In The Field

Tales from the transect

Sometimes I wonder about all the studies in this field that involve walking transects—i.e. straight lines—in gorgeous country, usually noting the species that are around and other landscape variables. I am sure there’s usually some reason for gathering the data, but all that adventuresome hiking in untrammeled land must make these studies more appealing.

Clint Epps takes off after the conference to Tanzania for his second season of walking transects in and between two big protected areas. He’s trying to determine whether elephants hop between the two areas along the Great Ruaha River, and if they do, whether they are a good proxy for the presence of other large mammals (and therefore, perhaps, a compelling case for linking the two parks with a proper protected corridor).

Last season, armed with a machete and a GPS unit, he clocked up 400 km by walking every morning between 7:00 AM and about 2:00 PM with his wife, Lauren Gwin, and a couple of assistants. In the afternoons the team would try to find the beginning of the next transect and meet with village officials and hire a local scout. Unpleasant adventures abounded. They were stranded in one bush camp for two weeks by torrential rains; Black Mambas shot by them in the fields; and elephants got uncomfortably close to the unarmed party.

But Epps’ classic transect tale is the time the truck was robbed of $1,000 worth of gear. Thieves had waited for the team to leave on their walk and smashed the windshield open. Epps repaired the windshield with duct tape and informed the locals, who told him that for $10 for their meals, five scouts would track the robbers. The scouts duly found the thieves and recovered everything, but Epps was told that he would have to transport the criminals to the police office unless he trusted them to take the bus there themselves. Of course everyone came along, so here was Epps driving a dual-cab Toyota truck with seven people in it, including the thieves, one on another’s lap, their hands tied with rope, and the windshield held together with duct tape. Naturally, upon arrival, the police confiscated all the team’s gear as evidence.

His talk at the conference bizarrely failed to cover these key details. He did say that signs of elephants were found across the potential corridor and that their presence was significantly correlated with how many other large mammals were around—excluding a few really big ones like buffalo and giraffe. So there could be, he said, “some utility for using elephants as a focal species.”

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