Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Power Tools.

I spent my Sunday playing with power tools.

Five years ago, if you had asked me how I would spend my eventual destiny in Serengeti, I would not have said “crouching in front of an Acacia tree with my rechargeable 18V Bosch Impact Driver. “ But that is what I’m doing. And although in general, I prefer to be tracking and watching any of our 327 lions – especially the roly-poly cubs as they play with their mother’s twitching tail-tuft – lagbolting my steel camera cases to the gnarled Acacia, Commiphora, and sausage trees imparts a degree of satisfaction and accomplishment that watching lions has yet to give me. Here is something tangible. I have just made my 13th camera-trap hyena proof. Take that, you big ugly puppies.

See, I have 200 camera traps across 1,000km2 of our 2,800km2 study area. These are remote, automatic cameras that are triggered by a combination of heat and motion – so they take pictures, night and day, of any animal I could possibly want to study. Elusive leopards, slinky cheetahs, ambling aardvarks, blank-faced tommies, curious baboons…and of course, lions and hyenas. I’m using these cameras to assess how the top carnivores are using their habitat with respect to each other, trying to understand how behavior and environment coincide to drive their patterns of coexistence. Except that from Day 1, hyenas have been relentlessly eating my equipment. I can’t begin to describe the devastation of arriving at a camera site - after having crossed korongos and woven my way through dense whistling-thorn thickets, fighting off the tsetse flies with flailing arms and strings of obscenities – only to discover that the camera is gone. The nylon strap is there, dangling loosely around the tree, and bits of plastic have fallen into the thorn-moat that I hoped would keep curious carnivores at bay. But no camera. Sometimes I find it, chewed like a rawhide bone, 30 meters from the tree. Sometimes I can retrieve the data from them. Other times, like today, the cameras are just gone. 6 weeks of data – disappeared.

After losing almost 90 cameras this way, I returned for my second field season armed with, yes, new cameras, but more importantly, heavy-duty steel cases and my new prized power tools. Two hardened-steel lagscrews through the back of the steel case, and the camera is going nowhere. I test one out, just to see – pulling on the camera in all different directions, as a particularly determined hyena might do – but the camera doesn’t budge. Success! I feel like I should blow the smoke from the barrel of my 18V impact driver, like a gunman in the Wild West. It’s been a long, hard road initiating this camera survey, but things are finally looking up….and I can finally sleep at night without worrying about the fate of my cameras like an overanxious parent.

Friday, March 25, 2011



It would not be a trip to TZ without some sort of drama. With 15 minutes before boarding, I was kneeling on my hockey-bruised knees on the cold blue tiles in front of the Delta desk. Around me were scattered camouflage steel cases, calcium supplements, lacy pink underwear.

I had exactly 221 lbs of luggage. Exactly 11 lbs over what I could fit in 3 bags. And even though the Delta rep claimed that Delta would happily of let me go overweight with a nudge and a wink, the rest of the world does not allow bags >70lbs on board. I think she was lying.

The vast majority of these 221 lbs was camera traps – steel and camo, they looked suspicious and malicious, and I painstakingly wrapped them in delicate undergarments and feminine products, hoping that shy Tanzanian customs agents wouldn’t push past the embarrassing intimate items if they did check me on that side…

Of course, all of this painstaking packing was quickly undone. I watched in dismay as TSA dismembered every single artfully packed checked bag. I wonder what went through their mind, these camo colored explosive looking boxes, nestled next to kitten heels and a strapless dress; veterinary darts cuddled up to pink tissue-paper wrapped valentine’s day presents…One of them worked up the nerve to ask me what I was doing. “Studying lions,” I explained, with the briefest of explanations about Lion Project and Serengeti. My plane was boarding and I had yet to make it through security… The TSA agent nodded knowingly…”So you’re a missionary?” I squashed the urge to stare at him like he was a moron. Pissing of security agents is not typically advised.

