The Big Five

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Last week we returned from Serengeti muddy, tanned, exhausted, and smiling. On numerous occasions, we had to free our cars from the treacherous muck of rainy season roads. Hyenas ran whooping through our camp, buffalo watched warily from behind the bathroom building, and baboons rummaged through our garbage nightly.

In other words, it was awesome.

We spent our days on game drives, witnessing the glory of the Serengeti with no roof to stand in our way, and completing field exercises on bird species, carnivore interactions, and some tourist-watching to top it all off. The weather was cool and cloudy most days, and it rained often, which was refreshing after the heat of our last expedition.

There is never a dull moment on expedition, but the real highlight was seeing all of the “Big Five”- lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino!  The black rhinoceros, pulled back from the brink of extinction, has been one of the few true conservation successes in recent years.  According to Save the Rhino, the black rhino population totaled 65,000 in 1970, but declined to only 2,300 by 1993- a 96% decline in only 23 years.  Luckily, reintroduction programs across sub-Saharan Africa have brought these numbers back up, including a small but reproducing population of 26 black rhinos that call Ngorongoro Crater, near Serengeti, their home.  As we passed through the Crater on the way to Serengeti- described to me quite accurately as “a bowl full of animals”- we saw hundreds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, buffalo, and five black rhinos, a figure to be proud of.

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Elephants were no unfamiliar sight to us after two months in East Africa, but in Ngorongoro we saw an old lone bull with the largest tusks I have ever seen on any elephant.  He was beautiful.

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Cape buffalo were no uncommon sight either.  With their confused expression and curled brown horns resembling a 1960s hairdo, it is sometimes easy to forget how dangerous they can be.  This buffalo was also in the Crater, but in our camp in the Serengeti nothing struck more fear into our hearts than the buffalo that loitered just on the edge of camp.  Not baboons, not hyenas, not even lions– buffalo were the most fearsome of all.

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I saw my first leopard lounging in a tree in Tarangire, not doing much of anything. Though leopards are relatively rare overall, they can sometimes be easy to “spot” in the Serengeti, if you know where to look. We were lucky enough (as were about 10 other tourist cars) to see a leopard be ousted from its tree at dusk by an approaching troop of baboons (the two species have an ongoing feud in the animal kingdom). It leaped down and walked parallel to the road for quite some time, followed by a veritable circus of international tourists snapping cameras and revving engines. This happens in the background of most professional African wildlife photos, I’m sure. Still, it was beautiful.

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Now we are back home in Rhotia, having completed our final exams over the last week.  Our Directed Research projects are getting off the ground today and tomorrow, and it is a very exciting time here at the Center for Wildlife Management Studies.  I get to spend the next ten days driving around protected areas and gathering data on elephant temporal gland secretions. Other projects range from studying male elephant coalitions to interviewing locals about beekeeping practices, to performing lion playback experiments on wild zebra herds. What more could an undergrad ask for?

Until next time,
Heather

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