Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why we’re here

Previous field research for the Lake Tanganyika Ecosystem Project has been based out of Kigoma, Tanzania’s biggest port on the lake. But earlier this year, Pete and Yvonne were approached by The Nature Conservancy to assess our interest in a field collaboration with them, Pathfinder International, and Frankfort Zoological Society at Mahale Mountain National Park.

When Pete asked if Benja and I were game, the answer was a unanimous HELL, YEAH.

Mahale is probably the most remote and least-visited of Tanzania’s national parks, mainly because it’s so damn hard to get there. It’s mostly frequented by the insanely wealthy who arrive via airplane (rooms at the 2 nearby safari camps cost $1000/ and $500/night respectively) and adventurous Lonely Planet types who brave their chances with local $2 water taxis (not a typo. Actually TWO dollars…) and stay at the park camp for $30/night. Along with Gombe, the park is famous for its population of chimps (the largest in all of Africa!), but it’s also home to a host of all the other wild animals and plants people come to Africa to see.

The purpose of our involvement is to develop a baseline for what conditions are like in the nearshore community before the instigation of the Tuungane Project (the giant collaboration between the 3 entities).

The reason the Tuungane project exists is ultimately to protect this incredible place, since preliminary household surveys revealed depressing statistics regarding the villages adjacent to the park:

1.       Half the population in the villages is under 15 years old, and a virtual population bomb awaits (a large population coming up with limited resources to support them.)
2.       There are 6.7 people/family (that’s the highest in the world…).
3.       130/1000 children born since 2006 didn’t survive until their 5th birthday.
4.       The villages have poor access to health care, and family planning is virtually non-existent.
5.       Household income comes from farming and fishing, and herein lies the problem:
Farmers clear the surrounding forest of trees to make plots for growing crops. Deforestation leads to increased sedimentation, and all that loose sediment ends up in the lake. Extra sediment covers the algae growing on the rocks that supports a large number of the grazing fish species (and the rest of the greater food web) and chokes out fish breeding sites. Fewer fish that can’t breed = fewer fish in the ecosystem = fewer fish to catch.
So they cut down more trees to make bigger plots of land to grow more food (a dangerous and unsustainable spiral).

I’ve heard this story before, as it’s a pretty common phenomenon worldwide. But even though I’ve read about it, it broke my heart to actually see it. We picked research sites inside and right outside the park, and the difference was astounding.

So our role is an important one, and it feels really great to be part of a team that will hopefully have a positive impact on this gorgeous piece of paradise.  

And over the course of 13 days, it’s become one of my favorite places in the Whole Wide World. I honestly don’t know where to begin, but here are a few of the wild events that became the new “normal” for us during our stay.

1.       Animals. Everywhere. All the time. Baboons on the roofs of our bandas, stalking and encircling us while we ate our meals outside, and chasing each other through the camp. Warthogs and bush pigs digging through the garbage heap outside the kitchen. Hornbills and kingfishers, vultures and herons, and countless other birds I couldn’t identify doing flyovers and fishing while we worked. Duiker and dik dik and mongoose silently maneuvering through the forest.

2.       Two hippos set up shop on the beach where we launched our boat each morning. We gave them a wide berth when taking off for work, and they (fortunately) never gave us any trouble.

3.       CHIMPS came down to the water and curiously watched us work collecting specimens for stable isotope analysis. Another small family group was waiting for us at the boat launch when we arrived at home one night after a long field day. We followed them through the forest in our wetsuits…

4.       Water cobras swam with us each day and mostly just tried to avoid us. Spottings are a Very Rare Phenomenon in Kigoma, but here they were spotted by multiple team members on any given day. They Are Awesome.

I probably wouldn't be so calm if this one wasn't dead. He got caught in a gillnet, and we took the opportunity to sample him for the stable isotope food web (and look at his fangs up close).

5.       The cichlid community was larger in size, occurred in higher densities, and was more diverse than anything we’d seen previously. It was pure bliss getting to swim and observe all of the incredible fish that live in the protected paradise of Mahale. I never want to get out of the water…
This picture doesn't do it justice, but it's all I have at the moment. It's a giant emperor cichlid (the biggest cichlid!) at 10m, and I've never seen any this big.

6.       CROCODILES! I never saw one of these, but one of our study sites was the place the park takes visitors when they want to guarantee a croc siting. Pete spotted one during a night dive (Our Fearless Leader takes wild chances at times…), and the WSU team saw a little guy before they started their diving for the day.

Our fearless leader...

Calling it a day and heading home
7.       Most people don’t realize it, but this lake truly has magical properties. It has the power to take away my crabbiness by the simple act of dipping my sore and exhausted soul into its waters. THAT is a miracle. 


  1. love it!!!!!! thanks for sharing girl (and making me even more jealous ;-)) In 2 years Mahale needs to be incooperated in the travel plan, I knew it, now even more sure!!

  2. Your life is so amazing! I can't believe the wildlife! I don't think I would go in the water knowing there were water cobras near by. You are fearless!