Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Not All Fun and Games


Day 5 in the field

My day wasn’t very exciting, but other teams in my group had some craziness.

The team that calls themselves Ay Bay Bay (baha - if only you could hear our advisor attempt to say that) had to stop their transects due to being surrounded by elephants. They were trying to go around the first herd they saw, but kept running into other groups! The elephants were pretty on edge ... because there was an elephant carcass in the area. Ay Bay Bay could only smell it and ran into scouts who confirmed the death was due to poaching.

Crazy. And so unsettling.

Another team, the Kilimonsters (ha ha) ran into the carcass. Exhale. It had been poached last week, so it was somewhat decayed, but it was further along in the face - in other words, the tusks had been taken.

This is one of those things that just silences me. I have nothing more to say because I don’t have solutions and I don’t know what more to say about the issue itself. I am just silenced. Because it is that upsetting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Not Your Typical Office


Yesterday, we had a much-needed day off! We went to Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the places my research group had worked this week. I decided to go even though I had seen wildlife there during my work because we were planning to go see their LIONS! KWS takes care of four lionesses and 1 male lion (named Boy) whose parents were lost to retaliatory killing (pastoralists kill lions who hunt their livestock). They’re kept in enclosures, but KWS hopes to eventually release them in Tsavo National Park.

They were amazing. And they were angsty because they were about to be fed. The male just kept pacing back and forth and rubbing himself on the fence (which allowed me to touch him, woohoo!). The officers slaughter a goat and give each of the five lions a portion. They don’t allow the lions to hunt the goat because one would make the kill and then dominate the meat.

They first brought a goat head and leg to Boy. The lions were going nuts. Crazy. Roaring and grumbling. Gimme food! The meat is put in smaller enclosures, and the lion accesses it once a door is pulled back. As the officer was putting the meat in, Boy jumped up on the fence and ROARED at him. Phew! When he was allowed in, he hurried to the goat, but then stood over it. I’m not sure why, but my best guess is to claim it. He has no competition because he’s kept separate from the females, so he can take his time.

Watching him eat was so intriguing. Bones crunching. Meat tearing. Boy’s wrinkled nose. He ate every last ounce, bones and all.

The females were more vicious in receiving their meat. As the meal was put into the enclosure, they were winding in and out of each other as they paced back and forth, their eyes never leaving the meat. They darted in as fast as they could until each of them got a healthy portion.

It was amazing.


Day 5 in the field.

Today was definitely the most hard core day in the field. Unfortunately, it also means that it was the most exhausting and dangerous. We worked in Elerai Rupet Wildlife Sanctuary, and it’s a beast. It’s 52 square kilometers and full of shrub grassland. In our section, I was up to my waist and sometimes my chest in grass. We had to battle thorns upon thorns upon thorns. The worst was all the way in on the back of my knee, about a centimeter. Mmm, fun.

I also fell in a few holes. They were actually pretty hilarious, the things we were having to deal with. But in the back of my mind, I was pretty concerned over snakes. Tall grass is all too perfect. Yikes. At one point, I looked to my left about two feet and saw a reptilian tail slide into the grass. I have no idea what kind of snake it was, or if it’s venomous. Eek!

Other than the scary stuff, we saw 8 giraffe, 4 elephants, 4 impala, and a LOT of Kilimanjaro. Yeh, I worked under Kili today and it took my breath several times.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Oh hey there, Elephant ...


Day 3 in the Field (snippets)

Elephants. Hundred meters from us. They were stunning.


[To our KWS guard]

Me: “Raymond, what’s your favorite animal?”

Raymond: “For seeing or for eating?”

We found a manyatta (traditional Maasai home) and the kids started running to me because I was jumping and playing with them from a distance. But when Raymond (benevolent, but wearing full camouflage and carrying a rifle) happened to come out from behind a tree, they turned and ran in terror. Baha.

Many crazy stories from Raymond - including being chased by elephants and buffalos and shoot outs with poachers.