So I smiled. And eventually the agents packed my bags, rolling their eyes at my incessant cries of “please put the pink fluffy things on top of the cameras!” And by feigning first class tinged with authentic desperation, I was allowed to the front of the security line and made it through in a matter of single-digit minutes. Deep breath. Now I just had to make it to Arusha with all 221lbs of luggage intact…

It begins again: Wet Season Survey 2011

As I leave Minnesota, winter seems to be already breaking. Amidst the national mid-winter heatwave, mountains of snow are melting, turning the roads into rivers and the hockey rinks back into lakes. For the third time, I am watching cheesy movies across the atlantic, fast forwarding through day and night, racing the sun eastward across the ocean and winning by 30 lengths like Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes.

Except this doesn’t feel spectacular anymore. I am on my way to Tanzania, once again, with 240 lbs of luggage catapulting around the belly of the plane. My back feels thrown and the plane feels cramped, and the woman sitting next to me snorts and sniffles like some Sesame Street character.

After three weeks of delays, I’m finally heading…home? I’m dreading – just a bit – the madness that awaits me in Serengeti. A solid three weeks behind, I have 200 traps to place in the next 10 days….which happens to be humanly impossible.

See, my research relies primarily on camera traps – remote, automatic cameras that are triggered by heat and motion, attached to trees so that they take pictures of wildlife night and day. On the street they’re known as “hyena bait.” On my street anyway.

Yeah, that’s right. I’ve discovered that hyenas are like big ugly puppies – the world is their chew toy. However, unlike your neighbor’s cute, squirmy blue heeler, hyenas have no responsible owner to say “No! No demolishing the $200 camera trap!” Last year alone, hyenas ate nearly $10,000 in cameras. I would arrive at my excruciatingly selected camera site to find bits and pieces of plastic, the stray LED, a fragment of circuit board…just no camera. Elephants took down about $5,000 in cameras, but with minimal destruction. They typically ripped the offending trap from the tree and flung it out of site. Those cameras usually worked, with some minor case modifications. But the hyena victims? Beyond repair.

Given the abysmal loss rates from the first year of this ambitious (crazy?) camera trapping study, I am now returning to the Serengeti with replacement cameras and heavy duty steel protective cases…which happen to way about 1.35 tons apiece. That might be an exaggeration, but the point is that they are very, very heavy. And hopefully hyena-proof.

It is dark outside, though the fancy seat-back TV map says we are smack dab over the Atlantic. I feel like my mind should be racing with plans for my research, or meandering down memory lane – but mostly I am thinking about how good the red wine tastes, and how tired my eyes feel. The night outside seems endless, the world feels far away and frozen in time – like Zach used to do on “Saved by the Bell” – and in my alternate reality I slip guiltlessly into mass-market movies, into staring blankly out the window, the wine wrapping its velvet fingers around my fraying neurons.

I have a million things to do by…yesterday, but my brain is tired and does not want to work. I do not want to think about where on earth I put my hard drive, or the fact that I have not yet filed my taxes despite my imminent disappearance into the bush. I want to fade into the bright, apoplectic flashes of the action movie’s runaway trains or the feel-good underdog story of the horse that could. When I get to Serengeti, it will be a flat-out race against the rains. I want to get my cameras set before the rains keep me hamstrung for days at a time. Today is Feb 19; the rains start at the beginning of March. Can it be done? I guess we’ll see when I get there.

Friday, July 30, 2010


It's nice to have connections. I got to go in a balloon ride over the Serengeti.

Granted, it was *very* early in the morning

But no matter. Still freakin awesome.

"Oh Dear GOD, We are going to DIE." Part II.

“Oh Dear God, we are going to DIE” Part II

I have been convinced of this fact many times during my short stay in the Serengeti. Whether it was upon being startled awake in my tent by the sound of nearby lion roars, or attempting to cross the yawning abyss of the Ngare Nanyuki river in our 1980’s era landrover, my brain fights a turbulent battle against my sympathetic nervous system. Intellectually I know we are not going to die. In the Serengeti at least, lions do not break into tents, even though they are kind of like twinkies, a plastic yellow shell with soft human marshmallow stuffing. And the Ngare Nanyuki, even though I cannot see the ground below me as we drive forward, has been crossed many times before. Norbert laughs at me sometimes, “Ali,” he says, “Do you really think we are going to die? To die is hard work.”

