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.
I have to admit that I actually quite like insects, they fascinate me, they are often brilliantly coloured and despite being so small seem to send most humans into a frenzy of panic. It astonishes me that these tiny creatures can come in such an array of beauty; something about the miniature form is beguiling. How can so much colour and pattern fit on such a small form.
However there are insects that do not elicit these feelings of wonder. Mosquitoes for one and ticks; both are annoying and can have you in your sick bed. If you have ever been hounded by sweat bees that want to crawl into every corner of your scalp, eyes, nose, ears and mouth you will know what I am talking about when I say they are enough to make you want to dive into a shark infested pool.
But… there is one creature that for me is worse than any of these, one that I cannot tolerate either mentally or physically. The tsetse fly.
My first encounter with tsetse in Central Africa has left me somewhat traumatised. I set off from base camp on a 2hr drive to an old abandoned camp to scavenge some equipment. The car had seen better days and although it had a windscreen it did not have windows. Lovely I thought, it’s hot and it will be nice and airy. The roads were in a bad state, necessitating a top speed of around 30km/hr. The first few km’s were fine then something sharp bit my ankle. Following that the same burning sensation came from my neck then there it was again from my shin instantaneously reappearing, most painfully of all on my temple. I looked around the dash board and it was swarming with about 50 tsetses all of which were clamouring to get to my bare skin and feast on me. They had been sucked through the nonexistent windows and there was nothing I could do to keep them out. All I could do was hold my collar closed whilst driving one handed the rest of the way. By the time I arrived I had welts all over my hands, neck, legs and feet. Yes they had actually crawled into my socks to get at my nice hot blood filled feet. Aarrrrrhhh.
Discomfort aside there is a very real risk to tsetse. They are vectors for a debilitating disease, sleeping sickness medically known as trypanosomosis. The disease effects both wild and domestic animals and humans. Whilst wild animals have a tolerance to the disease cattle do not. 3 million are thought to die a year across sub-Saharan Africa. Sleeping sickness in humans is often fatal if not treated although the death rate has been vastly reduced with modern medicines.
Historically areas of intense tsetse fly activity were not cultivated by humans leaving large fertile areas of the African continent as so called green deserts. Although a terrible burden for the human population it was good news for wild animals. The area of Central African Republic where I worked was one such place. It should have been teaming with wildlife but it wasn’t. In fact it was full of cattle during the dry season. The cattle herders are arriving in ever increasing numbers from Sudan trying to find respite from the desertification of their own lands. So how can this be? How can they survive the obvious tsetse infestation? It is all down drugs and motivation. The cattle must be shot full of drugs in order to survive the tsetse. A lot of these drugs are supplied by aid agencies trying to stop the human crisis developing but this inadvertently turns into a wildlife crisis. Not only do the herders now spend 4 months a year with their cattle competing alongside wildlife for resources but the herders are decimating the wildlife through poaching. They kill as much as they can, drying it to take back to Sudan and sell. It has become a major trade route and next to the armed gangs who extort protection from the families of herders the next richest guys working the route are the medicine sellers. Without the medicine the cattle die and the whole thing collapses.
Depressing I know but it does put the tsetse in context. Perhaps they played a very important role limiting the use of fertile land by over consumptive mammals. Once I learned their role in keeping humans out of wilderness areas I was a little more forgiving of their painful bites. Though when you have hundreds of bites all over you there is always that niggling worry of illness. Thankfully I escaped with nothing more than some ugly, very itchy swellings and a new understanding of the complexities involved with wildlife conservation.
This weeks guest blog is from our moderator David Bygott who has been guiding us through Snapshot Serengeti images since the beginning.
I’ve been lurking here for years as a moderator, but Lucy Hughes invited me to come out of the shadows and tell you how I got my Serengeti creds.
As a country boy in England I was obsessed with nature and yearned to see more of the world’s wildlife. Reading “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Bernard Grzimek, inspired me to go there. The dream took some years to achieve. First, I worked hard to get a zoology degree. Then, I wrote to anybody doing field research in Africa who might need a research student, assistant, or slave. I got lucky. A scientist, studying hyenas and wild dogs in Ngorongoro Conservation area, wanted me to work on her better-known chimpanzee project, which I had been following in the pages of ‘National Geographic’. Sounded good.
Thus in 1969 I pitched up at the camp of my new bosses, on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. Ten days of getting to know Jane Goodall and her photographer husband Hugo van Lawick, and total immersion in African wildlife. Incredible nights of watching hyena packs run down wildebeest and tear them apart. Even a road trip into the heart of Serengeti.
A seed sown, my mind blown, I continued across Tanzania to the remote chimp camp at Gombe National Park on the beautiful forested shore of Lake Tanganyika. Here I spent 2 amazing years with a small team of young people, following the famous chimps through the forest and recording their behavior. Experiencing at first hand our closest kin was a life-changing experience for me.
