Archive for the ‘Animal Welfare’ Category

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 5

by | February 27th, 2015

Wednesday Feb 25

Communication challenges…

 

This Wednesday morning we accompany a young American couple on their lion tracking adventure. Dr. Siefert is not available for this trek, so while Dr. Gottfried and I narrate and answer questions, James looks for the lions. Obviously we have learned much about the lions and the park ecology – maybe we have a future in eco-tourism?Cub and yawn

 

We return to the sight of the water buffalo kill, where we have again picked up Sharon’s signal. The buffalo carcass is reduced to mere bones with tiny bits of flesh, and no fewer than 15 white-backed vultures are scavenging the remains…there is no waste here in the park. Sharon and the cubs have moved up the hill and are out of sight in the thick tangle of thorns and low brush. It has become too treacherous for navigation by 4-wheel drive and we must turn back.Vultures

 

Though the morning has yielded no samples for our study, we have successfully located several more lions. More importantly, we have conveyed a wealth of information to some very receptive park tourists. Hopefully this morning has had an impact on them – now they can not only say they have seen lions, but they understand a little more about complex conservation issues.

 

This afternoon’s communication challenge seems more daunting. We return to the community visited a few days ago, where we paid part compensation for a calf killed by a leopard. Today, Dr. Siefert will present his ideas to move the community forward, and solicit a letter of support from them to apply for grant funding for these improvement projects.

 

The community meeting takes place on a few rickety wooden benches placed on the dusty ground underneath a tree. The chairman of the community, Eliphaz, and 10 other high-ranking community members are present. Several other men wander in and out, standing quietly behind the benches as Dr. Seifert talks. He attempts to establish himself as “not the police, not the UWA,” but someone who has the interests of wildlife and the community in mind. He describes how his own family in Germany re-established their financial stability following the “misery” of WWII using a combination of agriculture, animal products, and forest eco-tourism, including a pub and restaurant. His point is that this community can also be more successful financially by utilizing similar ideas.

 

The most pressing need is for construction of proper corrals for the livestock – made 9 meters tall, with wire fence material and weather-resistant poles, surrounded by a second bio-fencing barrier made of the invasive thorny bushes so prevalent throughout the park. Dr. Siefert introduces the concept of “zero grazing” by which livestock are fed on smaller fenced pastures with grasses cultivated by the community, leaving the park grasses available for wild prey species. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he proposes creating sport-fishing eco-tours for the fishermen in the community, and describes accommodations necessary for that industry.

 

Finally, one man breaks his silence, and Eliphaz translates for us. The community members would like to comment and are becoming impatient! I have the impression that Dr. Siefert’s ideas are a bit overwhelming. They agree that proper livestock pens are essential, but balk at the idea of shared community pens. They argue that people need to be able to check their livestock throughout the day while at home, there is too much potential for disease transmission, and someone would have to be paid to maintain the outside perimeter wire and bio-fence. Dr. Siefert nods, as if understanding, but reminds the group that community pens are more reasonable given UCP’s limited funds.Tail

 

After a lively discussion, the community decides that they will only agree to support construction of a separate pen for each family, even if that means waiting indefinitely until the funding is available. Dr. Siefert reluctantly consents, requesting cost estimates to be available tomorrow when we return with a letter of support for them to sign. We close the meeting with my statement as a representative of Oakland Zoo, and shake hands again. A woman who has been silent throughout the meeting speaks up, saying that she is happy for the help, unless we are the ones who brought the leopard to the village.

 

We drive away with mixed emotions. Dr. Siefert’s ideas have been received and discussed honestly, yet in the end, there is always suspicion. He is baffled by the accusation that he (or we!) moves leopards around the park. I try to understand the resistance to change and improvements in the community, and wonder how best to resolve this communication challenge…

Legal ivory sales in California?? Not on our watch!!

by | February 27th, 2015
California is the second largest retail market in illegal ivory sales in the U.S.

California is the second largest retail market in illegal ivory sales in the U.S.

The laws and legality regarding the ivory trade in the United States consist of a long web of complicated and not quite so clear issues. Let me break it down for you so that you can understand the issue on a national and state level.

What are the federal regulations regarding the ivory trade?

