Here in rural Tanzania, I have been been doing various jobs with Wildlife Connection. I have helped show villagers how to erect chili pepper and bee hive fences to keep elephants out of their crops. (Such simple technology and so effective!) I have helped teach eager children about wildlife and conservation issues. And I have assisted with trips into Ruaha National Park, escorting villagers into the park in our Land Rover, and then interviewing them about their perceptions afterward. But yesterday I took part in my first elephant corridor mapping trip, which, as with all other duties here, was an interesting adventure.
The morning started with our customary walk from our tented camp into the town of Tungamalenga for mandazi (doughnuts, sort of) and chai (spicey, sweetened tea). The other volunteers and I arrived back at camp just as our wonderful local assistant, Julius, pulled up on his pikipiki (motorcycle) ready to take me off to the elephant migration route or “corridor”. After jovial greetings I hopped on the back of the red pikipiki and off we went down the dirt road, engulfed in the smell of cook fires, the sounds of roosters crowing and hornbills calling, and the sights of farmers and villagers slowly starting their mornings in fields and shops.
After twenty minutes along the road and a narrow trail, we arrived at a mud farmhouse where we parked the pikipiki. The lady of the house (an effective witch doctor, per Julius) was seated outside on the ground, shelling peanuts from her farm. She offered me a handful, which I eagerly accepted and stuffed into the pocket of my cargo pants. We set off walking through farm lands until we got to a spot where we could make out a specific trail leading away form the farms: the end point of the elephant corridor. This is the trail that elephants make from Ruaha National Park and the adjacent Wildlife Management Area (WMA) out to fresh feeding areas in the rainy season, Their dispersal gives the elephants’ dry season feeding areas a chance to recover and regrow. But now that migration corridors are heavily populated with farmers, it means that conflict occurs here, as elephants passing through the plots trample or eat the crops that farmers depend on for food and income. The rainy season ended two months ago, and crops, including corn, rice and peanuts, have been harvested. Now even the river where elephants came to drink is dry, its rocky bed filled only with dust and cattle tracks and dung. And the elephants have, for the most part, returned to the protected areas, leaving the farms to the farmers.
We turned on our GPS units and began out trek along the elephants’ trail, which Julius’ trained eye picked out without hesitation. (I would have been completely lost!) We passed from the farm zone to the pastoralist zone, where agricultural plots were replaced by grazing areas for goats,sheep and cattle that wander in search or food, under the watchful eye of Maasai herders. We spotted two-month old signs of elephants’ presence, including dried mud “bowls”created by elephants’ enormous oval feet. We also saw larger dried mud scoops, created by elephants digging with their trunks in search of water. Softer sandy holes indicated dustbath sites. Dung balls from this year and last were scattered across the trail. An exciting discovery was a recent elephant print, with foot wrinkle lines still evident in the track. One to three days old! We found several others further on. I wondered where the elephant was now…
Other interesting finds were holes at the base of trees where, according to Julius, people had dug in search of medicinal roots. We found a large pelvis bone of an unidentified animal, and later two long giraffe leg bones. Julius said that the giraffe had probably been caught in a wire trap and then killed by people for bush meat. All local hunting of wildlife is illegal, but it can be difficult to apprehend poachers, so poaching continues. We saw fire remnants from poachers’ camps closer to the WMA, where poachers probably spent the night before going in to hunt animals the next day.
After our brisk 1 1/2 hour walk we reached the WMA and the unified elephant trail separated into many trails, since this was a safe zone for the elephants, and they could disperse and browse leisurely. We turned off our GPS units as the corridor was now mapped. I was happy for a rest in the shade, with water and peanuts to revive me, before we made the return trip.
The variety of interesting knobby, thorny, and cactus-like trees kept me going on the return as I tired out some. We were also treated to views of tiny dikdik and several majestic greater kudu in the bush. Nice fresh prints of dikdik, kudu, and impala were delicately engraved in the dust of the trail. We also observed scat from various animals, including giraffes and zebras. A large cylinder on the trail turned out to be a 16 inch hunk of dried elephant skin, a remnant from an elephant killed and cut into pieces for food.
I was relieved to reach the farmhouse where we had started our adventure and be able to rest my weary legs while sitting on the the back of the pikipiki again. As we took off, a lovely group of a dozen banded mongeese escorted us down the trail. We headed back to town and a welcome filling lunch of rice, beans and cooked greens at Fatuma’s screen-porch restaurant. It had been another day full of learning and fun in the Tanzanian countryside!
As the day slowly quickly turns into night, the sun is setting on my first trip to Tanzania. The last two weeks of my stay have been mapped out and planned, and it feels like it will only be a short matter of time until those plans turn into past events. The pace of life out here is slow, but with so much to see and experience, the days fly by. In the past couple of weeks since my last post, the days have kept up this pace. One of my main duties for the Ruaha-Elephant Conflict is to help Julius, our awesome translator and guide, lead villagers on trips into Ruaha National Park. I have been on a couple since my last post, and as always, some new animal comes across our sight that I can happily check off my list. Two Eland, a large antelope noted for its leaping abilities, were about 20 meters from our Land Rover. Two villagers pointed them out to me and Julius, who were anxious to know what they were. As the Eland is not an easily seen species, it doesn’t get the glamour and coverage that species such as the elephant and lion get. Julius talked about elands, and explained how lucky they were to have seen them. On our last trip, we were lucky enough to see large pride of 15 lions eating the remains of a buffalo they had brought down. Despite there being a generous amount of lions within Ruaha, it’s always an adrenaline-pumping experience seeing these large cats up close, especially a fully-maned male.
My days are coming to a close here, and it’s hard not looking back and revisiting some of the unique things I’ve been able to do and see here in southern Tanzania. From visiting a Masai boma and getting a first-hand tour of the ways of their tribe, to hiking through bush to climb a waterfall shaped by massive boulders, my last couple of weeks have been something I’ll never forget. A picture may say a thousand words, but it can explain the sense of adventure I have experienced here in southern Tanzania. While pictures are fun to look at, and are great at helping think of past events, it’s the memories of what I’ve done that will remain with me.
I am wrapping up my first month here in Tanzania. It has been one of the most memorable months of my life. This can be attributed to many things. First, I have wanted to travel to sub-Saharan Africa ever since I was a kid. I grew up going to the zoo with my family, and immediately fell in love with the animals, especially the elephants. Ever since I first heard the trumpet of the elephant, I was obsessed; I wanted to see them, and the rest of Africa’s amazing wildlife in their home range. Seeing the elephants in Ruaha National Park trumps any elephant experience in a zoo. Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural environment makes me jealous that I don’t have them in my backyard. The second factor that has greatly contributed to this great month has been leading people from local villages to the park. As I aforementioned, seeing the wildlife in Ruaha is indescribable. I was in stunned silence for most of my first safari in the park. So, when I get to lead villagers, many of whom have never stepped foot in the park or seen the animals who inhabit it, I witness some of the same emotions that I did on my first trip. It gives me a sense of satisfaction that I get to be a part of that experience for them. Thirdly, the culture here is fascinating. Everyone gives you a smile, even if at comes at the expense of having to be stared at for 20 seconds prior, but it’s nice to know that you are karibu (welcome in Swahili). Swahili culture is vibrant, colorful, and practiced by some of the nicest people in Africa. Not to mention, the language is a fun one to speak.
I hope that as my second and final month here unfolds, it is filled with surprises and experiences that I witnessed in my first one. Each day offers its own adventure, and there is always something to look forward to here in central Tanzania.