## 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…
Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).
Arrhhh, that really hurts! A three inch thorn had just penetrated my, admittedly inadequate, footwear and was stuck deep in the sole of my foot. Thorns are a serious hazard of camera trap placement in the South African bushveld where plants with thorns or hooks seem to make up about 90% of species.
My colleague Michelle ran back to the landy to get a first aid kit whilst I set about extracting the thorn, there seemed to be an awful lot of blood. I watched the path eagerly for Michelle’s return but as she got near she seemed to slow down and as she opened her mouth to speak I knew exactly what she was going to say. “Luce, if it’s not too painful, what about spreading your blood around a bit?”
Callous as it may seem it wasn’t a bad idea. We had been having trouble with capturing clear night shots of leopards. They always seem to be in a hurry and the shots we had were often blurry making it impossible to id the individuals. We needed a way to get the leopards to pause for a second or two in shot of the camera trap.
We had been advised that scent was the answer and were experimenting with various different ones and now it seemed human blood was to be the next test. I dutifully hobbled out in front of the camera and scraped my bleeding foot around on a nice flat rock Michelle had procured, wondering about the sensibleness of using human blood as bait for a predator. My slight discomfort was all in the name of science.
In the end it didn’t work, It rained a couple of nights later and my efforts where washed away. We never did find the perfect scent. We were told that tinned sardines worked wonders as well as catnip and perfume. We tried them all. It seems our cats where immune to these. The only thing that stopped them in their tracks was the scent of other leopards. I did learn however that the scent of tinned sardines was particularly interesting to giraffe of all animals. My method was to bury a plastic cup up to its rim in sand and put a blob of sardines in the cup. Now you would have thought that giraffe would have walked on by but as the picture below testifies, giraffe just have to take a closer look. You always learn something new!
Today’s guest post is by Phil Thiesse, the KSTP video photojournalist who shot the footage for the TV report on Snapshot Serengeti and the Lion Project.
I am a television photojournalist from Minnesota currently operating under the nom de plume “Safari Phil,” at least during my visit to the Lion Research Center in The Serengeti.
My colleague Safari Chris and I traveled all the way from the Twin Cities to spotlight the Snapshot Serengeti project for KSTP TV’s 5 Eyewitness News. We just happened to be in the neighborhood, working on a series of reports in Arusha, Tanzania. We were able to sell the story to our bosses because one of the researchers, Ali Swanson, is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and would be our tour guide amongst the lions.
The plan was to rendezvous with Ali at a restaurant in Arusha as she passed through on a supply mission. The thought was to ride with her the following day in her well traveled Land Rover to the middle of The Serengeti, about seven hours on a good day. The restaurant we were meeting at was closing early, so Ali suggested we move to the Impala Hotel, a full two blocks away. We rode there in the Land Rover, the three of us in the front seat…the only seat, Chris bravely straddling the gear shift. It was after that 5 minute ride we decided to fly to the Serengeti instead.
Daniel Rosenburg, another lion researcher, picked us up at Seronera Airport and in another well worn Land Rover, brought us to Lion House, where we would wait for Ali. She eventually arrived with all of the supplies necessary for lion research: food, cameras, batteries, a punching bag. Wait, what?? For kick boxing. An excellent workout, I’ve been told. We were treated to a satisfying dinner of pasta, bacon and tomatoes. And a sip of Scotch. Or two.
We hit it early the next day, heading out at sunrise to get video of lions and of Ali and another researcher, Stan Mguzu, tending to the hundreds of game cameras that provide images for Snapshot Serengeti. The cameras were easy to find, but the lions proved to be a little more elusive. Daniel’s expertise at tracking finally got us in the middle of two prides. In addition, we were up close to zebras, impalas, cape buffalo, dik-diks, giraffes, topi, an eagle, warthogs, gazelles, mongoose, baboons, monkeys, hippos and hyrax.
