This week was one of the busiest weeks since I arrived at Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) to conduct my Masters of Science research on giraffe skin disease. There were a couple of additions to the basecamp that had everyone excited. First, Msago, RCP’s community liaison officer, brought the car that Tom and Kathy Leiden donated through the Leiden Conservation Foundation. Tom and Kathy Leiden are deeply committed to conservation efforts that contribute to the better understanding and protection of giraffe populations and African wild dogs. Several months ago, in preparation for my field season, Bob, Amy, Leandro and I had several meetings with Tom at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, USA to talk about avenues of collaboration. Tom was very enthusiastic and encouraging about the research that both Leandro and I proposed as part of our graduate studies. By donating a field vehicle Tom made a significant contribution to RCP that ensured that both Leandro and I have the resources necessary to meet our research objectives. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a field vehicle in great working condition, especially in this landscape that has large areas that are still pristine (i.e., challenging for vehicle travel) and a road system that is largely impassable during and shortly after the wet season. The “Leiden Mobile,” as it is known in camp, enables Leandro and I to move between our study areas with ease.
The other new arrival at RCP was under less fortunate circumstances but elicited reactions from everyone in the area nonetheless. One African wild dog was found injured in the Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The people who found the wild dog immediately notified park officials and RCP staff. Since the park officials did not have a place to put the dog for the night, they decided to let the dog be nursed by RCP for a few days. The male wild dog seemed reluctant to move and when he did, he moved with difficulty. At first, everyone thought that he had been hit by a speeding car. The wild dog was taken to RCP’s base camp and housed temporarily in Busara’s (RCP’s Anatolian Shepherd dog) enclosure. Everyone, myself included, was excited to finally see a wild dog – and rightly so: the African wild dog is a highly endangered species, and the second rarest carnivore in Africa (after the Ethiopian wolf). In fact, since RCP began collecting data, there have only been about 86 sightings of African wild dogs over a 6-year period. This low detection rate is almost shocking given that Ruaha National Park remains one of the priority areas for the conservation of African wild dogs because it supports the 3rd biggest population of these beautiful animals. Are wild dogs in Ruaha simply more reclusive than in other areas? Or do they tend to exist in a different, and yet understudied, part of the National Park? These are fundamental and interesting questions that Leandro is exploring.
The next day, Ruaha National Park’s vets attended to the wild dog and they also called in a specialist from Iringa (the closest major town, which is about 130km away) to take x-ray photos. On the same day that the vet from Iringa informed park officials of his findings, some tour guides and their tourists also called the park officials to confirm what had happened. It turns out the injured dog was part of a pack that was attempting to take down an adult greater kudu, a large antelope that can weigh up to 270kg. The kudu fought back and kicked the wild dog right in the jaw, shattering it. The x-rays showed that the wild dog did not have any fractures in the legs but the jaw had been shattered and thus the animal could not feed on its own. According to the tour guides, the other wild dogs eventually took down the kudu but the injured wild dog could not keep up with the pack. Unable to move far, the wild dog just lay on the ground and was later taken to the main gate of the park.
As of now, the wild dog is still receiving treatment at RCP and we remain hopeful that he will make a miraculous recovery. The odds of this recovery are unfortunately very low. This incident highlights just how difficult it is for wild dogs to make a living. Carnivores risk life and limb every single time that they initiate a hunt. African wild dogs heavily rely on their jaws to take down prey when hunting. Park officials and RCP staff are currently trying their best to get the wild dog back to its feet and ensure its survival. It remains to be seen whether he will make a full recovery. In any case, with RCP, backed by the Leiden Conservation Foundation, and Ruaha National Park officials, it is certain that there’s an ongoing mechanism to protect and conserve African wild dogs and other carnivores in this incredible system. We care not only about carnivore populations, but we also care deeply for the individual animals that comprise the population. We hold out hope that this male wild dog will make a complete recovery.
