After conducting 50 road transects photographing giraffes over a three month-period, my time in Ruaha has come to an end. Along my journey I have driven over 5,000 km throughout the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem in search of giraffes with a peculiar skin disease. My research intends to identify causes and solutions to this skin disease in the hopes of conserving giraffe populations throughout Africa. During my journey throughout Ruaha I have been exposed to an impressive diversity of landscapes, from beautiful savannah plains to pristine miombo woodlands. However, in my mind, the beauty of this landscape plays a backseat to the warmth of the people in Ruaha. The staff at Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), the Ruaha Lion Guardians, the manager of Asilia Kwihala Safari Camp, and the local villagers were all instrumental in ensuring that my stay in Ruaha was remarkable. I remember my first encounter with a villager who had just experienced the devastating loss of two of his cows via a lion attack (see War Against Ribs part 2). When I arrived at the scene along with George (of the Ruaha Lion Guardian program) the lions had killed two cows and ate very little of each animal before they were scared off by local people. Cattle are of great economic and cultural importance in this landscape. To have two cows killed in one day would be reason enough to dismay and yet there is a remarkable resilience within the spirit of the people who share this landscape with lions. Instead of leaving the cow carcasses to rot, the villager intended to make the most of a bad situation and ensure that no part of the animals was wasted. He quickly started a fire, butchered the remaining parts of the cows, and invited other villagers to partake in the feast. Incredibly, the villager also invited George and me, strangers just 30 minutes prior, to join him eating the meal. This was not an offer that could be refused and there was something extremely familiar about the occasion. Looking across the fire into the eyes of the villagers it did not take me long to realize the source of the similarity. At RCP, it is a tradition to have a farewell barbeque for visiting researchers. The atmosphere is always cheerful and serves as a great opportunity to reminisce on the ups and downs of doing field research in a very remote landscape. How amazing that via tragedy, the villagers of Ruaha find a way to focus on the positive and give thanks for the livestock and livelihoods that they maintain.
Speaking of departures from RCP basecamp: I am very proud to say that the African wild dog that was injured while hunting an adult kudu (see Reaching out to the Greater Ruaha Landscape) has a jaw that is mending better than anticipated. Last week the dog was flown to a center that specializes in rehabilitating injured wild dogs. The institution is located north of Ruaha in the world famous Serengeti National Park. Msago and Baraka (RCP members) transported the wild dog after getting clearance from the park’s officials. Everyone at RCP, myself included, remain hopeful that the wild dog will eventually make a full recovery. He took quite a hit from the kudu and I was a disappointed that I was not around when the wild dog was transported from the basecamp. I was in the park finalizing my surveys and I would have loved to have said goodbye and wished him well. My own departure from RCP was the next after the wild dog. However, before leaving the continent of Africa I had one last stop: an invited presentation of my research at the Giraffe Indaba III conference in Hoedspruit, South Africa. It was my first time traveling to South Africa and I was very lucky since I had road transfers from and to O R Tambo International Airport for the conference. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to observe the beautiful landscapes of South Africa. The conference was hosted by the Southern Africa Wildlife College, which is located in the Kempiana Nature Reserve that is adjacent to Kruger National Park. We could hear lions and hyenas calling in the morning. During the game drives and game walks, we saw kudus, hippopotami, baboons, elephants, fish eagles, klipspringer (a small antelope), impala, warthogs and Cape giraffes. It was a good change from the Masai giraffes that I was used to observing in Ruaha.
The conference was organized by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and was attended by researchers, managers and nature lovers with interest in the conservation of giraffe subspecies and their genetic cousin the okapi (Okapia johnstoni). These beautiful and iconic animals of Africa are threatened by numerous human activities. Giraffe populations have declined by 40% in the last decade and now occur in fragmented ranges divided across 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Okapi on the other hand, are rarely seen in the wild due to their reclusive nature, making it very hard to estimate their population size (they are found in the north-eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rainforest). The conference served not only as an opportunity for researchers and managers to showcase the excellent work they have done to better understand the ecology of these magnificent animals, but to also involve other stakeholders such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission for the Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (IUCN SSC GOSG) in order to safeguard the future of these symbolic animals. The IUCN SSC for a given species reviews the conservation status and recommends the species to be either “demoted” or “promoted” on the IUCN red list, which in some cases can be good for the species. Currently, the giraffe subspecies are under review by the commission since giraffe populations are largely on the decline in the wild. Hopefully the review will raise awareness on the plight of giraffe populations.
While I was at the conference I also had a great opportunity to interact with Tom and Kathy Leiden who donated the ‘Leiden Mobile’ (see Reaching out to the Greater Ruaha Landscape) for our giraffe and wild dog research. I was so happy to be able to express my gratitude to the Leiden’s in person as the vehicle made fieldwork run much smoother. Tom and Kathy introduced me to other students that are also supported by the Leiden Conservation Foundation and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation such as Michael Brown (pictured above), who studies giraffe skin disease in Rothschild’s giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, and David O’Connor (also pictured above) who does research on the foraging ecology of reticulated giraffe in northern Kenya. All in all, networking with other researchers conducting research on giraffe ecology in other interesting landscapes such as Etosha National Park in Namibia, Katavi National Park in Tanzania, Pilanesburg National Park and Khamab Kalahari Nature Reserve in South Africa, and Gambella National Park in Ethiopia, was the perfect way to cap off an incredible field season. With that, it is now time to head back to Michigan State University in East Lansing to analyze and publish my findings, and as George (the Ruaha Lion Guardian) used to say when I went to the park to do my surveys, “until next time, Mr. Giraffe.”