by Sam Baraso -- July 20th, 2011
So I’m just going to have to go ahead and skip some overdue entries to get on record today.
For a quick history, we have been working with our village game scouts over the past couple months in order to formalize a monthly wildlife count so that we may start monitoring wildlife populations in the communal village lands. After several practice counts, we finally conducted our first monthly wildlife count over the past two days. They consisted of two cars covering the southern half of the village on Tuesday, and two cars covering the northern half Wednesday. For reference, our village is 550 square kilometers.
Travelling in one car was Laly and Emily with Gerard and Meliyo, two of our game scouts, while Charles and I traveled with Samson and Sokoine, the other two scouts. On the first day of transects, Charles, Samson, Sokoine, and I were lucky enough to see a honey badger at 6:38am as our first sighting soon after daybreak. We happily continued knowing our day had been made regardless of our other findings. As expected, the remainder of our transect was lackluster, sighting only a few different ungulates. On our way towards camp, we placed a call to the other car probing about their sightings only to have them hold out.
Back at camp, we all meet where the ladies tell an elaborate story of spotting wild dogs. Just as I was on the verge of tears at the missed sighting, they profess the truth. Some time passes, we all agree on the honey badger as the best sighting and we began to discuss the following day’s competition.
The rules: the best carnivore sighting (in line with our program focus). If no carnivore is sighted, then the best diversity of species wins. Ambiguous rules? Likely. We pick our routes, the ladies picking the national park boundary transect, while we pick the one furthest from the park. Charles jokes about using the bait of a local hunting company to sight our winning carnivore.
Early the next morning we begin our respective transects. Just as we start the GPS units about 200 meters from camp, we hear a lion roaring. We pause scanning around for any looks. Debating going off-transect in search of the lion, we agree that we must continue with our transect properly as we had just begun.
About two hours passes and we had sighted several Greater Kudu, Dik Dik, Impala, Giraffe, Ostrich, and Zebra but no carnivores. With a little over 3km left we were confident the ladies would beat us out on diversity as the park boundary is known for plenty. We discuss amongst the scouts if they know of any place nearby to spot a winner… nothing. Two kilometers from the end we begin to drive past a farm with great line of sight. Charles stops the car and glasses the field with his binoculars (we later find out that he had hoped to spot Eland which are commonly found there). Thinking he’s seen a cheetah, he asks our lion researcher, Dennis, to take a look. Confident it’s nothing (except Charles’ wishful nature) I stay seated. Dennis then states he thinks it’s a leopard.
About 2 km from the end of our first official transect, we decide it’s worth taking the transect into the field in search of the big cat. We pile the truck over several 3-ft high terrace barriers until we are about 1.5km into the field when Sokoine motions to our right just past a large acacia where about 15 meters from us are two cheetahs on an impala kill. We cut the engine and freeze, yet the cheetahs have already looked up. Cautiously, they return to their fresh kill. In the silence, we can hear them tear apart muscle as they have already cleaned the prime organs.
About 10 minutes had passed when we began to talk quietly. Realizing they had become more comfortable with our presence, I grabbed my camera and began taking photos. As our program is involved with cheetah conservation, it was necessary that I obtain identification shots (unique spot patterns/scarring on the face). However, the cheetahs were using the car as a shield of sorts and rarely looked our way. So Charles carefully started the car and moved us to the other side. At this point, we were less than 6 meters to the nearest cheetah.
30 more minutes had passed when we decided to text the other group and inform them about our definitive win… no response. We then pick up the phone and dial them. Emily picks up and excitedly proclaims they just saw a cheetah attempt to hunt eland and are off their transect in search of the cat. Surprised we tell them about our situation and our whereabouts. Just as our cheetahs finish their meal, the two ladies and their scouts arrive. They tell us about their many herbivore sightings, the unidentified lost cheetah and a slender mongoose.
We all enjoy the cheetahs for a bit longer and eventually begin heading back. Charles, excited by our luck, decides to take a “back-road” so-to-speak. It takes us quite a bit longer, yet in the thick brush we pass a black-necked spitting cobra which beautifully rears up 3 ft. off the ground, hood spread. Another great sighting and an amazing end to the morning. So the big question… who won?