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Field Life

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Nzunda setting up a weather station

 

 

Recently, as those of you who follow will know, I have been talking about the different people who work for the project in Tanzania. Reading about their daily lives working in ecology and conservation is about as close to visiting Africa as many of us will get. Their lives seem so fascinating I think because they are so different to most of ours (though that is a bit of an assumption of course!)

I talked to Ozward Nzunda, one of Dr Michael Andersons Tanzanian field assistants in the Serengeti. Michael’s project looks at vegetation and the interactions between herbivores and their savannah habitat. In order to study this a wealth of environmental data is needed and of course Michael, like many professors, is not based in the Serengeti. He relies on Nzunda to keep things running whilst he is not there. I asked Nzunda about his work and what it was like living in the famous Serengeti National Park.

He told me that most of his work in the field involves the collection of data from all over the study area. There are camera-traps that are checked once a month in order to down load the data and check for any maintenance issues. This is the data which we are busy classifying now on season 9.5. He must also collect weather and soil moisture data on a monthly basis in preset locations. He has to install the weather stations and soil moisture sensors and keep monitoring them until the data is collected. These jobs take up most of his time but he also has the unenviable job of keeping the project vehicles running. Tree and seedling surveys are done on a yearly basis.

So how does he manage all this and what does he think about it?

He told me that the days are long in the field, the drive to the study plots is long and so a lot of time is spent in cars and when you get to the study plots there is a chance you won’t be able to get out the car to do anything. Many a time he says, he has arrived to find lion sleeping or with a kill near his plot and is forced to wait for the lions to leave or move on to another plot. Of course so much time in the field also means he gets to enjoy seeing lots of game on a regular basis.

The study is a continuous study and that means that the data must be collected come rain or shine and in the wet season that means mud. Nzunda told me that the hardest part of the job is wet season driving when you can easily get stuck in the black cotton soils. The mobile signal is poor, as you can imagine, in the park and he has been forced to sleep in the car on occasions until help arrives the following day.

In fact he says they regularly camp out in order to visit the remoter plots and has some interesting stories to tell. Camping in an area with a full complement of wild animals is not for sissies! But on this particular occasion it was the ants that kept them awake. A swarm of biting ants invaded the campsite and had them jumping up and down, shaking out clothes and acting like mad men until they finally left. Itching and scratching they finally got to sleep only to be woken up a few hours later by a rampaging hippo careening between their two tents. Now a canvas tent is no match for a hippo but luck was on their side and the hippo kept running and didn’t return. He says he will never forget this night and they named the campsite “one eye open and one eye close” in honour of the fact no one really slept that night.

His family and friends think he is mad for working alongside wild animals, they think only of the risks but Nzunda loves the challenges field work brings and says that the Serengeti is a beautiful place to be.

Life in the field can be a little lonely. His family live almost 1000km away and he only see’s them about once a month if he is lucky. But they are all accepting of this and are happy. A good job is worth it. He prefers the park saying it is a very good place to live, far better than town where there is too much noise and pollution. He gets his fill of social once a month when he leaves the park to go on a shopping trip for supplies. The rest of the time there is a small shop that caters for the parks staff and resident researchers and the little community gets by fine.

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Nzunda checking out the mud situation.

Dante’s Inferno; Savannah Fire

 

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Fire ecology is a fascinating subject. I always get a bit of a buzz when I find a fire image in Snapshot Serengeti. Fire is a major component of savannah ecosystems and the grasses and trees within them have evolved along with fire, some to such an extent that they cannot exist without the occasional burn. I will return to this topic in a future blog but for this week I want to recount my personal experiences of the fire season in a remote Central African nature reserve.

As the dry season progresses the deep verdant greens start to fade to yellow, the temperature mounts into the high 30’s and the strong Harmattan winds pick up. The landscape is a mosaic of tall savannah grasslands divided by fingers of thick lush riverine habitat. The climatic conditions bring violent lightning storms which, given the tinder dry grasses, can trigger natural bush fires. Of course this process is random, not every patch of grass will burn every year unlike the human induced fires that sweep this part of Central African Republic year after year.

Historically this area saw very little pastoralist activity due to the tsetse fly (lethal for cattle) but in recent years Sudanese cattle herders are flocking to the area during the dry season driven by increasing desertification in Sudan and availability of medicine to combat the effects of tsetse fly for their cattle. They set light to every bit of grassland in order to make movement easier creating a green flush for their cattle to feed on and to make hunting for bush meat simpler.

Each day our plane goes up searching for signs of the approaching herders. We all anxiously scan the horizon for signs of smoke. The weeks drag on like this with everyone under a nervous tension waiting, waiting for something to happen. One day the pilot returns having spotted a huge fire to the north and just like that it has started. Every flight brings more fire reports and we see a daunting change in the clearness of the air around us. Sitting in the central base looking at the fire map it seems we are now surrounded by either fires or herds of cattle numbering in the thousands. With the scent of scorched vegetation getting stronger by the day things start to feel very claustrophobic.

