Data collection is the back bone of field research work and can sound glamorous and exciting to those who are office bound but I will let you into a little secret, it can be exhausting and frustrating and unrewarding too.
Firstly, you have to remember that researchers often work in remote places and whilst this is amazing it does lead to some logistical nightmares. Take for instance my recent experience. My task was to visit 18 Ilchokuti or lion guardians from KopeLion to collect the data they had recorded during the previous month. Now they are spread out over 1300k2, in itself quite a distance but when you factor in the rough at best, non-existent at worst roads you begin to have an idea of the task. I would be lucky if it didn’t rain, that would only add to the woes. Another thing to remember is that, barring a few lucky people working for high profile organisations, most researchers have to nurse their aged vehicles along, fixing things as you go. This trip wasn’t too bad as we seemed to only suffer from door catches failing so nothing a bit of string or a Leatherman wouldn’t fix. The budgets just never seem to run to decent cars.
Just as I was about to feel smug about the lack of rain hampering our journey it dawned on me that dry conditions held their bad points too. Dust! The fine dust covering some of the landscape here is deadly. It penetrates everything and with a three-day trip planned with no opportunity for a shower, boy does it get tiring. Forget enjoying the scenery as you drive, you mostly feel as if you are in a cloud only with a yellow tinge that makes it hard to breath in place of the fluffy white.
Anyway, I can’t really complain it was a wonderful three days and meeting up with a couple of our guys in the middle of nowhere under a great baobab tree acting as our office for an hour or so was something to make you smile.
My colleague, Meritho Katei, over in the Serengeti has an even harder job under similar conditions. I was simply rendezvousing with other people, collecting and issuing data sheets and downloading GPS data. Meritho is trying to pick up on the lion monitoring for the Serengeti Lion project that has been on hold for a while.
His task is to reconnect with the prides of lions previously being followed and studied and to catch up on the family histories. New members need to be identified, files made on them and changes in pride composition noted. He is working with the Snapshot Serengeti camera trap data to see where the prides are hanging out but of course we aren’t quite up to date with the classifying so that’s not the greatest help. Instead he is relying on a lot of kilometres driving, following up on tourist sightings and tracking data and a good set of eyes to track down the prides and observe them.
So as I washed the dust out of my hair, luxuriating in a hot shower after my three day successful, mission accomplished trip, I had to reflect that poor Meritho was in for many months of hard slog catching up with those lions and with the rains coming things are about to get even harder. Good luck Meritho!
I have been a little quiet recently and for that I must apologise but my excuse is good. I have been relocating to Tanzania where I am going to be based for the next three months working with Kopelion in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. One of Snapshot Serengeti’s partners kopelion (Korongoro People’s Lion Initiative) is a conservation organisation and research project that focuses on human-lion coexistence in the multi use landscape of Ngorongoro. I have written about the project in these blogs if you want to read more https://blog.snapshotserengeti.org/2017/02/23/meet-the-people-2/
After a two week intensive language course in nearby Moshi I have finally made it to base camp on the crater rim. The office is perched at 2300m looking down on the Crater Lake and has one of the best office views I have ever had which makes up for being stuck indoors when you would rather be in the field.
It’s not all office based thank goodness and I have already had the pleasure of three days out in the Ndutu area learning about the work the project does. Although there has been some rain it is still in the grip of the dry season here and the scenery for the most part is a dry and dusty yellow. The lions are hungrily awaiting the rains that will bring a welcome flush of green that will draw the wildebeest in vast numbers and thus plenty of prey.
Saturday was spent following up on reports of lion spoor (tracks) found near to an area that Maasai bring their cattle to drink. We turned up early morning to start tracking the spoor to see if we could figure out if the lion where still in the area; if this turns out to be the case a lion guardian or Ilchokuti will stay put in the vicinity to warn herders about the lion presence and hopefully avoid an encounter.