Raymond and our local guide, Joel, helped us make a flag representing our power ranger colors - yellow and pink.

Me = sunburnt

Many dung beetles rolling, well, dung. One of the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Day off tomorrow! Sleeeeeep.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Even Zebras can kick you to death if they're angry"


Day two of fieldwork.

Today we started our animal counts/transects. We used the map we generated yesterday to plot blocks for our four groups to cover. My group, Chui Wadogo (“Little “Leopards”), is composed of myself, another student, Jackie, a local guide, and an armed KWS ranger. Our goal was to view and log wildlife in at least 30% of Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary.

It was exhausting, but so good! I walked over 9 kilometers today, but had quite an adventure. For reasons I won’t get into, we had to plot the exact location of every herd we saw - aka, we had to walk toward wildlife. It felt soooo amazing to be so close. We chased zebra, Grant’s gazelle, and Thomson’s gazelle. We did this until we stumbled upon an angry wildebeest. See, we have to be pretty aware out there because we want to piss off anything that can hurt us. I barely noticed the wildebeest because it was positioned straight at us and was narrow. It was grunting and turning and freaking out. So needless to say, we didn’t go any nearer and got out of there asap.

Another group ran into buffalo, which is one of the biggest dangers in the field. They like to hide from the sun (and in turn, hide from you) and are really skittish. When they’re startled, they charge. So safe distances and awareness are key. We’ve found a way to log locations of these animals without having to walk to them.

Tomorrow we go to Kili Tome Wildlife Sanctuary!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Walkin' on Kimana


Day 1 of fieldwork!

I love my life. Today was such a good day, and I’m on fire for how exciting this is going to be.

The goal of day 1 was to map Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary. We are the first to be allowed to research there, so there aren’t any maps or grids about what’s inside. This area of land is about 46 square kilometers, and is situated with other sanctuaries to support wildlife corridors (where wildlife disperses from national parks during the wet season). So Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary forms a sort of line of land with other sanctuaries so that wildlife have somewhere to go from the national parks.

We’ve split into four groups of 2-3 students to complete field work. Today, each group was dropped off at some point on the sanctuary boundary with a local guide (who knew the boundary well enough to lead us around it), an armed KWS guard (to protect us from elephants, etc), and a GPS! We mapped coordinates with the GPS as we walked the boundary, and composed a map based on these points.

Working with four groups made the work go pretty fast, but I must say, we had an exciting day. Besides seeing wildlife (elephants, zebra, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelles, impala, warthogs), we got stuck in our land cruiser. It was crazy. Our advisor, Shem (renamed “Chui Kubwa” - “Big Leopard”), was driving and soon as he hit a big mud pit, he realized and said, “Ooooh, I’ve made a blunder.” Bahaha. We were tilted in this pit of mud, which was entirely engulfing one of our rear tires. To get out, we had to be towed with our other vehicle and commission all of our guards to push. The hole that was left behind was about two and a half feet deep. Kinda crazy!

I’m very excited to be so close to wildlife. It feels like we’re taking an 8-day walking safari, and happened to be taking notes. We’ll start transects and animal counts tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Directed Research!


We’re onto the final leg of the semester! We finished up our exams a few days ago and have begun to focus on Directed Research (DR) projects, which is basically the pinnacle of our semester here.

We have three DRs reflecting each of our main courses - Wildlife Ecology, Wildlife Management, and Environmental Policy. I’m in a group of ten students who will be doing research in Wildlife Management, studying the viability of the wildlife sanctuaries in our area. Our question is this: What is the relevance and contribution of communal and privately owned conservation areas to conservation space and range for large mammals in the Amboseli Ecosystem? We’ll write a proposal, analyze the data we collect, write papers as individuals, and do a group presentation for the community at the end of the semester.

We start eight days of data collection tomorrow. We’ll do transects and wildlife/livestock counts throughout 5 wildlife sanctuaries in order to assess the overlap between wildlife and pastoralists and their livestock. Basically, we want to know how much potential there is for competition between these two groups - will wildlife be able to use wildlife sanctuaries in the way they need to? Or will it have to compete with livestock for much-needed resources?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Still Alive!


