Wednesday, November 24, 2010

news from the field

The past few days of DR data collection have gone well but have left us all exhausted. We wake up by 6 every morning and are out in the field by 8. My group spent the past two days in Elerai-Rupet, a large sanctuary that is dominated by dense vegetation, some elephants, and giraffes. As we did our transects we'd have to battle chest-high grass, acacia mellifera (a very thorny and painful plant), ticks, and, of course, the African sun. When the vegetation is thick, like it is in Elerai-Rupet, the visibility of our transects is extremely limited, which means the width of our transects is small and we have to do quite a number of 1 km transects to reach our goal of surveying 40% of the sanctuary area. So we've walked at least 21 kilometers in the past two days - it is pretty cool that I can go hiking in late November! 

Both yesterday and today we only saw one species in our transects - Giraffa camelopardalis. We saw 13 in just one transect yesterday and saw a herd of 20 today. You would think that giraffes are incapable of being discrete, but actually all of our sightings have involved seeing a few and then realizing that they are joined by a bunch more that are hidden by trees and each other. It is fun to giraffes because they all turn and stare at us for a long time as we approach them, the they finally turn and run off in a line (watching a giraffe run is quite entertaining). 

One more note about today, which is unfortunately not very pleasant. After we had finished our transects, we were walking back to the main road, following our armed guard because he knew his way through the sanctuary. We came upon the carcass of an elephant, which we later learned had been killed by poachers about one week ago. We saw how large it had been and that the face was gone - the tusks are taken for ivory and everything else is left. This is the reality that wildlife conservation faces in Africa. Conservation is at the center of a struggle between the needs of humans and the needs of animals. We hear many stories from our guides and armed guards about incidents with poachers and always are disgusted by what we hear. But, the sad truth is that poaching is what some people have resorted to in an attempt to make a living in this undeveloped area. We also have to remember that the elephant we saw today had most likely ruined numerous families' crops and maybe even killed people. We’ve been exposed to these inconvenient truths all semester and all of us wish we could think of a panacea. That is definitely out of our hands, but I am so glad that our DR projects will be providing information that can be utilized by community officials and researchers to improve the problems. As we continue to work on our DR projects I'll try to write about the other two projects - all three of them are really interesting and pertinent to what we've learned about all semester.

I hope that everyone has wonderful Thanksgivings! We will be celebrating tomorrow because we have a non-program day. We have a 5k Turkey Trot planned for the morning, as well as an American football game and dinner complete with turkey, stuffing, etc! Enjoy your time with family and be thankful for everything that you have, even Maine's cold weather (I miss it)!

Kwaheri, Catherine

Sunday, November 21, 2010

DR continues

Today was a non-program day and we all tried to relax and save up energy for field work. Our second and third days of field work went really well but we all needed a day to recuperate. On Friday when we did animal counts in Kimana, we had 6 elephants in our transects and also encountered some frustrated buffaloes. Never a dull moment in the field! Yesterday we were in a sanctuary called Kilitome and we didn’t really encounter many animals because my group’s transects were straight through thick vegetation, but we did follow elephant tracks most of the way.

This morning a few Maasai mamas came and taught us how to make beaded jewelry  - we have a lot of respect for their patience and talent now. I spent the rest of the day working on DR (reading literature to use in my final paper). I also spent a large chunk of the afternoon working out, so now if I am too exhausted after walking transects in the field in the next few days I won’t feel as guilty. Tomorrow we will work in a wildlife sanctuary called Osupuko and on Tuesday and Wednesday we’ll be in Elerei-Rupet. I am excited to go back into the field and also for Thursday, when we have a day off to celebrate Thanksgiving, Kenya-style. We aren’t sure whether we’ll have a turkey or a goat roast yet, but I know we will have pumpkin pie! Just one more note before I head to bed – the moon has been close to full and extremely bright these past few nights and we’ve been able to see Kili lit up in the dark. We can see the silhouette and the snow shining on the peak! 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

DR Day 1

Today was a crazy and all around great day, our first day of field research. It was a very early start for all the groups and we were split up all day, each group totally immersed in our research projects. My group mapped Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary, a 23  sqaure km protected area close to our camp that had never been mapped before. Now that Kimana is mapped we will be able to start our transects - we'll be doing animal counts along transects in 5 sanctuaries in the area. We'll do Kimana tomorrow and over the next week visit 4 others.

Collecting GPS coordinates along the Kimana boundary took us about 3 hours - we split into 4 groups of student and each group had a local guide as well as an armed guard (it is a total possibility to encounter elephants, cheetahs, etc). It was a fun morning of talking to the local guys and stopping often to record the UTM coordinates. When all the groups finished their portion of the perimeter we met up for lunch under an acacia and then drove back to camp to upload the coordinates  into excel and then into GIS. I have to say that I am quite proud that I figured out how to do that - I'm the only one who has done anything with GIS before, but I have extremely minimal experience!  We ended up with an outline of the sanctuary that is sufficient for our data collection needs for now (when I have time I'll figure out how to incorporate the Kimana sanctuary into the layer that has all the other sanctuaries we'll be visiting.

We were told before the start of DR to expect many set backs, etc, and this morning that expectation was fulfilled. On our way home through the sanctuary our land rover got extremely stuck in the mud. The back left tire was totally immersed and it took about an hour for the other land rover to pull it out. It was definitely the most crazy ride I've had so far here - Shem, our advisor, is an insane driver and I don't think he had any idea how jostled his passengers were as he careened on and off the muddy road. We can only expect our car ride experiences to intensify, because it hadn't rained for at least 24 hours when we were in the field today. (It down-poured this afternoon so tomorrow should be interesting...)

