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.