This is another guest post by Drs. Tom Morrison and Michael Anderson about the Snapshot Serengeti Special Edition and what their research hopes to uncover.
Seeing the forest for the trees
First, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has helped classified images at Snapshot Serengeti, both past and present. Without the continued help of this great online community, our research would come to a grinding halt! So thank you. A number of folks (and at least one giraffe) have asked about the new study currently up on Snapshot Serengeti, so here’s a fuller explanation of this work.
Photos from our newest Snapshot Serengeti Special Season come from a camera trap experiment in Serengeti involving friends and collaborators based at Wake Forest University (US), University of Georgia (US) and University of Glasgow (UK).
One of the exciting things about these new images is that they come from some of the more remote corners of the park, far beyond where past photos (Season 1-9) were (and continue to be) collected. So, keep an eye out for different species than past surveys. For instance in the north, you might see oribi, a small and elegant ungulate with a large dark scent gland below its eye. In the south, our cameras overlap the home ranges of some of the few black rhinoceros still living in the park, and we already know there are at least a few rhino images in our pile, like this:
We set these cameras at a slightly higher height (1.5 meters in most cases), which allows us to see species from new wider angles. Admittedly, this new experimental design makes animal classifications a bit harder because we can often see far into the distance. Our advice is to simply do your best, but don’t sweat it too much if you can’t figure it out. Better to see the forest than the trees.
Back to the research…
Speaking of trees, this new study is trying to unravel the secret lives of trees. We monitor hundreds of individually marked trees around the ecosystem and revisit them each year to measure growth, survival, disease and few other things. You may have noticed little cages in some of the camera trap photos (see giraffe above). These are part of our experiment and enclose four small native tree seedlings which we transplanted to the plots after growing them in a nursery for 6 weeks. In fact we planted over 800 seedlings around the ecosystem to study the relative importance of herbivory, fire and rainfall on seedling growth and survival. So, we need camera traps to monitor things when we’re not there.
For example, check out the following sequence captured on one of our game cameras in southern Serengeti involving one of our marked trees:
What’s amazing about this is that not only does an elephant kill an adult tree, he does it under 60 seconds. This tree is an Acacia tortilis, or the “umbrella acacia,” named for its characteristic flat top. Umbrella acacias are one of the most common trees in Serengeti and one of our main study species. Images like these help inform our study of trees, telling us how they died, or at least how many large herbivores were in the area to potentially kill and eat them. But this begs the question: if a tree falls in the Serengeti, will anyone hear it? At least we know that there’s a small chance that one of our cameras might see it.
Meredith: Our brilliant team of Snapshot Serengeti undergraduate volunteers at the University of Minnesota are perhaps even more on top of the lion literature than I am! This week, we have a guest post from one such student, Clayton Mazur, describing some recent work of Dr. Packer’s on lion disease spread in Serengeti Park. This post is a synopsis of a scientific paper that can be accessed in full here.
I propose we play a word-association game. I will offer a word and you think of what comes to mind. “Africa.” Did you imagine Mt. Kilimanjaro, or the towering, lush rain-forests of the Congo? “Wildlife.” Did you envision the sprawling savannas of Tanzania, home to hundreds of thousands of migrating wildebeest? If so, I would bet that your savanna also included the enigma of Africa: the African lion. Was he a graceful figure standing upon Pride Rock looking out over his kingdom? Perhaps he was laying in the shade, his dark mane flowing in the breeze as he waits for the females to return with a kill. I would argue that elegant images such as these are what come to mind for the majority the public. The portrayals of lions in the media- from Lion King to the MGM Lion- support this notion. As elegant as these images are, reality is less than elegant for the lions living in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Africa.
African lions have unique social structures that help them brave the tough conditions of the savanna. Lions live in families called prides; one to two male lions rule a pride. The roles of female and male lions within a single pride are vastly different. While females hunt, raise the cubs, and reproduce, male lions defend the pride from attack by other predators such as hyenas. Living in a large family group offers lions protection, but it also comes with costs. One cost is that females need to supply a large number of individuals with enough food for survival. Female lions coordinate hunts whereby they stalk prey and then give chase, but this technique only yields about 26% success. The low success rate forces large prides to split or starve. Perhaps a more interesting difficulty of living in a large pride is the spread of disease within lion populations. As Dr. Craig Packer has found, disease prevalence is a threat to the current lion population.