It was obvious that several lion had been in the area, you could see depressions in the sand where they had lay down for a bit of a nap. The tracks lead alongside a small water drainage channel and the lions had wandered down to drink in a few spots. Further along the water channel the tracks of individual lions suddenly converged on one access path down to the water. Clearly something had excited their interest. After a careful look around we descended the same route to investigate. Lying in the mud at the edge of the water we found the body of a young spotted hyena, teeth marks around its throat and the surrounding tracks told the story. Most likely the youngster was drinking when the lions ambushed it, its small size meant it didn’t stand a chance and lions probably quickly dispatched it.
Despite the fact that the lions in the area are somewhat lean at the moment they made no attempt to eat the hyena. This is normal behaviour for lions; they will not tolerate other predators in their territory and will kill them if the chance arises. There was a lack of other hyena spoor in the area so this youngster was probably on its own, why we cannot say but it became an easy target for the lions.
It is a great privilege to walk into an area that has such a story written out for you in the sand and mud. In this instant the presence of a body left little to interpret but the trackers here are capable of reading far less obvious stories and it is this skill that is helping to mitigate lion-human conflict by acting as an early warning system to the people who live side by side with lions.
Our camera-trapping efforts afford us an unparalleled view into the lives of the Serengeti ecosystems animals but the work of conservation has many aspects and I hope to bring you a good view of what is going on here over the next few months.
I promised I would have some news about what the Serengeti team has been up to recently in the field. Our beloved camera-trap grid is still being cared for, cards downloaded, batteries replaced and cameras given the once over. So all is well on that front but what is the latest question being asked by the team.
Well thanks to the spatial occupancy modelling of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap grid we have learned a lot about how the animals share the environment. What we can’t derive from the camera trap images is the details of what the different species are doing when they are in those spaces and how so many large herbivores can exist together. It could be that they simply facilitate each others foraging or maybe they are using different resources. Scientists have identified what is known as niche partitioning, a mechanism that sees different species specialising in eating different proportions of grasses verses non-grasses; pure grazers and pure browsers and a sliding scale between the two. A second mechanism sees different species eating different parts of the same plant.
These two mechanisms seem to make perfect sense but it is not understood to what extent these two truly affect coexistence of large herbivores. This is where the Snapshot Serengeti team research comes in.
Under our own Dr Michael Anderson they have teamed up with Dr Rob Pringle and researchers at Princeton University in using a revolutionary new analysis method known as DNA metabarcoding to see what exactly each animal is eating.
Up until recently scientists studying herbivore diet had two choices, they could watch their subjects and try to identify what they were eating or they could use microhistology, whereby plant parts in faeces are visually identified. As you can imagine these methods are fine for differentiating between, say, grasses and trees but don’t allow scientists to classify down to individual plant species. With DNA metabarcoding they now have that ability and it should tell us a whole lot more about how the animals divide their resources in space and time.
So that’s the science but how does the team collect this data. Well as with microhistology it involves dung. Our intrepid scientists are roaming the Serengeti collecting poop from as many different herbivores as they can and then it all has to be shipped back to the labs for analysis.
If you are thinking that our team must be highly skilled detectives able to identify a wide variety of brown pellets in the savannah grasses then think again. That’s not to say they can’t but this work relies on 100% knowing which species produced said dung its sex and age as well as a sample that has not been contaminated in anyway. The method of collection relies then, on stealthy observation waiting for an individual to lift its tail and sprinkle the ground with brown pellets before running in with your sample jar at the ready to collect the freshly deposited “clean” offerings. I have some experience with this work and believe me it does feel slightly odd to be observing animals in this way, willing them on to have a bowel movement so you can move on to the next species. It is also a little risky as you can get so engrossed at watching your target animal that you forget there are predators there watching and waiting. At least in this project it is only herbivores the team are interested in, to do the same with predator’s faeces, that’s a whole lot more smelly.
The study is still in its early stages but the team reports they are already seeing some noteworthy things.
Spoiler alert, early results suggest that there are only two ‘pure’ grazers in Serengeti (zebra and warthog) and lots of variation between wet and dry season.
We will bring you further updates once the team has finished their analysis work and have the full results. It promises to be exciting stuff. In the meantime you can think on the glamorous job a field scientist has whilst you stay clean at home helping with the job of classification.
