Friday, 23 March 2012

Ecology for safari guides

This blog was set up originally to be a resource for safari guides around east Africa, and I hope it still fills that purpose. (We're coming up to 100 posts soon, so that might be a suitable moment to see how well we're doing...) Over the last couple of weeks we've been talking with a bunch of folk about forming a society for Interpretive Guides which could develop and maintain a qualification for guides in Tanzania - at the moment there's nothing widely recognised in the industry. With the assistance of the PAMS foundation, we're collecting syllabuses and guiding standards from around Africa and trying to develop something that may be seen as defining 'best practice' for guides in the region. As part of this process I've been putting together the things that I consider guides should know about ecology, and I thought it might be interesting to post the rough ideas I've got here for comments. There's much more that will go into the syllabus of course, this is just going to help contribute to the ecology module we're putting together, there's got to be lots more natural history modules in the course, covering mammals, birds, reptiles, plants and all the rest. And there's also likely to be as much about guiding ethics, psychology of groups, etiquette, etc., as well as the hard skills like proper driving, first aid  and (if you're walking) firearms. So don't worry about those bits just now, I'm just doing the ecology bits.

So, here are my thoughts so far, I'm really welcoming comments of any sort - if you're a guide, what information do you find most useful about ecology? Does this look too easy/tricky to you? If you've been on the receiving end of guiding, what do you think? What did your guide know about ecology that you liked? What did you wish they could have explained? Any comments can go into a big melting pot of ideas and different syllabuses from around the world that will emerge, phoenix-like in a few weeks time in a draft syllabus. (And if the others involved are willing, I could post that here for later comments too.)

Ecology syllabus

The basics:

Students should be able to describe the four main processes are that shape the ecology of the savannah: fire, water availability, nutrients, herbivory

They should be able to give ecological reasons for burning in savannas and explain what some different plant and animal responses to fire are.

They should be able to describe the seasons in East Africa and show some awareness of the processes that drive them (including Lake Victoria).

They should be aware that mega-herbivores can maintain and change landscapes, but should also be aware that 'elephants destroy trees' is an oversimplification.

They should know the main habitats within the savanna biome (grasslands, Acacia woodlands, broad-leaved woodlands, kopjes, riverine and wetlands) and should be able to explain the distribution of these habitats in terms of the four main processes.

They should know the difference between a biome, a habitat and an ecosystem, and be able to give examples of each.

They should be able to give examples of birds, mammals and plants that are specific to (or more likely to be encountered in) each habitat – ideally I want them to be able to sit on a hill and plan a game drive to maximise their chances of finding things based on their understanding of ecology.

They should have an idea of the importance of termites and dung-beetles, etc., in recycling and concentrating nutrients.

They should be able to explain the Serengeti and Tarangire migrations in relation to nutrient and water availability.

They should be aware of the recent history of change in Serengeti animal populations.

More advanced things:

They should understand and be able to describe nutrient cycles – the Nitrogen cycle (including nitrogen fixing by bacteria) and the carbon cycle.

They should be able to explain how burning fossil fuels could impact the climate, describe the main impacts in east Africa (warming, and more variable rain) and should be able to translate this into potential impacts on east African wildlife.

They should be able to explain why northern Tanzania has two rainy seasons and the south only one in terms of ITCZ and the impact of El Nino on the short rains. They should be able to explain local rainfall around Lake Victoria.

They should be able to explain the water cycle and why some rivers are perennial whilst others only flow for short periods.

They should be able to explain the landscape of fear and how it influences the distributions of plants and animals.

They should be able to talk about evolution and explain (using an example) the concept of an arms race.

They should be able to explain how woodland and grassland can both be stable habitats for some savanna areas depending on starting conditions, with particular reference to mega-herbivores and fire.

They should be able to explain the rarity of carnivores in terms of energy pyramids and be able to describe a typical savanna food web, placing organisms in appropriate places.

They should understand the concept of keystone species and ecosystem engineers and be able to give examples.

They should be able to describe and give examples from the savanna of common ecological interactions – facilitation, competition, symbioses, etc.

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