Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Akagera National Park

An African sunset

This last week I have spent in the national park Akagera. I don’t think I have the capability to describe everything that happened and how incredible it all was. I was able to be a primatologist in the wild for the first time! What a spectacular feeling. I loved watching the monkeys, I don’t think I could ever get bored of it.

All 11 of us (eight students, two professors, and their son) spent six days camping in the wilderness on top of an escarpment overlooking a lake on the Tanzanian border. Akagera is similar to what you would think of as a “safari” land: acacia woodlands and savanna grasslands. It is a beautiful place. However, when the war hit the park went virtually unmanaged and poached killed many of the animals to local extinction. Currently, park managers are trying to rebuild the park’s ecosystem and tourism industry.
Baboon family

For the majority of the days we were there, we spent hours observing baboons and vervet monkeys. We would wake up early in the morning to a lovely breakfast including an omelet station prepared by the five-star chef we had hired. Then, we would go off to find the primates, seeing buffalo, waterbuck, and bushbuck grazing in the savanna along the way. Sometimes it took us quite some time to find a suitable troop of monkeys to follow and observe without them running away. The easiest groups were those closest to the villages within the park, as they have been habituated to humans. Observing primates in the wild for the first time was perfect. Within the first ten minutes of collecting data on baboons, I knew this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I couldn’t be happier. Both professors taught us so much in Akagera: how to collect demographics, GPS, individual identification, and various methods of data collection. My research theme for the trip is social systems with my partner, Maya. Maya and I decided to study how differing primate socioecology affects male and female relationships. We came up with a data collection system that involved three different methods and we were able to get some good observation time in to start the procedures. I am intrigued to see what results we will get at the end of the 30 days.
A couple of the nights once it was dark out, we would go galago hunting. We would drive slowly through the trees, shining our flashlights on the branches searching for pairs of golden eyes. A couple times we even got out of the vehicle to creep along the road (maybe not the most safe thing to do, but we survived!).

Our last morning in Akagera, we went on a boat ride around the lake. We saw blue monkeys for the first time through the papyrus stand on the lake shore, monitor lizards, and copious bird species. When our boat ride was up, we went to the park headquarters and I touched a little monkey for the first time: a young vervet named Jess! This adventure has been magical so far, and I know there is more to come!

The students

An African sunrise

Topi and Zebra

We spent one afternoon at the lodge pool


Primatologist in training!

Baby vervets playing

On the boat
Petting the vervet!

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