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Notes From the Field: Sleeping with Lions

In late July, Jasper Ridge docents and other Stanford travelers had the unique experience of camping next to a pride of five lions that meandered through the camp kitchen and settled in for the night just a couple hundred yards from camp.  These were African lions in Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.  The trip was the long-awaited “Jasper Ridge in Botswana” adventure, originally scheduled to take place just as the COVID pandemic hit in 2019, then postponed again in 2020 and 2021 due to ongoing pandemic travel restrictions.

The Jasper Ridge in Botswana travelers. Across the water in the background, lions watched as the picture was taken.

Organized by Stanford Travel-Study and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and led by Walk Botswana Safaris, the experience was designed to give travelers an immersion in one of the few wild ecosystems left on Earth, along with information that highlighted today’s biodiversity crisis and how Jasper Ridge initiatives are contributing to solutions.  The mobile safari covered two major ecological settings in Botswana, the dry, desert-like Nxai Pan area and the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta. 

The days featured early morning and late afternoon game drives that taught travelers about myriad aspects of natural history, including tracking, observing prey animals and listening to the language of birds and squirrels to detect the presence of predators, the interplay between vegetation and the animals that eat it, and the symbiotic relationships between certain spiders and trees. Each evening, the group gathered to hear lectures to enrich the day’s observations.  Jasper Ridge faculty director Liz Hadly explained the assembly of the African continent and its biodiversity, the challenges nature faces today, and how Jasper Ridge is addressing the global issues that ultimately drive the biodiversity crisis while also developing on-the-ground solutions for monitoring biodiversity and understanding the role of component species in holding ecosystems together.  Guest lectures by local researchers focused on conservation efforts to save wild dogs and cheetahs, and how diverse ungulate species interact.

Liz Hadly explains how the African continent assembled and the climatic and physiographic controls on African biodiversity.  The night-time projection on the tent is made possible by a solar array charging batteries that enable off-grid power.

Night-time saw setting up of trail cameras and audiomoths (acoustic recorders) to learn how the ecosystem comes alive when we sleep. Barking jackals, grunting hippos, howling hyaenas, and roaring lions all had their say before morning’s dawn chorus—a cogent reminder that there are voices more important than our own when it comes to keeping the natural world healthy for future generations.

A hyaena captured on a camera trap at the periphery of our Moremi camp.  Also roaming nearby were jackals, lions, and leopards.

 

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Blog by Liz Hadly and Tony Barnosky (couple at right), the Jasper Ridge leaders of the trip. Walk Botswana’s Gareth Flemix guided the group and Robyn Hartley (couple at left) expertly handled logistics.