Across the African Savannahs many different birds can be seen strutting around on long legs, a perfect adaptation, often coupled with long necks, to give them a higher vantage point to see over the long grasses. We are talking about ostrich, korhaan, ground hornbill and storks to name a few. All these birds use the same method of steadily walking through the grass picking of preferred prey items; grass itself in the case of the ostrich.
One of the most fascinating to me is the secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). Reportedly named for its resemblance to a medieval scribe with a quill behind his ear other sources suggest the name is a Francophile corruption of the Arab word saqr et-tair which translates to hunter-bird. Whatever the origins of its name the frond of spatulate nape feathers and the elongated central tail feathers easily distinguish this bird.
It is something of an enigma taxonomically speaking, making up its own unique family, Sagittariidae. It seems secretarybirds are related to eagles sharing skull structure and a type of feather lice. Currently aligned to diurnal birds of prey it has previously been thought of as a relative of storks and cranes. Indeed its breeding behaviour is very similar to that of storks, which to make things more complicated are also share a close affinity to birds of prey.
Taxonomic complexities aside secretarybirds do look like elongated hawks, they share that hooked bill and yellow cere common in birds of prey, they also possess a large gape which allows them to open the bill wide enough to swallow large prey whole. But it’s their feet that do all the work.
The modus operandi for a secretary bird is to stalk along quietly and stomp its prey with a torrent of fast powerful kicks to dispatch it. This method is used for a number of prey items such as arthropods, rodents, amphibians, game birds even mongooses. In fact anything, really, that can be subdued and killed by its deadly kicks is fair game. That said it is the secretarybird’s ability to despatch snakes that has endeared it to most Africans.
To sneak up on a snake and then kill it quickly takes a lot of skill and you best not make a mistake otherwise in the African bush you may end up the one dying.
A study led by Dr. Steven Portugal, from Royal Holloway, University of London found that although other birds of prey strike their prey with far more force this is enhanced by the momentum of their entire bodies plunging down from flight. The secretarybird is able to exert a force 5 times greater than its own body weight from standstill and can repeat this accurately with multiple kicks being delivered at a speed of 15 milliseconds each. Fast and furious, that’s how this bird tackles deadly snakes and biting mongoose.
If you are interested you can read the paper here. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982215014839
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.
The 5th of June is world environment day. This event was created by the United Nations back in 1974 to promote awareness of our environment and to spur people globally to help protect it. Its celebration has never been more important than in today’s challenging times. All over the world people will be taking part in a host of events that celebrate our environment. Some have formed clean up events of local beaches or city parks. Others will be doing a bioblitz in their gardens or local reserves many will include children who will be inspired by searching out and identifying bugs. There will be events organised on the public scale such as awareness marches or environmental film screenings. Some folks will simply celebrate by stepping out in the open air to take a walk or picnic. Whatever the event you can be sure that a lot of people will be considering the environment this week and that can never be a bad thing.
Each year there is a theme, this year it is ‘connecting people to nature’ I thought this was particularly apt for us citizen scientists at Snapshot Serengeti. Through the millions of images we classify there is a strong connection to the rhythms of animals in the Serengeti. We get to appreciate the wide biodiversity of this immense ecosystem and for those of us unable to visit such a place it is a way to connect to a wild unspoilt place. It is a way to visit, virtually, leaving no carbon foot print as we would by flying there. I feel it is a privilege afforded us thanks to technology that I would not have even dreamed of 15 years ago.
Snapshot Serengeti is the perfect antidote to the doom and gloom decried each day by the newspapers. In a world where wildlife is dwindling and the finger is firmly pointed at us as the major cause of climate change Snapshot Serengeti feels like something positive and good. Something to give us hope that we might not have wrecked everything just yet. From our armchairs we not only experience the wonders of nature but at the same time we are actually benefiting science with our classifications. What can be better than that?
So if you have nothing else planned this #World Environment day why not jump on to Snapshot Serengeti and get classifying, better still see if you can recruit new classifiers, the more the merrier.
If you want to read more about world environment day visit this site.
The waterbuck just stood there, unfocused, staring at nothing. He didn’t move except for the gentle flare of nostrils and rise of ribs as he drew breath. About 8 to 10 minutes went by and still not even a twitch of an ear to dislodge an annoying fly. Then as if released from a spell his drooping head rose a little and he took a step or two towards the stone bird bath where he took a few long draughts of water. After that he slowly walked of through the bushes and out of sight.
