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Ecosystem Surveys for Conservation Prioritisation

Chimpanzees and other wildlife are distributed across western Tanzania. Despite extensive efforts by us and other groups to understand distribution patterns, localised and regional threats, and reveal broader patterns about disturbance and habitat connectivity, knowledge gaps remain.  

Currently (2023-2024), we have secured support from the Arcus Foundation and Frankfurt Zoological Society to conduct surveys across the GME. See below for a first blog from survey leader Devon Thurston and James Parsons. More soon!

Site 1: Kajeje 

Our first survey site, Kajeje, was a short (9 day) trial run for the team. Ideally each survey site will last between 2-4 weeks, and when living out in the bush (polini) so remotely for a long period of time, it’s definitely crucial to know the right protocols, and to have enough food to last! We hiked ~9km to our campsite from our basecamp for the year, the GMERC research station situated in Issa Valley. Thanks to the field assistants employed at basecamp, we were able to carry all of our gear with us! 

We successfully created a cozy little campsite in Kajeje valley, situated (luckily) right on the bank of a river. Each campsite is dependent on some kind of proximity to running water, as we need reliable and safe drinking and washing-up water. It’s only just the start of the dry season here in Tanzania, so I expect the task of finding campsites will become harder as the months go by, until we get the first rains of rainy season in October. 

      Once we established ourselves in Kajeje, we spent our first day deploying camera traps and audio sensors throughout our surroundings. This is an important element to the survey work, since there is definitely a different variable chance of recording wildlife using remote technology. While we try to be as quiet as we can (and keep all disturbance to a minimum) during our transects, most wildlife species living in an environment full of threats (e.g. snakes, birds of prey, big cats, and poachers) have evolved to be hyper-vigilant for any signs of danger. Simply put, most wildlife will run away from us long before we are even aware of their presence. The camera traps and audio sensors are far less imposing, and when placed in the perfect spot, are a fantastic way to learn which animal species are living in the area. Plus, the cameras can catch some really interesting natural behaviours, when the animals don’t know they’re being watched and let their guard down a little bit : - ). 

     Once the camera traps/audio sensors had been deployed, we began our transect days. We split off into pairs each morning and hiked to a randomly placed transect point. Along the way, if we ever saw signs of wildlife or human presence, we recorded this information in a separate ‘recce’ file. Reconnaissance data are just as informative as line-transect data, and help us as researchers collect and analyse much more information about the ecology and wildlife abundance of each survey site than if we were only collecting data during our transects. 

      Pictured (clockwise from left): Our fantastic cook, Leonard, preparing some cabbage and tomato to eat with rice and beans for dinner one evening. Photo by J. Parsons]; Some ‘jungle graffiti’ on the edge of a human path, spotted by J. Parsons while walking to the start of a transect (e.g. recce data)]; some of the team walking to transects, on this day our two beginning transects were located in the same direction from camp and we were able to share the first half of our walk together as a team. Photo by D. Thurston]; The beautiful and immense Kajeje valley! Photo by D. Thurston].

 

 

 

Depending on the terrain of Kajeje (many mountains and steep hills), and the distance from camp, each pair performed 1-3 transects each day. We record all observations of chimpanzee nests, along with all other evidence of wildlife and human presence. For example, in Kajeje we recorded and photographed all the dung and/or animal tracks we encountered, animal vocalisations (e.g. screaming baboons), tree carvings (pictured on the top-right), and poaching evidence such as snares or even man-made wooden tables (which we did find – in the middle of the forest).  After 9 days, we completed our transects and collected our camera traps and audio sensors. Everyone packed up camp, taking everything we had brought with us and leaving nothing behind. We got some help carrying everything back to basecamp and said goodbye to Kajeje. It was a great trial run, and a beautiful way to start the survey work for the year (and I’m proud to say, we brought just the right amount of food!). 

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