It is certainly a great time to be in Ruaha National Park (RNP). Usually, from mid-June to mid-November, the dry season sets in and the water levels of the Great Ruaha River gradually decrease. This results in large herds of animals that usually feed in the highlands in the north-western part of RNP moving south near the river to drink. This week, Zuberi (a field assistant at Ruaha Carnivore Project [RCP]) and I saw a very large herd of buffaloes, probably tens of thousands, near one of the marshes in the Jongomero area of RNP. Zuberi, who has worked in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem since 1986, said it was the largest herd of buffaloes he had ever seen in the park. In the same area, we also saw a large herd of giraffes. It was a very beautiful sight. According to Zuberi, there were human settlements for the most part of the 20th century in the Jongomero area, which is located 60km west of RNP’s main gate, and more than 100km to the next ranger post, the Magangwe ranger post. The locals depended on farming and hunting for sustenance but were relocated from the park in the late 1970s, which also coincides with the time at which the world took notice of the drastic decline of rhino populations across East Africa. Rhinos were last spotted in Ruaha National Park in 1986. The people were relocated to nearby lands because they were reluctant to move far away from their ancestral land. Tense negotiations with park officials ensued but in the end, the local people were moved. This period marked the establishment of most of the villages surrounding RNP. In fact, Kitisi, the village where RCP is located, is a relatively recent village and is only a little over a decade old.
One of the toughest challenges facing conservation is preserving both cultural and biological diversity. When talking to Zuberi, he mentioned that government officials explained to the locals that the relocation of people from the park was a necessary precaution against human-wildlife conflict. The officials wanted the pastoralists to relocate further away from the park because the pastoralists were grazing their cattle inside the park. However, the park officials stood their ground and insisted that it was crucial to protect RNP’s wildlife and habitat so as to gain substantial benefits from tourism in the park. As a matter of fact, the park’s officials also moved the main gate of RNP about 6km south from where it is now because many people used to drive near the park in the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and have extensive game drives observing a large diversity of wildlife without paying since they would never make it to the gate! Ruaha National Park is among the cheapest national parks in East Africa (the entrance fee is $30 for non-residents and about $2.5 for East African residents). Thus, the relocation of the main gate was also a necessary step to collect more revenue that contributes to the maintenance of the infrastructure of RNP and surrounding village lands. The main road that leads to RNP also passes through village lands, which depend on the road for transportation of goods and services. Zuberi, who has extensive knowledge of the road network in Ruaha, helped in constructing several bridges in the park and also transported building materials in the park during the construction period. Working with Zuberi was really a great learning experience and I now better understand how RNP’s landscape has changed over time.
Leandro’s thesis, which seeks to determine the spatial distribution of large carnivores and mesocarnivores (non-dominant carnivores) and their prey across the landscape on a distance gradient from the park, is also progressing well. Leandro has been sorting the images from his camera traps, which he placed in a stratified random pattern from the park. He needs to check each photo for any passing animals. Some animals may be hard to identify, especially in photos taken at night. Thus, it is evident that the security of the cameras is top priority for Leandro’s success. This week however, when Leandro was checking on his cameras, he found that the tree on which he had affixed a camera had been felled. He noted that no tools were used to fell the tree, so the incident could not have been caused by human beings. The security box of the camera had some damage but the camera was still intact. When Leandro downloaded the photos from the camera, he discovered that the tree was actually felled by an angry elephant. It turns out the camera took a picture of the elephant at night, set off a flash which startled the elephant. The elephant then knocked down the tree, the source of the flash. Leandro admitted that he was very pleased that the camera was not damaged at all and was still in perfect condition.
Leandro was certainly lucky that the elephant chose not to completely destroy the camera. He set the camera again in the same location and now we are waiting to see what will come up in the next batch of photos when he downloads them again. The wildlife of the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem has certainly been fascinating and, Leandro and I are continuously learning more about the landscape.