A fatal disease that persists in the carnivores of Serengeti National Park is Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). CDV infects a range of carnivores, from dolphins to rodents and even some primates. The viral infection causes encephalitis, pneumonia, anorexia and eventually, death. You may be familiar with CDV if you own a dog, for many owners in the US vaccinate their dogs for CDV. In Serengeti National Park, where local villages cannot afford to vaccinate their dogs, CDV is a conservation concern for African Lions who contract CDV from domestic dogs. To try to remedy the concern, an intense vaccination regime started in 2003. Packer and colleagues attempted to characterize the progression of CDV in both domestic dogs and African Lions. Their goal was to determine if domestic dogs were responsible for the infections observed in African Lions. The team also wanted to determine if the 2003 vaccination program had any effect at reducing CDV in the domestic dogs and/or African Lions.
The scientists worked with blood plasma collected from both domestic dogs (obtained from 1992-2012) and from African lions (obtained from 1984-2012). After collecting the blood samples, the team ran serological tests to detect for the presence of the CDV virus in individual dogs or lions. Using a Bayesian model, the scientists then calculated the probability that an individual lion or dog would contract CDV in one year. The scientists also used sensitivity models to determine the extent at which domestic dogs transmit CDV to lions. From the results of these models, the scientists were able to comment on the fate of the lions with regard to CDV.
The research team drew results by interpretation of the two models. They found that CDV had persisted in the populations of both dogs and lions for more than 25 years. Outbreaks of CDV occurred in 1981, possibly in 1976, and in 1993. Not only do these results suggest a historic presence of the fatal disease in the national park, the dynamics of each outbreak of the disease was unique. The scientists found that the year in which CDV infected the most dogs differed from the year in which CDV infected the most lions. The researchers proposed that this pattern identified domestic dogs as initial vectors for CDV in the park. After a 1994 outbreak in the lion population, the dynamics of the outbreaks become more disjoint. The disjointed dynamics between the domestic dog and lion populations suggest that after 1994, infections cycled through the dog population and the lion population separately. However, the spread of CDV between dogs and lions was not eliminated after 1994.
With domestic dogs established as an initial vector of CDV, the scientists wanted to know transmission rates between domestic dogs and lions. Again, they used a sensitivity model to predict this factor. The scientists found that domestic dogs were ten times more likely to spread CDV to lions than lions were to spread CDV to domestic dogs. With such a high prevalence of CDV in the domestic dog population and the tendency for CDV to spread from dog to lion, the effects of the 2003 vaccination effort were an important factor to analyze for the conservation of the Serengeti National Park lions. The scientists first analyzed the effects of the vaccine on the domestic dog population. Before 2003, there had been very sparse vaccination in villages surrounding Serengeti National Park. As was expected, this vaccination effort did little to curb CDV infection in either lions or domestic dogs. It was not until after 2003 when all villages to the east of Serengeti National Park and all villages within 10 km to the west of Serengeti National Park vaccinated their dogs against CDV did there exist a decrease (~5%) in CDV infections.
With CDV slightly decreased in domestic dogs due to the vaccination effort, was there a similar decrease in CDV infections in the lion populations? Unfortunately, the sample size of lion serum that the scientists could obtain was not enough to comment on the updated magnitude of dog-lion CDV transmission. Overall, the scientists determined that CDV was still able to cycle in the lion population with very little reduction in the prevalence of the disease. However, not all is hopeless for the lion populations of Serengeti National Park. Dr. Packer’s team suggests that direct vaccination of lions may be more effective at preventing the disease. Additionally, the team suggests that advances in serological techniques would allow for increased accuracy when researching episodic diseases, such as CDV. Implementation of safe vaccines coupled with more accurate serological tests could minimize the effects of CDV outbreaks and ensure the health of the Serengeti lions.
As evident from the work of Dr. Packer and colleagues, there are threats to the conservation of the lion populations of Serengeti National Park. Not only do prides run the risk of individuals starving to death, splitting, and human-lion conflict, disease is another risk factor of living in a pride. Yet, these prides, these perfect families, come to mind when the public thinks about lions. Idealistic images of cubs play fighting or suckling from their mother are important for generating interest and compassion for African lions. One can be content with the image of the brave, courageous, elegant male lion standing on Pride Rock overlooking his kingdom, but one must simultaneously recognize the reality of the lion’s plight. Only then will conservation for lions be truly feasible.
