This past Wednesday was finally our first day in one of the parks looking for wildlife. We’ve been itching to get out of camp and go on a game drive since we got here and it was so worth the wait.
Lake Manyara National Park is only about a 20-minute drive from camp and this small national park (only about 125 square miles) surrounds the lake. In the morning we had to do a field exercise collecting data on Olive Baboons. In lecture last week we studied their ecology and behavior. Interestingly, they are not territorial animals. They live in troops that can have up to 200 members that have home ranges, so they tend to not bother neighboring troops. They are also very promiscuous animals, so much so that because the troop can never identify the father of the offspring the males exhibit a behavior called “godfathering”. This basically means that the males will help females care for various young, founded on the fact that the offspring might be his. This behavior also limits infanticide, where the males may kill the offspring. Also, as a result of their promiscuous behavior they tend to share a wide range of STDs with each other. Apparently baboons never went to high school health class. The common STD that shows visible symptoms is a form of syphilis, Treponema pallidum, which was one of the observations we were supposed to make in the park. I do not believe that this disease is fatal to the primates in any way but it can severly affect reproduction to the point where they can no longer reproduce. The symptoms can also progress so bad that the baboon has trouble walking and moving around which could make it more susceptible to predation. Baboons are known to spread quite a few zoonotic diseases besides the STDs including measles, polio, tuberculosis, and the bubonic plague (pleasant, right?).
Anyways, in the morning we followed baboon troops around for two hours, collecting data on as many individuals as we could in five minute intervals. This particular method is called focus scan sampling. We were able to get the age, sex, presence of syphilis, and the particular behavior they were exhibiting per baboon. This was surprisingly difficult to keep track of individual baboons for long enough to get all their data, but it was definitely a good learning experience. After two hours, I just about had enough of looking at baboon butts to see if they had STDs and definitely questioned why I love biology so much. Now that we were done we could finally spend the rest of the day driving around the park!
Driving around in our vehicles was awesome because the tops of the cars open up and we can stand on the seats as our driver (who happened to be my wildlife ecology professor) whizzed around the park looking for wildlife. We got to see so many species including lots of elephants and several baby elephants, which are probably some of the cutest things I have ever seen. The elephants would be crossing the road right in front of the cars and they would literally be an arms length away. It’s crazy to me that I get to say that I’ve been so close to a wild elephant.
Unfortunately, at one point we witnessed an orphaned baby elephant that appeared very hungry and lost. Our professor guessed that the mother was most likely killed by poachers. I was very surprised to find out that despite the very maternal nature of mother elephants, they will very rarely adopt another’s baby if a female in the group dies. For this reason, Kenya has an elephant orphanage so that while female elephants are still being poached at alarming rates, the offspring do not die as a result too. Tanzania does not currently have an elephant orphanage so our professor said this particular baby we saw will most likely starve or be killed by predators, which is just about the saddest thing I have ever heard. This was heartbreaking to witness in real life, but it really hit home how important some of these conservation efforts really are. It also reminded me of the harsh realities of nature and that we are blessed with the opportunity to see how these species fight to survive daily.
While driving around our professor got a little pedal happy and was flooring it through the park. Meanwhile we are standing on the seats getting bumped and thrown around the vehicles getting heavily bruised (my muscles were definitely tender the next day). In some parts it was wide open grassland in front of us but in other parts someone was always screaming “GET DOWN” and we would dive back into the vehicle to avoid taking a very thorny tree branch to the face. Thankfully we all came out just a little bruised but unscathed and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
Some other species we got to see included giraffes, zebra, hippos, flamingoes, impala, warthogs, vervet monkeys, blue monkeys, wildebeest, cape buffalo, reedbuck, waterbuck, dik-dik, klipspringer, and a puff adder (one of the most venomous snakes around). We also saw hyraxes, which are these quite small rodent like looking animals that are apparently the closest living relative to elephants. The park does have lions and leopards but very small populations that are very hard to see, so no big cats yet! Enjoy the pictures!
For more stories about my Westfield State University adventures studying abroad check out my personal blog.