I couldn’t quite understand his behaviour thinking perhaps that he was ill. Although he sported a magnificent set of horns his coat looked more than a little out of condition and he looked thin. For a waterbuck to be this close to the house in the middle of the day was unusual. He was less than a meter from me; if the glass window wasn’t there I could have reached out and touched him. I didn’t see him again after that encounter until about 5 days later. Sitting on my stoop I could smell a whiff of something dead, not an unusual smell when you live in the bush, so I went exploring following my nose. It didn’t take long to find him. He was tucked in, sitting down, between the banking and a large boulder. First I thought he had fallen but actually he looked so peaceful I think he lay down in a position that he felt protected in and let his life ebb away.
You see on closer inspection I found his teeth to be worn away to almost nothing. This is common in antelope, if they make it through life without being preyed upon or succumbing to disease then they often die from starvation when the teeth, worn down to nubs, are unable to cope with the tough vegetation it survives on through the dry season. That vacant stare I had seen is something I have witnessed in starving antelope before. So although I couldn’t rule out disease (I am no medical expert) my guess from his behaviour and condition was that he had passed away with old age.
My quandary now was what to do with him. I could leave him be and let nature take its decomposing course (and this is what I would normally do) but that would mean I was going to live with an ever more nauseating death smell for a few weeks which believe me is not good. On the other hand pulling a 200kg animal out from a snug hole was not going to be easy. To cut a long story short I called for backup and with ropes and much holding of noses we got the waterbuck out and dragged him down to the river side. I sat there all day waiting to see if a croc would come and take the waterbuck or perhaps a hyena or vulture. Disappointed that none of natures garbage collectors came I walked off home just before dark.
First light the next day off I went back to the scene. Nothing. Not even a drop of blood. I can only conclude that the crocs did indeed come under the cover of dark and dragged the carcass into the depths where nature’s great cycle of life and death continued to the crocs advantage.
I have to admit that I actually quite like insects, they fascinate me, they are often brilliantly coloured and despite being so small seem to send most humans into a frenzy of panic. It astonishes me that these tiny creatures can come in such an array of beauty; something about the miniature form is beguiling. How can so much colour and pattern fit on such a small form.
However there are insects that do not elicit these feelings of wonder. Mosquitoes for one and ticks; both are annoying and can have you in your sick bed. If you have ever been hounded by sweat bees that want to crawl into every corner of your scalp, eyes, nose, ears and mouth you will know what I am talking about when I say they are enough to make you want to dive into a shark infested pool.
But… there is one creature that for me is worse than any of these, one that I cannot tolerate either mentally or physically. The tsetse fly.
My first encounter with tsetse in Central Africa has left me somewhat traumatised. I set off from base camp on a 2hr drive to an old abandoned camp to scavenge some equipment. The car had seen better days and although it had a windscreen it did not have windows. Lovely I thought, it’s hot and it will be nice and airy. The roads were in a bad state, necessitating a top speed of around 30km/hr. The first few km’s were fine then something sharp bit my ankle. Following that the same burning sensation came from my neck then there it was again from my shin instantaneously reappearing, most painfully of all on my temple. I looked around the dash board and it was swarming with about 50 tsetses all of which were clamouring to get to my bare skin and feast on me. They had been sucked through the nonexistent windows and there was nothing I could do to keep them out. All I could do was hold my collar closed whilst driving one handed the rest of the way. By the time I arrived I had welts all over my hands, neck, legs and feet. Yes they had actually crawled into my socks to get at my nice hot blood filled feet. Aarrrrrhhh.
Discomfort aside there is a very real risk to tsetse. They are vectors for a debilitating disease, sleeping sickness medically known as trypanosomosis. The disease effects both wild and domestic animals and humans. Whilst wild animals have a tolerance to the disease cattle do not. 3 million are thought to die a year across sub-Saharan Africa. Sleeping sickness in humans is often fatal if not treated although the death rate has been vastly reduced with modern medicines.