Recently the science team behind Snapshot Serengeti, lead by Dr Michael Anderson, were wandering around the plains going about their latest research (more about that soon) when they got to witness a sight of high intensity, namely a bit of large predator interaction.
The drama occurred around an area known as the Maasi Kopjes. The team at this stage were in their vehicle, as a lioness was nearby, when they noticed a lone cheetah wandering into the lioness’s territory.
The cheetah is obviously anxious as can be seen in this image.
The lioness quickly picks up the intruders scent and as Michael tells me used their vehicle as cover to stalk closer to the cheetah.
Initially the cheetah was unaware of its impending doom but the lioness’s indignation at the intrusion possibly affected her stealth and the cheetah finally noticed her approach.
The race was on. The big cat race.
From these shots you can see the sudden acceleration of the cheetah and yes, it got away, living to see another day and the lioness happily securing her domain on her territory.
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see both these animals on our camera-traps!
Thanks to Dr Michael Anderson for sharing his Photo’s with us.
Camera-trapping has vastly opened up the possibilities of studying animals in the field in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Leaving a bunch of camera-traps clicking away 24/7 over a long period is generally cheaper than employing researchers to stay in the field providing them with accommodation, food and vehicles.
However it has its drawbacks. Good field skills are only learned over time spent in the field and although field researchers cannot operate 24/7 like the camera-traps they are less impartial observers noticing all kinds of fine details surrounding that which they study.
It is these observations that stimulate and inform new scientific questions and drives the understanding of the world around us. I am not suggesting that the results of camera-trap studies can’t also do this but since the days of the first naturalists it is being in the field that nurtures the very interest in studying wildlife in the first place.
The researcher who knows their study area well will be at an advantage to one who has planned from afar after using GIS. I know because I have been both. My first camera-trap project was on a reserve where I had lived for three years and that helped me know intuitively where I should place my camera-traps. On the other hand my latest project involved a very fine time window and I had to set up camera-traps on an unknown farm within two days of arriving. By the end of the 8 week period I was just starting to get a better feel for the place and could have kicked myself for not placing my cameras in the optimum places. When I went back to collect the cameras I found myself wading thigh high through a carpet of small yellow daisy-like flowers that left me coated waist down in a yellow stain. Had I have known the farm better realised this plant grew only in a few areas and could have avoided it entirely and saved myself the turmeric skin wash and a lot of miss-triggers.
My latest trip to Africa reminded me of why living in the field is so rewarding. Whilst the camera-traps are diligently collecting your data it gives you the chance to observe without frantically thinking of your research question, you can take time to take inspiration from the broader environment.
Near my tent was an old dead knob thorn tree that had five white-browed sparrow-weaver nests hanging like straw balls from it. Each night at dusk a pair of sparrow weavers would fly into the tree, call loudly as if claiming the spot and the female would dive into her preferred nest. The male would remain up high above waiting. Just as the last light was fading 3 or 4 small dark shapes would arrive and the sparrow weaver would chase after them squawking disapproval. Having seen them off he would come back and settle himself into the nest of his choice retiring for the night. Watching closely revealed, a few minutes later, the return of the invaders; two pairs of black-faced waxbills. They alighted at the top of the tree and cautiously made their way down towards the remaining nests finally one by one slipping quietly into the unused nests one couple per nest.
The thing about this little drama was that it was played out every night for over two months. None of the birds seemed to alter their routine and none where actively breeding at the time, they just had their bed time ritual. This was the kind of observation that the camera-traps will never quite capture as well as a human. In just the same way, although Snapshot Serengeti would not exist without the cameras it would be nothing without the human, citizen scientists behind the scenes sorting out the images. Even with computer recognition programs on the horizon I believe it would be foolish not to still use humans who’s innate sense of life will always pick up on something that is slightly odd, unusual or different about an image.
You are probably aware that the 225 camera traps of Snapshot Serengeti are set out in a grid pattern, spaced every 1km over a part of the Serengeti National Park. It sounds relatively simple but actually there is a lot of painstaking scientific pondering as to how exactly to set out your camera traps.
