|Pedro Muagura, Director of Conservation, Parque Nacional da Gorongosa.|
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Along the stream atop the Muromedzi waterfall we sat watching the production of seedlings. The preparation of soil for each seedling was done with the caring hands of a midwife. The volunteers and Park staff sat in this rich earth and sang songs of Mt. Gorongosa. The songs were accompanied by the sounds of flowing water and the birds in the surrounding trees. The scene gave us hope that this mountain can be healed from the cutting and clearing that has taken place by farmers pushing further into the forest.
Pedro Muagura oversees the seedling production and planting, and the other forty nurseries on the mountain. This single nursery has the capacity for nearly 100,000 trees. Muagura is the Conservation Director of Gorongosa National Park. He is like one of the great trees of this mountain which he fights to restore. He stands tall in leading his mountain scouts with the charisma of a military general preparing for battle. Muagura also adapts to the changing conditions of the mountain as he is one day working with a BBC film crew and the next he is apprehending poachers in the Park. As he sings one of the mountain songs of conservation with his forest managers he exudes the spirit of this beautiful mountain that goes deep, like the roots of this forest.
Muagura showed us a variety of trees in the nursery. He and his staff strive to match the diversity of forest lost by slash and burn agriculture. He is connected to the trees in so many ways. Muagura named one of his daughters Bridelia, after the this beautiful Bridelia tree that grows in the montane rainforest.
Seeing the movements of the volunteers and mountain staff in the nursery showed us the entire procedure in preparing the trees for reforestation. For each seedling a recycled plastic sugar bag is filled with the rich mountain soil that has been pre-sifted for roots and rocks. The bags of soil are packed in tight rows on the ground for the specific tree species to be planted within. Some of the young seedlings are later placed under a thatch-covered platform that provides a shaded area matching the shading effect of the forest canopy. As the seedlings continue to grow they are shifted in position along their row in order to break the root ball forming outside the planter.
After about 2 ½ months in the nursery, the seedlings are ready to plant on the mountain. Muagura and his scouts conduct extensive patrols across the mountain in part to target areas that require restoration. We had the good fortune to travel with Muagura and his forest managers and many volunteers to take some of the seedlings up the mountain to an area of cut forest covered by old maize crops. At the base of the four-kilometer ascent up the mountain each seedling was removed from its soil and planter and wrapped in fern leaves. We then meandered up a narrow trail around a small village through freshly burnt landscape and then up through lush green montane rainforest. After passing dense understory on the steep slope we came to a sterile region full of dried maize plants with barren tree trunks that stood like skeletons on the crest.
On the crest the team began their work by laying out a guiding rope in this well-managed planting effort. Muagura pointed out the specific areas to be planted at the edge of the intact forest.
The approach to this devastated section of mountain was depressing, for us visitors. However, the work of this amazing group of people gave us all hope. We had hope that the remaining forest will be preserved. We had hope that the tree-planting will restore lost habitat. We had hope that these beautiful people will continue to sing their mountain songs.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
The Gorongosa scout unwrapped the smoked meat from the bound-up reeds and the flies came in immediately to the charred pieces of flesh and exposed bone. It was hard to tell there were two animals on the ground before me. It was even more challenging to tell what species they were. The scout in his dark green fatigues with Parque Nacional de Gorongosa arm patch leaned over and picked up a larger and flatter piece of meat. He turned it over and I could recognize that the split-open head was that of a reedbuck.
|Reed buck, bush buck, snares, and machete.|
The scouts had been at an outpost on the edge of the Park and had located the two animals hanging dead in a tree in a poacher’s camp. The poachers were gone. However, in the area the scouts had picked up 36 wire snares. In the camp were also a machete and a spear. Typically a spear like this is used to put away an injured animal trapped in a snare.
A major struggle with the effort of restoration in the Park is the continued poaching or illegal hunting of wildlife. The rangers and scouts here are doing excellent work but the Park is huge. There are currently 24 outposts spread across the perimeter. Each post has 2 to 4 scouts, but more patrols are needed.
|Inspecting one of the largest of the gin traps confiscated in|
the Park with Gorongosa science technician Luis Oliveira.