African Elephant number estimates in 1979 were 1.3 million. About ten years later, the population was down to 650,000. Due to a global ban in the ivory trade in 1989 this helped curb the trade significantly. The only imports allowed into the United States were either antiques (over 100 years old), or trophy tusks (yes, elephants are legally trophy hunted). The only other imports or trade allowed were one-off sales of the existing stockpiles, regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, (CITES). Two one-off sales were granted to China and Japan in 1999 and 2008, and it is believed that this is part of why the value of ivory and the illegal killing of elephants has once again sky-rocketed. Elephant numbers are now currently down to 450,000.

Prior to President Obama’s Executive Order in February of 2014, antique ivory was still legally imported into the United States. The selling of antique ivory or ivory imported prior to 1989 (when the global ban happened) within the states and across state borders was legal. Under the current Executive Order or federal permissions, antique ivory is no longer allowed to be imported, but still may be exported. The reason why this is important is because since elephants are still being killed for their tusks, there is constantly a flow of new ivory. The antique and pre-ban ivory, or the legal trade, is masking the illegal ivory trade. Unless you are an expert, it is almost impossible to distinguish the difference between the two. In fact, sellers that are selling illegal ivory are using techniques to stain the ivory to make it look antique! The EO also states that we cannot trade from state to state (interstate). Unfortunately importing trophy hunted tusks is still legal, but the EO limits this to two trophies per year. Obama also created a Wildlife Task Force that will be responsible to all wildlife trade as well as enforcement, which is key. The onus is also on the owner or seller, meaning they must have the legal permits stating when the piece was imported legally (if they have it). What the EO does not cover is intrastate trade, or what goes on within each state. This means that antique ivory and pre-ban ivory are still legal to sell within states, creating that shadow to cover the illegal market. The law is even worse in California.

Did you know that it is currently legal to sell ivory in California?

Oshy, 20 years old, shows off his large ivory tusks. Ivory can be valued up to $1800 per pound.

Oshy, 20 years old, shows off his large ivory tusks. Ivory can be valued up to $1800 per pound.

In 1976 California established one of the strongest laws banning the importation for commercial purposes, possession with intent to sell, or sale of any elephant part. In 1977 uncodified language of the annotated portion of the law, penal code 653o, created a large loophole, basically saying that any ivory imported into the state before 1977 is legal. Further, Department of Fish and Game does not take responsibility for enforcing the current law because it is penal code, those of which are typically enforced by police officers, sheriff deputies and other peace officers throughout the state. In addition, neither the California Fish and Game Code, nor the state wildlife regulations enforced by the Department of Fish and Wildlife reference elephants or elephant products.

How are we going to stop this?

If you haven’t already seen it in the news, according to a 2008 investigation by Daniel Stiles, it was found that the United States was the number two importer of illegal ivory. The top states? New York, California, and Hawaii. The top cities in California? Los Angeles and San Francisco. The most current investigation conducted in the spring of 2014 found that up to 80% of the ivory being sold in 30 markets in San Francisco was likely illegal. Also, since the 2008 report, illegal ivory products have doubled in CA, showing a parallel trend to the slaughter happening in Africa. In August of 2014 both New York and New Jersey banned the selling and purchasing of ivory within their states. California, amongst other states such as Hawaii, Florida and several others, intend to do the same.

On January 7th 2015, Assembly Bill 96 (#AB96) was introduced in California. Why 96? One elephant in Africa is killed every 15 minutes, 96 per day, and roughly 35,000 elephants per year. If this rate continues, entire populations of elephants, including the African Forest Elephant will be gone within 15 years. This state ban will make it illegal to sell and purchase ivory within the state regardless of the year or if it is antique. However, there are some minor exemptions. Bona-fide antiques (over 100 years old) can be sold but only if under 5% of volume of the piece is ivory. Most bona-fide antiques, are less than 5% ivory. Most current ivory products are jewelry, trinkets, and statues, the majority of these pieces are 100% ivory. Also musical instruments manufactured before 1975 and less than 20% ivory will be exempt as well. Currently, most piano keys are made out of plastic. The rationale behind these exemptions is that these items are not the major contributors to the ivory trade. The figurines and jewelry that are comprised of almost all ivory is the real issue.

