Sunday, June 20, 2010

Take 2: Return to Serengeti

17 June 2010

To be honest, I don’t actually know what the date is. We are between time: moving forward, skipping beats. Leaping ahead 14 hours when we really should only saunter 6. We are somewhere between today and tomorrow, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it to come.

Almost 11 months to the day, I am once again heading into the future. I remember how new and fresh these moments were 11 months ago. I was an untried mzungu waltzing into the bush, some white chick from the American Dream suburbs, raised on lattes and cul-de-sac kickball, and almost reluctant to admit that I thought I might be able to say something insightful about lion-hyena-leopard interactions. But this time I am confident and cool…I am proud of what I have done so far and excited for what is to come. I have a study design that blends novel concepts with a cutting edge empirical pursuit. I have camped out surrounded by hyenas, I have tracked lions and been charged by elephants. I have my name in Smithsonian. I have more than a snazzy-sounding elevator-clip of my research to back up my plans. And, perhaps most importantly, I have money. Not only did I score a sweet fellowship, but I raised $24,000 in grants for the season - for even in academia, money makes the world go round. For the first time since graduate school began, I feel like I just might be able to pull this thing off.

Chasing day across the Atlantic, I am stunned by how different this flight is from my last. It feels small and cramped, and though the plane sits 8 across, we are all entranced in our own worlds – instead of appearing in the aisles, where we all feel guilty for blatantly ignoring the jaded attendants, the safety talk is given on our personal seatback tv’s, by a redhead with a little button nose and unusually prominent cheekbones. I remember her from my last international flight, with her weird wagging finger when she reminds us severely not to smoke.

My traveling companion has not said a word to me, though he gets “special meals” which means that they come 40 minutes before mine and waft alluringly while I wait, half-hungry and half-asleep, for my box meal and cup of wine. I waver in and out of sleep, still in stunned disbelief that I am really going back.

In just a few days, I will be driving out to the Serengeti, armed with nearly 200 digital camera traps (DIGITAL!!!) and 5 months of bug spray. This time, when people inquire what I am doing for my project, I will tell them rather than ask. I am still studying the mechanisms driving carnivore coexistence, but now I know how I am doing it and what the ultimate picture will be. I am using camera traps to collect empirical data on spatial and temporal patterns of carnivore habitat use with respect to their competitors – and I will assess spatiotemporal partitioning as a mechanism of coexistence. But it doesn’t stop there. There are a million mechanisms postulated for species coexistence, but few, if any, have been tested in systems like mine. So I will test for interference-exploitation trade-offs, I will look for costs incurred by one competitor on another, I will find the R* of a lion…All of this I will do by analyzing images from these cameras for the next 2 years. But right now I will sleep. Tomorrow is coming, but it is not here yet, and I will revel in today while it lasts…even if all it means is my little seatback TV and boxed meal on a plane.

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