Now that we have finished classifying season 9.5 and we have a short break before season 10 is launched I thought I would muse a little on my favourite wildlife setting; Rivers.
I live in South West France next to a river. Its gentle passage demands my attention constantly. That’s because rivers are magnets to wildlife. Everything needs water to drink and in a dry area it means your best chance at seeing wildlife as they come to drink.
In Africa too, I lived by a river and what a special place that was. The Oliphants, sometimes a trickle sometimes a violent torrent, flows into Kruger National Park and I was lucky enough to live on its banks for 4 years. I could watch the daily spectacle of life unfold from my stoop. I watched baboon troops clash viciously, hippo’s endlessly dose, leopards stroll the beaches, fish eagles catching supper. I once watched a four meter long rock python ascend the cliffs opposite effortlessly and I followed the progress of a family of spotted eagle owls on a nest in a crevice, worrying absurdly when the river began to turn chocolaty and rise. They survived but I was ready to brave crocs and hippos and swim over to rescue them.
You can watch for hours and see nothing then turn your back for a second and suddenly 5 kudu have appeared out of nowhere. One early evening I sat watching, all was quiet except the birds calling in the bushes. It was approaching the hour that nightjars start to sing. All of a sudden the shrill nasal alarm snort of a Klipspringer rang out quickly followed by the outraged screaming of vervet monkeys. Grabbing binoculars I focused on a blur on the rocks opposite in time to see a klipspringer launch itself off landing with an almighty splash in the river. A leopard came to a screeching halt on the rocks not wishing for a swim. The river meanwhile was flowing pretty fast and I thought the klipspringer, more suited to rocky precipices than water, would drown. Amazingly the stout little antelope managed to swim to the shore and clamber out, shaken no doubt but alive. I often wondered if he ever made it back to his side of the river.
A stroll down the beach was always an education. The damp morning sand would show who had passed previously and was great for practicing tracking skills. On one such stroll I noted an absence of leopard tracks on my outward walk only to discover on my return journey that a leopard had left its mark on top of my foot prints; a little disconcerting.
The river, for most of the year, retreated to the deeper channels leaving a boulder strewn sandy beach lined with large trees such as sycamore figs and marulas. During the driest part of the year we really felt our connection to the great Kruger Park. Our reserve was quite small by African standards and did not have elephant or lion resident but during the dry period elephant would take to wandering the river course right out of the park and would spend a few weeks looking for food on our reserve before wandering back to the park. Lion too followed this same route and it was always a thrill to double take on a seemingly large leopard print only to realise it was in fact a lion.
The other end of the scale came with the rains. The river could rise meters in minutes turning a deep chocolate brown. The force of its passage was astonishing, great trees would be swept down, I have seen cars and sofas swirl by. Most of the animals that live in the water seem to get out whist the storm passes but I watched a hippo once in the full force of the raging river and I suspect that it wasn’t by choice that he was in there that somehow he couldn’t get out.
So benign or raging, highway or refuge the river is like an anchor to wildlife. The chance of seeing wildlife there is strong but even if you don’t they are intrinsically beautiful places.
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.
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.
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.
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