By night we see an ominous glow to the horizon as the distant fires glow and we dread the change of wind that could bring the wall of flames towards camp. We have a wide airstrip almost a kilometre long so I know that we will not be in danger of being burnt alive but it does not quell the primal fear.

The day I have been dreading finally comes. Fire is spotted 5km from the camp and it is racing towards our fire break, a team rushes out to light a back burn to try and stop it in its tracks but the wind does us no favours and within hours we can see the flames as they burn behind the camp perimeter. I am feeling panicky but although it looks like Dante’s inferno the danger has passed as the fire makes its way along the north side of the airstrip. Then disaster strikes the wind, capricious as ever, changes direction just as the fire reaches the end of the airstrip and a great gust of hot ash and embers jumps the fire break and the fire starts racing up the south side of the airstrip. And all hell breaks loose; we never expected it to get into this block. The fire is now making a bee line for our temporary accommodation camp and my own tent. Never have I run so fast, 400 meter sprint in 40 degrees heat in a herculean effort to reach my tent and evacuate my worldly goods. I wrench open the canvas and start madly flinging stuff into bags, meanwhile some clever person arrives with a wheel barrow and we start moving the bags to the safety of the airstrip.

Once everything is safe I sit down and watch the chaos from atop my possessions. It is a scene out of apocalypse now. There is a helicopter and cargo plane belonging to the American Special Forces grounded on the airstrip. Smoke rises in front of me like a billowing curtain, our staff are running around beating out flames as they try to control the back burn. In the midst of this someone brings me a very angry chameleon, rescued from the path of the flames. There are gun shots ringing out from the Ugandan army camp who, instead of helping us, are trying to shoot rabbits and other small game as they dart from the onslaught of flames. Our guys win the battle and the fire comes to a slow stop just 70 meters from my tent. My heart has calmed down now but it is with sadness that I look around me at the blackened ground. I wonder how many chameleons and other small creatures lost their lives in this battle.

That night I slept once more in my tent. I lay there watching the beautiful glow of the fire through the trees, looking just like a glowing sunset. The spitting of flames and the cracking of exploding trees reminding me of the truth but the fire was on the other side of the strip of riverine trees and I knew its rich damp interior would keep me safe as well as countless other birds and animals that night.

Click here to see drone footage of the fire heading towards camp. https://youtu.be/WtRj8u7vEts

 

The Challenges of Field Work

 

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Hazard of the job; catching myself on camera-trap

 

If you have clicked through the seemingly endless captures on Snapshot Serengeti then you must have realized just how many cameras are snapping away out there in the Serengeti. Have you ever wondered who looks after those cameras?

Researchers sometimes go to extreme lengths to collect their data and not much deters them from their goal.

On a recent assignment working in Central African Republic I was tasked by our biologist to collect in an array of 40 camera-traps. The park was very large, the size of Wales and very remote, the nearest village was a 12 hours 4×4 drive away. It was also newly proclaimed and had little in the way of infrastructure like roads. Of course, Thierry wanted to survey the areas we didn’t yet know so obviously the cameras were nowhere near any of the smatterings of roads.

He presented me with a mobile phone resplendent with a mapping app which showed the camera trap locations overlaid with our rudimentary road network. I should really say temporal track system as these so called roads consisted of two tire tracks driven through the elephant grass and mud soon to grow over again in the coming wet season. The park consists of a mosaic of wooded savannah and tropical lowland rainforest so you are either struggling through 2 meter high elephant grass or deeply tangled riverine forest growth. Added to the physical challenges of working in the park was the fact of it harboring armed Sudanese cattle herders, poachers and Lord’s Resistance Army militia.

So equipped with the mobile phone, two trackers and 5 armed rangers off we went to collect the cameras. After three hours bumpy ride plagued with biting tsetse fly we got as close to the first camera as any road was going to take us. Using the phone to navigate I pointed us in the general direction praying that the battery would last. If it failed we would be completely lost with no landmarks. Two kilometers later we had narrowed down the camera location to about 20 meters and under the vigilant eye of the rangers myself and the two trackers began searching for the camera in the thick jungle tangle.

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Rangers caught on camera-trap whilst on patrol 

 

Once the camera was reclaimed it was bagged up and we set out for the walk to the next camera another kilometer or so away. The whole day was spent battling foliage and insects in the 40o c temperatures for a total of 8 cameras. We made camp for the night; the journey back to base was just too far with so many cameras still to collect. It took 4 days to collect half the array and it was with some relief that we trundled back into base camp having had no encounter with armed men.  A hot shower, something other than sardines to eat and the excitement of examining the camera-trap pictures was a just reward for all our foot work

The cameras were being used to assess what species were present in the park and as such were left up for short periods in small arrays. In the Serengeti however, there are 225 camera traps permanently running in an area of 1125 km2. Just think of the logistics involved with changing batteries, keeping vegetation trimmed back and changing SD cards. Our researchers work tirelessly to keep the project on its toes and over the next few months I will try to bring you their stories about the work we support from the comfort of our homes. We each have our part to play but together we are a team dedicated to furthering a scientific cause.

