Wild animals, especially shy or nocturnal species, can utilize areas around us without us seeing them. Fortunately nature enables these animals to leave clues in the form of tracks and signs that indicate their presence in the area. Some of the tracks and signs to look out for are footprints, fur snags, egg shells, droppings, paths, territorial signs (boundary scent marking), and vocal signs.
The Summer II students at the SFS Center for Wildlife Management Studies are studying Techniques for Wildlife Field Research. One aspect of this program is a course on nature interpretations, where students gain skills in animal species identification through the use of tracks and signs. By studying these signs, you can know what species of animals and how many of them are in an area, which is important information for monitoring animal activity, tracking wildlife, and preventing human-wildlife confrontations.
Recently students practiced identifying wildlife signs in the Jangwani Wildlife Corridor that joins Lake Manyara National Park to Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Tarangire National Park. The field exercise was conducted on the grassy plains adjacent to Lake Manyara where both wildlife and domestic livestock graze. During this field exercise, the students practiced using animal droppings to study the ecology of specific wildlife species. The students collected data along transects through the plains. Every 50 meters along the transect, the students would place a 2 meter by 2 meter quadrant square that served as the sampling plot. Within the quadrants, the students looked for the presence of animal droppings and identified the animals that left the droppings. The animal dropping identification was done with the assistance of local Maasai guides and field guides.
Droppings from cattle, goats, sheep, wildebeest, gazelle, zebra, hares, and hyena were frequently identified during the exercise. This shows that the area is highly utilized by many small animals to large grazers and carnivores. At the end of the exercise, one excited student commented that “by being able to identify animal signs, I actually have proof that these animals are in the same area that I’m walking! I didn’t think I would ever know how to identify animals this way, but this practical, on-the-ground experience really taught me a lot!” Another student pointed out that it would also be useful if they could carry out the same exercise after a rainy day so that they can learn to identify animals based on their footprints lefts in the mud. Hopefully next rainy season we can give the students that experience.