There was a dinner party to top off our last night in the Serengeti. Two people from Cheetah House joined us for sausage, fried egg plant, and some fantastic made-from-scratch mashed potatoes. Chris made a run to the outhouse as the evening wound down and the researchers made it a trip he’ll never forget. As we waited patiently for his return, I expressed my opinion that this was a really bad idea, but the others were confident in their decision. Like they had done this exact thing before. We heard the returning footstep stop dead in their tracks and even retreat a bit, but luckily, we didn’t hear Chris grab his heart. He did have a few choice words for the group, but survived yet another close encounter with a Serengeti lion.
Thanks to the expertise and hospitality of Ali, Daniel and Stan, we were able to bring the story of Snapshot Serengeti to our viewers in Minnesota. That story, along with others featuring Minnesota connections to Tanzania, can be seen on KSTP.com.
Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes. Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).
Trying to discover how many individual leopards used a reserve in South Africa was challenging work in more ways than one. Unlike the Serengeti Lion Project’s (SLP) 200-odd camera traps, I could count ours on one hand. That said the study area was much smaller at around 2,500 hectares. The technique was also very different. Whereas the SLP is trying to get a snapshot of animal interaction over a vast area I was interested in individual animals, so setting the camera traps up systematically on a grid basis was not the best option. Instead, to make best use of our limited camera traps, I selected sites that I thought a leopard was most likely to pass.
These sites fell into two categories, the survey sites and the random event sites. Based on recent tracks and scats on game trails and roads, the cameras were moved around the reserve on a regular basis in an attempt to survey the whole area. One or two cameras were reserved for the random events: a fresh kill, old carcass, or hunches about certain water holes or koppies (rocky hills).
My job was to trundle around the reserve, mostly on foot, searching for signs of leopard. Looking for tracks and scats on the network of sand roads was easy and for the most part it seemed these big cats do love a nice clear road to walk down. Wandering down a dry river bed following a set of tracks idly wondering if the leopard is asleep in one of the big Marula trees is one thing, but suddenly realizing that the pug marks seem to have doubled in size and that you are hot on the trail of two lions jolts you to a stop. Finding signs off these roads was a little harder, the substrate of the game trails was often tangled with grasses and small thorny bushes and picking up tracks was virtually impossible.
Half an eye was always on the sky watching for vultures. Their activity often led to carcasses but it was the sense of smell that served best. The smell of rotting carcasses is fairly potent and travels far and my nose became super sensitive to the whiffs. Unfortunately not having the skills of a bloodhound I would flounder around in the bush turning this way and that trying to pin down the source of the smell.
Other than spending just a little too much time around dead things, camera-trapping carcasses lead to some great data. One surprise was just how often kills seemed to be ‘shared’. The following two shots from the same eland kill highlight this. You can see even without comparing spot patterns that these two leopards are different.
The first is a young female and the second is the reserve’s dominant male so it’s hardly surprising that he has stolen her meal. At other kills, though, we had various combinations of leopard visitors including three different adult males within two nights to the same zebra kill. The fact that the leopards stayed put in front of the cameras, munching, meant we managed to get shots from every angle, which helped a lot in putting together ID charts. At no time did we tie down any of the carcasses so clearly the leopards where not fazed by the cameras.
This following shot shows a jackal at the same eland kill. The leopards on this reserve where under very little pressure from lions, which only passed through occasionally. They hardly ever resorted to stashing kills up trees as leopards in areas of high lion density would.
This meant that many smaller mammals took advantage of the leftovers. Other than the obvious spotted hyena, we recorded brown hyena, side-striped and black-backed jackal, honey badger, civet, bush pig, and mongoose. This following shot looks harmonious, but the series shows that the honey badger definitely had the upper hand on the jackal.
The one thing that fellow researcher, Michele, and I were always aware of was that we were spending a lot of time in places that big cats also spent a lot of time. When you are setting up a camera on a fresh kill you can’t help but wonder if the killer is laying somewhere close watching you!
