When Peter Jones bought Ndarakwai Ranch in the mid-1990's, it was heavily overgrazed. It had previously been a British cattle ranch during the days of the Tanganyika Protectorate, and the Tanzanian government began to manage the ranch in the 1960's. Since then it had fallen into disrepair and mismanagement, leaving hardly any ground cover, and few shrubs or trees. Since the land was privately purchased twenty years ago, the grasses are recovering and many of the native acacia species have returned and matured, and with the vegetation has come wildlife. We've seen zebra, impala, eland, warthog, wildebeest, elephant, genet cats, civet cats, blue monkeys, Syke's monkeys, vervet monkeys, baboons, and bushbuck.
While many parts of Ndarakwai have recovered significantly, understanding the many factors that contribute to landscape change in this environment is important to understanding how to successfully manage dry savannah environments. In order to understand this change, we identified 10 random points, five inside and five outside of the reserve, and had the students perform vegetation plot analysis around these points. They recorded the percent of ground covered by vegetation, recorded the number and type of woody species, and measured crown diameter of the shrubs and trees to determine how much of the ground is covered. After several dusty hours around the area and a couple of snake sightings (at safe distances), students returned to camp to analyze and present their findings.
These measurements can in turn be used to confirm data garnered through satellite imagery, and current satellite images can be compared to past images to examine the change in the distribution of grass and shrubs/trees over time. The vegetation plots that the students identified will also serve as baseline data when we return in future years.
Penn State Science's partnership with the Nelson Mandela Institute in Arusha, Tanzania, which gave birth to the amazing undergraduate course that we are currently involved in is featured on Penn State's homepage. Check it out!
Direct observation of the behavior of individuals and groups of animals is how many of the pioneers of animal behavior studies (Iain Hamilton-Douglas, George Adamson, Richard Estes, etc.) developed in depth knowedge of particular populations of large social animals.
One of the reasons that we have chosen the spectacular Ndarakwai Ranch to be our base for this first week of our course is that we have the amazingly rare opportunity to walk in the bush. This allows us the ability to observe wildlife without driving around in a noisy, dusty safari vehicle (which is, however, also fun). Yesterday morning we divided the students into two groups of four for animal behavior studies. This afternoon, one group will observe a troop of baboons for two hours and the other will spend two hours observing a group of impala. Tomorrow morning the groups will switch animals and then present their findings to each other, providing some contrast between the AM and PM activities of both populations here.
We headed out at 6:30 AM this morning to learn how to safely walk in the bush. After a brief introduction, we focused on tracks and signs (dung) as ways to learn about animals when they aren't even physically present. The opportunity to walk in the bush is rather unique and enabled by the fact that Ndarakwai is a privately owned ranch, and that we have instructors and guides experienced with walking in the bush.
As we focus in on animal ecology, students were each assigned an animal that they have already seen or will be seeing. They are preparing oral reports this afternoon on the behaviors and ecology of the species that they will present this evening in front of the group.
After a spectacular breakfast, we had a lecture from Anna Estes on the region, history, and savannah ecosystems. also, the owner of Ndarakwai Ranch, Peter Jones, stopped by to share the history of the ranch and his vision for the conservation of its resources.
After lunch, we had time for a short rest and then met for tea around 3 PM for a game drive out across the ranch. By the time we arrived at the treehouse to watch the sunset, we'd seen zebra, impala, elephant, eland, and wildebeest, along with a variety of birds, and a (non-poisonous) bush snake.