Historically areas of intense tsetse fly activity were not cultivated by humans leaving large fertile areas of the African continent as so called green deserts. Although a terrible burden for the human population it was good news for wild animals. The area of Central African Republic where I worked was one such place. It should have been teaming with wildlife but it wasn’t. In fact it was full of cattle during the dry season. The cattle herders are arriving in ever increasing numbers from Sudan trying to find respite from the desertification of their own lands. So how can this be? How can they survive the obvious tsetse infestation? It is all down drugs and motivation. The cattle must be shot full of drugs in order to survive the tsetse. A lot of these drugs are supplied by aid agencies trying to stop the human crisis developing but this inadvertently turns into a wildlife crisis. Not only do the herders now spend 4 months a year with their cattle competing alongside wildlife for resources but the herders are decimating the wildlife through poaching. They kill as much as they can, drying it to take back to Sudan and sell. It has become a major trade route and next to the armed gangs who extort protection from the families of herders the next richest guys working the route are the medicine sellers. Without the medicine the cattle die and the whole thing collapses.
Depressing I know but it does put the tsetse in context. Perhaps they played a very important role limiting the use of fertile land by over consumptive mammals. Once I learned their role in keeping humans out of wilderness areas I was a little more forgiving of their painful bites. Though when you have hundreds of bites all over you there is always that niggling worry of illness. Thankfully I escaped with nothing more than some ugly, very itchy swellings and a new understanding of the complexities involved with wildlife conservation.
This weeks guest blog is from our moderator David Bygott who has been guiding us through Snapshot Serengeti images since the beginning.
I’ve been lurking here for years as a moderator, but Lucy Hughes invited me to come out of the shadows and tell you how I got my Serengeti creds.
As a country boy in England I was obsessed with nature and yearned to see more of the world’s wildlife. Reading “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Bernard Grzimek, inspired me to go there. The dream took some years to achieve. First, I worked hard to get a zoology degree. Then, I wrote to anybody doing field research in Africa who might need a research student, assistant, or slave. I got lucky. A scientist, studying hyenas and wild dogs in Ngorongoro Conservation area, wanted me to work on her better-known chimpanzee project, which I had been following in the pages of ‘National Geographic’. Sounded good.
Thus in 1969 I pitched up at the camp of my new bosses, on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. Ten days of getting to know Jane Goodall and her photographer husband Hugo van Lawick, and total immersion in African wildlife. Incredible nights of watching hyena packs run down wildebeest and tear them apart. Even a road trip into the heart of Serengeti.
A seed sown, my mind blown, I continued across Tanzania to the remote chimp camp at Gombe National Park on the beautiful forested shore of Lake Tanganyika. Here I spent 2 amazing years with a small team of young people, following the famous chimps through the forest and recording their behavior. Experiencing at first hand our closest kin was a life-changing experience for me.
David with a chimp group at Gombe, 1970
While at Gombe, I met more of my scientific heroes. Bernard Grzimek visited, so did Dian Fossey, and I travelled to Rwanda to see her gorillas. Jane’s doctoral advisor Robert Hinde came, and encouraged me to write up my fieldwork for a Cambridge PhD.
Two unexpected things happened at Cambridge. I met my wife, primatologist Jeannette Hanby. And we got to know Brian Bertram who had studied Serengeti lions for 4 years, following George Schaller’s pioneering work. Brian persuaded us that social carnivores were just as interesting as primates, and that there was still more to learn about lions. It was a change of direction, but we were tempted!
So in 1974 we joined the Serengeti Research Institute as lion biologists, thanks to support from the U of Cambridge. Our main mission was to census the lion population, as National Parks feared that lions were decreasing (they weren’t!). We also compared the lives of lions in different habitats (Serengeti Plains where prey abundance is seasonal, and Ngorongoro Crater where prey is always abundant). And we investigated lion pride dynamics – why do some individuals leave, and others stay?
Imagine being part of a community of scientists studying every aspect of the ecosystem. We had a house in the centre of Serengeti and a Land-rover to go wherever we wanted, and we spent our days and nights with the great tawny cats.
Sometimes humans and lions are attracted to the same campsites
It was remote, but fortunately we were both used to that. Every month we made a supply run – either to Arusha or Nairobi, each at least 200 miles away, mostly on dirt roads. This took 2 days each way, plus several days of shopping and socializing. We learnt a lot about fixing cars, often in beautiful remote settings with primitive tools.