What will AB 96 do?

AB 96 will close the existing loophole in the CA law by apealing the penal code. Further, it will add enforcement responsibility to the Fish and

We will not let elephants disappear from this earth!

We will not let elephants disappear from this earth!

Game Code, making California Fish and Wildlife authorities accountable for the enforcement. Penalties, including jail time and hefty fines will be given to those found selling or purchasing illegal ivory. Also, AB 96 includes all types of ivory (narwhal, whale, hippo, walrus, mammoth), and rhinoceros horn. Rhino horn, which is made up of keratin or skin just like ours, is desired specifically in Vietnam where it is believed to have medicinal purposes (that has never been proven). Rhino horn has been found in the United States as well. There are only 28,000 rhinos left in the world!  California has the opportunity here to set an example to the rest of the nation and the world making it clear that we do not support trade in ivory or rhino horn.

What is Oakland Zoo doing?

Time to celebrate at the Capitol! AB 96 passes the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee on March 10th. Oakland Zoo staff and coalition partners attended.

Time to celebrate at the Capitol! AB 96 passes the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee on March 10th. Oakland Zoo staff and coalition partners attended.

A year ago, Oakland Zoo joined forces with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who founded the 96 elephants campaign, to raise awareness to the plight of elephants and the ivory trade. Joining the coalition for AB 96, which includes the key players, Humane Society of the United States, National Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Conservation Society, California Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, amongst several other supporting NGO’s, including our friends at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and dozens of other conservation partners including our own here at the zoo.

As part of the coalition, we are responsible for the support of AB 96, which includes heightening the awareness surrounding the issue through social media, blogs, and zoo tabling, asking our visitors to take action through petitions and sending letters to their district legislators, lobbying our Bay Area district offices, supporting other CAZA member institutions and working together to be the strongest force we can to make change. If you’d like to help, here is a current action you can take.

**Send a letter to your district legislators thanking them for either supporting the bill or asking them to support it. Use this pre-written template: www.96elephants.org/california . It takes only 30 seconds!**

M'Dundamella, 46 years, has beautiful long tusks. Help Oakland Zoo in their conservation efforts to save wild elephants!

M’Dundamella, 46 years, has beautiful long tusks. Help Oakland Zoo in their conservation efforts to save wild elephants!

On Tuesday, March 10th AB 96 successfully passed out of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and is on to the Appropriations Committee! ACTION: If you are a constituent in the districts of the members of the Appropriations Committee, please write to them asking them to support the bill! To find your district rep, go here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/. Visit here to see who is on the Appropriations Committee: http://apro.assembly.ca.gov/membersstaff. To stay in touch with the bill status, check here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/15-16/bill/asm/ab_0051-0100/ab_96_bill_20150126_status.html. To read the bill literature read here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/15-16/bill/asm/ab_0051-0100/ab_96_bill_20150107_introduced.pdf.

Stay tuned for monthly blog updates on the bill and it’s status and don’t forget to #ab96! Join us for Feasts for the Beasts and learn more about our African Elephants here at Oakland Zoo. Main Entrance doors open early at 9:00am for the first 250 guests donating produce. A golden ticket to spread produce in the elephant exhibit will be administered. Once all food is in place, guests will exit the exhibit to watch the elephants enjoy their treats. Stick around after the elephant feeding and explore the Zoo (http://www.oaklandzoo.org/Calendar_Item.php?i=1141).

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 4

by | February 24th, 2015

 

Monday / Tuesday Feb 23 /24

Research routine…

 

Our final sample processing experiment over the weekend is successful (no more melting plastic!) and we have now settled into a daily schedule. Early in the morning we track lions, then return to the lab for sample processing, recording data and writing. Late in the afternoon, we are again in the field to track the felines. These are long, satisfying days – and hardly what can be considered routine!Cub on back

 

On Monday morning, we spend several hours tracking Lena’s group, which consists of 9 adolescents, Lena (the lioness), and her 3 very young cubs. We are privileged to observe lion group dynamics – play, head butting, rubbing, marking, running, and vocalizing! One of the mature males, Rudi, appears interested in the group, following and occasionally vocalizing to them, but keeping his distance.Cub posing