 

Pre-Dawn in Serengeti

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There are definitely pros to early-morning fieldwork! Heading out to do camera trap experiments often required hitting the road before sun-up, and with the right composition of clouds, you often got to experience beautiful sunrises. Here, you can see the front of my LandRover as we’re about to tackle this swampy stretch of road!

Field Decor

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My favorite part of Africa has to be the decorating.

The Giant Warthog Disaster

One of the latest projects Craig Packer has been collaborating on involves trying to study cooperative behavior in lions by tempting these big cats hunt different “toys” – like this life-sized wooden buffalo:

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One of the most hilarious disasters of our last field season came as a result of trying to lug all of these over-sized ungulates across South Africa. Apparently, simply ratcheting them on to the roof of your truck is only good until you start going fast enough for the wind to rip up and under them (i.e. anything over about 40 miles an hour). I have great pictures of Craig trudging across the highway to retrieve bits and pieces of giant warthogs, wildebeest, and other large wooden creatures whose sudden appearance flying off of our car must have completely baffled our fellow motorists.

Serengeti from Above

The best part about having a new season of photographs for me is the chance to “visit” Serengeti from the comfort of my own office. My research plans for 2016 don’t involve any trips back to Tanzania (mostly, I’ll be finishing up some experiments down in South Africa instead), so leaving Serengeti this last year was a very bittersweet experience. On the plus side, I did manage to grab a lift on one of the small bush planes that fly across the park, and the views were spectacular!

 

Notes from the field

Note: Meredith wrote this blog post, but is having internet problems in Africa, so I am posting it on her behalf.


Pole sana on the lack of recent field updates – it’s been a busy week or two and I’ve traveled halfway across Africa in the meanwhile! Sad to say, I’ve left Serengeti behind for now. I was able to set up almost all of the replacement cameras I brought down with me and completed three new rounds for my playback experiments. I then took a few days off and spent my birthday traveling around in Ethiopia, soaking in some history and culture (and eating really excellent food!). It’s nice to have a break from constant science every once in a while. I went around what is known as the “Northern Circuit” and visited the four historic cities of Gondar, Lalibella, Aksum, and Bahir Dar. I got to visit island monasteries, rock-hewn churches, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and even made a trip to the church purported to be where the True Ark of the Covenant is kept! Have to say, the trip made me feel very “Indiana Jones”, right up until the point where I got ill from drinking the water…

After a week in Ethiopia, I flew down to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet up with Craig and another graduate student we’re working with, Natalia. Natalia is interested in cognition and has been testing the creative problem solving and impulse control of different kinds of carnivores. We’ve spent the last few days at a reserve outside of Pretoria called Dinokeng, run by Kevin “the Lion Whisperer” Richardson. Kevin maintains a park with dozens of semi-captive lions, leopards, and hyenas which Natalia can work with for her intelligence experiments. While Natalia has been busy with her research, I’ve been putting together a rig that will enable me to examine herbivore responses to four predator species: cheetah, wild dog, lion, and hyena. Two of these predators (lion and cheetah) hunt by sneaking up on their prey, whereas the others (wild dog and hyena) rely on endurance to run prey down. I’m looking to see whether prey respond to each species of predator differently, or whether there are consistent differences in anti-predatory response by predator hunting type. I’ll be simulating predator encounters because it would be incredibly difficult to observe a sufficient number of actual encounters in the wild. As soon as I find a good internet connection, I’ll post pictures of just exactly how I plan on doing this — it’s pretty great, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Just this morning, the three of us packed up all of our gear and took a small plane out of Pretoria up to South Africa’s Northern Cape province. We’ll be spending the next three to four weeks up here in the Kalahari conducting our experiments. In addition to looking at anti-predator responses, I’ll be helping to set up a NEW camera trap grid (perhaps Snapshot Serengeti will be joined by Kalahari Cameras sometime in the near future…?). Now that we’re back in action, more updates soon!

More mud

So much for being clean again…

P1000782Norbert, our Tanzanian field assistant, always laughs when I come in from the field covered in mud. He takes pictures each time, telling me that “when I write my book” I need to publish these photos to show people that “to get PhD, you must be THIS much mud!”

 

All About Lions

Guess who just gave a fancy talk about Lion Project and Snapshot Serengeti!

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Major props to TCS Expeditions and the Four Seasons giving me a chance to talk about our project and spend the day in such a beautiful resort. I highly recommend the showers — feels good to be clean again!