There was much less technology then. We had basic maps but no GPS, radio or mobile phones or internet. There were no computers, though we had cutting-edge hand-calculators. Radio-telemetry was in its infancy; we built our own radio-collars and darted and collared a few lions, but for most of our study we had no air support and ground-to-ground range was poor, so we had to rely on careful searching to find the lions – scanning with binoculars, driving, staying out at night to listen for roars. We identified the lions from natural markings and close-up photographs, on film of course. We developed a symbiosis with cheetah biologists, George and Lory Frame, photographing each others’ study animals whenever we saw them and trading ID photos to increase our sightings. We learnt as much as we could about what all our colleagues were doing, and often participated in ecosystem-wide aerial animal censuses.
We tried various methods of counting lions, including aerial and ground transects and individual recognition. The latter proved the most successful, but it was hard work to identify all the lions in our 1000 square study area. In addition, every second month we’d spend a week in Ngorongoro Crater. After finding as many lions as we could there, we would follow one pride for 4 days and nights, to observe their activity, range and hunting success. We did the same with a comparable pride living at Sametu on the Serengeti Plain. The story of the Sametu pride unrolled like a soap opera, and we couldn’t resist writing a book about them. “Lions Share” tells their story, but also incorporates much of what we knew about lion behavior and about the ecology of Serengeti. (Out of print, but look on Amazon).
Eventually we had to leave, and our friends Craig Packer and Anne Pusey took over the Serengeti Lion Project. Craig amazingly kept it going from 1978 to 2014, and Snapshot Serengeti is an offshoot of what has become one of the world’s longest running wildlife studies.
After writing up our 4 years of lion data, we returned to Tanzania in 1982 to work in conservation education; university teaching, producing guidebooks and interpretive displays, and guiding safaris. We built our home near Lake Eyasi, and experienced years of village life and culture clash, but that’s another story (in preparation). In 2003 we moved to Tucson, Arizona, but I still get back to Tanzania every year, mostly leading National Geographic Expeditions.
I’m organizing my own safari to visit Serengeti and other parks in February 2018. If you seriously want to see these wonderful animals in the flesh, send me a message!
Today’s blog is by Sarah Huebner, a first year PhD student at University of Minnesota’s Lionlab studying under Dr Craig Packer. She writes about Save the Rhino day that was celebrated this week.
May 1st, 2017 is Save the Rhino Day, a day on which we must ponder what can be done to pull this beautiful animal back from the brink of total destruction. With fewer than 25,000 rhinos remaining in Africa, there is a strong possibility that they could go extinct within our lifetimes if poaching continues at its current pace. In addition to the problems of habitat fragmentation and human-wildlife conflict that all African animals face, rhinos have a target on their backs from poachers and criminal elements seeking to profit from selling their horns.
There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa–black rhinos and white rhinos. Both black and white rhinos have two horns on their heads, a larger one in front and a shorter one behind it. It is estimated that there are only 5,000 black rhinos remaining, down from 850,000 in the mid-20th century. The reason for this dramatic population collapse is poaching and sale of their horns through a criminal network from Africa to Asia. Though the rhino was added to the CITES list of animals banned from trade in 1977, their numbers have continued to crash since then. This is primarily due to the demand in China, Vietnam, and North Korea for use of the horns in jewelry, carvings, as a status symbol, and even in medicine. Some people believe that rhino horn can cure cancer. Scientific evidence clearly shows that rhino horn, made from the same material as our fingernails, is not at all useful in medicine.
Perhaps most distressing is the news that the ban on rhino horn trade in South Africa, home to the largest extant population of rhinos, has been lifted by their court system, clearing the way for the legal export of rhino horns. This does not mean that illegal trade will cease. Indeed, this move gives even more cover to the criminals trafficking rhinos. Though rhinos have the ability to regrow their horns, most are killed before having their horns sawed off, as we saw in the horrifying incident at a French zoo recently. If the rhinos are still alive when the horns are removed, they suffer terrible pain and are left to die, which many do because of blood loss. Impoverished poachers in Africa make very little for their efforts, while importers and sellers in Asia can make as much as US$30,000 for one kilogram of horn. Some estimate that the sale of both the front and back horns together is worth US$250,000. This makes rhino horn more valuable than gold or platinum. Little wonder that private reserves in South Africa wish to profit from the sale of these animals’ parts.