Today though, as I sit frozen, staring at the smooth cement in front of our bathroom door, my brain knows that one wrong move, and someone actually could die. The texts and calls roll in. “GET OUT. Go to Cheetah House if you have to. GET OUT of the house!” Writes Laura. “Close the door with a pole and break the window so it can escape.” Writes Anna. I talk to Megan on the phone. “I don’t want to leave,” I say, “because then I don’t know if it has really left.” She agrees. It is either a Cobra or a Black Mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and it is hiding in our house.

I liked snakes when I was a kid. I still do, actually. I think I have my mom to thank for my strange affection towards these scaly, slithering creatures. Unlike many moms, she had no fear of them, often rescuing them from the middle of the road where they had ill-advisedly decided to sun. We had a 6-foot long garter snake in our backyard for many years, and tried to catch him and tame him on many occasions. He always broke out of the terrarium and slithered off into the oaks and maples and poison ivy. My only mishap was when a tiny baby green snake bit in the soft tender tissue between my pudgy child fingers. Even the rattlesnakes I’ve almost stepped just curl up into themselves and give a halfhearted warning and watch me leave. Unlike spiders, which give me this involuntary, visceral shudder – what a friend calls the spinal heebie-jeebies – snakes spike my curiosity. Somewhere there is a picture of me, as a toddler, in Bali or some other exotic location, with a 12-foot boa constrictor curling around my mother and me. I like snakes.

Until now. In Tanzania, poisonous snakes are the rule rather than the exception. And the poison here makes rattlers and copperheads look like as mild as a paper cut in comparison. I did not know this until speaking to a friend who had grown up in the bush. Making conversation, I once asked her what animal I should worry about the most, as I go about my days in Serengeti. I expected her to say buffalo or elephants – both of these are ubiquitous, aggressive, and unpredictable. I am more likely to run into a buffalo or elephant than a hippo, which kills more people than any other mammal; and these are more likely to attack in daylight than a lion. But without hesitation, she blurts out “Snakes. Black Mambas.” There is no question in her mind. Walking off paths is dangerous because you cannot see what reptilian bringer of death might be lurking underfoot. Apparently, so is walking around in your house.

The snake in our house is easily 6 feet long, a deep charcoal gray. It is almost certainly a black mamba. I was catching up on updating some lion photos on the computer, singing along to Josh Ritter, with my back to front door. George and Norbert were coming home soon, and leftovers were warming on the stove. The strange swishing noise took some time to sink in. It wasn’t a coming car, and it wasn’t the wind. It wasn’t any part of the normal animal chorus that plays outside our house. Finally, I stand and turn to investigate and catch the thick gray shimmer of a snake undulating across our cold cement floor. There is no visceral shudder that shakes me, just the cold, knife-like stabbing fear. If a black mamba bites you, you will be dead in less than an hour. I am no more than 10 feet away from one of the most dangerous animals that I will ever encounter. I hold my breath and watch it slither into the bathroom, and then I make the calls to those who have been here for many more years than I. I close all the other doors in the house, and then climb up onto the table, off the ground, and watch the smooth, empty cement in front of our bathroom door. I am still waiting. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. 60 minutes. George and Norbert promise they are coming, that they will bring our next-door neighbor JumaPili to help. Yet over an hour later, they still do not show up, do not call. It is one of those many moments that I am more than a little annoyed with the lackadaisicality of Tanzanian culture. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. 60 minutes. It is now 3pm. The malaria retrovirals are making me dizzy and I want to curl up in bed, but I’m not sure where this snake is. Eventually the men show, armed with kerosene and a long pincher-pole. The splash the gas in the hole that runs beneath the bathtub, where the snake is almost certainly curled up. Eventually it will tire of the smell and leave. So they say.

