One of my favorite places to collect elephant dung samples is in the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. In fact, Maasai Mara is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. My research compares differences between elephants that enter farms and eat crops and those that do not. The samples I collect in Maasai Mara are from elephants that do not crop raid and because of this I call them my “control” samples.
While I enjoy going to Maasai Mara, it is very difficult to get there by road from where I live. We have had a lot of rain in the area and that turns the dirt road into very slippery mud. Normally it takes one hour to drive to Maasai Mara, but it took us three hours because our car got stuck in the mud several times along the way!
It was well worth the extra time, because the wildlife we saw was amazing. Once we entered the reserve, we saw a lioness taking a nap under a tree. Lions are very lazy during the day when it is hot and you can often find them resting in shaded areas. We drove on only to come across a male cheetah sitting atop a dirt mound- wow! Then he got up and started walking, and came within 5 feet of our car! It was hard to keep quiet, but then we followed him down the road. When he came across a puddle we watched him hesitate and tip-toe around it as if he did not like getting wet.
Next we saw a family of elephants. Elephants live in female family groups that are led by the oldest female called the matriarch. A group of savanna elephants typically consists of the matriarch, her daughters and their calves. Males leave the family group when they are about the age 12, and they can form groups with other male elephants. We were watching this group of elephants eat mostly grass when all of a sudden the matriarch started leading the family to a new area. Elephants can communicate in infrasound, which means that they can vocalize to one another at a level below what the human ear can detect. The matriarch may have used infrasound or another cue to tell her family that it was time to move on. Scientists have spent many years observing African elephants and while much is known about their communication, there is still a lot to learn!
I have been given special permission to exit the vehicle while in Maasai Mara to collect my dung samples. Because this area is home to many wild animals, I have to be very careful when doing so. My field assistant, Elizabeth, keeps watch for any wildlife when I am outside the car. I park very close to the sample and collect it as quickly as possible. I am very cautious and have never felt in danger thanks to the people I work with keeping a good watch out for me.
While we had a rough start driving to Maasai Mara, we ended up having a very successful sample collection day. Of course it is always a benefit of the job to see such incredible wildlife in their natural habitat! I don’t have time to describe all the animals we saw, but here are some pictures to show you.