Monday, December 14, 2009

Climbing up the rift

Now in Gombe, I'm finding it very difficult to compare to Serengeti. Gombe is gorgeous, though, it is way more compact and there is much less biodiversity; the entire camp is very chimp-centric. In the way of animals I have only seen insect species and baboons down near camp. There are very few birds here because they can't really lay egg lest the chimpanzees would easily find them and feast on them.

I was able to go hiking up the rift this morning to go "chimping," that hike up a steep rift through forest for about an hour and a half until we reach the chimps. Every hike is led by a field guide who most of the time doubles as a researcher, collecting data for Lincoln Park Zoo projects. Our guide, Matendo, has worked with the project for many years now and can identify each chimp by name on sight!

Even though Gombe is a relatively small national park, it would be vurtually impossible to leave the chimpanzees in the middle of the day and still be able to find them quickly the next. Therefore the field guides follow the chimpanzee groups until they nest in the evening at around 6 PM. This way, they will know to go to the same spot in the morning - around 6 AM - to "unnest" them and follow them for the rest of the day. Being a field researcher takes a lot of dedication, patience, and above all a mighty interest in chimpanzees.

Matendo radioed the researchers who had unnested the chimps this morning so that we could find them easily. We hiked up the steep rift and after long we heard chimpanzee screams. We knew we were nearby! Ten minutes longer and we found ourselves surrounded by chimpanzees. They are so habituated that they will get within feet of you, sometimes without you even noticing. I have attached a picture of young Barazoa, just before he starts to display at us by stamping his feet on the branches and shaking them. (This is ridiculously cute since it's obvious he is trying to be like the big males he's seen display.) Park rules say we can only be near the chimps for an hour - this is to minimize infectious disease transmission. So we headed back down the rift. We plan on going back up the rift tomorrow. I'm very much looking forward to it.

Shout out

I am now at Gombe where the internet service is spectacular as long as they keep the generator on. It’s supposedly the best internet in Africa. I was able to chat with my parents via Skype. What a great tool! I want to give a shout out to my family. I hope everyone is doing well. Grandma and Papa, I hope these serve as some interesting updates for you. I miss you. Parents, Brothers, Sisters, Aunts, and Uncles, I’m glad I’ll be seeing most of you for Christmas. Husband, can’t wait to see you in a few days! I love all of you!

A week in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a fantastic place to work. While we hash out project logistics on the porch of disease house, herds of buffalo frequently wander through the yard or dwarf mongoose will run from rock pile to rock pile. I have learned so much by being here about the resident wildlife and what it means to do work in this field setting. The little things that I had not even considered have been suddenly brought to my attention, like how does the field team power their laptops when the disease house is not hooked up to the power grid? I found that the guys derive their energy from solar energy during the day and run off of a generator after nightfall. This requires planning in advance for fuel (for the generator) and maintenance of solar panels. Here’s another good question – Which is the most dangerous animal in the Serengeti? Is it the lion, the top predator? Or perhaps the puff adder, a highly venomous snake? I was surprised to hear that the most human deaths are caused by water buffalo! This was most surprising and enlightening. After hearing this “fun fact,” I inferred that buffalo are highly aggressive and reactionary. I resolved that if I was to happen upon one, I should try to put as much distance or barriers between myself and the animal as I could.

As it happened, on my last full day in the park, I was offered a place in the vehicle for one last game drive. I enthusiastically agreed to be ready to leave the next day by 6 AM. That morning Rachel and I got ready to leave our house, but frustratingly, a herd of buffalo had wandered nearby. Exercising caution, we waited for the herd to leave before heading out to the vehicle. Unfortunately, Pete, another game drive passenger, hadn’t heard the buffalo and headed out into the dark morning with his headlamp to fetch us. As he rounded the corner of his abode, he came face to face with a huge black bull! Pete jumped in shock at seeing the huge animal in front of him. The bull snorted and seemed just as surprised to see a person suddenly appear before him. Luckily the big male stood in his tracks, giving Pete time to high tail it back to his house. Honestly, I think if he hadn’t done this, then the buffalo would not have moved on for a long time. Luckily they did and we were all able to rendezvous at the jeep for an incredible game drive. Check out the pics!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Balloon ride picture diary

During the barbecue, Dominic talked for a while with the guys who run the Serengeti Balloon Safaris. They said they were trying to make one of their balloons run more fuel efficiently and needed some bodies to fill the basket during the test run after they’ve installed the more efficient part. These rides cost $500 per person and we were offered them for free! It was amazing! Here are some photos from the ride.

Animals are always nearby

I was woken up in the middle of the night by a hippo outside our house. At first I thought it was Rachel kicking her legs back and forth under the sheets while she slept, because that’s exactly what it sounded like. She had been woken up too and whispered to me, “Colleen, do you hear the hippo?” It is incredible how many sounds here are so foreign to me. Luckily, working at the zoo has introduced me to the lion’s roar. The zebras sound like “ra-roxy, ra-raoxy,” the hyena sound like a manual egg beater, and the wildebeest sound like they are saying “Gnu!” to one another, hence them sometimes being called gnus. I’m glad Rachel is here to help me out with the sound IDs.

