I spent half of my time in Rwanda, a country I had never been to before, as part of a study tour with Yale F&ES professor Dr. Amy Vedder. I chose to kick-off my field season in this way in order to gain new perspective on how conservation and development conflict, or complement each other, in varying sub-Saharan African nations – a perspective I wanted to bring to my field sites in Tanzania. We travelled to three of the country’s national parks: Nyungwe Forest, Akagera, and Volcanoes (Africa’s first national park!). All three parks lie on different national boundaries and are managed wholly different from one another, thereby offering excellent comparisons of wildlife management. Nyungwe unexpectedly became my favorite of the three. Nevertheless, I was very interested in visiting Akagera, Rwanda’s savannah park. The park recently reintroduced lions in 2015, following their local extinction in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For me, this reintroduction spurs many conservation genetics questions: How genetically different are the ‘founding’ population members? Which lions are producing the most cubs? What will the long-term genetic diversity of this population be? All things I was thankfully able to discuss with Akagera’s park manager, Rwandan government officials, and veterinarians.
In the end, I participated in a number of wildlife counts which aided in familiarizing myself with the village dirt roads, wildlife, and habitat types. I also assisted my field collaborators in placing camera traps, as well as reviewing the photographs that came from them. From these experiences, I learned that my study area starkly contrasts the lush green swamps of Tarangire National Park. Water scarcity in the dry season is a major threat to locals, their livestock, and wildlife in the area. I also did a number of bush walks – a thrilling time to test out field safety! On these walks, I was able to locate a number of lion and leopard tracks as well as carnivore scat. Promising signs for data collection next year!
My visits to Rwanda and Tanzania were critical in kick-starting the field proponent of my PhD work.
I was able to solidify field sites, collaborators, and some of the methods essential for data collection. I also saw the beautiful East African landscapes and wildlife that I have been missing in recent years. While I have a different road ahead of me now – reading, writing, and studying – I am already itching to get back in the field and get a major data haul in!