As Regional Carnivore Monitoring Coordinator for West and Central Africa, Marine Drouilly shares her amazing experience setting up camera traps to study wildlife in Senegal’s Niokolo Koba National Park. Working alongside the Directorate of National Parks and Panthera Senegal, she reminds us of how working together, we can ensure a future for some of Africa’s most iconic wildlife.
I open my eyes. It is pitch dark outside. A quick look at my watch shows that it is almost three in the morning. The temperature is still in the high twenties (°C). I quickly get out of my mosquito net and step outside the little earthen hut that I am using for the night at the “Camp du Lion” ranger post in the heart of Niokolo Koba National Park, Senegal.
I am careful not to shine my light across the camp as my field technician, Robin Horion, and my partner, Kai Fitchen, are sleeping outside. The guttural grunt resonates again. It comes from the middle of our little camp, where the kitchen pots have been left to dry for the night. The dark sky of the African night does not allow me to see what creature is rummaging through our provisions. My curiosity wins out and I switch on my headlamp.
In the dusty beam of light, I catch sight of a single bright eye, a strong and stocky body, all black. The legs are short and muscular, the paws powerful, the tail curled up. It’s a melanistic honey badger! He glances in my direction but must decide that I am not a threat (it’s a honey badger after all, he doesn’t care!) or worthy of any interest. He thus resumes his sniffing around the campfire, in case we forgot to clean some of last night’s dinner. After thirty minutes of this lucky observation, giddy with excitement, I tip-toe back to bed.
As the Regional Carnivore Monitoring Coordinator for West and Central Africa, my current task in Senegal is to set up a camera trap survey across a large chunk of Niokolo Koba National Park, a 9130 km2 protected area in the eastern side of Senegal, bordering Guinea and close to Gambia. To do so, I can count on the help and support of Robin, Kai, the park authorities “Direction des Parcs Nationaux” (DPN) and the staff of Panthera Senegal.
My project is part of the Leopard Program led by Dr. Guy Balme. Over the next two years, Robin and I have been tasked to establish the status of leopard populations and their prey in five possible strongholds for the species in the region: W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Complex straddling Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger; Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal; Taï and Comoé National Parks in Ivory Coast; and Mole National Park in Ghana. Currently, we are hiking hundreds of kilometers to set camera traps in this under-appreciated landscape in the middle of Niokolo Koba in search for leopards and other elusive species.
Although leopards have a vast geographical distribution, their population trend is decreasing across their range and almost no research have been conducted on the species in West Africa. Yet, we estimate that these big cats have lost 86-95% of their historical distribution in the region, which is double what they have lost on the continent as a whole. Establishing baseline data on the species, its prey and the threats to its populations is thuscrucial for the self-sustainability of the species in West Africa.
My alarm wakes me at 5 am. It is still dark outside. After checking our equipment, Kai, Robin and I jump into the field vehicle, along with three heavily armed rangers accompanying us for the day. We have a 30-kilometer drive on rocky dirt roads before we can start hiking. Soon, the sun rises and with it, the temperature. It is the end of the dry season in Niokolo and every day is a scorcher. The land is thirsty and its color palette remains in the shades of browns. Even the bamboo forests have lost their green tint, replaced by a yellowish tone.
“Should we collect this one or is it too old?” Kai is pointing at a big greyish pile of poop (called scat by scientists) he found in the middle of the trail. A close-up examination shows that it contains hairs (probably from an antelope) and some bone fragments. Its shape and size make us hypothesize that it is that of a lion. Lions are Critically Endangered in West Africa, with only about 250 adult individuals remaining on 1.1% of their historical range in the region.
Lion numbers are unknown in Niokolo Koba and part of our mission is to try to identify as many individuals as possible through camera trap pictures. The species may also be genetically distinct from the other African lions, meaning that they are particularly important to protect. Robin is already approaching with the full collection kit: surgical gloves, a tube half-full of silica beads, a zip-lock bag, stickers, a marker, and the GPS unit. After taking the GPS coordinates that I record on the tube, zip lock bag and notebook, I collect the scat with the help of Kai, while Robin takes a picture for future reference.
Although scat collection is not the most glamourous of tasks a field ecologist may conduct during her outings, it is a very easy, cheap and non-invasive way of gathering a great deal of information on rare and elusive species like leopards. For example, scats can be used to get DNA samples, to study the diet and health of the individual who left the scat, to sample stress hormones or to estimate the abundance of animals in a population. For leopards (and lions), we are interested in extracting DNA from scats to assess population size in the Park and to study the diet of these large cats.
We are also collecting elephant dung to help identify individuals for other projects undertaken by Panthera Senegal. The elephants of Niokolo Koba have been very badly hit by poachers interested in their meat and tusks, resulting in a strong decline of the species in the Park. On March 25, 2021, the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to poaching for ivory and habitat loss. With the help of our camera traps, we know that there is at least one individual remaining in the Park, but we are hoping to find more thanks to the DNA extracted from the dungs collected.
The day continues and as the sun hits us with its blazing rays, the savanna becomes quiet. Only the clinking of the anti-poaching team’s machetes breaks the silence. After several kilometers following well-trodden buffalo trails, we arrive at a small waterhole where we spot some lion tracks, also called spoors. The area is not often patrolled, it is far from any active ranger posts and the Park resources are thin. Sagna, our head ranger, looks grim:
“The poachers probably stole your cameras. No one patrols here.” He said so by pointing at fresh tracks of bicycle that poachers use to carry the meat of the antelopes they shoot in the Park. Poaching is the biggest threat to wildlife in Niokolo Koba, as in many other protected areas of West and Central Africa.
After a few hundred meters more, worried that our cameras would have been stolen, we find them on each side of the bicycle tracks. No one took them! Hurrying, I insert the micro-SD card in my tablet: “No way! Is it what I think it is?”, the first few pictures are those of a pack of wild dogs! The canids are running and playing, so the pictures are blurry, but it is excellent news because the species is listed as Critically Endangered and the Niokolo Koba population is the last one surviving in West Africa.
“They are still around!” Sagna laughs with joy. Without our camera traps, it would have been almost impossible to record the number of wild dogs in that area. They are wide-ranging, elusive species that avoid contact with humans, just like the Park’s leopards. The other pictures display a beautiful and healthy male leopard, a new individual that will be added to our database; a few porcupines; and five poachers pushing their bikes, packed with bags full of their night harvest. After a closer examination, they are carrying fish and nets, not antelopes, leading us to believe that they are illegal fishermen coming from a village several kilometers away.
Over the last few years, Panthera Senegal has teamed up with the DPN to intensify the anti-poaching patrols in the Park and notably in an area that was once completely abandoned due to lack of funding and resources. Thanks to our help, herds of buffaloes and various species of antelopes have slowly reappeared and are growing in size. Our camera trap survey also shows that the area supports several adult leopards, both males and females, along with various (critically) endangered species such as Derby elands, wild dogs and western hartebeests.
The example of Niokolo Koba provides proof that together we can go far for wildlife conservation. Although there is still a long way to go to protect all the species of the Park, I am excited to be contributing to improving knowledge and aiding conservation efforts for the leopard and the plethora of wildlife species present in the Park, from leopards to lions and from elephants to wild dogs.
This blog has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States through the BIOPAMA Programme. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Panthera and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union nor of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.
We are also grateful for the funding and support of the Royal Commission of Al Ula (RCU).