Archive | April 2013


Have *just* gotten back from Gombe and already back in the field frantically trying to finish camera traps before my mother comes out to visit. Stories of chimpanzees to come soon.

In the meanwhile, here’s a link to a clip that National Geographic Television did on lion-cheetah interactions. While lions kill a lot of cheetah cubs, they also occasionally kill adult cheetahs, as you’ll see in this clip. Since cheetahs don’t pose any direct threat to lions (unlike hyenas and leopards, which can kill lion cubs), and they only have minimal diet overlap, we’re not entirely sure why lions seem so intent on killing cheetahs. Watching this video clip, what do you think is going on?

Spot that leopard!

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

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

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

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

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

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

Setting up a camera trap on a dead wildebeest

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

Female 1

Female 1

Male 3

Male 3

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

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

Jackal at eland kill

Jackal at eland kill

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

Honey badger and jackal

Honey badger and jackal

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

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

12:35 - Setting camera

12:35 – Setting camera

15:58 - Leopard

15:58 – Leopard

Photos copyright Michele Altenkirk/Lucy Hughes, Lisssataba NR

Wildebeest Explosion

If you’ve spent time on Snapshot Serengeti, then you’ll know that wildebeest are rather abundant in the Serengeti – especially during the rainy season. But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1950’s there were fewer than a quarter of the wildebeest there are today.

Back then, there was something suppressing the wildebeest population, keeping it much lower than the land’s capacity. It wasn’t predators, though there are now more lions and hyena in the Serengeti thanks to the increase in wildebeest. It wasn’t poaching, though we know that poachers take a substantial number of wildebeest. It was disease.

In the early 1930’s rinderpest was detected in Serengeti’s wildebeest. Rinderpest is closely related to measles. In fact, it is believed that measles evolved from rinderpest some 800 to 1,600 years ago. But rinderpest doesn’t affect people; instead, it affects ungulates and most likely evolved in Eurasia. For a long time, the Sahara Desert probably acted as a sort of barrier, preventing the disease from reaching sub-Saharan Africa. But in the late nineteenth century, people transported infected cattle into the region.

Rinderpest has high mortality in wildebeest, especially in young animals. What was once known as “yearling disease” killed so many young wildebeest that the Serengeti population was only about 300,000 animals in the 1950’s. Rinderpest also causes high mortality in cattle, and so inoculation attempts started in the 1940’s. These got better over time, and in the 1960’s there was a largely successful push to vaccinate 80 million cattle across twenty-two African countries, including Tanzania.

Wildebeest themselves were not vaccinated, but as the number of rinderpest-infected cattle decreased with vaccination, so did the number of wildebeest that had rinderpest. Following the initial vaccination push, regular vaccination campaigns kept the infection rate very low in cattle. Despite a handful of small localized rinderpest outbreaks in the ensuing decades, the disease was essentially eliminated from the Serengeti wildebeest population. This pattern of infection shows us that for rinderpest, wildebeest are what is termed a spillover species, which means that the wildebeest population cannot by itself sustain the disease; wildebeest must constantly contract the disease from cattle for it to survive in the wildebeest population.

The Serengeti wildebeest population has since exploded. No longer constrained by rinderpest, it has soared to 1.2 to 1.5 million animals.

As for rinderpest, the vaccination campaigns of the mid twentieth century were only a start. The international Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) continued to pursue the disease by vaccinating cattle and by the 1990’s had reduced it to only local outbreaks worldwide. In 2010, the FAO declared that they were confident that they had eliminated the disease from everywhere it had been known. And less than two years ago rinderpest was declared officially eradicated. It is the second of only two diseases that humanity has successfully eradicated, the first being smallpox.

Wildebeest all the way to the horizon

Wildebeest all the way to the horizon

Chickens have necks?

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.