Check out the time stamps on this next set of pics to illustrate this point!
Photos copyright Michele Altenkirk/Lucy Hughes, Lisssataba NR
If you had visited the lion research house between 2008 and 2010, in addition to Fabio, the stuffed lion, the mantelpiece full of animal skulls, and the aquarium of incredibly hardy fish, you would have seen this photo of a male giraffe, which I taped to one of the bedroom doors:
For the last few years, I’ve tracked these quiet giants of the Serengeti woodlands, studying their population dynamics, the vegetation they eat, and their interactions with lions and people.
We can learn a lot by keeping track of individual giraffes. Luckily, it turns out that each giraffe is born with a unique set of coat markings that persist throughout life, like human fingerprints or lion whisker spots. So, each field season, I arrived in Serengeti stocked with the materials necessary to catalogue the many giraffes I would encounter: several hundred 5 x 8 index cards, ink cartridges for the printer, sharp scissors, and a good supply of glue sticks. My days in the field often went as follows. Morning and afternoon: meander through the woodlands locating and photographing giraffes. Evenings: work through the day’s photographs, identifying giraffes and making ID cards for any new individuals. For fun, I assigned a different first name to each individual. The female below is named Flopsy, for her deformed right ear:
Among Serengeti giraffes, which belong to the Masai subspecies, coat markings vary from blocky to highly stellate, or star-like. While the patterns do not change, the color of the markings can grow darker as giraffes age, particularly for males. The shape, color and arrangement of the coat markings are all useful for telling apart different individuals. Other traits are useful as well, such as tail length or ossicone size, shape and hairiness. (Ossicone is the name for the bony, skin-covered horns of a giraffe.) I’ve included some giraffe photos below so you can try your hand at giraffe pattern matching. See if you can match the individual on the top row with any of the individuals in the bottom two rows:
Sexing giraffes is usually easy, especially at close range or from photograph. Aside from the obvious, adult males can be distinguished from females by their larger size, skull ossification (the ossicones of males are larger and mature males acquire additional bony skull protrusions) and their more erect posture. Sexing young calves is a bit trickier. The genitals of male calves are small and calves aren’t always willing to pose for the camera.
Here is an example of a mature male giraffe with significant skull ossification:
By the end of my 2010 field season, I’d amassed a catalogue of almost 1,000 giraffes. (Identifying giraffes by eye can be a laborious and error-prone process but Doug Bolger and colleagues at Dartmouth University have now released Wild-ID, software that assists with giraffe pattern recognition.
We are hoping that we can use the plentiful giraffe images coming in from the camera trap study to maintain this giraffe database and to monitor the population. It turns out, though, that many of the camera trap images contain only giraffe legs, which are much harder to use for identification than flanks.
#### Today’s guest post is from Daniel Rosengren, one of the full-time field researchers on the Serengeti Lion Project. ####
The prettiest lion born in our study area lately got the code name “SPQ”. “SP” because she was born in the Spurs pride and “Q” because that’s the order she was born, starting from A. Fittingly, her more personal name thus became SuPer Qt (Super Cute). One might think that lions all look alike. But SuPer Qt definitely stands out with her striking looks.
The other day I found the still young SuPer Qt together with her mother and another adult female. They were resting in the tall grass, at least the old females were. SuPer Qt sat up scanning the plains around her for anything to eat. Suddenly lightning struck really near. Close enough not to give a thundering sound but a very loud bang. SuPer Qt jumped while the adults didn’t even react.
After the rain passed SuPer Qt spotted two warthogs in the distance and started stalking. She’s young but not too young to participate in hunts. The other females lifted their heads, saw the pigs and followed suit. I drove around in a big semi-circle to get closer without disturbing. The lions were lucky, the hogs walked straight towards them. Then their luck vanished, just like the warthogs down a burrow. At first, the lions seemed confused and looked around widely as they slowly pushed forward. I don’t know what gave the hiding place away but once the lions came within about 15 meters of the burrow they instantly knew the hogs were there.
