Leandro and I are exactly halfway through this summer’s field season. In my case, I am now very familiar with my five transects in the park. Every day, I choose a transect and head out driving at a constant speed, on the lookout for giraffes. This may sound a bit formulaic, but this research, for me, is not routine, it is exciting. For instance, a few days ago I encountered a herd of 19 giraffes, with many young calves. Giraffes tend to give birth in June and July in Ruaha National Park and neonates (young calves) seem to be almost everywhere that I look. Fortunately, a majority of the young giraffe calves seem unaffected by the mysterious giraffe skin disease (GSD). While I have been conducting these incredible surveys, Leandro has been checking his camera-trap grids. He set up six camera trap grids within the village land and Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) to study how various carnivores use this landscape. At each check, Leandro must monitor the battery life, calculate the space remaining on the memory cards, and determine whether the cameras are still in good working order. These checks must be conducted at least once every month, meaning that he regularly has to cross rivers, valleys, and go under, over, and through bushes to get to each grid. Leandro has recently identified easier travel routes to access his cameras, which is great news.
Leandro’s research contributes to the Ruaha Carnivore Project’s (RCP) larger effort to understand the ecology of large carnivores (lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs) in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem and their effects on mesocarnivores (non-dominant carnivores). In these efforts, Leandro works closely with Mgogo (a research assistant tasked with setting and checking RCP’s camera traps) and Geoffrey (another RCP research assistant). One of the advantages of using camera traps is that they are remotely triggered by animal movement and inherently non-invasive. To gain an unbiased appreciation for animal occurrence, it is best that the cameras be put out in a stratified random pattern. This stratified random design was established using geostatistical software on Leandro’s computer. Upon our arrival in Ruaha we navigated to the coordinates returned from this method, affixed the cameras to a tree, and oriented the cameras so that they faced Ruaha National Park. We also made sure we communicated with the chiefs of the nearby villages to keep the local people informed of our research efforts and engaged in the process of learning more about carnivore occurrence in these lands.
The importance of keeping the villagers involved cannot be understated. After all, the cameras are sometimes set in areas the villagers regularly use, especially when grazing their cattle. In order to raise awareness on how RCP uses the data from the camera-traps, Mgogo oversees a project within RCP known as Community Camera Trapping (CCT). Ruaha Carnivore Project chose 4 villages near the base camp and gave them 8 camera-traps each so that the community could assess carnivore habitat use. Each village has a ‘camera trap officer’, who is in charge of finding a suitable area within its borders to set up a camera. Mgogo trained the officers on how to set and check the cameras. The officers are committed to their work because CCT has an inherent competitive component (on a points scale) to the initiative. A picture of the endangered African wild dog (a very rare species in this region) is worth the most points, followed by leopard, then lion and hyena. Every two months, the villages tally the points of the carnivore photos and gain access to additional resources (medical supplies, school supplies, veterinary supplies) distributed by RCP. One key criteria of the accessing the resources is that they must benefit the village as a whole, and not individuals. In the end all the participating villages will get supplies, but the scheme incentivizes the process in the hopes that villagers will begin to turn negative perceptions of carnivores into positive ones. Hopefully, the villagers will find interesting photos in their cameras.
Whether by safari or camera trap, Leandro and I are working to understand the ecology of wildlife in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem via community engagement. By keeping an eye on wildlife, we hope to alleviate potential conflict with people and do our own bit to restore equity to human-animal interaction.