June through August is a busy time for scientific researchers. They get to leave their desks and all that computer stuff and go visit their study area. Snapshot Serengeti’s resident researcher Meredith is lucky enough to be in the Serengeti as I write and she has shared a few recent experiences with me.
She is currently setting up a new camera-trap array in Grumeti Reserve which borders the Serengeti National Park in the north west. This area was created as a buffer zone to the Serengeti National Park to help protect the western corridors of the famous wildebeest migration of the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. Grumeti in turn is bordered by villages and has one of the fastest growing human populations around the Serengeti Park. Traditionally these communities hunted for bushmeat to supplement their diets but with the rise in population it is doubtful if this is still sustainable.
Meredith has been out this week following the migration as it moves along Grumeti’s northern border. As well as setting camera-traps and marvelling at the numbers of wildebeest she has also seen the darker side of conservation that almost anyone working in protected wildlife areas in Africa is familiar with; poaching. She reports that they have been removing snares daily and that distressingly they found 4 snared wildebeest within a half hour, two were dead, one had a broken leg and had to be killed but miraculously they were able to release one. Whilst trying to select camera-trap spots Meredith and her team encountered poachers butchering a fresh caught wildebeest, they were able to give chase, alas to no avail.
In areas like this the locals know well the movements of the animals and they will seed the area with thousands of wire snares. Anti poaching teams are kept even busier during migration time knowing this too. The anti poaching team, well trained as they are, have had more luck than Meredith and her team. This week they set up an ambush and took out a biltong (dried meat) camp. Their efforts on the front line destroying snares and apprehending poachers as well as the community liaison work that goes on at Grumeti has reaped rewards. Animal numbers are on the rise, the elephant population has quadrupled in the last 11 years and giraffe and topi numbers have tripled.
Still Dr Craig Packer and his colleagues have estimated that tens of thousands of wildebeest are poached each year…and this is not a problem that will go away. You can read more about the issue in this Africa Geographic article.
Poaching goes on all around the world, I have even found wire snares set in my own garden her in France (probably for badger). It is a senseless, lazy but effective way to catch animals. There are many reasons why people poach, when I lived in South Africa the local community would poach our animals not because they were poor and couldn’t afford meat but because warthog and impala meat could fetch higher prices than chicken, goat or pig. Christmas was a particularly bad time for poaching as local chiefs put in their orders. Bushmeat was a delicacy and poaching made good money. In Central African Republic the systematic stripping of wildlife by the Sudanese cattle herders has been stimulated by draught and poverty in Sudan, they dry most of the meat to take back and sell in the Darfur region. Utilising the natural world is deeply rooted in many cultures around the world and always has been. Opportunity is what fuels the practice but it is the rapidly rising human population that is causing this age old practice to become unsustainable in our shrinking world.
I hope Meredith doesn’t have to witness too much more wildlife destruction but all the same it is good for a scientist to get firsthand experience of one of the biggest issues facing wildlife today and for us to recognise it.
As some of you know, Snapshot Serengeti is not just about mammals. Their avian cousins also like to get in on the act especially the larger ones. Amongst the more common captures are kori bustards, secretary birds, korhaans, and storks. The one I like best though is the ground hornbill.
I fell in love with these birds many years ago when I helped hand raise southern ground hornbill chicks. Although wide spread and fairly common over most of southern and eastern Africa the southern ground hornbill has lost around 70% of its home range in South Africa. They are large birds and don’t do well outside of protected areas especially where human density is high.
Ground hornbills lay two eggs in, believe it or not, a cavity in a tree. The first chick to hatch will kill the second, which is really just an insurance policy in case the first egg doesn’t hatch or should die in the first few days. We were given permission to take the second egg once the first had hatched in order to hand rear then release the birds. The newly hatched chick has to be one of the ugliest babies I have seen. It is a charcoal grey naked greasy looking blob with a head so large it cannot lift it up. For the first day or so it just flops around barely able to raise its bill for food. When its feathers start growing it looks like a diminutive dinosaur. Eventually they do blossom into the splendid giants that strut across the savannahs in small family groups eating a range of food stuffs from insects, rodents and reptiles. They can kill efficiently with that heavy bill and will take anything up to the size of a hare.
Considering their size it is hard to believe that they can fly but fly they do and spend time perched in trees. In fact the loss of large trees is another reason behind their decline, as I said earlier they need trees to nest in. Ground hornbills are cooperative breeders with several family members helping to rear the single chick. This joint effort seems strange until you realise that although they breed once every three years the groups only manage to raise one chick to maturity every 8 to ten years. Once a chick has fledged it is dependent on its parents for two years, which is the longest span of any bird and makes reintroduction programs very hard. It only reaches maturity at 6 years old.
There are two species of ground hornbill, found only in Africa. The southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) the species found in the Serengeti and the northern ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) found across sub-Sahara from Mauritania to Uganda in suitable savannah habitat. The later is slightly smaller than the former and has some blue facial patches which distinguish it from the red of southern ground hornbills.