One important item about bushmeat that I stress with my students working on the African Bushmeat Program is that “bushmeat” is a misnomer. The concept of illegal hunting applies to fish as well. This showed up in Gorongosa last week with a poacher’s camp along Lake Urema. It didn’t have dead antelope but dead fish. Lots of fish. The camp had hundreds of catfish laid out on the grass. Two fisherman were seen on approach but they deserted the camp as the scouts arrived. I was able to see the fish when they were brought back into camp to dry. This confiscated meat was not to be discarded but actually kept to feed the local community.
During our helicopter survey the other day we actually passed over an illegal fish trap set up along a stream coming in to Lake Urema. The traps were made of woven reeds and looked fairly elaborate. I had a thought that such traps could actually be sold in the Chitengo gift shop for tourists. I found out that Greg had tried this but no interest showed up. Sure would be a nice turn to take these traps off the river and sell them as art for more money than could be brought in from the fish.
|Illegal fish traps leading to Lake Urema.|
An important idea we are working on related to poaching in the region is to reinforce the value of a live animal over a dead animal. This is something that we hope to build on with the local Community Education Center (CEC). I am trying to develop some lessons around the concept with Adrienne McGill of the CEC during this expedition. We hope to have local school children take this important lesson back into their own communities. The value of the animal for ecotourism is a hard thing to measure but we think the idea can be of huge value in helping curb poaching. Post a comment if you have an idea on reinforcing this idea.
We would like to announce the release of the latest chapters of the biology textbook E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth. This release includes four physiology chapters:
Skeleton and Muscle
Circulation and Respiration
This rich physiology content, brought to life with stunning visuals and interactive animations can be downloaded from iTunes with the original Introduction and Ecology chapters for $1.99. Once downloaded, the book can be viewed on an iPad 2 or iPad 3.
|Screenshot of iTunes release of the latest chapters.|
Friday, May 25, 2012
There is probably no better place to contemplate evolution, animal behavior, and conservation than Gorongosa National Park. This is why we are developing these chapters for E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth during this expedition. The past few days we have been developing stories for each of these sections. Yesterday we filmed Ed for a section on human evolution. It was incredible to set this up on the edge of the floodplain surrounded by fever trees at sunset.
|A local butterfly visits Ed for a display of behavior.|
|Morgan chats with Ed about the next phase of the book.|
Today we focused on animal behavior. Once again the biodiversity of the region lends itself to this topic. Actually, everyday has been filled with stories of animal behavior. Whether it is the conquest of an ant colony over a termite colony on the move, or a monitor lizard seeking out crocodile eggs along the river, this place is full of interesting animal interaction. Great inspiration.
|Sunset after shoot; (l-r) Ed Wilson, Morgan Ryan, Bob Poole and Jay Vavra |
(photo by Kathy Horton).
It has also been great to work with Bob Poole again. Many around this project know his filming of Africa’s Lost Eden and the recent National Geographic release War Elephants. Every trip is an adventure with Bob and his wife Gina riding in the elephant-proofed Land Rover with no doors or windows. In terms of filming, he always knows when to shoot, where to shoot and how to shoot it anywhere in the Park. He also makes every trip a good time. Bob is a man of the bush. Ed commented that Bob’s hell would be being forced to live in a high-rise in a major city being unable to leave that city block.
|Bob Poole wraps up the set on location near the Lion House.|
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Gorongosa National Park was a key component of the initial chapter released for E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth. Many more people have now toured the Park through this platform as over 700,000 have downloaded our book as of 5 weeks ago. Besides being a case study for rebooting an ecosystem, our project is about showing how complex and diverse geographic features shape a multitude of eco-regions throughout the Park and the surrounding area. This geographic diversity supports the incredible biodiversity in Gorongosa.
|The bands of slacks and levees along the Pungue River tell the story of past|
flooding and changing courses of this river on the southern boundary of the Park.
