After 4 weeks of ‘proper nourishment’, Shujaa, one of the Anatolian shepherd dogs, has left Ruaha Carnivore Project’s (RCP) basecamp and returned to his owner, a pastoralist in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem. These efforts are part of RCP’s mission to reduce human-carnivore conflict in this ecosystem. Anatolian shepherds are livestock guarding dogs who are capable of protecting the pastoralist communities from lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild dogs. The pastoralists are responsible for naming the dog, feeding (although RCP provides pellets that are crucial part of the dog’s diet in the first 8 months), shelter and cleaning the dog. Shujaa, which means ‘Hero’ in Kiswahili, is part of the first litter of Anatolians that RCP gave to the pastoralists as part of this initiative. Shujaa’s siblings are Hodari and Jasiri, which mean ‘Hardworking’ and ‘Brave’ respectively in Kiswahili. Members of RCP regularly check on the Anatolians to ensure that they are healthy, free of disease, and well looked after. Unfortunately during a recent check Shujaa, unlike his siblings, was unwell and Msago, RCP’s community liason officer, had to bring him back to the camp to nurse him back to health. Msago and RCP are continually fighting a ‘war against ribs.’
It is relatively easy to tell if a dog is unwell as the ribs of the animal will show through the skin. The Anatolians work very hard in this landscape protecting the livestock and the villagers from carnivores. They burn a tremendous amount of calories in their day-to-day work and it can be challenging to keep their weight up. The owners of Shujaa were not pleased about letting him go for a couple of weeks but they fully understood that it was a necessary precaution, and also for their own benefit in the long term. Further, it can be very hard for the dog to be separated from the community. The relationship between Anatolian and their community is clearly reciprocal. The people benefit from the dog’s protection and the dog benefits from the enjoyment of the work and the communal affection. At the basecamp, Shujaa was kept company by Busara, meaning ‘Wisdom’ in Kiswahili, who is part of the second litter of Anatolian dogs at RCP. Busara was named by RCP camp manager Sonja Lipenga and remains in the camp’s enclosure. Busara’s siblings are already posted in the nearby villages. Her siblings are Duma (Cheetah in Kiswahili), Chui (Leopard), Tiger and John. All the dogs are visited three times per week by RCP staff to ensure they are in good health. Two of the visits are just regular checks and discussions with owners of the dogs to get updates on their status, but the dogs do not need to be present for such visits. The dogs are often not present as they will be working in the grazing landscapes protecting the livestock. However, every Friday, the visits are more detailed and the RCP staff usually inform the owners of the dogs beforehand to keep them at their enclosures. The staff weigh the dogs, check for ectoparasites, and give the dogs medication when applicable. If the situation warrants, RCP arranges for veterinary officers to provide treatment to the dogs. Nonetheless, the pastoralists are doing a great job at taking care of the dogs. I remember one instance where one villager was informed that her dog had lost about 1kg from the previous visit and she was worried. She vowed to do better. The pastoralists acknowledge the importance of the dogs and their role in warding off carnivores. They obviously want the dogs to be in the best shape possible and thus, they are also committed to the war on ribs.
Mitigating human-carnivore conflict is no easy task. While the dogs provide a good defense against carnivores, in some instances, cattle may stray from the herd and roam in the wild. Such was the case this week when two heavily pregnant cows and a bull went astray. The two cows were killed by lions while the bull has still not been located. In retaliation, the villagers killed two lions, one male and one female. In such instances, the villagers usually inform RCP and the corresponding village’s lion guardian. A lion guardian is a local villager who is responsible for looking out for any signs such as tracks and scat, of carnivores roaming around the villages and usually informs herders to avoid areas where there are such signs. When the two cows were killed, Msago, Leandro, Enock (RCP member), Tom (RCP intern) and I went to visit the area where the cows and lions were killed. We were joined by two lion guardians, George and Stefano. When we arrived, the local villagers had already organized a meeting and were talking about the whole situation. The initial part of the meeting was in Barabaig (a local dialect) and some of the villagers wanted their local lion guardian to allow them to go after the other lions that escaped (the two lions that were killed were part of a larger pride), while other villagers were against the idea. The villagers took turns to express their sadness and anger in their dialect. George and Stefano were translating for us so that we could keep up with the turn of events.
Msago took to the stage to address the villagers. He spoke in Kiswahili and gave a marvelous talk about working together with RCP and the lion guardians to reduce retaliatory killings. He emphasized the fact that RCP’s work is based on research to cater for the needs for both carnivores and humans in the Ruaha ecosystem. He used the analogy of the two sides of a coin or paper money in Tanzania in order for the villages to get the benefits from their environment. On one side, there’s the face of an important person or important buildings in Tanzania, but on the other side, there are also animals, either an elephant, lion, or giraffe. He finished by saying that protecting the animals would require a collective effort from the government, the villagers, including the lion guardians, and RCP. Right after his talk, the villagers spoke in Kiswahili and agreed to take us to the site. They said that they do not actively go after lions but killed them out of anger. Msago had won back their trust. It is really a great honor learning from Msago’s experience with community work. It is clear that the Anatolian shepherd dog program and the other efforts of RCP are working in this landscape. Each year that the project has been working in this system, the number of carnivore killings has gone down. However, livestock hold tremendous cultural and economic value in this region and retaliations for carnivore killings do occur. The development of viable, intelligent solutions that embrace the fabric of these pastoralist cultures holds great promise.