So life goes back to normal, more or less. George starts to wash vegetables in the kitchen, I return to staring at the computer screen. Craig calls to talk about permits. “Oh, the snake,” he says. “It’s probably just a spitting cobra – not that poisonous, really. If you catch it in the face, just wash it out. You’ll go blind for about 12 hours, but nothing permanent. Least of your worries. Now, can you please send the data for…” he goes on to talk about permits and data analysis. I am only half listening, and with the corner of my eyes I am watching the cold, smooth cement outside our bathroom door, smelling the antiseptic aroma of kerosene.

Least of my worries? I can think of a million things that I am less worried about than the spitting cobra hiding beneath our bathtub. But okay, I am not going to die today. Which is good, because I have way too much work to do.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


“Oh Dear God, We are Going to DIE.”

I remember that phrase on constant repeat in my head during my unprepared and ill-advised ascent of the Polish Tatras. I had decided to climb a mountain in late May with little more than a t-shirt and ultralight rain jacket – the kind that costs an arm and a leg because it weighs no more than a paper clip and fits in a tea-cup - a coarse park map and no compass. Just as I was convinced of my imminent demise then, I am now. “Oh God, we are going to die.” I mutter it under my breath to myself as the ancient Landrover steering wheel ricochets between my hands. We are on the long road from Arusha to Serengeti, and I am convinced that at any moment the wind will blow us straight off of the fresh tarmac. Even on the best road in the district, the landy pulls and sways, as though yearning for the ditch along the road, and I constantly remind myself to breathe as I focus hard on staying straight. Daladalas stuffed with passengers pass by effortlessly but I am scared to turn my head lest I lose my tenuous grip on our straight path forward.

It is June 22, 2010. Today I am 27 years old, crossing that bridge from “mid-20’s” to “late-20’s,” and while I joke about how my bones creak and short-term memory is fading, I am still too young to die. Meshack laughs quietly beside me – he is our prized fundi, our expert mechanic, and is making the long trek to Serengeti for no other reason than to make sure that I (and the car) make it there in one piece. “Tuende!” he says, motioning forward. Let’s go. I gulp loudly and clench the wheel tighter. There really is no respite from the terror – on the open tarmac I have to go faster; as we slow for villages there are pedestrians and bicyclists, peddlers and Maasai and livestock that weave alongside the road erratically, and I am convinced that at any moment one of them will meander into the path of my Monster Truck. Winding up the gnarled and pockmarked Crater road are blind turns and oncoming trucks that only further the terror of the already perilous ascent. I am torn between the urgent need to reach the park gates before they close, and my desire to remain alive and in more or less one piece. When we stop at the Crater rim (in part for Patriki to take a picture, in part for me to try and restart my heart), Meshack glances at his watch nervously. Ever so gently, he offers, “Maybe it would be faster if I drive?”

I almost kissed him. The passenger seat in a Landrover has never felt quite so luxurious – before or since – though I still question my lifespan on a daily basis from the driver seat. For example, George, my coworker on the Lion Project, has been teaching me to drive offroad. “It is just fine,” he assures me as we begin to climb the veritable of dusty soil and clumpy vegetation. Except when it is not fine. As we circle and spin and weave through aardvark hole-ridden hilltops, I can see him clutch the window frame suddenly in panic, his foot involuntarily slamming down where the break pedal should be. The landrover falls into the abyss where ground once was. Ka-thunk. I hold my breath and resist the visceral urge to slam on the accelerator and clear away from the danger as fast as I can. The landy keeps chugging forward, powered by the magic that is low-range. The rear tire plummets to the depths of hell and haltingly crawls back out. We are alive. Barely. George laughs. “Avoid that green grass!” he reminds me. I am lost – it’s all green. “That’s green!” I point, “and that! And that over there!” It is all green and it all looks the same, but George sees some magical difference. I’m told that in time I will see it too. In the meanwhile, however, I maintain my running commentary. “OH dear GOD, we are going to die!...oh, okay, we’re okay. OH GOD that’s a hole! Oh, okay, we are alive. That’s just grass.” Except when it’s not.

Saturday, July 3, 2010