This past week was everything that I had imagined my fieldwork could be: long days driving around Ruaha National Park (RNP) studying giraffes and lion and quiet nights spent at remote camp sites within the park listening to the distant, and sometimes very near, calls of wildlife. My basecamp this week was Asilia’s Kwihala Camp, which is located in the northern part of the national park. The camp is located in very dense habitat, which is substantially different from Ruaha Carnivore Project’s (RCP) base. As a result, Kwihala camp is flush with wildlife providing an authentic safari experience. At night, you can hear lions roaring, hyenas laughing, and elephants feeding nearby. It was such an awesome experience. I spent this past week working with Michael Kimaro, who is in charge of collecting sightings data of the large carnivore communities in, and around, Ruaha National Park. These communities include lions, spotted hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and African wild dogs. To acquire these data, RCP provides forms that tour guides and tourists fill in whenever they spot carnivores. Ruaha Carnivore Project also provides tour guides with cameras and tablets that have an electronic database with all of the sightings data to date, and Michael trains the tour guides and interested camp managers on how to use these devices. These data are crucial for understanding the ecology of carnivores in RNP, which is a priority area for carnivore conservation in Africa and the world.
One thing that is a bit frustrating about carnivore sightings, is that guides use a very small portion of RNP’s road network. There are areas of the park that are splendid for wildlife viewing, which are perfect for tourists, but for these reasons these data provide only a small viewshed of carnivore occurrence in the park. As expected, tour guides also prefer these areas to make sure that their guests have a great time in RNP. One of these areas is in the north-eastern portion of the road network, which has more open habitats (perfect for wildlife viewing) and is close to the river (where wildlife tend to congregate). The guides also have another motivation in that there’s a photo competition between guides of different lodges that participate in the data collection. This motivates the guides to get as many photos of carnivores as possible. At the end of the year, the winner of the competition will get a brand new camera. What was encouraging to me is that most of the tour guides are interested in collecting the data not only because of the potential rewards, but also because they have a genuine interest in the ecology of these amazing animals. The guides regularly ask Michael to provide them with the latest reports or carnivore sightings compiled by RCP. This week however, we were not only interested in carnivore sightings, but also giraffe sightings. For my giraffe surveys, we travel throughout RNP’s road network. We get to go to areas where roads end and pristine areas where there are no people crowded around animals. It was a very common occurrence for the guides to have a ‘surprised yet impressed’ expression on their faces when we tell them where we had driven during the day.
Since Michael and I went to remote areas in the park for my research, we got really lucky by spotting leopards twice, in the space of one week, in two different locations! Leopards are really hard to spot and unfortunately, we could not get good photos. Some guides have worked in RNP for years but have only spotted leopards a few times. In addition to leopards, we also spotted roan antelopes, which inhabit woodland savannahs. They are also incredibly difficult to locate and we were lucky enough to see a large herd in an area that is rarely used by tourists. Michael was really pleased with the sighting since he had never seen them before. Now all that’s remaining on his checklist are sable antelopes. Michael and I will keep searching for them in the impressive Ruaha wilderness.
It is quite possible that the lions of RNP have become specialists of large-bodied prey. It is no easy matter to take down a giraffe but giraffes are currently at the very top of the lions’ menu. Baraka, one of RCP’s researchers, says he once witnessed a single giraffe fighting off a pride of lions for almost an hour. He mentioned that he was cheering (silently of course) for the giraffe but in the end, the lions won. His story reminded me of how my good friend Ange, who is also a MasterCard Scholar at Michigan State University, was teasing me not to interfere when lions are taking down giraffes. This week however, I saw a large bull with claw marks on the neck, chest, legs, and a missing part of the ear. Michael and I expect that he survived a lion attack. We have seen similar evidence of lion attacks on many giraffe suggesting that giraffes will not go down without a fight. I am certain that if giraffes could talk, this big male would have some truly epic stories to share!