Meredith: Not all of our exciting research takes place in the field — there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in our lab, and we rely on an invaluable group of undergraduate research assistants to help us go through the massive amounts of Snapshot data you guys provide! Jess has been working with us for the last few semesters and has some insight on what it’s like to work with this Serengeti data set.
Hello everyone! My name is Jessica Dewey, and I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota working in the research lab that runs this project! Cool, right? I’m new around here so I thought my first post should be an introduction of myself and how I got involved in this lab.
Imagine me a few years ago: a young high school student, undoubtedly procrastinating in some way, suddenly stumbling upon a website called “Snapshot Serengeti”. At the time, I was only certain of two things — I loved animals and I loved research – so this discovery was perfect for me! I spent most of my evening identifying animals, and continued to go back to procrastinate even more.
Now flash forward to last semester, when I get an email from one of the university biology clubs saying that Dr. Craig Packer, head of the Serengeti Lion Project, will be giving a talk about his work. Well I HAVE to go! I sit and listen intently, eager to learn all about research being done with lions. Near the end of his talk he then mentions a website (Snapshot Serengeti, of course) where all of the images from the field get uploaded for the public to identify, and I’m immediately floored. How did I get so lucky, to go to the very University that uses those pictures I spent time identifying years ago in their research? The best moment was when the graduate students working with Craig said that they were looking for undergraduates to help them with their research. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Meredith, and so far my experience in this lab has been amazing.
I’ve learned a lot about how field research is done, how data is collected and analyzed, and what it takes for someone to actually be a researcher in the field. Not everything I do is as fun as going through tons of pictures a day, but all of the work in this lab is interesting and meaningful, and that’s what really matters to me. One of the major projects the lab has been working on with Meredith is trying to characterize changes in habitat at the camera trap sites by looking at the Snapshot pictures. We have been going through the giant list of data to find pictures to use for this characterization. We haven’t been going through the images themselves – rather the metadata, or the data ABOUT the data (it’s literally the biggest Excel sheet I’ve ever seen). It can get monotonous at times, but what keeps me going is the thought that when we finish picking out all of these random images, we will get to look at them and use them for this research project.
I hope that was a thorough enough introduction for you all, but let me say one last thing: THANK YOU! Without the time you all put in to identifying these pictures, the research we are doing would not be happening at the pace it is.
Here is one of my favorite images I’ve seen so far:
Have you ever seen the look on a dogs face when confronted with a cat that fights back? There is utter confusion about his role in life, “hang on a minute that cat is way smaller than me, I could stomp her in a second, but now she’s scaring me?” our imaginary dog says. Well that’s about my reaction the first time I came face to face with a honey badger.
Honey badgers are small, reaching somewhere between your ankle and your knee and no more than 1 meter long. They weigh around 10kg but don’t let these dimensions fool you; a honey badger is full to the brim with confidence.
Most small animals will run when they find themselves face to face with a human; a sensible option given our species general nature. A honey badger on the other hand probably won’t and this can be very disconcerting.
One night I was sat round a fire in what classed as my garden, though in reality there was nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the bush surrounding us as home was in a nature reserve and there were no fences. It was a crisp, for the lowveld in South Africa, winters night and the stars were shining brilliantly as we sat in the sand by the fire waiting for the chicken to finish cooking. From the other side of the river the hyena started their whooping and the hippo disputed the rights of some patch of dry grass. Winter is the dry season here and things get difficult especially for bulk grazers. The African night sounds had as captivated as usual. The chicken smelt good. My husband was just about to rouse himself to check it one last time when we both heard something moving behind us in the dark. As it got closer we saw it was a honey badger moving at a lopping determined gait that they have straight towards us. It was a wonderful treat to see one of these guys close up and for a few seconds we were rapt. But it didn’t stop. It trotted straight to the grill, a small pause to give us a low growling warning and chomp, there went half our chicken. We couldn’t believe our eyes, this wasn’t a hand reared animal or an animal in a public campsite in a national park that gets used to people, this was a real live wild animal. It had no fear of us, it totally wrong footed us as we were not expecting it to just bull doze its way in. Needless to say we grabbed the rest of our meal and took it into the safety of the house to finish in peace.
Honey badgers really are remarkable creatures. Whilst in search of food they can cover up to 30km in a night. They eat a varied diet of mammals, birds, reptiles and some roots and berries and of course honey when they can get it. They climb well and can swim; they will dig furiously to follow a rodent down a hole and just don’t seem to give up in their pursuit of prey.