Tuesday night the Schelten’s from Frankfurt Zoological Society invited us and a few others to a barbecue. The smell of meat cooking attracted hyena, which circled the porch. At their closest they were roughly only 10 feet away! They were so incredibly gorgeous, but it was very dark out, so pictures were impossible to take.

There are also resident animals that live near the houses. Rock hyrax can be found all over the Frankfurt premises; I frequently hear the pitter patter of their feet as they walk across our tin roof. Field mice and numerous birds have also taken up residence near the houses. My favorite resident animals actually live in a rock pile in front of Disease House. These are dwarf mongoose. We gave them an egg yesterday and watched to see how they would go after it. Here's a picure of the dominant one with eggs all over his snout and head.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Game drives

I woke up with a splitting headache and I was SO thirsty. I felt that my whole face had lost all of its color. I got up and chugged a bunch of water, which made me feel nauseous. I thought to myself, this feels exactly like a hangover, except I hadn’t had any alcohol the day before. I realized that after I gave those boys my water yesterday, I had had nothing to drink until dinner time, which was probably too late. Rachel gave me some propel water with electrolytes and the headache almost instantly went away. Those electrolytes really helped. I got my appetite back and was able to drink a ton more water. Rachel just now started to get a headache too, which she thinks is also dehydration. It is just amazing to me how quickly we lose our body water out here. Even I, a girl from the desert who acclimates quickly to hot weather, have found it difficult to stay hydrated. I think the problem is not the heat. It’s not exactly sweltering here (the high is in the mid 80’s), but it is very dusty. Driving around in the vehicles, the passengers get covered in dust. It really just sucks all the water out of a person. The fact that we’ve had to guzzle water gives me more of an insight into how difficult the droughts have been for the people and animals of this region.

We have been able to spend some time out in the land rovers on game drives. After all, what is a trip to the Serengeti without a few wildlife sightings? Felix tells us that the trump of all sightings is an aarvark; second is the leopard. They say no one sees the armadillos, because they are nocturnal and very small shy animals. Apparently in only one of 12 or so trips out will anyone actually see leopard. I guess I’m a good luck charm because when we went out in the morning almost immediately we saw a leopard lounging with her kill in the trees! We watched her for about 20 minutes or so when she got up to go to her kill. She tugged at it a little and it fell out of the tree. She climbed down the tree and after her, to our surprise, followed a tiny 2 month old cub! It was amazingly cute. The cub followed its mother down the tree and they stayed at the base of it for a long while. We then continued on where we saw wildebeest, a giraffe, hippo, and lions. I got plenty of great pictures. Just before dusk we decided to go out one more time for the day. We sighted the leopard again, but this time in a tree about a kilometer away from the first sighting! I don’t know how we got so lucky. The second sighting produced even better pictures (thank you, LPZ department camera). She had a new kill, which surprised us until we remembered that her previous kill had fallen from the tree and lions were nearby. We suspected that she did not have the energy or time to drag the kill quickly back up the tree and for the safety of her cub thought it best to move on. Lions will kill any young that are not their own, including lions cubs from other male lions. Whatever her reasoning, she had fortunately kept herself and her cub safe and had found another source of food.

In between game drives, we were able to plan our schedule for discussions for the rest of the week and who needs to be present for them. Over the next week we’ll be meeting almost constantly, whether it is about grant opportunities or the necessary repairs for the Disease House.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Into the park

We drove into the park today. It was spectacular, but pretty long. We saw so many animals. First we drove through the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, where we stopped and got a great view of the crater lake. Here’s a “nice” picture of my dusty self in front of the lake. Any tiny black dots you might see in the background are actually water buffalo! The lake is HUGE! When we stopped to take a look at the lake, we were almost immediately surrounded by teenage Masaai boys who were trying to make some money from tourists by selling beaded necklaces and bracelets. I fended them off pretty quickly by telling them I didn’t have any money, but they really wouldn’t leave Rachel alone. They followed us back to the car where one of them asked if we could spare any water. I gave them what I had, but it really wasn’t much. The summer drought is really taking a toll on the region.

After we passed the Ngorogoro Crater we began our drive through the plains. They were flat as pancakes. Little Thompson gazelle and Kori bustard bodies appeared black against the horizon line. Every once in a while we would pass a huge ostrich or a topi. Once we got into the park the plains turned into savanna land, where Thomspon gazelle were replaced by wildebeest and zebra.

Once at our final destination, we met Chris Schelten, a spunky blonde woman who runs the Seronera FZS projects. Chris is kindly allowing Rachel and I to bunk in the Frankfurt guest house in Seronera (located in the middle of the Serengeti National Park). In the morning we plan to meet up with Dominic and Felix, who are staying at the Disease House and go on a game drive in the morning before we start our day full of meetings.