Over the last couple of decades there has been much debate as to the best way to design a camera trap study. The main choice, in terms of placement pattern, is whether to place your camera traps randomly or selectively and what kind of spacing/density to use.
Truly random is to grid your study site and then let a computer randomly choose which grid squares to place the cameras. Alternately you can choose a line or grid and place your camera trap at regular intervals regardless of where that may fall, still a random point. With selective placement each site is carefully chosen for a specific feature.
In reality most projects use a mixture of the above methods and the best method is really determined by what your scientific question is. For instance, if you where trying to acess the number of leopards in a given area it is better to place your camera traps strategically in places you know or guess leopards are most likely to pass rather than using a randomised method. However if you are carrying out a census of an area and wish to know what species are present then a randomised grid is ideal.
As I said a mix of methods is often used. Imagine setting out a grid in the comfort of your office on your computer. It looks good, covers a large area and promises good results. Once out in the field you navigate to your carefully worked out GPS reference point only to discover it is slap bang in the middle of a marsh or in a thick overgrown patch of thorn trees. This is where the scientists allow themselves a little leeway. Often they will take the GPS point as home base but choose an ideal spot within a certain radius of this point where perhaps there is a game trail or some other sign of animals passing, thus allowing them to select a good site within the vicinity.
I have recently had experience of this type of placement and I can say the work done in selecting your study site and then laying out your grid onto a map is laborious but not nearly as much as stomping through the bush keeping your fingers crossed that your next randomly selected site will be perfect. Turning up to emplacement three to find a thick tangle of vegetation is a little soul destroying, mostly you wonder if any animal is likely to bother to pass that way. The reality is that you normally find a spot that is better within 10 meters and with some slight pruning of the vegetation the sites can often turn out remarkably productive.
So that is the placement sorted but there is a long list of other agonising variables to consider, what settings to use on the camera trap itself, how many to use and how long to keep them up. Believe me every scientist designing studies deliberates the pros and cons of these factors and worries incessantly about if they have made the right choice. You don’t want to set up all you camera traps and leave them for a few months only to find your set up was not great, something which happened to me recently when I chose to set the camera trap on high sensitivity to make sure I had every chance of capturing the small, fast critters. The problem was it was so hot, 40°c plus, that the ambient waves of heat set the camera trap off almost permanently between 12pm and 5pm leaving me with 2000 images of nothing. I have had to compromise and reduce the sensitivity to avoid all the miss triggers; hopefully it won’t miss too many small things.
Snapshots camera traps have now been up for over 7 years so most of these teething problems have been ironed out. But as with the best laid plan you cannot control everything, the odd camera still malfunctions as I am sure that our regular classifiers can attest to!
When living in the bush in Africa your life becomes attuned to the rhythms of nature. Up with the sunrise, the spurfowl, guinea fowl and francolins won’t have it any other way, their raucous calls start well before the sun is actually visible. Physical work can be done until about mid day and then if possible its best to seek shelter till around 4pm when the sun is at least not high enough to cook you yet still pretty hot. By 8pm its dark so there is nothing else to do but sit back around a fire and let the night envelope you.
I am living so basically at the moment, my clothes are starting to look shabby after two weeks of hand washing in minimal water. I am however improving my skills daily at cooking on an open fire. It is amazing what you can do with a skillet, a pot and bits of old rebar and wire. I may have invented a new dish last night, Christmas Eve, when I conjured up a gemsbok stir fry.
The wood here gives new meaning to the term hard wood. Luckily for me there is a ready supply of wood due to the need for bush clearing on this cattle farm. Just a few pieces are enough to get really good coals glowing to cook over. They use a deep three legged cast iron pot in Africa for cooking stews, known as a potjie here in Southern Africa. I might even try my hand at bread next.
