December is one of my favourite times for field work in Murchison Falls National Park. Every morning, I head down to the edge of the Victoria Nile and look east as the red sun rises over the southern banks of the swift, broad river. In the fledgling day, before the temperatures reach their tropical potential, the air is still cool and often the soil is still damp from the last of the wet season storms during the previous night. Within these tropical savannas, changes between wet and dry seasons can potentially alter the entire landscape and shift the dynamics of the complicated community of living beings. Those changes are one of the reasons I come to Murchison Falls in December. During the latter part of this month, the wet-season storm clouds typically dwindle as the landscape transitions into the dry season. I am here to see how these changes can influence this beautiful ecosystem, specifically through the lens of giraffe population ecology and spatial ecology. So as I stand on the banks of this storied waterway, I embrace this morning routine as a quiet, contemplative prelude to coming long rewarding day fieldwork. I'll be spending the next 11 hours systematically driving the network of game tracks looking for giraffe photographing them as part of a seasonal demographic survey.
During these surveys, we aim to find and photograph as many unique giraffe in the Park as possible. These efforts have already yielded some interesting findings: since the inception of our surveys over a year ago, we have documented over a thousand unique giraffe throughout the Park, which represents a considerable increase over previous population estimates. In addition to accurately monitoring population size and composition, this protocol affords us a rather unique opportunity to note the location and health of individual giraffes throughout the park. We drive every passable track in the North side of the Park and cover some serious ground in search of unique giraffe. This pursuit not only puts us in contact with hundreds of giraffe, but it also gives us ample opportunity to witness firsthand the effects poaching on the Park's wildlife.
On its northern edge, Murchison Falls National Park is bordered by agricultural plots and a number of large communities. Additionally, Lake Albert and the Albert Nile comprise the Park's western border, allowing relatively easy surreptitious entry into the Park by boat. This close proximity of wildlife and human occasionally leads to conflict; indeed, illegal snaring of wildlife is a serious issue along the waterways near the adjacent communities. Park rangers have described the narrative of the poacher: they sneak into the park under the cover of darkness, using the river as their highway, and set wire cable snares to catch wildlife for bush meat. Although the wires are likely set for smaller antelope, these cables traps are notoriously indiscriminate and just as easily ensnare giraffe and elephant.
During our giraffe surveys, we have noted snare wounds and scars on approximately 2% of all giraffe in the park. On multiple occasions, I have also witnessed elephants with severed trunks and
three-legged hyenas; victims of the illegal traps. Despite the heroic efforts of Uganda Wildlife Authority Rangers to find and remove snares from the parks, poachers continue to reset the snares at alarming rates.
On most occasions, we only witness the aftermath of the snares on giraffe - scars around fetlock, swollen joints, and in one particular giraffe, a severed leg - but from time to time, we observe giraffe with the snares still attached. Giraffe are incredibly powerful animals and they are apparently sometimes able to rip the snare from its anchor and drag the cable from the legs or necks.
During this particular round of surveys, we spotted three different giraffe with wire snares tangled around their legs or neck. On two of the giraffe, the snares had only made superficial cuts on the skin, so if the cables were removed quickly, the giraffe likely would not experience any disfigurement or infection. The third giraffe was a bit more unlucky in that the snare appeared to have broken the skin and was slowly cutting through the underlying tissue. This particular giraffe also appeared to have an older snare wound on the same leg as this new snare...a rather unlucky individual and an unfortunate illustration of the state of affairs of snaring in the Park. Fortunately for these giraffe, however, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has a professional veterinary response unit that is well-seasoned in combating these situations. We reported these giraffe to the veterinary staff, who quickly came together to devise a plan to remove the snares and medically treat these giraffe.
Murchison Falls is Uganda's largest national park, so searching for three specific giraffe among the hundreds of giraffe that inhabit the vast savannas is a bit of a daunting task. Since our team had most recently observed the snared giraffe and knew roughly where to expect these individuals, we offered our assistance to track the giraffes for the veterinary staff, who would then tranquilize them, remove the snares and medically treat any wounds. With the plan in place, we went to work tracking and quickly locating the first giraffe. The UWA staff assembled and with a practiced professionalism they approached the giraffe in their LandCruiser. Propelled by compressed C02, a dart filled with a tranqulizer cocktail shot from the veterinarian's gun and embedded in the muscle of the giraffe's front leg. Even from a distance, the tell-tale bright pink stabilizer on the dart shown against the shoulder, indicating a successful hit. Within minutes, the giraffe began to show the effects of the tranquilizer and the rangers carefully moved in on foot to rope the giraffe and bring it to the ground as gently as possible.
As soon as the giraffe was on the ground, the team quickly set to work in removing the snare and treating any evident wounds. While part of the team used large bolt cutters to liberate the giraffe from the cable snare, others carefully restrained the head and monitored the giraffes breathing as the head vet prepared and administered the reversal drug. With astonishing speed, the veterinary team had removed the snare and treated the giraffe for its superficial wounds. After a few minutes, the task was complete and the rangers gave the giraffe a wide berth as it recovered from the tranquilizer, quickly rocking itself back to its feet and groggily galloping away from the site. One snare down...two to go.
On this particular day, the giraffe were extraordinarily (even if unknowingly) cooperative and we managed locate the other two giraffe and remove their snares within three hours.
Our seasonal demographic surveys are designed in part to monitor and inform conservation strategy on the time scale of giraffe reproduction, which may be measured over the span of years. This long-term monitoring is essential to understanding the factors that contribute to giraffe population
growth, but in instances such as this one, it is indeed rewarding to see the immediate conservation benefits of our work in Murchison Falls National Park.
Within the span of two days, we were able to observe snared giraffe, assist in their immobilization and help with the removal of the snare, thus ensuring that these giraffe would not fall victim to the indiscriminate traps. Throughout this process, I was continually impressed with the dedication and dexterity of the UWA staff. Working at the front lines of wildlife conservation in Uganda, these skilled professional are tireless in their mission of protecting Uganda's natural heritage.