Field Fiasco – Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I must admit that I have a pretty amazing job description. Every year, I have the pleasure of spending two months at a research center in central Kenya. At the field site, I get to work with an awesome team of field assistants, biologists, and computer scientists following a group of baboons and studying their behavior both with direct observations and with some “FitBit”-style sensors that we put directly on the baboons.

An adult male baboon in our study group proudly displays his collar and wristband, which collect high-resolution location and inertial data.
Photo credit: Roi Harel

These months in the field are the highlight of my year. Every day, we get to see not only baboons, but also giraffes, buffalo, elephants, zebra, the occasional leopard or lion, and a slew of other fascinating animals. I watch in awe through the window of the field vehicle as we pass a giraffe and its baby on our way to catch up with the baboons in the morning or as I spot a herd of elephants march through the savannah on the way to the watering hole from a safe spot on top of a rock outcropping. Although the opportunity to see these animals in their natural habitat is incredible, close encounters with some of these potentially dangerous animals can pose serious safety risks. Because of that, we have pretty strict protocols that we follow to minimize these risks.

A giraffe and its juvenile offspring pose for the camera as we pass them in the truck on the way to find the baboons in the morning. Photo credit: Carter Loftus
A herd of elephants in the distance makes their way to the watering hole.
Photo credit: Carter Loftus

I typically follow these protocols quite closely and encourage others to do the same, often reminding people: “don’t die for your data”.  But sometimes, even I get a little caught up in the excitement of data collection, and stray a little farther into a dangerous situation than I should. Well, the last time I did this, I ended up very much caught between a rock and a hard place – or put more specifically, between a black mamba and a hyena’s den.

It was my last day of data collection in Kenya after an ambitious, but very successful, field season. The team had worked on several adjacent projects over the past two months, and now that the projects had mostly been completed, most of the team had flown back to the US. I stayed behind to tie up a couple of loose ends, and would soon follow the team back home. After completing most of these final tasks, all that was left to do before leaving for the airport the following day was to reprogram a malfunctioning sensor that we had put on one of the baboons. Should be simple enough, I thought. I would wait until early morning, when I knew the baboons would still be fast asleep in their sleep tree, and then I could easily get close enough to reprogram the sensor with a radio connection.

The team uses a radio antenna to reprogram one of the sensors on a baboon in its sleep site.
Photo credit: Carter Loftus

I went to bed thinking blissfully that I had almost wrapped up a seamless field season. It all seemed so close to being accomplished, until I woke up in the middle of the night to an uncomfortable realization: the computer that I needed to use to reprogram the sensor was actually deployed in the field, collecting data for another project. Reprogramming this sensor was high priority, and I needed that computer for the reprogramming. I could not wait to get the computer in the morning, because if I did not get to that baboon with the malfunctioning sensor early enough, he would leave the sleep site and I would not be able to find him before I had to leave to catch my plane.

The only solution was to go back out into the field in the middle of the night and fetch the computer so that I could use it in the morning. As I was driving out to collect the computer, a security guard for the field site asked me if I wanted him to accompany me, and I gladly took him up on the offer. After a 20-minute drive, I parked the truck as close as possible to the location where the computer was deployed. Unfortunately, “as close as possible” in the field does not necessarily mean “close”. We still needed to walk 200 meters, climb down a small rock face, machete through thick brush, and climb on top of an active hyena den where the computer was contained in a protective housing unit – all in the faint illumination of a small, ineffective flashlight.

We made this journey to the computer without any missteps or uncomfortable run-ins with dangerous animals. As I breathed a sigh of relief, I kneeled down to open the housing unit and remove the computer. But just then, I heard a short but dreaded word escape the security guard’s mouth: “SNAKE!”

Small side note here: I am terrified of snakes, and always have been. I’ve often said that if I even saw a venomous snake in the wild, I would die of a heart attack before it could even bite me.

Well, lo and behold, I turned around and saw a black mamba – one of the most venomous snakes in the world – about two meters from me and heading in my direction. I went straight from a kneeled position to leaping so high that I easily cleared the meter-high housing unit. This move fortunately put the housing unit between me and the mamba, which, by the way, was still moving directly towards me. But now I was backed up to the edge of a rock precipice that formed the top of the hyena den. If I fell off the edge, I would not only likely be injured by the fall, but I would land directly inside the hyena den.

The scene of the crime. The cliffy landscape where the baboons sleep make the area inaccessible by vehicle and a bit nerve-wracking to navigate in the dark.
Photo credit: Carter Loftus

Stuck between a black mamba and a hyena den, I had no idea what to do next. We made a few long-shot attempts at getting the snake to move away. The security guard, who was at a safe distance from the snake, threw some rocks at it. It was unperturbed. I turned the flashlight off, thinking it might, for some reason, be attracted to the light. After blinking the flashlight back on again, I saw that the snake had only advanced closer to me while the light was out. I was out of ideas, and gripped with panic.

That is when I remembered what I had come here to do: get the computer. With no plan for escape, I figured that I may as well accomplish my main objective, or perhaps die trying (literally), clearly forgetting my ‘don’t die for your data’ mantra. I reached around the housing unit to open its door and pull out the computer, keeping a wary eye on the snake that was now about a meter away and closing. In a fortunate turn of luck, the door scraped against the rock as it opened, causing some noise and vibrations that the snake apparently did not like. To my immense relief, it immediately turned away and headed in the opposite direction.

A black mamba – one of the deadliest snakes in the world. Photo credit from flickr.

With the computer in hand and the snake no longer blocking my exit, I made a mad dash back to the truck. I could not leave that nightmarish scene fast enough. We climbed into the truck and the security guard immediately started laughing at me because I was still shaking. For all I cared, he could laugh all he wanted – if he hadn’t been with me, I may have been bitten by a snake that I didn’t even know was there. After thanking him profusely, he pointed out that he wasn’t my sole savior from the snake. Rather, by opening the door to the housing unit to pull out the computer, in an ironic turn of events, my data had actually contributed to my salvation. The lesson I learned that fateful night in Kenya was that your data can not only have the potential to risk your life, but it can also have the potential to save it too.

Curious to find out more about the data that saved my life? Tune back into the Field Notes section in mid-July to hear all about the data that this computer was collecting in the middle of the night in the Kenyan savannah! 

Carter Loftus is a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group, but he is currently based at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Behavior, where he is a Guest Researcher. Carter works with international and interdisciplinary teams, using direct observations and remote-sensing to study the mechanisms and outcomes of collective decision-making in baboon groups at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya. Specifically, he investigates how baboons decide where to sleep at night, and how that influences their sleep quality.

Main Cover Image by Carter Loftus.

[Edited by Josie Hubbard and Maggie Creamer]

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