Such a large bird living mostly on the ground the ground hornbills have not escaped the attention of man. Although many tribes hold totemic beliefs about the birds that afford them some protection others are not so lucky. The Zulus and Xhosa of South Africa believe that to break a drought a dead ground hornbill must be tied down in a streambed to attract rainwater. In a more modern twist ground hornbills, ever territorial will smash windows and car windscreens with their powerful bills in a misguided attempt to evict intruders (namely their reflections) This has not endeared them to humans.
All in all the ground hornbills are magnificent birds, next time you spot one on Snapshot Serengeti take a moment to have a closer look.
Meredith has been busy this past week attending the Citizen Science conference in St Paul, Minnesota. She reports back that it was a fantastically stimulating conference that confirms the high esteem that citizen science has grown within the science community.
The yearly conference sees a diverse group of people from researchers, educators and universities to the likes of NGO’s and museums get together to discuss the use and promotion of citizen science. Although we at Snapshot Serengeti have been aware of its great impact for some time citizen science is now emerging and is recognised as a powerful tool in the advancement of research by many.
Those attending the four day event collaborated by sharing their varied experience and ideas on a variety of topics. The collection and sharing of data and how to impact policy was discussed. There was focus on how to use citizen science as an engaging teaching tool, how to bring citizen science to a wider audience and how to involve citizens more in research. Those attending brought their joint experience and expertise together to discuss how citizen science impact on science could be measured and evaluated. If you want to find out more about the conference then visit this link.
We sometimes forget when working away at classifying our stunning images on Snapshot Serengeti that there is a lot of tech going on that enables us citizen scientists to be of use to the scientists. Meredith gave what’s known as a ‘project slam’ essentially a 5 minute presentation about our work on Snapshot Serengeti and how it has paved the way for helping other cameratrap citizen science projects. A quick look around Zooniverse will show just how many there are now.
The massive amount of data produced over several seasons through Snapshot Serengeti have allowed the development of a robust, tried and tested methodology that smaller projects would have taken years longer to develop. Just contemplate the work that went into developing interfaces, protocols, pipelines and algorithms for taking millions of classifications of untrained volunteers and turning them into a dataset which has been verified to be >97% accurate.
It is awesome to see that something we all find so truly engaging can translate into such serious stuff in the field of science. I think we, the citizen scientists, and the Snapshot team can be rightly proud of our work on this brand new branch of science
So you probably know by now that season 10 is up and running and there have been some amazing camera-trap images uncovered already. As well as a few lounging lions and wandering wildebeest there have been some stunning aardvark and wildcat images.
This season has turned up quite a few images with a central square that is brighter than the rest of the frame with a luminous look. These somewhat Warholesque images look as though they have been photo-shopped and I love them. Here are just a few. My favourite is the zebra, its perfect.
Obviously these are not some new form of art but have a more down to earth source; a malfunction with one of the camera trap types. A patch provided by the manufacturer restores the image to normal which for scientific purposes is very good but from the purely aesthetic side its kind of sad, I like “The Square”
The Zooniverse team are super busy at the moment but hopefully very soon season 10 will be loaded and we can all get cracking with what promises to be a fantastic season full of amazing images.
In the meantime I thought I would post a few notes on those tricky animal pairings that seem to have more than a few people stumped when trying to id them.
To kick it off we will look at Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle. If you were treated to perfect photos every time I think you would get the hang of these two pretty quick but with the often blurry or distant images we get on snapshot they can be tricky.
Grant’s gazelle A Thomson’s gazelle A
A; First off there is the overall colouration. Thomson’s has a thick dark stripe across its side, Grant’s usually lacks this but be aware as some Grant’s have a dark stripe too. Not the best distinguishing feature as there can be quite a bit of colour variation.
Grant’s gazelle B Thomson’s gazelle B
B; A better distinction is the facial markings. Grant’s gazelle has a thick black stripe running along the side of the face from the nose passing through the eye to the base of the horns giving a masked look. Thomson’s has the same stripe but it ends at the eye, not passing through. The white band on top of the black stripe is more distinct on Grant’s.
Grant’s gazelle C Thomson’s gazelle C
C; If you get a back-side shot then Grant’s displays a much whiter overall appearance with the white area extending past the root of the tail up onto the back. In Thomson’s the white area stops at the root of the tail. Grant’s tail is white at the root and thin with whispy black end, Thomson’s is dark and fluffy looking. The black vertical bands in Grant’s are also more prominent.
Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelle
Photo NH53, Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
In a mixed group the smaller size of Thomson’s is evident, although with young animals it is not so obvious. Here you can easily see most of the features discussed above with the Grant’s gazelle comprising the 7 animals to the right back and the Thomson’s gazelle to the left forward. Note the Grant’s gazelle side on at the back, it shows a much darker side stripe than the others more a kin to Thomson’s. Males and females of both antelope have horns with the females usually shorter and thinner. In some females horns are absent. In general Grant’s are more graceful looking than the stocky Thomson’s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.