Honey badgers are tough and there are many stories about them killing buffalo, fighting lions, being bitten by cobras and surviving. One of the tricks they use to help evade predators is by having very loose skin around the back of their necks. A lion or leopard will grab for this area, coming up with a mouthful of skin but leaving the vital bones and muscles untouched. The honey badger can then twist round and start biting and scratching with it all its might often inducing the dog/cat scenario from the start of this blog i.e. predator dropping honey badger in utter surprise.
So next time you classify a honey badger on Snapshot Serengeti remember it’s not always size that counts.
### Today we’ve got a guest post by our very own Daniel Rosengren, lion tracker (& photographer) extraordinaire. ###
It started with some mysterious footprints around the Loliondo Kopjes. There were a lot of fresh paw marks in the mud following the road. I could tell it was a big pride but the only big pride with a territory nearby was the Young Transects. But I could not hear their collar. Neither could I hear any of our other prides. I drove around for a while looking for lions, especially on the rocks and under trees. I didn’t find any and guessed it could have been the Young Transect lions anyway, only without the collared female.
A couple of weeks later I was headed out east when I soon caught eye on a big group of lions. As I drove closer I realized they weren’t any lions I knew. I tried to get photos of all of them but it wasn’t easy knowing who you’d already got in a group of 17 lions. Luckily they all started walking along the track. All I had to do was park ahead of them and take photos as they passed one by one. Once I had photos of all their left sides I went home to try to figure out who they were.
I concentrated on the older females as the youngster probably never had been seen before by the Lion Project. After a while I found a couple of matches. It was TR86 and TSF from the Transect Steady pride, not seen since December 2009, almost three and a half years earlier. But the last time they were seen regularly in our study area was in 2008.
Now I contacted TANAPA and the vets to organize a collaring of one of the females. They were coming. I drove back to the place where I’d seen the lions and hoped they hadn’t walked too far. I found them in the shade of a tree. Then a long wait started for the vets to organize themselves and drive all the way from Fort Ikoma. Once they came, the collaring went smoothly, the rest of the pride watching from a distance.
About a week later I found the pride just outside the northern edge of our study area along the Pipeline track. Two more old females known since before had joined them, TR93 and TR106. Then they disappeared. So two weeks later I decided to search for them and drove along the Pipeline track north. But instead of driving on the actual track, which in many places was disappearing because of little use, I drove parallel to it, hitting all hilltops to be able to pick up the radio signal from a greater distance. The drive was terrible as the hills in the area are specked with large rocks and I had to drive dead slow. I held on the the steering wheel as little as possible. Having no power steering means that every time I hit a rock I risk breaking thumbs or worse.
I picked up the signal after a while but I still had to pass several hills before finally finding them, right by the track at a river confluence. That was quite far north of our study area and too far to go and see them on a weekly basis. The future will have to show where they finally settle.
## Today’s guest post is from our moderator and regular contributor Lucy Hughes. ##
What does silence mean to you? Maybe it’s that moment at the end of the day when the telephones stop ringing and the office hubbub finally stops and you can hear yourself think. Maybe sitting in your garden listening to the insects and aeroplanes pass overhead. Or maybe it’s that first 5 minutes of waking before the baby starts howling. Whatever it means to you the point is silence isn’t really silent. Something is always making a sound even if it’s a leaf rustling in the wind or a cricket singing.
In the African bush night time silence is deafening. Just before sunset there is a rush of activity. The day shift starts looking for a place to spend the night whilst frantically searching out that last mouthful of food. Young banded mongoose are scolded into their burrows by older siblings. Antelope take a drink before heading to thicker cover. Francolins are calling out their staccato calls whilst sandgrouse flock to drink. As the sun sets and darkness looms everything quietens down, the last to make a noise are the guinea fowl who wait till it is just dark to, one by one, barrel up to adorn their favourite roosting trees like giant Christmas baubles. They finally settle down, and the nearby baboons stop squabbling and there is a moment’s peace before the night shift takes over.
The Scops owl is first with its ‘poop poop poop’ call sounding almost like an insect. Then the night-jars join in. A distant rasping bark and the jackal are off calling ownership of their territory. They stop suddenly and a moment later there it is, the slow wo-oop! Woo-ooop! and the hyena clan are declaring they are up for business.