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!
When my father first heard that I would be conducting my M.S. research in Tanzania, he was really excited because he felt this would give me the opportunity to explain my research in “proper Kiswahili.” Having grown up in Nairobi, Kenya I was more used to a Kiswahili that borrows words from English and other dialects in Kenya. However, many regions of Tanzania speak a more pure Kiswahili. Thus, my time here in Ruaha has forced me to brush up on my language skills. After spending time with the staff at Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), I now know the Kiswahili common names of most species of animal in Ruaha and my Kiswahili vocabulary is improving greatly. This week however, all of this progress was put to the test. RCP runs a program that involves taking local residents into the National Park for a safari and exposure to the types of research that RCP conducts. RCP depends upon community-based conservation projects and for any such project to be successful, the local people need to be involved. I had the privilege of going into Ruaha National Park with 6 teachers from the local schools and exposing them to my research. My father’s wish had been granted. The teachers know English but Kiswahili is their preferred language of communication and explaining to them the complicated objectives of my research in Kiswahili was difficult to say the least, but luckily Mzee Msago was there to provide additional description of my research project.
For my research, I am studying a mysterious giraffe skin disease that affects the limbs of giraffes. The affected areas become wrinkly, and soon develop lesions. Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) officials have done some groundwork on the disease but the causative agent of the disease is yet to be identified. Thus, for the three months that I will spend in Ruaha, I will be taking high resolution photos of the right side of giraffes in order to assess the proportion of animals affected by the disease, and the severity and manifestation of the disease. I am also looking for any indications of lion attacks because we suspect that the disease is making affected giraffes more vulnerable to lion attacks. Such signs include claw marks, bite marks and missing tails, which all indicate a failed predator attack. With this little information, Msago and I set out with the teachers to show them the beauty of research. Both before and after the safari, a member of RCP hands surveys to the local residents so as to determine whether the safari changed their perspectives of wildlife and wild places. As you would expect these trips really resonate with the locals. All costs are covered by RCP.
Shortly after our arrival in the park, we were welcomed by baboons making a spectacle crossing the Greater Ruaha River with crocodiles basking on the banks of the river. It was really amazing to see female baboons jumping several meters in the air with babies clutching tightly onto them. We also had several sightings of lions. Ruaha is home to 10% of the remaining global lion population. As is the case with some parks, when a lion is spotted, tourists usually flock around to get a glimpse of the magnificent cat. In one instance, we spotted a lion with a ‘mohawk’ hairstyle. Msago instantly recognized him, he’s called ‘Punk’. That’s how he was born about 5 years ago. Now he’s grown into a huge male with a slender line of mane running through the middle of his head. We also saw a hyena den although no one was home to receive us. Other animals we spotted on the day include zebras, impalas, greater kudus, elephants, banded mongooses, hornbills, African fish eagles, vultures, among others.
After seeing some giraffes, the local residents also felt concerned about this disease affecting the giraffe population. The teachers were really interested in carnivore and giraffe sightings. Msago and I shared some useful information with them including the fact that there are fewer than 80,000 giraffes left in the wild and that June 21, was recently chosen to mark World Giraffe Day, a day to raise awareness about the plight of giraffes across the world. Last year was the first event and the motto was ‘Sticking our necks out for giraffes’. This year’s event is approaching and we are surely doing our bit. The teachers really enjoyed themselves and I came out of the park with a richer Kiswahili vocabulary.
Ever since I arrived in Ruaha, I have been told many interesting stories and this week, I got to see one for myself. People here generally fear elephants, but not so much when it comes to pregnant cows. That is what I heard from one shopkeeper at the park’s headquarters, which is in the eastern part of Ruaha National Park. She told me that elephants that are about to give birth usually hang around the headquarters, which is surrounded by human settlements. Thus, the people are used to seeing elephants at any time of the day. Near the headquarters, one can also easily observe herds of gazelles and warthogs. At night, lions and hyenas join the party too sometimes. The shopkeeper added that there had been an elephant seen visiting the area every other day and to my luck, I got to see her just before returning to do my surveys. I was really impressed to see the elephant so close to human settlements and the situation appeared as a normal occurrence.
