We were walking through eight-foot-high elephant grass when my guide suddenly halted — elephants
, perhaps a family herd, were a short distance away.
I was in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains National Park, providing training in camera trap techniques to park staff. Camera traps allow researchers to photograph animals remotely, a vital survey tool given that most mammals are shy and difficult to observe.
Our group, a guide and four field assistants, had been trekking for several hours. Until then, I had not paid much attention to the ubiquitous elephant dung. Now we faced an encounter with as many as 20 four-ton mammals that don't take kindly to surprise encounters. Unable to see above the tall grass, we were forced to listen.
As it turns out, listening is better done by elephants. Having already detected our whereabouts, one member of the herd gave us a single warning trumpet that caused our guide to pause. The herd slowly moved on.
This time there was room for the elephants to give way. However, without adequate protection, the Udzungwas will soon be a mountain range separated from the surrounding landscape. The estimated 100,000 people living on the park's eastern boundary have little choice but to obtain fuelwood in the park — legally or illegally. Despite ranger patrols, the boundary is not being adequately policed. The elephants that so easily gave us passage will find their own denied.
We eventually deployed eight camera traps. Our work, some of CI's first in the Eastern Arc Mountains & Coastal Forests of Kenya & Tanzania biodiversity hotspot
, is now allowing park officials to learn what mammals are in the park and begin a monitoring program. Already, we have photographed elephants, small carnivores and the most elusive forest
antelopes, enabling us to make a strong case for improved protection, park expansion and the creation of conservation corridors linking the Udzungwas to nearby protected areas.