All lions took turns digging. The two older and more experienced lions dug with more force and determination. SuPer Qt seemed to dig more randomly. Her inexperience showed in more comical ways too. Twice she managed to place herself in a position behind a digging lion, getting her face full of dirt. Another time she circled the burrow and instead of walking around the oldest female she decided to walk under it. Something got SuPer Qt’s attention down the hole and she stood up while still under the old female who got her hind legs air borne. The old female was too busy looking down the burrow to seem to notice. They stood like this for a good while until the old female ungracefully, one leg at the time, managed to get her hind feet on the ground again.
After a long time of digging, the lions finally gave up. They lay down about 20 meters from the hole and rested. Half an hour or so later, the warthogs emerged. They were watched by the lions as they walked away but never had to run for it. The warthogs lived to see another day and must have had a very thrilling time.
Today’s post is a guest post from Lora Orme, an undergraduate conducting directed research with us at the University of Minnesota.
Hailing from regions of Africa as well as India, the Middle East, and southwest Asia, the caracal prefers a dry habitat such as savanna or woodlands. This preference distinguishes the caracal from its feline cousin, the serval, which primarily lives in wetter climates. The difference encourages the caracal’s more open eating habits; the carnivorous caracal will hunt and consume almost any source of meat that is available, from rodents scurrying across the plains, to monkeys or birds overhead. In fact, the caracal is an expert bird hunter, using its powerful hind legs to leap up to ten feet in the air. That is twice as high as the height of the average human!
The caracal looks like a slightly overgrown housecat, around three feet long when full-grown. It has red-brown hair and very distinct facial markings. But the most distinguishing feature of the caracal is the ear tuft. These tassels of long black hair play an important role in pinpointing prey, working with 20 muscles within the ears themselves. The tufts may also act like little flags that help the caracal communicate with others of its kind. Visually, the tufts make a caracal resemble a lynx. For this and other similarities, the caracal has been nicknamed the “African lynx” or the “desert lynx.” It is important to discriminate, however, that the caracal has no spots or stripes, longer legs, and a slimmer body than the lynx. These characteristics allow the streamlined caracal to be among the fastest small cats.
Because of the caracal’s impressive agility, it was once bred in India as a status symbol and for the sport of bird hunting. Present day caracals are generally known to be elusive and secretive, camouflaging into tall grasses and quickly escaping from sight. However, if wild prey is scarce, caracals have been known to attack livestock and other domesticated animals. Due to the caracal’s natural tendency to hunt, they are sometimes considered pests and shot by ranchers.
Predatory instincts drive the caracal to live a solitary life when not mating. The majority of communication occurs in mews, hisses, and purrs with mates and kin. Even when a pair joins together to mate, the male does not stay to help raise the young. Thus, the female is left to watch over the litter of up to six kittens. She keeps them hidden in a burrow that has been borrowed from the den of an aardvark or porcupine. They stay hidden until they are one to two months of age and begin eating meat alongside their mother. Finally, when they reach about one year of age, they leave her side to begin lives and possibly families of their own.
Today’s guest blog is by Chris Egert, a reporter and anchor with KSTP 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
If you regularly read this blog, you know that there are some very hard working people behind the Snapshot Serengeti project. You know they have a great sense of purpose, and at times a great sense of humor. Both those qualities serve one well in Africa, where things run at their own pace.
We are a television news crew who visited recently from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Turns out, we were the first media in the world to see the Snapshot Serengeti setup in person. That gave us some unique perspective of the human element that makes this operation run every day.
