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Big cat in Tanzania
Meet DPhil student Paolo Strampelli

Paolo is a DPhil student on the four-year Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research. His project involves investigating the status, distribution and threats to several large carnivore species in southern Tanzania’s vast and largely unstudied Ruaha-Rungwa landscape. The area, covering over 45,000 km2, is believed to be home to some of Africa’s most important populations of threatened lion, leopard, cheetah, African wild dog, and spotted hyaena. Nevertheless, it has received very little attention and is extremely understudied.  We asked him to tell us a bit more about what his research involves.

Paolo Strampelli in TanzaniaTanzania sunsettracking big cats in Tanzania
How and when did you become interested in this area of research?

I carried out my secondary school in Tanzania. This gave me the opportunity to spend time in some fascinating national parks and reserves, and led me to develop a deep passion and interest for the study and preservation of Africa’s natural resources. I then collaborated with several research and conservation projects in Tanzania, Mozambique, and in Malawi, and this made me realise that this is what I wanted my career focus to be.

What are the key questions that your research is trying to answer, and what does the work involve?

The first aim of my research is to try and understand where these species are found in this vast area, and how environmental and anthropogenic drivers influence their distribution. In addition, I want to provide a baseline estimate of population abundance for these species in the landscape, for monitoring purposes, and identify the main threats to their long-term survival.

To achieve this, I am surveying this landscape by driving transects and recording all tracks of large carnivores and their main prey species. I work together with two Tanzanian trackers, and when large carnivore tracks are detected, we determine the species, age, sex, and number of individuals that left them. We also record signs and sightings of prey species, such as buffalo, antelopes, giraffes, and elephants, as well as any indication of human impacts and potential threats in the area.


How do you ensure your safety when looking for these animals?

Surveying from a vehicle means that the work is carried out in relative safety. We do spend most nights camping out in the bush, however, and this does mean that we have to think about the possibility of having elephant, buffalo, hippo, lion or leopard around - all animals which, while extremely unlikely to do so, can be dangerous in very occasional circumstances. In the end, however, I think it’s really a question of common sense – by minimising walking around at night, by scanning around with a torch in the evenings and early in the morning, and by keeping the fire going at night, chances of accidents are low. Animals are generally very weary of humans, and advertising your presence is generally enough to make sure they give you a wide breadth! I also carry a satellite communicator with me, so that in case of an emergency (or, more likely, vehicle breakdown) I can contact base camp for help.

What specific challenges do you face when working in the field?

The remoteness of the area means that we have to be completely self-sufficient, including with regards to fuel, food and water. Day to day, keeping the team always concentrated and motivated can be a challenge when working long hours in difficult conditions. Every morning my trackers spend over four hours continuously scanning the road ahead of them, and, given that it is my data, it is my job to ensure they are as focused as possible during that time. I try to do this by involving them as much as I can in why we are doing this, rather than just how, and by trying to keep the mood light. Nevertheless, we are often forced to spend hours sitting around in the bush, where shade is not always as plentiful as one might hope, whilst the tse-tse flies unfortunately always are. As a result, jokes, cards, and films go a long way when spending weeks without a break in this environment.

In addition, working in rural Africa means that one must always be ready for unforeseen setbacks – if there is an issue with the car, this might mean having to drive hours to near mechanic, long periods of waiting, and so on. Developing this adaptability to ever-changing circumstances is definitely something which I’m finding to be vital when working in these contexts.

What will you do with the data back in the UK?

Once back in Oxford, I will use these data to model the distribution and abundance of these large carnivores, and investigate what is impacting these parameters - both in terms of resources (e.g. prey availability) and threats (human pressures, inter-specific competition). Obtaining a baseline and understanding what the main threats are to these populations is essential in order to be able to develop conservation interventions that can benefit both wildlife and the communities living alongside it. I will be working closely with Tanzanian government officials and wildlife authorities to ensure that this work will directly inform conservation in these areas, something which I believe is essential for any zoological research today. Finally, I am also planning on using this experience to develop, in collaboration with local authorities, a large carnivore monitoring plan that can be replicated over the years, and on training young local researchers in its implementation.

What practical measures can be taken to ensure the survival of these species?

The most important action that people back home can take is to visit these areas as a tourist. Particularly in a developing country like Tanzania, tourism provides an incentive to preserve these areas and animals, in the form of jobs, opportunities, and sustainable development which can be directly linked to economic growth. Whilst I know it can be very expensive, and it is not possible for everyone, I urge those who have the means to do so to provide their support in this form, as I truly believe that Africa’s wildlife is a global heritage, and as such should receive global support.

Stories in the press about the killings of Cecil the lion and his son Xanda have struck an emotional chord with people. Why do you think that is? What do you like/respect about the animals you are studying?

While many people feel strongly about the well-being of all animals, I have noticed that certain species, such as lions, tend to elicit particularly strong responses. I believe that reasons for this are to be found in our past and our history as humans. I think that we are attracted and fascinated by these animals because they are one of the last links to a past which still resonates strongly within us. Looking into the eyes of a lion awakens the same feelings of awe and fear that dominated our ancestors’ lives, and, for a few moments, we experience these as they once did. I believe that it is because of this subconscious fascination with these deep, ancestral emotions that most tourists visiting Africa’s parks and reserves want to see lions above all else, or, similarly, that if you ask many scuba divers what they would most like to see they will reply with ‘shark’. I think the prospect of losing this last link to a past which, whilst for most of us long gone, still has a strong influence over us, is what brings people to have such strong reactions to the idea of losing these species, which still manage to remind us of what we were and where we came from.