David with a chimp group at Gombe, 1970
While at Gombe, I met more of my scientific heroes. Bernard Grzimek visited, so did Dian Fossey, and I travelled to Rwanda to see her gorillas. Jane’s doctoral advisor Robert Hinde came, and encouraged me to write up my fieldwork for a Cambridge PhD.
Two unexpected things happened at Cambridge. I met my wife, primatologist Jeannette Hanby. And we got to know Brian Bertram who had studied Serengeti lions for 4 years, following George Schaller’s pioneering work. Brian persuaded us that social carnivores were just as interesting as primates, and that there was still more to learn about lions. It was a change of direction, but we were tempted!
So in 1974 we joined the Serengeti Research Institute as lion biologists, thanks to support from the U of Cambridge. Our main mission was to census the lion population, as National Parks feared that lions were decreasing (they weren’t!). We also compared the lives of lions in different habitats (Serengeti Plains where prey abundance is seasonal, and Ngorongoro Crater where prey is always abundant). And we investigated lion pride dynamics – why do some individuals leave, and others stay?
Imagine being part of a community of scientists studying every aspect of the ecosystem. We had a house in the centre of Serengeti and a Land-rover to go wherever we wanted, and we spent our days and nights with the great tawny cats.
Sometimes humans and lions are attracted to the same campsites
It was remote, but fortunately we were both used to that. Every month we made a supply run – either to Arusha or Nairobi, each at least 200 miles away, mostly on dirt roads. This took 2 days each way, plus several days of shopping and socializing. We learnt a lot about fixing cars, often in beautiful remote settings with primitive tools.
There was much less technology then. We had basic maps but no GPS, radio or mobile phones or internet. There were no computers, though we had cutting-edge hand-calculators. Radio-telemetry was in its infancy; we built our own radio-collars and darted and collared a few lions, but for most of our study we had no air support and ground-to-ground range was poor, so we had to rely on careful searching to find the lions – scanning with binoculars, driving, staying out at night to listen for roars. We identified the lions from natural markings and close-up photographs, on film of course. We developed a symbiosis with cheetah biologists, George and Lory Frame, photographing each others’ study animals whenever we saw them and trading ID photos to increase our sightings. We learnt as much as we could about what all our colleagues were doing, and often participated in ecosystem-wide aerial animal censuses.
We tried various methods of counting lions, including aerial and ground transects and individual recognition. The latter proved the most successful, but it was hard work to identify all the lions in our 1000 square study area. In addition, every second month we’d spend a week in Ngorongoro Crater. After finding as many lions as we could there, we would follow one pride for 4 days and nights, to observe their activity, range and hunting success. We did the same with a comparable pride living at Sametu on the Serengeti Plain. The story of the Sametu pride unrolled like a soap opera, and we couldn’t resist writing a book about them. “Lions Share” tells their story, but also incorporates much of what we knew about lion behavior and about the ecology of Serengeti. (Out of print, but look on Amazon).
Eventually we had to leave, and our friends Craig Packer and Anne Pusey took over the Serengeti Lion Project. Craig amazingly kept it going from 1978 to 2014, and Snapshot Serengeti is an offshoot of what has become one of the world’s longest running wildlife studies.
After writing up our 4 years of lion data, we returned to Tanzania in 1982 to work in conservation education; university teaching, producing guidebooks and interpretive displays, and guiding safaris. We built our home near Lake Eyasi, and experienced years of village life and culture clash, but that’s another story (in preparation). In 2003 we moved to Tucson, Arizona, but I still get back to Tanzania every year, mostly leading National Geographic Expeditions.
I’m organizing my own safari to visit Serengeti and other parks in February 2018. If you seriously want to see these wonderful animals in the flesh, send me a message!
One of the reasons I love working in conservation is the remote places it brings you to sometimes. Although born in London I am not a city person and haven’t lived in something even as big as a town in around 20 years. I am happiest wandering around in the bush observing animals in all their splendour without the addition of people.
So believe me when I tell you that my assignment in Chinko nature reserve was remote.
To get there you take a 2hr 30 min flight by light aircraft from Bangui, the capital for nearly 1000km. Of course you could drive if you have the time and a strong sense of adventure, the roads, however are impassable in the wet season. Road blocks are rife in a country where ethnic tensions are high. The route takes you through towns that only UN convoys dare try and pass.
The last half hour or so you are actually flying over the reserve itself. At 17,600 sq km it is enormous. There are no settlements in the reserve boundaries and the nearest village, Bakouma, is a bone shattering 12 hour drive away that includes a ‘ferry’ across a wide river. This is the nearest place for any supplies and also where most of the staff comes from. Bearing in mind that again this road is all but impassable during the 5 month rainy season when mud can mean it takes three hours to drive 5 km. Watching the plane trundle down the dirt runway as you stand there with your bags can insight a momentary sense of panic in many first time visitors here.
Of course getting there is not the only problem. Moving around the reserve is just as difficult. The habitat is a mosaic of tropical lowland rainforest and forested savannah which translates to very tall grasses and many rivers with thick tangled vegetation, not at all easy to drive through let alone walk through.