 

Suddenly, as we follow Rudi near a herd of water buffalo, we hear a human scream in the distance. James exclaims, “Lena’s killing someone!” and Dr. Siefert rushes our vehicle toward the scream, with James shouting directions. Luckily, when we arrive on the road, at the origin of the scream, three men are standing by their motorcycles, very shaken but unhurt. Apparently, Lena chased them when they drove around the corner – she was hiding in a thicket with her cubs, trying to find food for them. We advise the men not to attempt to pass Lena again and contact the UWA to inform them of the incident in hopes they will close the road to motorcycles until Lena moves away.

 

Feeling a bit more somber at the reminder of the ever-present potential for lion-human conflict, we continue to watch Rudi and the group of lions until we receive our “black gold” fecal reward! With the morning’s samples safe inside plastic bags, we drive back toward the lab. We have yet to find the other two big males, Papa and Omukama, so Dr. Siefert continues to track. Just as we re-enter the park, we hear a steady beep – Papa is nearby. Buried deep in the thickets and thorns, he is resting, but looks thin, as if he has not made a kill in several days. We drive away and are again rewarded for our tracking diligence – in the fork of a tree sits a solitary, shy leopard!

 

Tuesday dawns with similar goals: to find some lions, obtain some fecal samples, and process them. We first find Papa near the same spot as yesterday afternoon. No fecal sample nearby, but as we drive out of the park, we find a lion deposit on the side of the road…our luck continues! James pulls out the antenna for tracking and soon we have Sharon’s signal. She has moved to a far corner of the park, in very difficult, hilly, thorny terrain. James feels that this behavior is highly unusual. As her signal becomes stronger, her reasoning becomes clear. The trees ahead of us are full of vultures, obviously hoping for some scraps from a lion’s dinner.

 

Sharon on killWe drive cautiously, windows shut completely, as an eviscerated water buffalo comes into view. Sharon the lioness is hiding in a large thicket just behind the kill, staring at us warily. Her cubs are several hundred yards away, stomachs bulging, relaxing in the warm sun. Unfortunately, it seems that we are too early in the digestive process to obtain samples, so we make a plan to return later in the evening.

 

It has cooled off significantly this evening, and I must pull out my lucky long-sleeved purple field shirt. James tests our navigation skills as we drive towards Sharon’s group. Using an old tree and a mountain peak, we are able to accurately choose the turn off the road, and follow our path from the morning through the savannah, with a bit of help from James. As the sun begins to set, several of the cubs emerge from their afternoon naps and present us with two more samples. We find Sharon at the kill site, consuming her evening meal, expertly butchering the remaining meat with her razor sharp teeth. My lucky shirt seems to be working…or it’s just another routine day of research!

 

 

Changing of the Guard: Welcoming Our New ZooCamp Director

by | February 23rd, 2015
Liz Low (aka Firefox)

Liz Low (aka Firefox)

Howdy Pard’ners! There’s a new camp sheriff in town. Yep, for the first time in eight years, Oakland Zoo has a new ZooCamp Director, Ms. Liz Low (aka Firefox.) The former director recently moved on to other responsibilities at the Zoo, leaving the door open for Assistant Director Liz to move on in. Originally from San Jose and coming from a background in Animal Science at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Liz joined Oakland Zoo in 2010. Starting out as a ZooCamp counselor, where she worked directly with the kids, she eventually became the camp clerk until being promoted to Assistant Director in 2014. So as you can see, she’s worked her way right up that ZooCamp ladder, making her the perfect candidate for the job.
Recently I had a chance to sit down with Liz and find out how she’s been settling into her new position. It’s a big responsibility: juggling a dozen counselors and hundreds of kids while interacting with parents and dealing with curriculum, activities, and the occasional bee sting or skinned knee. Liz said it took a

