February 20, 2013
Gorilla Trackers Need Good Gear
Daily tracking, monitoring, and protection of gorillas requires a vast array of field equipment. Some of this is basic outdoor wear, like uniforms and boots, but the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s equipping needs extend into the realm of the technical, including GPS recording devices and radios and the batteries that power them.
“Equipment often provides the main challenge to our operations,” says Veronica Vecellio, Fossey Fund’s Gorilla Program coordinator at the Fund’s Karisoke Research Center. Karisoke typically has to replace some of its field equipment — especially gumboots and uniforms — twice a year due to the wet, muddy, and rocky conditions in the forest and the number of hours trackers spend using their gear.
It can be easy to overlook some of the supplies that are essential to our daily field operations. But John Ndayambaje, the field data coordinator at Karisoke, can speak about the value of each and every item of equipment the Fossey Fund provides for its staff.
Some field staff, including Ndayambaje and researchers, must be transported to and from the park every day. Their day begins at 6:50 a.m., when they pile into the back of a Land Cruiser and drive approximately 40 minutes from the city of Musanze to Bisate village. Ndayambaje says, “We have a very, very bad road that is characterized by stones… Where we don’t have stones it’s slippery.” Given that the field vehicles make the trip to and from the forest at least twice a day, tires have to be replaced several times a year.
While working in the forest, trackers rely most on their outerwear and boots. Each tracker wears a uniform which includes a waterproof jacket and trousers, a hat, poncho, and gumboots. In the forest, it can rain for most of the year, making these items essential for keeping trackers dry and warm — especially when they must track gorillas onto high altitudes. Holding up a worn-out boot, Ndayambaje says, “With boots like this you can slip and spend time just sitting somewhere!” On a more serious note, he points out that poor footwear can cause trackers to fall and injure themselves.
Boots get worn out from the many hours of constant walking in the field and stony paths. Uniforms also deteriorate over time, but thorny vegetation like rubus, nettles, and thistles cause particular damage. Ndayambaje notes that the uniforms not only protect trackers from the weather, they also protect their radios, GPS units and notebooks for data collection, which can be stowed away in the large pockets of the trackers’ rain jackets.
GPS units and radios are crucial field equipment. GPS units are used to collect data on the ranging patterns of gorilla groups, to keep track of where gorillas or gorilla sign were last seen, and to record the locations of illegal activity in the forest. GPS technology allows the Fossey Fund to collect some of the fundamental data for understanding gorilla behavior and the threats gorillas face.
As in any field operation, radios are essential for coordinating our large staff as well as the military and park personnel with whom we partner on a daily basis. For Ndayambaje, as a field coordinator, radios are a particularly notable tool. They allow him to coordinate standard daily logistics as well as to respond quickly when there is any kind of unusual event or emergency — like a gorilla caught in a snare or an interaction. Although GPS devices and radios are expensive in and of themselves, there are also a lot of costs to maintaining and using them. These include batteries and radio licenses.
At the end of the day, Ndayambaje and most of the Fossey Fund’s field staff return home. However, the anti-poaching team and Pablo’s team spend their nights at two camps located adjacent to the park — Kazi and Ntebeyingwe. They stay there because of the long distances they must cover to do their jobs. If they set out from Bisate village with the other teams, they would never have time to thoroughly patrol the park or to reach Pablo’s group, which ranges very far into the forest.
Having good tents, sleeping bags, and mattresses that allow trackers to sleep comfortably is of course crucial to ensure that the team is well rested and capable of doing their difficult work in the morning. However, Ndayambaje says that providing good camping equipment is not only about making sure trackers are comfortable. Speaking especially about the camps’ solar-powered electricity, Ndayambaje says, “Different trackers try to study, for capacity building. They follow lessons in the university and it’s very important for them to review their lessons in the evening even after a long day working in the forest.” Having good equipment, especially at the permanent camps, supports trackers who are enrolled in universities to keep up with their studies even as they continue working.
Good equipment is a keystone element of the Fossey Fund’s operations. With trackers in the field every single day using these items, they eventually fall apart, and conditions on the ground accelerate the process. As Ndayambaje puts it, quite simply, “It would be difficult for trackers to go on tracking gorillas without materials.”