Yesterday we had an opportunity to analyze and document these features with an aerial survey over a large section of the park on a approximately 450 kilometer circuit that we took with the helicopter. Project director Morgan Ryan and I were led by science director Marc Stalmans and pilot Mike Pingo. We recorded the route with GPS (point/ 3 seconds). Morgan and I shot photos of unique geographic features, prominent vegetation, human occupation, and wildlife. I shot over 1,500 photos along the way. It was incredible to view the scene with the doors off the helicopter. I was even able to lean out and step on the strut for particular shots. Fortunately Bell helicopters have secure seatbelts that prevented us from being a lion’s or crocodile’s next meal.
|Crocodiles along Lake Urema as seen from the open door.|
|We spotted 3 lionesses and two cubs in the center of the Park, about 30 kilometers|
from Chitengo. This was a region where lions hadn't been sighted before.
This work is part of the E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth project and will also provide material for digital media that can be used for future visitors of the region that will bring maps to life with photos and video. Much of this is supported by the Moore Foundation. In particular we hope to show areas of Park that cannot be accessed by most.
|Not far from Chitengo we saw nearly 30 blue wildebeest which was a great sign|
of recovery. It was also a scene right out of a Lascaux Cave painting.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park
My first thought was “hammerhead ant.” Small black hammerheads appeared to be moving quickly over the soil. The nest within the rotting wood had been overturned and the workers were out on defense with mandibles spread. This was not a harmless carpenter inhabiting an old log. The first bite on my hand spoke its name: the trap-jaw ant. The pain was sharp and unlike any ant I had yet felt. It made me rethink the bare-handed scooping of dirt that I had been doing.
|This "hammerhead ant" has extended its mandibles in preparation|
of grasping this little termite.
These trap-jaw ants (genus Odontomachus) happen to have the fastest moving feeding apparatus of any animal. Actually, they have the fastest recorded movements of any animal. Not only do they use these lightning speed mandibles to feed, but the force released can also propel them backward and so they appear to jump.
I also happened to observe them getting their favorite prey, the termite. The slow moving soft-bodied termites had little chance with these hammerheads. This was really more like watching great white sharks taking in plump elephant seals resting on the surface of the ocean. The trap-jaw ants feasted and returned to their nest with many a termite.
|Odantomachus seizes dinner.|
The first bushbaby has called out and it is only 9:15 in the evening. Why, oh why does the bushbaby cry into the night? Some believe it is to gather in group members to sleep for the night in the hollow of a tree or in a protected nest of leaves. Those on this expedition miss curling up with group members in a nest. We’ll be home soon, but there will be a few more adventures first.
Tomorrow will be an ecosytem survey by helicopter to assist in telling the rich story of biogeography in this Park.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park
A secretary bird was sighted by safari guide Jeff Trollip from Explore Gorongosa. Birders and safari enthusiasts of East Africa have seen many of these birds throughout excursions to Kenya and Tanzania. Not so for Gorongosa. These birds were relatively easy prey for the hungry soldiers inhabiting the region during the 12-year civil war. We have seen plenty of snakes, lizards and grasshoppers that should be supplying food this specimen and relatives who may be on the way. This is an excellent sign that life is returning to Gorongosa.
|Secretary bird foraging in Gorongosa National Park (photo by Jeff Trollip)|
The cheetahs we observed last year in the quarantine boma were released into the park several months ago. Yesterday one of the males and was spotted this morning taking down a reedbuck. He is clearly healthy and presently well fed. Additionally there is plenty of food available for his stay in this park. Hopefully he will be hanging around the place.
A major component to the re-wilding of Gorongosa National Park is the Sanctuary. This is a large fenced-in refuge for animals that are being introduced to the region, mostly from South Africa. The Sanctuary provides a region free of predators, well-protected from illegal hunting, and with adequate food for the rapid population growth of these key animals that were eradicated in the war here.
|Giant kudu (above) and waterbuck (below) in the Park.|
Today was the Sanctuary census day. The count was done in order to understand the productivity within the Sanctuary and to plan the introduction of the animals into the Park. The chief scientist of the Park, Marc Stalmans, along with pilot Mike Pingo led the count.
372 Blue wildebeest
193 Cape buffalo
68 Sable antelope
364 Common reedbuck
9 Lichtenstein’s hartebeest
11 Grey duiker
4 Red duiker
There was general excitement around these numbers. There are likely more individuals than the above numbers because of the large size of the Sanctuary and trees within which provide cover for the animals. The plan is to start releasing some of these animals into the larger Park to boost the restoration process.