On one occasion I set out with the resident biologist to put out camera-traps. We drove all morning, checking for likely spots. Around midday we had to ford yet another river; as the car gingerly entered the water it suddenly slew to the left and sank notably. We were stuck and guess what? we had been assigned a car with a winch that did not work. After an agonising hour or two trying to get ourselves unstuck Thierry decided it was time to call in a rescue only to find his sat phone was having network issues. There was nothing left for us to do but start walking. It would be a 25km walk back to base, with all the streams and rivers water at least was no issue.
As we had no choice but to walk, Thierry, ever resourceful, suggested we treat it as one very long transect and record all that we saw along the way. It certainly kept my mind off the heat and dust anyway. How wonderful to just walk and see no signs of humans anywhere, only nature. It was better than being in the car where you heard nothing over the engine. Somewhere out in the middle of that walk we stumbled on a massive sinkhole about 30 meters deep and 50 meters diameter. Buzzing all around was a large colony of red-throated bee-eaters, not known to breed in Central African Republic these birds had obviously not read the books because they were flitting in and out of nest holes in the walls of the sinkhole. As we watched the show the bee-eaters put on for us I reflected that perhaps we were the only humans, certainly in recent history to have observed this spot buried deep within a very large isolated corner of Africa. It is a humbling experience to discover nature in its undisturbed state and I never tired of exploring Chinko’s river systems and forest clearings. Stumbling upon giant trees or ancient salt licks carved by forest elephants or just watching troops of monkeys and flocks of hornbills passing through the canopy above was manna for the soul.
As we approached base camp and the noise of industry kicked in, generators, cars, people, I had to mentally re-adjust bolstering my courage to deal with everyday camp life again thankful that something as simple as a stuck car could have afforded me a little more time cocooned from the real world.
Now that we have finished classifying season 9.5 and we have a short break before season 10 is launched I thought I would muse a little on my favourite wildlife setting; Rivers.
I live in South West France next to a river. Its gentle passage demands my attention constantly. That’s because rivers are magnets to wildlife. Everything needs water to drink and in a dry area it means your best chance at seeing wildlife as they come to drink.
In Africa too, I lived by a river and what a special place that was. The Oliphants, sometimes a trickle sometimes a violent torrent, flows into Kruger National Park and I was lucky enough to live on its banks for 4 years. I could watch the daily spectacle of life unfold from my stoop. I watched baboon troops clash viciously, hippo’s endlessly dose, leopards stroll the beaches, fish eagles catching supper. I once watched a four meter long rock python ascend the cliffs opposite effortlessly and I followed the progress of a family of spotted eagle owls on a nest in a crevice, worrying absurdly when the river began to turn chocolaty and rise. They survived but I was ready to brave crocs and hippos and swim over to rescue them.
You can watch for hours and see nothing then turn your back for a second and suddenly 5 kudu have appeared out of nowhere. One early evening I sat watching, all was quiet except the birds calling in the bushes. It was approaching the hour that nightjars start to sing. All of a sudden the shrill nasal alarm snort of a Klipspringer rang out quickly followed by the outraged screaming of vervet monkeys. Grabbing binoculars I focused on a blur on the rocks opposite in time to see a klipspringer launch itself off landing with an almighty splash in the river. A leopard came to a screeching halt on the rocks not wishing for a swim. The river meanwhile was flowing pretty fast and I thought the klipspringer, more suited to rocky precipices than water, would drown. Amazingly the stout little antelope managed to swim to the shore and clamber out, shaken no doubt but alive. I often wondered if he ever made it back to his side of the river.
A stroll down the beach was always an education. The damp morning sand would show who had passed previously and was great for practicing tracking skills. On one such stroll I noted an absence of leopard tracks on my outward walk only to discover on my return journey that a leopard had left its mark on top of my foot prints; a little disconcerting.
The river, for most of the year, retreated to the deeper channels leaving a boulder strewn sandy beach lined with large trees such as sycamore figs and marulas. During the driest part of the year we really felt our connection to the great Kruger Park. Our reserve was quite small by African standards and did not have elephant or lion resident but during the dry period elephant would take to wandering the river course right out of the park and would spend a few weeks looking for food on our reserve before wandering back to the park. Lion too followed this same route and it was always a thrill to double take on a seemingly large leopard print only to realise it was in fact a lion.
The other end of the scale came with the rains. The river could rise meters in minutes turning a deep chocolate brown. The force of its passage was astonishing, great trees would be swept down, I have seen cars and sofas swirl by. Most of the animals that live in the water seem to get out whist the storm passes but I watched a hippo once in the full force of the raging river and I suspect that it wasn’t by choice that he was in there that somehow he couldn’t get out.
So benign or raging, highway or refuge the river is like an anchor to wildlife. The chance of seeing wildlife there is strong but even if you don’t they are intrinsically beautiful places.
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.
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
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.
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.