This last week we spent in Tsavo West National Park on a 5-day expedition. The afternoon before we left, many of us were thoroughly scared. Tsavo is known for being home to man-eaters. Although this is a thing of the past, we were warned of the aggressive behavior of the wildlife (due to the abundance of poaching in this park), the risk of scorpions, and the fact that SFS has been close to losing students to lions twice in the past 10 years.

Uhm ... what?

It’s kind of hilarious that we didn’t even see lions our entire time there. But we saw more scorpions than we cared to - in our sleeping bags, shoes, and firewood (unfortunately, one of our guards was stung this way). African scorpion stings, though they aren’t fatal, cause hours of debilitating pain. So none of us were taking anything lightly.

We were well-protected overnight by four guards - two of our own and two from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) armed with AK47s, James and Hussein. KWS has it’s own law enforcement and security department of over 200 rangers. Ask for my stories on these guys later. They are intense.

It’s the rainy season here in Kenya, so the wildlife in Tsavo was sparse (70% of the time, especially during the rainy season, wildlife is found outside of national parks). This wasn’t disappointing, though, because the Tsavo landscape is absolutely phenomenal. Rolling hills and lots of green. On Tuesday, we hiked up the Chyulu Hills (another national park nearby) to the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. You could see the west side of Chyulu (the area where our home camp is) for miles and miles. You could see Kilimanjaro and Shatani lava flows. Blaaaaaah. If anybody wanted to see beautiful land anywhere in the world, I’d take them to Tsavo.

We also got the treat of seeing wild dogs. Wild dogs. Did you hear me? We saw a pack of 30 wild dogs. No one in our entire group, including faculty who’ve been to national parks countless times, has ever seen anything like that. They were right in the middle of the road, on a silver platter. Playing and running and letting us fully experience them for about 15 minutes before running off into the bush. Wow.

We had a lot of guest lectures throughout the week, many from KWS employees. Unlike Tanzania, Kenya has one institution that’s in charge of all wildlife matters throughout the country. They handle national parks, research, the human-wildlife conflict in surrounding communities, wildlife sanctuaries, etc. Kudos. What a job.

I only have about a month left in Kenya, and from here on out, it’s exams and our directed research project, which is basically the pinnacle of the program. Woohoo!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Amboseli: Kilimanjaro's Royal Court


Since getting to Kenya, we’ve been getting to know our area (Kimana Group Ranch) and the human-wildlife conflicts that face it. Talking with local people has been really eye-opening, and I’ll talk about that in my next post. But the biggest, baddest problem animal in this area for farmers is the elephant.

I saw a bull get defensive of a matriline in Lake Manyara National Park, but never really fully saw how aggressive they can be until today. I mean, elephants are HUGE. They’re absolutely massive. But I always saw them as gentle creatures. You can tell where they’ve been because there are trees down everywhere, but this isn’t aggressive (or so I still believe anyway).

We went to Amboseli National Park today. It was wet and rainy. We had lectures over our land cruiser radios, baha.

Elephants usually leave the park when it gets really wet. There are 3 main wetlands that they rely on within the park, but when water is everywhere, they are free to roam. So we weren’t expected to see many elephants, but they were everywhere. I probably saw around 130 elephants today. And one of them was a little punk.

There was a herd right next to the road, so we stopped to watch them. They were just sauntering along and foraging. And there was a massive male just minding his own business. A younger male, the punk, confronted him and they fought. It was actually scary, and I was praying that no tusks would be broken because they were locked much of the time. The larger male just pushed him off as many times as the punk came at him. And so the punk started messing around with a female, then back to the older male. He was just looking to cause trouble.

Then. Then ... he trumpeted and charged one of our land cruisers. Thank GOD it was facing the other direction and our students were able to evade him, but their lives flashed before my eyes. I can’t even begin to describe ...

Moral of the story: elephants are awesome and beautiful, but oh they can trample you.