa is rising causing major concern amongst conservationists. Loss of habitat is also an issue.

We are lucky that the Serengeti is an ecosystem functioning normally with all its facets. You may be lucky to spot, lappet-faced, white-headed, white-backed, Ruppell’s griffon, hooded and Egyptian vultures in our camera trap images. It is quite remarkable to find this type of balance these days and we thank the vultures for their ongoing services.

Picture Worth A Thousand Words?

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The saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words but here we have a picture that doesn’t tell us enough.

What happened here? We see a beautiful male lion strolling through the Serengeti but he has quite a gash on his back. Other wise he looks unharmed and he has a full looking belly so what do you think? A fight, a hunting injury, miss judged a low branch?

This picture leaves us hanging and is a few words short of the sentence. What’s your thoughts?

Living In The Lions Den

 

Snapshot Serengeti is in the limelight again!

A new paper titled “No respect for apex carnivores: Distribution and activity patterns of honey badgers in the Serengeti” has been published by a team from the University of Wisconsin and University of Ljubljana using the Snapshot Serengeti data classified by our citizen scientists.

Honey badgers are surprisingly understudied. Although extremely charismatic the fact that they have large territories, up to 541km2 for an adult male in the Kalahari, and no clear habitat preferences makes it hard to predict where to find and study them.

The Snapshot Serengeti data of course is a dream come true to many researchers enabling them to ask scientific questions without having to wait potentially years to collect data themselves.The team took advantage of the open access data, courtesy of Snapshot Serengeti to look at what they could learn about honey badgers and how they live alongside other predators. Ferocious as they are honey badgers are killed by lion, hyena and leopard and so the team wanted to know whether they avoided areas where these large carnivores were active.

Well it seems that despite ending up as an occasional victim the honey badger is quite happy living alongside the larger carnivores, at least in the Serengeti anyway according to the authors. It appears as if the honey badger actively seeks out the same habitats as the large carnivores. The authors modelled a variety of different explanatory scenarios to see which would be the best fit to explain honey badger distribution across the Serengeti study area. Included where variables such as habitat preference, water availability, cover availability, lion abundance, and leopard abundance. Their best models showed that the presence of all three large carnivores coincided with the presence of honey badgers and that there was also a positive correlation temporally between leopard, hyena and honey badger showing that they use the same habitat at the same time.

It’s interesting stuff. The authors do point out that although the data set was huge there was actually very few incidence of honey badger over the 3 year period covered by their work and so their sample size was small. It does however show just how valuable the data collected by Snapshot Serengeti and the other Snapshot Safari projects can be, if nothing else to give scientists a relatively inexpensive way to explore questions before undertaking more specific research work themselves.

You can read the paper here, although it is not open access unfortunately: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1616504717302720

 

These two images illustrate the point nicely, you can clearly see the same camera has captured honey badger and spotted hyena with in 13 days of each other. Interestingly both in day light.