There has been no respite to the constant noise of the African bush during this transition between day and night; a seamless mix between the two sound tracks. As the evening wears on and the night shift are out hunting in earnest it gets quieter. If you are lucky enough to experience this it is unforgettable. The silence is thick, it hurts your ears and you want to shake your head to clear it. You are straining to hear anything out there in the blackness and your senses have you on high alert, never mind that you are in a vehicle your primal instinct knows this is Africa and beasts roam that want to eat you.
The only sound is a cacophony of insects and it is this that gets in your head, it is a relief when a spotted eagle owl calls breaking the pitch and giving you perspective again. Staring into the blackness you see a shape move , you can’t make out what it is, then comes a noise that goes right through you, a guttural, low sawing sound, a leopard is calling broadcasting its presence using the ground as a sounding board. He walks out in front of you, pauses for a moment, then strides off purposefully into the night.
The silence of the African night is palpable. You could slice it with a knife. It is so full of promises of wonderful animal encounters that I never want to sleep. It’s my favourite sound of silence; what’s yours?
### Last week Craig spoke for Cafe Scientifique about lions and shared the research that Lion Project has been conducting for the last 45 years. Check out the video here. Peter and Faith, UMN undergrads conducting research in the Lion Lab, attended the talk and share their experiences as well. ####
Peter and Faith here! Last week we had the opportunity to attend the Bell Museum’s Cafe Scientifique. Cafe Scientifique allows scientists from all disciplines and specialties to share their research directly with the public in the form of a casual presentation given at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN. This past month’s talk was given by Snapshot Serengeti’s own Professor Craig Packer, giving a historic rundown of some of the highlights of the lion research conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Center.
As prospective lion researchers ourselves, it was both interesting and valuable to hear the conclusions of past research from the perspective of the researcher. Not to mention having it be told in a casual and humorous way, which is a refreshing break from the stack of scientific papers we are usually reading! The audience, which was made up of local community members, was also engaged in the talk. Even though Dr. Packer presented complex graphs and maps, he explained the research in a way that was accessible to everyone. The studies that were discussed during the talk included the lion’s mane study, why lions form prides, and even a bit about lion conservation and the potential use of fences to protect vulnerable populations. In addition to reviewing past research, Dr. Packer also talked about the lion project’s current research–Snapshot Serengeti. The audience was amazed by how fast volunteers sorted through the millions of images on Snapshot Serengeti. (To all of you that have contributed to the success of “Snapshot”, cheers to you!) By the end of the talk, the entire audience, (including us!) had loads of insightful questions, and left with a piqued interest in the world of lion research.
## Margaret and I are both recovering from a crazy week at the Ecological Society of America conference and the incredibly successful Save Snapshot Serengeti campaign, so we’re posting a fantastic story from our regular contributor and Snapshot moderator Lucy Hughes. Thank you all again for helping us to make Snapshot Serengeti so successful. ###
When you live in the African bush you imagine it will be full of close encounters with wildlife like lion, hyena and elephant. It’s true to say there is a fair number of these encounters but in reality it’s the small critters you encounter more frequently. Often these can be far more heart stopping. I am talking about snakes. What’s more, they don’t relegate themselves to the bush; they tend to congregate around your house.
My house was a thatch and stone affair that nestled in amongst rocks, very scenic but also perfect snake habitat. Snake encounters were an almost daily occurrence on the reserve and life with them took a bit of getting used to.
My first encounter just weeks after I moved in was right by the front door. Coming home one day I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and realised I had just walked past a snake sticking its head out of the rock wall. I went hot and cold as my ankle must have been inches away from it. Fumbling with the key I burst through the door and from the safety of its glass watched the now empty hole to see if the snake would reappear. Oh yes, it came out alright, a Mozambique spitting cobra. To cut a long story short Sid the Spitting cobra and I became friends. I didn’t disturb my door sentinel and he didn’t bite me. I regularly saw him peak out of the same hole. Learning to live with snakes is important in the bush. Killing any wildlife is frowned on in a reserve.
One night whilst doing the dishes idly gazing out the window the rock wall suddenly seemed to move. Once my brain readjusted to the image I realised a rock python was making its way out of the thatch and down to the ground on a night time foray. Now a 2 meter python in the roof is not a bad thing. For a start it keeps the tree squirrel population down and that in turn keeps the black mambas away (who love tree squirrel snacks). As long as it’s a small python you don’t worry about it finding its way into your bed at night, a black mamba on the other hand caused me quite a few sleepless nights after I saw it disappear into the thatch.