Back at the camp, we also have other animals that like to hang around. On a particularly windy day, one juvenile green snake was having a rough day. It had made the roof of our banda (thatched house) its own home. Leandro and I spotted it in the morning basking in the sun, not intent on getting to the ground. Later on when Leandro and I were working in our tent, a strong gust of wind blew the poor animal from the roof of the banda onto the roof of our tent. The snake dusted itself quickly and slithered back to the roof. It was quite a sight. According to our field assistants, if the small snake sticks around, it will control the rodent population and also keep away other (potentially dangerous) snakes too. All in all, we felt sorry for the snake. We did not see it when we returned in the afternoon and we hope it had a better day after the windy period. I also had one of those ‘rough days’ in the park when I was doing my survey this week. My study area in the park is divided in five transects and this week I covered the Jongomero area. The area, located in the southern part of the park, is very pristine, has great spots for viewing wildlife, and is also home to one of the most exquisite tourist lodges in the park, the Jongomero Safari Camp. The camp has exceptional views by the river. Baraka, my field assistant who has worked in the park for more than four
years and knows the lodges very well, claims that Jongomero is his favourite camp in the park.
There’s only one problem with the area: a little past the lodge, there’s a breeding ground of tsetse flies. Baraka and I had several encounters with them every time we slowed down. So many of the flies would rush into the car but luckily they did not bite. They just annoyed us with their swarming. However the experts of infuriating swarms have to be sweat bees. According to Bob and Sonja (the camp manager), these little insects “test your will to live” due to the irritating sound of their buzzing around your eyes, ears, and nose. They are attracted to the salt in human sweat, and on this day, it was searing hot. The sweat bees had much fun tormenting Baraka and I, and along with the tsetse flies, the whole day was going not so well. Just when I was excited about the prospect of heading back to the campsite, away from the tsetse flies and having a good bath to get rid of the sweat for the bees, we had not one, but two flat tyres one after the other. Baraka and I found a safe spot to change the first flat tyre. By the time we got the second one, it was getting late but luckily less than 5 minutes after we parked the car, a ranger pick-up truck heading to a nearby village stopped by. Fortunately, the rangers were heading to the village to pick up goods from Iringa and then head back to the park headquarters later on. They gave us a ride to get our tyres fixed and back.
The park rangers at the gate were so understanding because we left the park at around 5pm and returned when it was already dark. Normally, no cars are allowed into the park after 6pm. The rangers stood guard while we changed the flat tyre and also helped us. We reached back home safely. All in all, it was a typical day of unexpectedness meeting the extraordinary residents of Ruaha.
I have to emphasize it again: the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem is a beautiful place. The stunning variety of landscapes between the village land, wildlife management areas (WMAs), and Ruaha National Park is just spectacular. There is also a high concentration of wildlife in some areas of the park and WMAs allowing fantastic game viewing. In fact, two bird species were first described in Ruaha National Park within the last 15 years and one of them, the Tanzanian red-billed hornbill (Tockus ruahae), is now among the most common birds that one can easily observe in the park. The bird is everywhere! Also, according to our research assistants, as the dry season (starting from September to December) nears, the majority of the animals head closer to the banks of the Great Ruaha River, making it more predictable to observe large mammals, especially carnivores and elephants. But since we arrived just after the rainy season, Leandro and I have been navigating some challenges in our fieldwork. For my research, I need high resolution photos of giraffes. At this time of the year, the grass is still long, the bushes are still green and the giraffes are taking advantage of the cover. Sometimes it can get frustrating but Baraka and Justin (the two research assistants I have worked with so far), have been really helpful in maneuvering the car so that I can get good shots. Other times the giraffes just win the game of hide and seek.
Leandro also has to deal with the unpredictability of the landscape, more importantly for the location of his camera-trap grids. He randomly chose the locations when doing his experimental design and now we have to set them up physically at the exact GPS coordinates. Sometimes the location is easily accessible by car, other times the location is a 1.5km walk through bushes, down a valley or it can also be just stone’s throw away from someone’s boma (livestock enclosure). Whenever we see a boma near the camera trap location, we explain to the head of the boma what we are doing, the benefit of Leandro’s research and the need to use a part of their property. The local people’s major concern is interference with the pasture for their livestock or their cattle grazing but we have assured them that there is nothing to be worried about. The locals have been really receptive to Leandro’s research (seeing the potential benefits of reducing human-carnivore conflict) and often will openly discuss the carnivores they have observed when Leandro is explaining his work. Ruaha is really incredible that wild animals regularly roam through the village lands and WMAs.
Speaking of wild animals roaming everywhere, I can now say that I fully understand why Bruce Wayne thought using the name ‘Batman’ was a brilliant idea. Every now and then, there’s a bat that visits the toilet/bathroom assigned to Leandro and I in the basecamp. As an ecologist, I normally like all animals but I am not a huge admirer of small animals that scurry around so fast scaring the living daylights out of me and this specific bat falls within that category. Funny enough, it chooses to fly around just when nature calls or when I am taking an evening bath. Unlike Leandro with the local people, I cannot explain to it that I need to use the property and that it has nothing to be concerned about. Anyway, that is a challenge that will be surmounted. This week I had the chance to visit the Ruaha Hilltop Lodge, which is in the Mbomipa WMA just South-east of the national park. As the name indicates, the lodge is located on a hill and has incredible views of the WMAs and Ruaha National Park. It is really a stunning place to relax after a hard day’s work.