One week left of Envirovet 2010 – I am so sad to leave Tanzania, to say goodbye to my friends, and come out of this “bubble” we have been living in for the past two months. This training has been amazing, and I feel so well-equipped to rationalize my chosen career of conservation medicine and wildlife health. While I am not necessarily looking forward to class beginning in a few short weeks, I know the world needs me to get out there. I have to finish my veterinary training and that means heading back to the full days of lecture surrounded by white walls.
Today was a training experience like no other. We started our day by having a hearty breakfast of toast, cereal, hardboiled eggs, and pancakes. Then we drove to the Udzungwa Mountain National Park where we divided into three groups: motivated, modest, and scenic hikers. I joined the motivated hikers and started up the mountain towards the highest point, a waterfall with an opportunity to swim “at your own risk.” On the way up we stopped at a few overlook points and took in the breathtaking views. Udzungwa National Park does not feel like the Tanzania I have seen – it reminds me of the pictures from the Impenetrable Forest in Rwanda where the mountain gorillas call home. I wasn’t too disappointed; on the trip we saw several families of small primates, mainly colobus monkeys.
At the top we did swim, and the temperature of the water kept it short. I couldn’t believe where I was standing, and I knew although I was snapping pictures they simply couldn’t do it justice. Crystal water came tumbling down the rocks, creating a mist throughout the air. It was fresh and clean and was welcome after our sweaty trek up the mountain. After we refreshed ourselves, the group headed back down the mountain. In total, the hike was about 6 kilometers in 3 hours.
On our trek we were asked to not just enjoy the views, but also take note of the ecology of the park. Afterwards we discussed our findings with the park warden, Paul Banga, who also serves as the primary wildlife health officer on the team. The interesting and challenging thing about this National Park is the lack of a buffer zone between the park boundary and the nearby village. At the base of the trail were small houses and livestock, namely chickens. This creates a stress on the wildlife within the park and a potential public health risk. It also challenges the landscape, as the villagers frequently burn parts of the forest both for agricultural and cultural practices.
I am so impressed with Tanzania. They have devoted almost a third of their land area to national parks and game reserves – in a nutshell, open, wild land left to be natural and preserved for wildlife and native vegetation. But they have so many challenges to preserve these areas: poaching, pressure from villagers and industry for the natural resources, lack of funding, and inadequate manpower. Someone in an important leadership position years ago took note of Tanzania’s unique landscape and decided to preserve it; however, it is so fragile and will require equal tenacity to maintain it. I am so scared that Tanzania’s national parks will not be able to compete with greed and desperation. The world, especially the developed countries that have already lost the majority of their wildlife and natural areas, is depending on Africa to get it right. I am hopeful that those in power in Africa will learn from the mistakes of the developing world. What has surprised me a bit in my short time here is how truly beautiful it is – I cannot describe just how amazingly wonderful it is…it literally brings me to tears. I have also been surprised by how much the local people understand the gift they have and the responsibility they have as stewards of the earth. They really get it, and this makes me very optimistic. Africa, you have been underestimated. You won’t do this alone.