What we are talking about is people like Ali Swanson. She regularly blogs on this site, and is one of the main engines that drives Snapshot Serengeti. You see her personality reflected on these pages from time to time as she talks about driving the hunk of junk Land Rover that is her office for half the year. But what you can’t get from a blog post is the energy this Ali brings the University of Minnesota’s Lion House. She drives around the wilderness all day servicing the hundreds of cameras you see on Snapshot Serengeti, then comes home after a long day, hangs up a punching bag, and proceeds to pummel it with kicks for 45 minutes.
If Ali were in the United States, we would compare her to the Energizer Bunny, the character created by a battery company that keeps going, and going, and going. However, there aren’t any pink bunnies wandering around this desolate place, they’d likely be devoured by one of the wild animals that roam this land. Wild animals that often wander right up to the front porch of this research lab, with no regard for the humans who regularly occupy this structure.
One morning as we walked outside to use the “bathroom” out behind the Lion House, there were several baboons running around. The boys from Minnesota promptly turned around and went back inside. Ali, fearless as usual, threw the door open and jaunted out to do her business. This is the same girl who drove 8 hours by herself in a Land Rover to their research lab near Seronera, while we took a 2-hour airplane ride.
One thing we could provide for Ali, Daniel Rosengren, and Stanslaus Mwampeta, the regular residents of Lion House, was fresh supplies. We came bearing gifts of cheese and meat. Something they don’t get to eat very much around here. Up until we arrived, Daniel and Stan had been eating rice and canned green beans for the last several weeks. Daniel and Stan were overjoyed to have some real food. They were also very happy to cook for their guests. We planned on eating granola bars the whole time, but were pleasantly surprised to get a warm meal at the end of the day.
Up until recently, the Lion House didn’t have a reliable fridge. They drink rainwater that is collected in huge tanks around the property. The water is boiled, filtered, and safe to consume. Although from time to time they say a dead monkey ends up in the tank, which as you can imagine is a real bummer. Sure, they are living a dream job, but it sure as heck isn’t easy. I will leave most the gory details out when it comes to the outhouse; except for one great bathroom related story that sums up how one survives in these parts.
After a long day of traveling for Ali, she was eager to catch up with her friends, so we sat around, and talked, and laughed into the early morning hours. Daniel shared stories of his bicycle rides from his native Sweden to the southern tip of Africa. He told us about the time he was attacked with a machete, and rode in a bus for days just to find a doctor.
Stan told us more about his native land of Tanzania. It is amazing to think that Stan is one of only a few people who live here who actually gets to see the wildlife. Lions, elephants, and giraffes are typically reserved for researchers and rich tourists, not the natives. Stan has a great smile, and he loves sweets.
In the midst of this mind-bending mix of brainy conversation about ecology and how it relates to the Serengeti, someone had to use the facilities. That someone was me … and I won’t lie, I was terrified to walk to the outhouse at 1 am, a 100-yard trip where one regularly encounters wildlife.
Nature called, so I grabbed the flashlight and headed out. Ali and Daniel assured me there was nothing to worry about. Things worked out – so to speak – and I peeked through the outhouse to make sure Simba wasn’t waiting to turn me into a late-night snack. (Lions rarely attack on the Serengeti, but one’s imagination runs wild in this environment.)
The coast was clear, so I went to head back, and race-walked to the lab.
Then, as I rounded the corner, I saw it. The furry golden mane of a lion, feet from my face! Knowing well enough not to panic, I quickly shuffled back around the corner and caught my breath. Then it dawned on me that something was strange. Flashlights typically reflect in the eyes of animals, but in the second I saw the lion, I don’t remember seeing a reflection.
I peeked my head back around the corner at Simba, and realized that I’d been had. Daniel and Ali decided to give me a little Serengeti hazing by pulling a life-sized stuffed lion out of the house, and putting it in my path back from the outhouse.
Vehicles break down. Hyenas eat your equipment. Monkeys break into your kitchen. Spitting cobras occasionally sneak into your sleeping quarters. And if you can’t laugh about it you won’t last long here… just ask anyone who has spent time on the Serengeti.