Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Conference insights

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed spending the week at a combined meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and the Society for Conservation Biology's African chapter, here in Arusha. Now Arusha is not particularly a hub of scientific activity, so if you're an academic, far from colleagues any conference is going to be worth attending, and an international meeting of these two groups is probably a one-off opportunity (in fact, it's the first time ever the ATBC has met in Africa, let along Tanzania. One could wonder where the tropics really are...). So, for four days I was eyeball deep in science once more. Along side the talks, I was organising a workshop on fire and burning Serengeti, then last week I was teaching a course associated with the conference, so I decided to give talking at the meeting a miss this time (not to mention the fact that the abstract deadline once again caught me unawares...), and was able to sit and enjoy lots of interesting things. I'd have blogged about the highlights whilst they were happening, had I not been too busy with other things in the evenings. But now I've got time and am looking back over the notes, thinking I might summarise a couple of interesting facts I learnt today, and maybe some more tomorrow.

So. A talk by Damian Bell from the Honeyguide Foundation (about which all Asilia guides should already know, of course), was the first that had me reaching for my notebook. He had to hand some useful facts directly relevant to conservation, one of the 10 things I think worth talking about when there aren't any lions. Most striking to me were some figures from TANAPA's annual report (from 2007, as it happens, but I doubt they've changed much since then). TANAPA - the Tanzania National Park authority that manages all of the National Parks in Tanzania - had revenue of 69billion TSh (that was about $42,000,000 US) in 2007. This will almost all come from gate fees and bed fees - not a bad income. Of that, of course, TANAPA pay 50% in tax back to the government, but the bit that struck me was the fact that only 1.8% of the income in spent in local community related projects around the protected areas. It seems self-evident that if local populations don't see some benefit from conservation - and financial benefits are surely the most direct - then they're no going to be particularly supporting of the National Park when things are under pressure. So to see just 1.8% heading back to the communities seems extraordinarily short-sighted.

It's not good on village land either - 60% of revenues generated by villages for wildlife related things goes straight to Wildlife Division, leaving only 40% for the villagers. And things are only a little better for Wildlife Management Areas - 60% of the revenue generated by a WMA stays local (40% goes to Wildlife Division), but from this the WMA has to fund all the protection and visitor access things, so it's still not clear how much will actually be felt by local villagers.

Damian also had some interesting figures on quite how much benfit the tourism industry can generate aside from conservation fees - Grumeti Reserves are currently spending $30,000 on fruit and vegetables to local farmers each month. This sort of tourism-related revenue clearly offers massive benefits, well over and above what could come from TANAPAs 1.8% investment. So it's clear that tourism can play a vital role in financing conservation - without it, there's no way we'd have the parks we do today. But, of course, tourism also needs to be controlled if its not to cause more problems than it solves. Though that's a story for another day...

The next talk that had me scribbing was the final answers to his PhD research into the Wildebeest migration into and out of Tarangire National park, by Dr Tom Morrison. Tom started by reporting the staggering decline in Wildebeest numbers from this ecosystem - between 1990 and 2000 the numbers dropped from 43,000 to only just over 5,000. Today Tom tells me there are between 2500 and 5000 remaining. Of course this is nothing to the numbers of wildebeest back in the 1960 when we know the decline began. Tom's focus has been trying to determine where, exactly, the migrant wildlbeest go and how much movement between calving areas there are. We knew that animals from Tarangire go to two main areas - via Manyara Ranch up to the nutrient rich grasslands on the way to Lake Natron, and out east of the park to the Simanjiro Plains. It has also been suggested that animals might move to Lake Manyara National Park too, so he went there for good measure. Tom didn't want to just know where one or two animals went, he wanted to know them all. And he wanted to know if the same animal might switch from place to place each year, or if they always went to the same area. So he couldn't got for the most expensive option of satellite tracking all the animals - instead he decided to take photos.
Wildebeest showing their stripes whilst on the move at Mwiba Game Rance, Feb 2011.

Just like zebra stripes, wildebeest stripes on their flanks are individually recognisable. So Tom and his colleagues made a clever computer program that will search through thousands of photos and match pictures of animals with the same stripes. All he then needed to do was take lots of pictures in Tarangire and all the breeding areas over several years and join the dots. Five years and 9000 photos later, he's managed to trace movements of 900 animals - that's a significant proportion of all the animals out there - and he discovered some interesting things. Firstly (and probably most importantly) the Tarangire population is a single population - about 18% of animals did switch calving grounds between years. Animals calving in Simanjiro one year may well calve up at Natron next year. Next he confirmed that the animals in Manyara National Park are more or less resident, living there all year around, with very little interchange with the animals calving near Natron.  But the result that seems most surprising to me is that the only thing that really determined whether or not an animal would switch calving grounds one year to another, was if it calved successfully. If I'd been asked to guess before hand, I'd suggest that an animal that calved successfully one year would want to return to the same place to calve again the next year, whereas an animal that failed might decide to try somewhere else next year - but Tom showed that the opposite occurred and more switches happen after successful calving than after unsuccessful calving. Very strange - any ideas anyone? Disease? Who knows... He also showed that successful calving has a cost to females, with them having a lower survival in years when they calve - that wouldn't be any surprise to anyone who brings up small children if they had to live in an area with lots of lions and constant distractions too!

Anyway, very interesting things, I'm sure you'll agree! Hopefully something to pass on to visitors too.

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