Tanzania field skills course: priorities and tensions in wildlife conservation

What did you get up to on this field skills course?

A male lion in yellow grass

For the trip we were collaborating with the Lion Landscapes team, who deal with human-wildlife conflict. The Lion Landscapes team taught us how they keep track of animals at an individual and population level, integrating information from tour guides and community camera-trapping programmes to create a feedback of benefits for the people living in proximity to wildlife and safeguarding the wildlife through preventative measures. 

There were also talks by representatives of the Tanzanian Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA), part of the government’s ministry of resources and tourism. They set out the differences in regulations between different protected areas such as the Ngorongoro conservation area and Ruaha national park, showing different areas of income in the region and giving us an overview of just how much land in Tanzania has some form of protection. 

Many of the Lion Landscape team members gave talks and practical advice, and their involvement allowed us to visit some of the local villages. In Tungamalenga we saw how various predator defences worked to keep their cattle and goats safe, from the traditional, mobile thorn bomas to sturdier and more permanent wire and canvas ones. Here we also learned how the lion defenders and conflict officers integrated information in online forms to record predator attacks to try and determine further preventative measures and reduce retaliatory attacks.

"Theoretical knowledge and even the sincerest love for something on paper cannot compare to experiencing the real thing"

It wouldn’t be a biology trip if we weren’t intermittently haring off into the bushes, aided and abetted by the senior researchers of the Lion Landscapes team, BenJee Cascio and Ana Grau Valenciano, and two faculty of the University of Dar Es Salaam, Dr. Chacha Werema and Dr. Jestina Katandukila. BenJee took us on exploratory walks around Hilltop to see baobabs damaged by elephants and Ana took us camera trapping in which we caught a lot of grass and half a kudu.

We took a trip with the Lion Landscapes team, Chacha and Jestina to Ruaha National Park. It truly highlighted the biodiversity which is absent in the UK, the plains crowded with giraffes and impala sheltering in the shade of the bushes while hungry Bateleur eagles wheeled overhead.

Chacha took us back to Tungamalenga to set up mist nets, catching some incredible birds such as the African Paradise Flycatcher, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus,

An african paradise flycatcher being held in a white person's hand

Grey Flycatcher and the ever-calling Ring-necked Dove, along with some very angry species such as the Drongo and the very destructive species Bos taurus. Later we put on our torches and mosquito repellent for a trip down to the river to find bats. We could hear them flying overhead, but catching nothing but a shy snipe and some black-headed weaver birds we went on a wild frog hunt downstream, the ground literally moving wherever you shone your torch.

Owen took us butterfly catching. While we attempted to identify the myriad of species caught in the nets over the course of the day he taught us how to handle and mark them. He then watched us run around like fools in the African sun after some incredibly fast butterflies, thrown off by the bright flares of inches-long grasshoppers.

What topics in Biology do you feel this course helped you to explore?

This trip explored so many aspects – the value of wildlife and its management, the difficulties in creating fair policies that safeguard both the natural world and the people that live alongside it, and the practical hard work that goes into conservation. It was also insightful to hear the same questions answered by so many different sides: the different priorities, struggles, and subtle misdirections. Along with that were the practical skills imparted to us: camera trapping, lion identification, and animal handling.

What did you enjoy most about the course?

Just how alive the national park was: the air full of dragonflies, the trees full of weaver birds, the grass full of antelope. It really drove home the fact that while true wilderness is rare there are many places that are still worth protecting even if they’re not quite wild. And I cannot forget Chacha’s failsafe method of pointing out interesting trees, which is to throw a rock at them.

Why do you think field skills courses are so important as part of your undergraduate education and experience?

I cannot stress how eye-opening it has been – theoretical knowledge and even the sincerest love for something on paper cannot compare to experiencing the real thing. It was an absolute privilege to work with such amazing people and have hope that our passions might one day have a real positive impact on the world around us. It was a confidence booster that was sorely needed as practical skills waned over the pandemic, and the connections we fostered both within our cohort and internationally were incredibly important. For too long science has rested in the hands of a few countries, input from the global south sought last-minute and in a token manner, and we cannot preserve the natural world we want without the change needed to expand conservation and education across all who seek to learn and protect.