My shower was out doors and had a resident foam nest frog living on a shelf. One morning going for a shower I heard a terrible squealing. A spotted bush snake had my frog and was busy devouring it. It took over an hour to swallow my friend.
I once had a pair of orphaned baby tree squirrels (yes mum fell afoul of a Mamba) When they where big enough I would sit in the garden with them whilst they ran around exploring. The little female was quite brave and was scampering around on the rocks. Next thing I hear a piercing squeal and the little squirrel shot up into a low branch. I raced over and scooped her up and sat with her in my hand for about a minute whilst she breathed her last. A Puff adder sitting in a crevice had struck her.
But for all the horror stories snakes are fascinating things and it is a thrill to see them in action so close. I would rather they stayed out of my house though, the garden is close enough! When we learn to live with nature it offers us such rewards.
##### Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s adventure, written by Patrik Dousa. #####
When we left off the story from last week, all of us in the Serengeti team were out deep in the sour tern range of the Serengeti trying to free a land rover from thick mud. All we accomplished was securing the range rover even deeper in the mud. From 1/4 of the wheel being submerged to a half, with the bumper touching the ground. Good going. A beautiful sunset was going to occur in an hour or so and the last place to be at that point was in the middle of a hazardous plain with a large pride of lions waking up for their nighttime prowls.
The lions are still watching us from their mesas to the north and Ali is figuring out the next move. I thought it was a clear decision. Leave. Now. Have I described to you the fortitude and diligence of a lion researcher? A job that requires you to spend most of your time in the dry plains with the only the basic minimum requirements to sustain you doesn’t attract individuals who give up too easily. No, Ali and George see the sunken rover as a challenge that must be faced. We aren’t leaving, not without a fight.
Just then a tourist vehicle pulls up along a road about a half-mile from our area on the other side of the uncrossable mud plains. The guide is in the process taking them back home to one of the southern lodges and apparently decided to stop, having spied the magnificent example of male lion that was observing our vehicle. The new arrival attracted King Simba’s attention and the powerful elegant beast starts walking towards the tourists. I can see their excitement mount through my binoculars — this moment is going to be the highlight of their trip. George and Ali are laboring through shovelfuls of the thickest, reddest, peatiest mud you can imagine and only a short distance away, well-scrubbed observers are preparing themselves for the the apex of their Serengeti experience. Such is life.
I see a bold cub follow his master lion and play around his feet incurring his wrath for a moment. The king playfully swats back and raises his head to the heavens letting out an immense roar to the delight of the tourists. The greatest show on earth — with our little car-trouble side-show of going on right in the background. “Who are those crazy people back there?” they must have asked their guide. “Well, they’re professionals, so they must know what their doing.” the guide is certain to have responded.
The lion’s roar triggered a slow migration of the lionesses and their cubs from the low mesas to the area closer to the tourist vehicle where the male lion had settled. As the single file procession began, we felt a wave of relief since the pride was now headed away from our rover. A few more attempts to drag out the stuck vehicle failed. By now the sun is steadily growing larger and more rosy as it begins its decent. The sky eventually reaches the particular hue that Ali reads as our signal to leave.
We secured the vehicle and took all the valuables and began a slow retreat back thinking, “please don’t get stuck” on repeat until we got back on the main road. The pink sun blossomed into a deep red bloom that backlit the acacia tree line creating the beautiful silhouetted postcard image that the Serengeti is so well know for. The mood in the car was impervious to these romantic supplications. Exhausted and temporarily defeated, the crew made the long journey back toward the research house.
Being the visitor who expended the least amount of sweat that day, I suggested that we stop at the local canteen Seronera and that I’d treat everyone to a chicken and rice dinner and a Stoney Tangawizi (the extra spicy ginger ale that is everybody’s favorite drink in Tanzania). This turned out to be a very cost effective way to turn the sour mood sweet — just a few bucks per plate and brew to get everyone back to their happy place. Soon the team was back to the bantering with the locals and planning tomorrow’s adventure. That was my last night at the Serengeti, the next day I was back on the road to Arusha. Ali messaged me later and mentioned that they were able to round up a crew to go back and successfully drag out the rover the next day. This did not surprise me since I had well learned: you can’t keep a lion research team down for long.
Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.
This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does. Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.
We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.
Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.
Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.
Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.
The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.
A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.
The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.
To be continued…