Liz joining the festivities onstage

Liz joining the festivities onstage

little time for her to put all the pieces together, but she reports that all is running smoothly now. It was a big help that the staff was very supportive and made her feel welcome right from the beginning. The biggest challenge, she says, is remembering all the little things that need to be done. (She did admit that on occasion, she’s made a call or two to her predecessor, Sarcosuchus, to get a question answered.) Liz says she plans to keep things the same as they were for the time being, but hopes to eventually make a few changes to reflect her own personal style.
One of the things she’ll be continuing is the Conservation Partner program, whereby one dollar from each summer ZooCamp registrant goes directly to a conservation organization. For this year’s recipient, Liz chose Northern California based PAWS (the Performing Animal Welfare Society) that advocates for performing animals and provides sanctuary for abused, abandoned or retired captive wildlife.
Liz was happy to announce something new for ZooCamp this year: the “Conservation Crew,” a middle school curriculum based on Oakland Zoo’s commitment to conservation. For campers entering grades 6,7 or 8, Conservation Crew is a great opportunity to learn what projects the Zoo administers, which organizations the Zoo supports, and equally important, what kids can do locally to foster conservation “in their own backyards.”
Now that Oakland Zoo offers ZooCamp several times throughout the year, you never have long to wait

ZooCamp Smiles

ZooCamp Smiles

until the next session begins. In fact, the next camp will be offered during Spring Break. Registration opened on February 17 and camp runs from March 30 through April 3, and again from April 6 through 10. And it won’t be long until Summer ZooCamp rolls around. Members’ registration for summer opens March 9, with non-members registering starting March 16.
And with Liz moving up, she left a vacancy herself. Her successor as Assistant Director is Kayla Morisoli (aka Hawk) who started last year as one of the camp counselors. If your kids will be attending ZooCamp this year, they’re sure to meet both Firefox and Hawk here at Oakland Zoo. So don’t forget those registration dates. We’ll see you at camp!

Zoo Veterinarian Blogs from Uganda Part 2

by | February 20th, 2015

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

February 17 (afternoon)

Back to a different reality…

Our next stop is one of the enclaves (villages) within the park. When QENP was created in 1952, multiple villages existed. Instead of relocating the residents, the government allowed these enclaves to remain, and traditional fishing or pastoral cattle herding continues today. These enclaves contain 30,000 people. Add the 70,000 in villages bordering the park, and human-wildlife conflict is inevitable.

Corral-lights_webDr. Siefert explains that the people in this enclave have made some positive changes to mitigate the problems caused by predators. We visit with Eliphaz, a community leader who has lost chickens and cattle to a leopard. Working with UCP, Eliphaz has constructed a better corral for the cattle, complete with solar powered flashing lights to detract predators. We deliver more lights for him and others in the community. He thanks us graciously, especially mentioning Oakland Zoo and its support for UCP’s community projects.

Hen-house_webUnfortunately, Dr. Siefert points out the henhouse behind Eliphaz’s house, shaking his head. The door is falling off the hinges, and there are holes in the walls. “Why hasn’t he fixed it? This is not the poorest village…he can afford to make those changes.” Apparently work ethic is a little different in the enclaves than in some other parts of the world. Yet another challenge to overcome…

We make plans to meet again with Eliphaz and representatives of the community to discuss conflict mitigation, but our next appointment awaits, and Dr. Siefert insists on promptness.

The UWA headquarters is located outside of QENP. It is a simple concrete structure with a main reception area and several offices. We are greeted warmly and sit down to wait for the Conservation Area Manager…and we wait. There is a slight breeze through the open window, and a little flycatcher bird sits on the ledge, apparently interested in joining the conservation negotiations. We keep waiting. Multiple office workers and wardens come in and out of the office…and we wait. An hour later, the Area Manager appears, ushering us into his office, not in any apparent hurry. There is a saying here that comes to mind. TIA – “This is Africa!”

Village-visit_webAttending the meeting are the Conservation Area Manager, the UWA veterinarian, and a UWA tourism representative. For the next 30 minutes, Dr. Siefert presents his ideas for improved human-wildlife coexistence in QENP, then the Area Manager reviews them, slowly, point-by-point. A discussion ensues, with general agreement that these are good ideas and should be implemented; however, written proposals are needed and must then be reviewed. We leave the meeting feeling neutral and unsatisfied – was this simply politics or will changes really occur? Tomorrow is the next step…proposals to write…

 

 

Wed/Thurs Feb 18/19

Down time and prep time…

Traditional-hut_webWednesday morning, James takes a tourist group on a lion tracking adventure. Alas, there are not enough seats in the vehicle, so we are left behind. We spend a relaxing day at the Mywea Lodge, discussing and writing about the events of the last several days.

