Weekend Feb 21/22
No rest in research…
Well, a little rest this Saturday morning. We meet James at 7am instead of the usual 6:30am for the next sample collection endeavor. We need samples from prey species (kob and waterbuck) that live very close to human settlements, in order to compare their stress levels with those in more remote sections of the park. James takes us to multiple places near the hostel, and we spend several hours deciding which piles of feces are fresh or old (yes, I really went to vet school in order to do this)!
A few hours into sample collection, James receives another disturbing call from Dr. Siefert regarding a local pastoralist. Early this morning, the man’s dogs alerted him to a predator in the area. Unfortunately, a leopard was attacking and consuming one of the man’s calves. We arrive at the village to inspect the dead calf. The left hind limb has been skinned as if with the sharpest of butcher knives and much of the meat has been removed. James confirms that this is the typical pattern of a leopard kill. The resident is kind, saying that he believes that all animals belong in the park, but is visibly troubled that his expensive asset is now gone.
One mitigation technique UCP uses in situations such as these is partial monetary compensation, in hopes that villagers will not retaliate and kill the predator. From donations given to UCP, we offer this resident 250,000 shillings ($90), which is approximately half of what the calf is worth. The man is grateful for this money, and plans to sell the remaining carcass to another village to help recoup his loss. (As pastoralists, these villagers will not eat meat.)
As we drive away, luck strikes again…on the road in front of us is a distinctive pile – a predator fecal sample. The green glove goes on, and I pick up the little present that the leopard left behind. On the way back to the hostel, James pulls out the antenna in case there are any lions nearby. The luck continues! We find Sharon’s group of females and cubs lying near a thicket, one cub still gnawing on the fresh remains of a kob. We observe for a while, and notice another prized fecal sample. When Sharon walks away, we slowly close in, cubs no more than 5 yards from the truck. James leans out of the door, scoops up the sample as we keep eyes on the lions, and we escape with our smelly reward!
Back in the lab, yesterday’s sample dehydration challenge awaits. Dr. Seifert has procured the hot plate, but problems persist. We spend the afternoon creating a hot plate oven; re-wiring the European plug to a Ugandan plug, buying a pot from the lodge, locating non-melting plastic cups in which to place our sample cups, and finally finding a working outlet in which to plug our creation. With a test sample in place, we break for a late dinner, planning to check on it in a couple of hours. By 9pm, our efforts seem to be paying off. The test sample is 2/3 evaporated with no sign of melting plastic. We place the real samples in the oven and call it a night.
After our usual breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast, Sunday morning we walk to the lab to check the samples. Thankfully, they dried overnight, so we load the last samples, including the precious lion feces, into the oven to dry for the day, weigh the recently dried ones, and make preliminary calculations. Later in the afternoon, we return to check the last samples. Another setback. Our small Eppendorf tubes have melted into the plastic holder, ruining several samples. Feeling a little disheartened, we set up some more experimental tubes and decrease the oven’s heat. Hopefully tomorrow will be more successful. Thus are the trials of science and conservation.