Elephants, Baobabs, and a Noted Lack of Bathroom Breaks


Ten days ago we students in SFS Tanzania began our Directed Research projects in earnest. The students had been divided into three groups based on our interests- Environmental Policy, Wildlife Management, and Wildlife Ecology. I was placed in the Wildlife Ecology group with our wonderful professor, John Kioko. We had eight students in our car, another four in another, and we were all excited to begin collecting data after all the time we had spent reading the literature, writing proposals, and drawing up data sheets. We were finally ready to begin.

The focus of my research has been to determine factors that influence temporal gland secretions in elephants, a gland between the eye and the ear that has been surprisingly under-researched (see image below) and is thought to be a stress response.  In particular, I have been studying the correlation of these secretions with habitat type and with body condition, which indicates the health of an elephant.  Other projects in our group included elephant-plant interactions, male elephant coalitions, baobab trees and elephant usage, and Acacia tortillis population structure.  In Kioko’s other car, the students were conducting interviews on wild dog sightings, rabies awareness, and wild plant use among the local Maasai.


This Saturday was our last day of fieldwork, and we had some amazing times in the field. We got to return to three of the beautiful protected areas near to our hearts- Lake Manyara National Park, Manyara Ranch, and Tarangire National Park. We left camp every day at 7:30am and usually didn’t return until nearly 7:00pm, sometimes driving through the gate moments before the ring of the dinner bell.  We ate packed lunches and usually never stopped- not even for the bathroom!  Okay, some days we had a mid-day bathroom break, but can you imagine drinking two liters of water and then holding it for six hours?  I couldn’t either, until now.


All in all, after nearly eighty hours in the field, I gathered a respectable total of 277 elephant observations with my trusty notebook and borrowed binoculars (if you are a future student, listen: bring those!).  We saw many more elephants than that, but sometimes those elephants just wouldn’t turn around, and that meant no data for me since I had to see the side of their head.  Fieldwork has some challenges, but naturally it has many more rewards (277 of them, to be precise).


Now we have three weeks remaining- time set aside to settle in and analyze our data, write up our findings, and prepare our presentations to the community.  Everyone is trying not to think about leaving, but I feel content to be here for the time that remains, and I am excited for my next adventure.  Right now I can’t say if these last few weeks will pass too quickly or too slowly.  Spending so much time in camp, we all start to go a little chizi (crazy), but knowing our time is almost up makes the hand of the clock tick just a little faster.


I have come to love this place so much- the people, the colorful fabrics, the tin plates in the dining hall, the towering trees and the inches-long thorns, the ringing bell at meal times, the waiting for the rains, the Sunday market in Rhotia, the slow daily greening of the grass, so subtle you don’t even notice until suddenly it’s as if the world has been transformed in the blink of an eye. I love coming home with fingers crossed for a hot shower, or for mac and cheese night.  It’s a wonderful life.

“My God what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it.” -Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Until next time,


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