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June 23, 2015

Arthur Muneza: Sticking my neck out

June 14, 2015

Arthur Muneza is a graduate student studying wildlife ecology in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at MSU. He works closely with Robert Montgomery, assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey Lab at MSU.

When my father first heard that I would be conducting my master’s research in Tanzania, he was excited because he felt this would give me the opportunity to explain my research in “proper Kiswahili.”

Having grown up in Nairobi, Kenya, I was more used to a variation of Kiswahili, which borrows words from English and other dialects in Kenya. People in many regions of Tanzania speak a more pure Kiswahili.

Thus, my time here in Ruaha has forced me to brush up on my language skills. After spending time with the staff at Ruaha Carnivore Project, I now know the Kiswahili common names of most species of animal in Ruaha and my Kiswahili vocabulary is improving greatly. 

This week, all of this progress was put to the test.

RCP runs a program that involves taking local residents into the National Park for a safari and exposure to the types of research that RCP conducts. RCP depends on community-based conservation projects.  For any project to be successful, the local people need to be involved.

Arthur Muenza and teachers in Africa

I had the privilege of exposing six teachers from the local schools to my research in Ruaha National Park. My father’s wish had been granted. The teachers know English, but Kiswahili is their preferred language of communication and explaining the complicated objectives of my research in Kiswahili was difficult but, luckily, Mzee Msago, a local resident who served as our interpreter, was there to provide additional description of my research project.

I am studying a mysterious giraffe skin disease that affects the limbs of giraffes. The affected areas become wrinkly, and develop lesions. Tanzania National Parks officials have done some groundwork on the disease but the causative agent of the disease is yet to be identified.

I am spending the summer in Ruaha, taking high-resolution photos of the right side of giraffes in order to assess the proportion of animals affected by the disease, the severity and manifestation of the disease. I am also looking for any indications of lion attacks, because we suspect that the disease is making affected giraffes more vulnerable to lion attacks. Such signs include claw marks, bite marks and missing tails, all of which indicate a failed predator attack.

giraffe and closeup of leg lesion

And so, Msago and I set out with the teachers to show them the beauty of the park and explain the research. As you would expect these trips really resonate with the locals.

Shortly after our arrival in the park, we were welcomed by baboons making a spectacle crossing the Greater Ruaha River with crocodiles basking on the banks of the river. It was really amazing to see female baboons jumping several meters in the air with babies clutching tightly onto them.

baboons jumping across water

We also had several sightings of lions. Ruaha is home to 10 percent of the world’s remaining global lion population. As is the case with some parks, when a lion is spotted, tourists usually flock around to get a glimpse of the magnificent cat.

We spotted a lion with a Mohawk hairstyle. Msago instantly recognized him. He’s called ‘Punk.’ That’s how he was born about five years ago. Now he’s grown into a huge male with a slender line of mane running through the middle of his head.


We also saw a hyena den although no one was home to receive us. Other animals we spotted on the day include zebras, impalas, greater kudus, elephants, banded mongooses, hornbills, African fish eagles, vultures and many others. 

After seeing some giraffes, the local residents began to understand our concern about the disease affecting the giraffe population. The teachers were really interested in carnivore and giraffe sightings.

Msago and I shared some useful information with them, including the fact that there are fewer than 80,000 giraffes left in the wild and that June 21, was chosen by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, to mark World Giraffe Day. It’s the longest day of the year, so it has become a day to raise awareness about the plight of giraffes across the world.

By inviting local teachers to the park and spending time with them, we are surely doing our bit to stick our necks out for giraffes as well, and my Kiswahili vocabulary is richer too.

Read more from Muenza by following his RECaP blog this summer.