In the evening, we accompany James on another venture to try to find a male lion. As we drive through a different section of the park, James warns, “take care, watch yourself!” to avoid the thorny bushes overtaking the road. He explains that these plants are extremely invasive, offer minimal food for prey, and prevent people from seeing the animals. This situation is yet another example of how the park’s natural ecosystem is collapsing. There is no lion sighting this evening and we head back to our room as a thunderstorm rolls in.

Sample-processing_webThursday dawns brighter as the overnight rain has largely cleared the air. For the first time since arriving, we see the towering Rwenzori mountain range north of the park. After breakfast, we enter Dr. Siefert’s lab to experiment with our sample preparation technique. We will be testing the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in fecal samples from lions. Unfortunately, this hormone degrades very quickly, so we must preserve the feces in order to bring the samples to the laboratory in the US.

Our hope is to determine the relative stress levels of the lions in QENP, especially as related to human activity. With this information, Dr. Siefert and the UWA may be able to make better management recommendations. A few hours later, we settle on our preliminary fecal preservation method, which includes a spaetzle press “borrowed” from Dr. Siefert’s kitchen! (Funnily enough, he doesn’t want it back!)

Crafts_webWe take a break from our scientific endeavors this afternoon to visit a local women’s group located in the shadow of the Rwenzori chain. The women welcome us warmly and show us their traditional huts. We learn how make and store cheese, and how the rennet (leftovers from cheese making) is used as a skin lotion. Supported by UCP, the women also make and sell crafts, many of which we purchase!

The day draws to a close with errands in the nearest large town, Kasese. There is constant motion in town – people walking, on bicycles, or on motorcycles – women carrying brightly colored market bags and children with their school books. It is hot and dusty today, just as I have always imagined Africa. We marvel at the sights, and fall into bed in the evening exhausted yet exhilarated.

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight travels to Uganda to help lions!

by | February 20th, 2015

IMG_6012Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

 Days 1-2

 Getting There…

Dubai

Dubai

We left SFO on Thursday Feb 12 at 4pm, to arrive 15 hours later in Dubai on Friday Feb 13 at 7pm. The astute among you may wonder about my math…nope, it’s not wrong – we’re just time traveling! During the long layover we learned some history while viewing the highlights of Dubai: the Al-Faruk mosque, Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world at 1820 feet), lavish hotels (rooms from $500 – $35,000 per night), and finally stopped to dip our fingers in the Arabian Sea at Jumeirah Beach! Dubai is a city of lights – strings of lights engulf entire buildings, drip from palm trees, and dance on top of towers, leaving us to wonder if Dubai’s residents ever experience stars twinkling in the night sky…and how different Uganda’s nights are likely to be…

Days 3-4

Still Getting There…

Back to the enormous, ultramodern Dubai International Airport for the second leg of the journey. Six hours later we arrive in a different world, complete with only one small paved airstrip, a simple airport terminal, and friendly Ugandan faces and voices. “You are most welcome!” we hear as we make our way through immigration. It is too late in the afternoon to drive to QENP, so we stay in Entebbe, a modern African city, for the night. Our guesthouse is comfortable and

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

welcoming, the back garden a mecca for multitudes of songbirds, geckos, and mosquitos!

Village children who climbed into the driver's seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Village children who climbed into the driver’s seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Day 4 begins before sunrise, as we meet our driver, Peter, to begin the 8-hour journey through the Ugandan countryside to QENP. Today is Sunday, and people are headed to church services, walking along the side of the road, the women wearing their finest dresses – the brightly colored fabrics are a sharp contrast to the general tan haze that hangs in the air. We pass villages with names such as Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ruburizi, each consisting of dusty red dirt streets, homes, shops, and lots of people on motorbikes. I feel a long way from home…

Typical Ugandan village

Typical Ugandan village

We make a final stop in a village just outside the park gates where Dr. Siefert will meet us. As if they have specialized radar detection, the village children appear out of nowhere, tapping at the windows, holding our hands, and asking for sweets. They are infatuated with our pale skin, earrings, Dr. Gottfried’s tattoos, and my toenail polish! Lucky for us, Dr. Siefert soon arrives, the driver shoos the children away, and we are ready for a conservation adventure.

