Tracking large carnivores in Tanzania

Sarah Durant

Keeping track of large carnivores in Tanzania is a tricky task that's vital to their survival. ZSL scientist, Dr. Sarah Durant, blogs from the Simanjiro Large Carnivore Survey. 

Two African lions in Tanzania
Two lions spotted during the survey

Seeing a big cat in the wild is one of the most thrilling experiences nature has to offer us. Big cats epitomise power and beauty, but they are rare and elusive, making them extremely difficult to find.

One of the challenges for big cat conservationists is finding out how many big cats and other large carnivores still remain, and identifying areas important to their survival. 

Fortunately, like us, large carnivores prefer to use paths and roads to travel around, where they can move quickly and easily without being hampered by thick vegetation.

In any area with large carnivores and a smattering of dirt roads, it is not uncommon to find their footprints imprinted on a dusty track, even though its owner may no longer be visible.

This explains why, over the last two weeks, I, together with my World Conservation Society and Panthera colleagues (Charles Foley, and Philipp Henschel) have been driving very slowly around Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, with two members of the Hadzabe community mounted on the bonnet of our car.

Sarah-Durant with the Hadzabe trackers.
Hadzabe trackers, Mkindi (team leader), Philipp Henschel (Panthera) and Dr. Sarah Durant

The Hadzabe are the only remaining hunter-gather group surviving in Tanzania, and are expert trackers.  

Our plan is to count large carnivore footprints across a large area of the Simanjiro ecosystem in northern Tanzania to provide, for the first time, a baseline of large carnivore abundance and distribution in the region. 

Tanzania supports good populations of all six of Africa’s large carnivores: lion; leopard; cheetah; African wild dog; spotted hyena; and striped hyena.

Already we have been able to find animal markers, like footprints, trails or droppings, known as spoor, in all six species, even though we have seen only two of these species during the survey.

Measuring Lion Footprints
Lion footprints are bigger than you might think

We use the frequency of spoor to obtain an index of abundance while, by dividing up the 30,000+km2  survey area into grid squares, we will estimate how much of the ecosystem still supports each of the large carnivore species.

Many parts of the area are remote and without tracks (necessary for spoor tracking), and so we will also be using interviews of the local communities to supplement these data.

This survey will not only provide us with baseline information on large carnivores across this vast ecosystem. But is also intended to be part of a monitoring strategy within a USAID funded project to safeguard Endangered Ecosystems of Northern Tanzania.

Two African elephants
Elephants are herbivorous and famous in the Tarangire. Sometimes the trackers had to come inside while we passed them.

This project aims to conduct a number of management interventions to promote coexistence between wildlife and people across the landscape.

In three to four years’ time we will continue the progress and once again join the Hadzabe trackers and take to the dusty roads of Tanzania with the hope of seeing larger carnivore footprints.This will help us to assess the effectiveness of activities in conserving large carnivores in the ecosystem.

Tanzania harbours nearly half of Africa’s remaining wild lions, and significant numbers of the other five large carnivore species, including a large proportion of the world’s second largest cheetah population. Thus it has a critically important role to play in the conservation of Africa’s large carnivores. 

By safeguarding one of Tanzania’s most important ecosystems, this project will make an important contribution to safeguarding Africa’s large carnivores as well as other threatened wildlife.

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