So last night after a good feed, Trev and I sat contemplating the embers whilst watching nightjars and bats hawking what looked like flying termites. It has rained recently triggering the eruption, earlier we watched guinea-fowl, hornbills, starlings, drongos and a whole host of other small birds running back and forth slurping them up straight from the holes before they could even get airborne. There is a constant suzzz of insect noise interrupted by the screech of barn owls and the odd jackal.
Then there is a deathly screech to rival that of the barn owl, what is it you ask? well it’s me. Something has just ran up my leg across my back up on to my head and then dropped down again to the ground between my feet. I am not usually given to screaming like a girl and creepy crawlies don’t usually bother me, but there is nothing quite like the dark to bring out the pathetic in us. So a quick scrabble for flash lights ensues and the culprit is spotted.
It’s a solifuge, otherwise known as a sun spider. Not actually a spider, though belonging to the same class, arachnida, they form an order by themselves, solifugae. They differ from spiders in not having silk glands and therefore do not spin webs. They appear to possess 10 legs but in fact the front most pair are actually pedipalps that act as sensors and aid in feeding. They are voracious predators and will eat anything they can overpower such as spiders, scorpions, insects and invertebrates.
Totally harmless to humans they do however install a lot of fear. This is partly due to two behavioural traits. If disturbed in the day the solifuge will head for the nearest dark place, often the very shadow cast by the human that caused the disturbance in the first place, giving the false impression that the solifuge is running at you in attack mode. Similarly at night they will follow a light source, again, often that of a human with a flash light.
The second trait is that they move like greased lightning. They are constantly zipping from here to there in a frantic search for prey to keep their high metabolism ticking over. They have also been known to take human hair to make their nests.
You are not likely to pick one of these up on Snapshot Serengeti’s camera-traps but if you ever get the chance to observe one of these arachnids going about its daily business it is really very fascinating, if of course you can get over your human fear.
You know you are in Africa when you wake up at the airport lodge on the edge of a capital city and stepping out from your room you come face to face with a bird that towers above you. Ostrich aside the dry heat of the Kalahari leaves you in no doubt you are in Africa.
I am in Namibia where I will be for the next two months. I am working on a cattle farm in the Waterberg plateau that is part of a greater nature conservancy. I have already got my camera-traps out, hopefully snapping away as I write. The idea is to look at how camera-trap spacing affects the chances of recording smaller mammals. There are plenty of those here, bat-eared fox, jackal, caracal, mongoose, pangolin, hare and aardwolf to name but a few.
The great thing about using camera-traps is that now they are up I have some weeks to wait before moving them so I have plenty of time to immerse myself in the African bush. I have already clocked up over 100 bird species in less than a week, its taking a while to get my ear back in gear, I keep hearing tantalisingly familiar calls but can’t quite remember who they belong to. It is the start of the rainy season and subsequently the breeding season so there is an awful lot of activity. The binoculars are back living on my shoulder and in use every few minutes.
The bush here consists of a lot of small bushes and trees interspersed with small open grass patches. Plenty of sickle bush, raisin bush and buffalo thorn. I forgot how hard it is to walk through, constantly getting hooked up on vicious thorns that grab at you as you pass.
The best bit of the trip is living in a tent, ok afternoon naps are impossible in the heat but you get to wake up early to the birds calling. The francolins and spurfowl are calling before the sun even rises. There are white browed sparrow weavers building nests in a tree near the tent that have the loveliest melodies. Then there is the night shift. It is pretty hard to fall asleep sometimes when the noises just make you want to get up and investigate. So far I have come face to face with a honey badger sniffing around our fire and several genets. The jackal’s shrill call is omnipresent but the one I listen out for is the rasping call of the leopard. I haven’t been disappointed, every other night that sound rumbles through me.
My internet connection is not so great but I should still be making regular posts for Snapshot Serengeti and there are still plenty of images to classify. We would like to run season 11 in the New Year if we can get season 10 completed. I may even have the odd camera-trap image from my Namibia project to share. Watch this space.
Laying in my tent last night listening to nightjars whirring and barn owls screeching I was reminded of the sounds of Africa. As I am away this week with little internet time I thought I would repost this blog I wrote a few years back.
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?
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.