 

(Still) Day 4

Work begins…

After a quick check-in to our simple hostel accommodations, we sit down with Dr. Seifert and his research assistant, James, for a briefing about the current situation in the park: these are the real African conservation dilemmas.

QENP is located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, covering an area of approximately 764 square miles of the Rift Valley Floor, including Lakes George and Edward. Most of the parkland is grassland savannah, with stunning views of the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains (on clear days). Featuring one of the highest biodiversity ratings of the world’s national parks, QENP is home to approximately 100 mammal species and over 500 bird species. Sounds like paradise, right?Ele dust bathMongoose in lodge

Unfortunately, this biodiversity is in severe distress. There is currently a drought in the park, huge sections of the park are burned, the lakes are overfished, and many of the apex predators have been poisoned by people in the surrounding villages.

We head out to track one specific lioness that needs her radio collar replaced. The changes in the park since I first saw it almost 4 years ago are shocking. The land is black underneath dry remains of grasses, with minimal new vegetation. A heavy gray haze hangs in the air – smoke from nearby fires. A few Uganda kob and gazelle stand amidst the charred area, quickly darting away when our research vehicle nears. Dr. Siefert remarks, “They never used to run away like that. They are more worried about us since the fires.”

We continue through the park, James, Dr. Gottfried and I on the top of the truck, antenna in hand, hoping to hear the lionesses’ signal. Ultimately this evening, we don’t find her, but we do see a few promising signs that not all is lost. A group of at least 20 elephants stops our progress down one section of road! Apparently, the elephant population has not been as affected as others by the changes in the park.

This first evening is a sobering reminder of why we are here. There is much work to be accomplished: change human actions, reverse the damage, and repopulate the park. As we debrief after tracking, Dr. Siefert reveals that these changes may be almost impossible to make in time to prevent complete extinction of many of the parks’ animals; however, he will continue the mission tomorrow – as long as tomorrows keep coming.

Tuesday Feb 17 (morning)

It’s another tomorrow…

Unfortunately, there’s very bad news this morning. A young male lion crossed the border from Tanzania yesterday afternoon and entered a village. The residents surrounded the lion and pelted it with stones. The lion retaliated and a villager was killed. At that point, the wildlife ranger had no choice but to euthanize the lion. Dr. Siefert had been called, but we simply could not get to the village in time to intervene and relocate the lion.Papa

In a somber mood, Dr. Siefert, James, Dr. Gottfried and I must take some tourists on a morning game drive to track lions. We drive deep into the northeastern corner of the park. On the way, our mood lifts a little…I spot a creature with a distinctive loping gait far across the savannah. It’s a hyena, returning to its daytime resting spot after a night of hunting! Hyenas are so critically endangered in QENP that Dr. Siefert knows of only 1 female and 2 males left. Maybe this sighting is a good omen?

For the next several hours, we partially forget the conservation challenges and enjoy the natural beauty of the parklands and the animals. We visit 3 groups of lions. Sharon’s group usually consists of 10 animals, both females and cubs. Today we see 3 females, lounging in the grass. The Uganda kob call out alarms while we observe, clearly nervous about the lion presence. The second group contains the three large males: Papa, Omukama, and Rudi. While Rudi keeps out of sight in the brush, the others lay in the sun, bellies bulging from the kill they must have made overnight. Finally, we move into a wetland area and find another group of 8 females and cubs, hiding from the midday sun in the brush, waiting to ambush any stray kob that ventures too close. Lions on the savannah can be difficult to see: Dr. Seifert points out another cub in the tree that even James missed while radiotracking!

Omukama

Omukama

It’s midday and the sun is beating down, heating up the savannah. We must leave this amazing place for a while, but today there is more positive energy. Despite all the challenges, some animals are thriving. Now we must press on to our next engagement…convincing the locals that this mission is worthwhile.

Next installment: village visit and meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority!