Three Days Among Ruaha's Buffalo Herds in the Wet Season

 In October 2014, HALI and Ruaha National Park researchers sampled and placed satellite GPS collars on 10 adult female buffaloes in order to learn more about the health and herd movements of the Ruaha buffalo population.

Below you’ll find three days of dispatches from the most recent buffalo survey work. For a basic overview of the project, listen to this interview with David Wolking. Annette Roug is leading the HALI buffalo research in the park.

The goal of the wet-season buffalo survey was to determine herd sizes, locate collared buffaloes, and if possible, assess herd composition. We also wanted to record habitat types in areas most frequently used by the buffaloes during the wet season.
 
Day 1, February 25
Ruaha National Park graciously provided a plane that enabled us to conduct an initial survey from the air. We saw and photographed all but one of the buffalo herds with collared animals from the plane. Four animals were located north of Jongomero, one between Msembe and Jongomoro, one near Mdonya, and four in a remote section of the park that is located on a higher elevation plateau which is void of water in the dry season. These aerial photographs will help us determine herd sizes and better understand how the herd sizes are changing over the seasons.

Picture 1: A buffalo herd photographed from the air.


Picture 1: A buffalo herd photographed from the air.

In the afternoon we proceeded to search for the buffalo herds from the ground, and successfully located the herd seen near Mdonya. We were lucky and saw the collared buffalo. She was in great condition and the collar appeared to fit well. We did condition scoring of all visible buffaloes, estimated herd composition, and took notes regarding the vegetation in the area.

Picture 2: Collared buffalo near Mdonya on February 25th.

Picture 2: Collared buffalo near Mdonya on February 25th.

Day 2, Thursday February 26
We went north of Jongomero to locate a large herd with 4 collared buffaloes. On the way from Msembe to Jongomero we listened for one buffalo known to be with a smaller group using a VHF antenna and receiver. This was the group we had not been able to see from the air. We heard a clear signal but she was across the Ruaha River.

North of Jongomero we came very close to the collared animals and heard the VHF signals of all of them. We went off road to see the herd(s), but they kept moving in front of us (based on the many tracks and warm feces). The vegetation was very thick, brushy, and sometimes also muddy, so it was very difficult to drive. We saw a few buffaloes but they were very nervous and ran off into thick bush where we could not follow. We recorded the vegetation types of the area, approximated the herd size and recorded observations of the buffaloes we had seen. On the way back to Msembe we listened for the smaller group again, but she was still across the river. Daniel Mathayo (Ruaha National Park ecologist) said the river was high right now, so she likely would not cross back anytime soon.

Day 3, Friday February 27
From our collar data and the aerial survey we knew that the remaining four collared buffaloes were up on the higher elevation plateau, out of the Rift Valley. A ranger reported that he had seen a buffalo herd near the road to Mpululu (located on the plateau) the night before. We had not planned to drive up onto the plateau since there are only few roads and it gets very muddy after rain. However, the ranger reported that the road to Mpululu was open, so we went up there to try to see the herds.

We heard the VHF signal of 3 of the 4 collared buffaloes at different times and came within 2 km of the last location of one of the buffaloes (logged at 5 am Friday morning). We tried to drive toward the signal but kept running into water or very muddy areas. There were also a lot of thorn bushes, and we had one puncture (asante Erasto for changing the tire).

In the end we found a drier grassy area and managed to drive for a while towards the signals. After a few kilometers we were blocked off by a huge "korongo" (a seasonal waterway) with a 100 feet drop to the bottom. That was the end of it! We still could hear the signals there, but had to turn around.

Picture 3: Challenging wet season driving near Jongomero.

Picture 3: Challenging wet season driving near Jongomero.

We described the vegetation of the area (so we obtained useful information from the adventure) but did not see the animals. We have decent aerial pictures of those herds, so we will still be able to estimate herd size and possibly get some information on herd composition.

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Overall, we accomplished the main goals of the exercise, which was to estimate the wet season herd sizes and understand more about the seasonal habitat preference, but due to the tick vegetation and wet terrain, we were unable to reach all the herds. We are thankful to Ruaha National Park for the great collaboration on this project.