How then do we stop this? Organizations such as the Wildlife Justice Commission and Outraged South Africa Citizens Against Poaching are working to expose the criminal networks responsible for the poaching, smuggling, and selling of these horns in Asia. We can aid these and other conservation groups by helping to finance their initiatives designed to curb poaching. Perhaps the best way we can take action is to pressure our own governments to enact diplomatic sanctions on the countries that continue to look the other way while rhino horns are smuggled across their borders–primarily China, Vietnam, and North Korea. Diplomatic acts such as sanctions, travel bans, and blacklisting by other countries could convince these governments to enforce the national and global laws already on the books concerning rhino horn. On Save the Rhino Day 2017, contact your representatives and tell them that you want them to use diplomatic methods to pressure these countries to stop the import of rhino horn. Or the only way our children and grandchildren will see rhinoceros is in pictures, as we tell them about the magnificent creatures that once walked the earth.
Wildlife Justice Commission: https://wildlifejustice.org/
Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching: http://vyhub.com/css/css/
Investigative journalism by Al Jazeera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMguWY99q6s
NYTimes–South African Court Ends Ban on Sale of Rhinoceros Horns: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/world/africa/south-africa-rhinoceros-horns-rhinos.html?_r=0
One of the reasons I love working in conservation is the remote places it brings you to sometimes. Although born in London I am not a city person and haven’t lived in something even as big as a town in around 20 years. I am happiest wandering around in the bush observing animals in all their splendour without the addition of people.
So believe me when I tell you that my assignment in Chinko nature reserve was remote.
To get there you take a 2hr 30 min flight by light aircraft from Bangui, the capital for nearly 1000km. Of course you could drive if you have the time and a strong sense of adventure, the roads, however are impassable in the wet season. Road blocks are rife in a country where ethnic tensions are high. The route takes you through towns that only UN convoys dare try and pass.
The last half hour or so you are actually flying over the reserve itself. At 17,600 sq km it is enormous. There are no settlements in the reserve boundaries and the nearest village, Bakouma, is a bone shattering 12 hour drive away that includes a ‘ferry’ across a wide river. This is the nearest place for any supplies and also where most of the staff comes from. Bearing in mind that again this road is all but impassable during the 5 month rainy season when mud can mean it takes three hours to drive 5 km. Watching the plane trundle down the dirt runway as you stand there with your bags can insight a momentary sense of panic in many first time visitors here.
Of course getting there is not the only problem. Moving around the reserve is just as difficult. The habitat is a mosaic of tropical lowland rainforest and forested savannah which translates to very tall grasses and many rivers with thick tangled vegetation, not at all easy to drive through let alone walk through.
On one occasion I set out with the resident biologist to put out camera-traps. We drove all morning, checking for likely spots. Around midday we had to ford yet another river; as the car gingerly entered the water it suddenly slew to the left and sank notably. We were stuck and guess what? we had been assigned a car with a winch that did not work. After an agonising hour or two trying to get ourselves unstuck Thierry decided it was time to call in a rescue only to find his sat phone was having network issues. There was nothing left for us to do but start walking. It would be a 25km walk back to base, with all the streams and rivers water at least was no issue.
As we had no choice but to walk, Thierry, ever resourceful, suggested we treat it as one very long transect and record all that we saw along the way. It certainly kept my mind off the heat and dust anyway. How wonderful to just walk and see no signs of humans anywhere, only nature. It was better than being in the car where you heard nothing over the engine. Somewhere out in the middle of that walk we stumbled on a massive sinkhole about 30 meters deep and 50 meters diameter. Buzzing all around was a large colony of red-throated bee-eaters, not known to breed in Central African Republic these birds had obviously not read the books because they were flitting in and out of nest holes in the walls of the sinkhole. As we watched the show the bee-eaters put on for us I reflected that perhaps we were the only humans, certainly in recent history to have observed this spot buried deep within a very large isolated corner of Africa. It is a humbling experience to discover nature in its undisturbed state and I never tired of exploring Chinko’s river systems and forest clearings. Stumbling upon giant trees or ancient salt licks carved by forest elephants or just watching troops of monkeys and flocks of hornbills passing through the canopy above was manna for the soul.
As we approached base camp and the noise of industry kicked in, generators, cars, people, I had to mentally re-adjust bolstering my courage to deal with everyday camp life again thankful that something as simple as a stuck car could have afforded me a little more time cocooned from the real world.
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.