This past week served as another reminder that there’s still more work to be done to mitigate human-carnivore conflict. On Monday morning, just barely after sunrise, we were informed that there was a lion that had killed a stray cow the previous night near our basecamp. The Ruaha Lion Guardians, a group of people expertly trained to intervene in cases of human-lion conflict, quickly mobilized and prepared to head to the site in the hopes of saving the lion from human retaliation. When we arrived, we learned that our efforts were too late as the lion had already been found and killed by the villagers. In light of the past week’s media attention which has been dominated by the story of the American hunter who illegally killed Cecil the lion in Hwange, Zimbabwe, some reading this blog might draw comparisons between that story and this one. With this blog, I hope to make clear just how different these stories actually are. Here I write about the fear and insecurities of the local people that share landscapes with wild-living lions. According to the villagers, a young male lion had been in the vicinity of the village for several days. Though they felt that their livestock were well-protected, one night they could hear a cow being attacked by the lion. The villagers opted not to search for the lion at night because they knew it would be dangerous. The next morning, three children on their way to school heard the lion from a distance and rushed back to the village to alert adult community members. Several men departed to protect their village from the lion. In the process, one man, his son, and stepson were injured by the lion. In the end the villagers overcame and killed the lion.
Upon arriving on site and realizing that we were too late to save the lion, we were frustrated by the turn of events, but also very sad for the experiences of the local people. Msago (Ruaha Carnivore Project’s community liaison officer) rushed the three injured men to the nearest hospital, which was about a 30 minute drive on a very rough dirt road. The villagers informed the village executive officer (VEO), who serves as the chief of the village, of the lion killing and the injuries incurred by the three men. Informing the VEO is a necessary step to ensure that the victims of the lion attack get medical treatment upon arrival at the hospital. If the VEO is not informed, the process of getting treatment tends to become more complicated and takes much longer. After that, the villagers led us to the site where the lion was killed. We took biometric measurements of the lion and assessed the scene of the killing, as outlined by the protocols of RCP. We then had a small meeting with the VEO who revealed to us exactly what had transpired. The children walking to school on the morning of the animal’s death must have been so frightened. Their shoes, books, and other possessions littered the area, evidence of their desperate dash to safety upon discovering the lion. The VEO thanked the villagers for their openness and encouraged them to continue to foster their relationship with RCP and the Guardians who are better placed to intervene in such situations and deter lions from using habitat near the villages. She (the VEO) also urged RCP to keep raising awareness on the need to conserve lions and reduce retaliatory killings via improved livestock husbandry practices.
Ruaha Carnivore Project’s extensive work in this system has provided the villagers with many avenues to access benefits from sharing their landscapes with lions and other carnivores. Such initiatives include park trips (see ‘Sticking my Neck out’), community camera-traps (see ‘Keeping an eye on wildlife’), reinforced bomas, Simba scholarships (see ‘Laying the foundation for a better future’), and Anatolian Shepherd dogs (see ‘War against ribs 1 and part 2’). In addition to these incredible programs, RCP conducts ‘DVD nights’ in the villages to raise awareness of carnivores in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem. During the DVD night, RCP researchers introduce the project, present interesting findings of their work, and teach the locals carnivore identification so that they can give more accurate reports. The highlight of the DVD night is the airing of a wildlife documentary to expose the locals to the life of carnivores in the wild. This allows the villagers to appreciate the beauty of these majestic animals in their natural environment as opposed to the encounters that happen in the villages when carnivores attack their livestock and threaten villager’s sense of security. The DVD nights also serve as platforms for the villagers to discuss with the RCP researchers any concerns regarding the project.
It was intriguing to talk to the villagers after we had collected the data we needed. The villagers were not visibly angry about the loss of the cow, and stated that they were aware of RCP’s work. Much of this awareness was due to the fact that there had been a DVD night in that specific village only a short while ago. The villagers were not in a celebratory mood either as it was obvious that they do not enjoy killing lions. Clearly, there is no real winner in the conflict between humans and carnivores. However, our work continues to strive to establish equity in the interactions of carnivores and people in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem.