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.