So that was day 1 of directed research, more later! Baadaye. Catherine

Monday, November 15, 2010

Directed Research - "get stressed, but within limits"

Today marked the start of our directed research projects here in East Africa! We took our final exam yesterday morning (there is no such thing as weekends here) and yesterday afternoon we were briefed on the 3 research projects. We filled out a form about our preferences and this morning we heard about which projects we'll be working on. I am in the group working under Shem, our Wildlife Management professor, and our project's main goal is to assess the ecological viability of five wildlife sanctuaries within the Amboseli ecosystem. There are quite a number of sanctuaries that have been established by the Maasai group ranches in the area and by various other entrepreneurs as a way to conserve wildlife and bring in tourism revenue. We are going to assess various parameters (including habitat use, wildlife abundance, species diversity, and livestock and human activities within the sanctuaries). We will conduct 8 days of field research (the rigor of this time period has been stressed by all the professors...) and then we'll spend the rest of our time writing extensive papers on our findings. I am really excited about DR and very happy that I got my top choice of the WM project. When else will I be able to walk transects in a wildlife sanctuary and record the number of elephants I see!? I also know that it will be a pretty intense next month (see the titel of the blog - a quote from Kiringe) and just hope it is not too stressful so that I can enjoy my last month here to the fullest. Wish us all luck and I hope to tell great stories about our time in the field! Catherine
here's another photo from Tsavo

Sunday, November 14, 2010

photos from Tsavo

standing on the Shetani Lava Flow
view on an early morning game drive - very Jurassic Park-esque, so we expected to see dinosaurs....
view of the Chyulu Hills on our hike
wild dogs on the road to Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tsavo West National Park expedition

            We returned from expedition around noon today. It was a great but tiring last five days. We were in Tsavo West National Park, which, in partner with Tsavo East N.P, is the second largest park in Africa. This park was different than others that we have been to because it is extremely big and also dominated by dense bushlands and woodlands. That meant that we didn’t see as many animals, but the landscape was phenomenal. As we drove through the park we could see the Chyulu Hills, which run north to south for about 50 km. We visited the Chyulu Hills on Tuesday, and we wondered if we had somehow been transported into a way more green and moist country. The views were awesome anywhere we went in the park – distant hills, very red soils, and lots of green because the rains have started.
            We did see animals, of course – elephants (which are really red because of the soil), zebra, the standard antelope species, giraffe, baboons, vervets, buffalo, klipspringer, kudu, oryx, and wild dogs. We were extremely lucky to see the pack of wild dogs – they are very shy and elusive, and the park authorities don’t even have a definite population size for them because it is so hard to monitor them. Seeing the pack (there were close to 30 just lounging on the road) was definitely a highlight! We never saw any lions, which was kind of a disappointment because they are famous for being really aggressive in Tsavo. We did hear a lion while sitting around the fire last night though! Tsavo is a place where you don’t see very many animals around your camp, but there is a high number of incidences of animals attacking people in their tents thanks to the dense vegetation cover. So we had two armed guards at our camp every night who had to escort us to the bathrooms (where lions have hung around in the past) as well as two of our Maasai ascari. We felt quite safe within camp, except from the bugs. As great as it is to feel rain, it brings out lots of not-so-nice things, such as snakes, scorpions, Nairobi flies (which give you burns when they touch you), and tons of beetles that fly into your food... We stepped on many scorpions and found a number in our tents and bags, but only one person got stung. Coming back to camp is a relief because there aren’t as many scorpions here.
            Now I’ll give a brief run-down of what we did while in Tsavo. We left camp on Sunday morning and on our drive to Tsavo we stopped for a Wildlife Management lecture on top of a hill that overlooks the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem (the subject of our case-study in Kenya). After we entered the park (which is about an hour’s drive from KBC) we stopped at two of the most popular sights within the park. First was the Shetani Lava Flow – a 500 year old deposit of lava that is only just starting to be colonized by vegetation. Then we stopped at Mzima Springs, which boasts hippos, crocodiles, an under-water viewing tank, and very brave monkeys that will do anything for a toursits’ lunch :) We spent the rest of the day setting up camp and relaxing. On Monday we woke up for an early morning game drive (every morning was pretty early – around 5:30 – because the noisy birds at the camp didn’t let you sleep any later). After the game drive we had a guest lecture from the head scientist of the KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) about the park. On Tuesday afternoon we gave group presentations about the similarities and differences between wildlife management strategies in Kenya and Tanzania that we’ve observed so far. Then we visited the park headquarters and then visited a truck stop right outside of the park where they sell ice cream!
            On Wednesday we drove to the Chyulu Hills, where we heard a lecture from Tome, our Environmental Policy professor, about resource issues within the hills. The Chyulu Hills are highly contested between the government (the hills are within a national park and conservation area) and local communities that want access to resources like timber, pasture, and water. Some of the major problems in the hills include wood harvesting for carvings that are sold to tourists as well as issues with unplanned burning of vegetation for charcoal production, poaching, and to control tsetse fly and tick populations. After our lecture, which was on top of a small hill, we climbed a bigger hill that looked west back towards the park, Kimana, and Kilimanjaro. It was a breathtaking view and you could see many hills that looked like they had very recently undergone volcanic eruptions.
            On Thursday we went to Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, a 90 km2 fenced area within Tsavo West that is home to 60 black rhinos. We were shown around the sanctuary and then we heard a lecture by the man in charge. The sanctuary is just as wooded as the rest of Tsavo, and we heard that it might as well be called a unicorn sanctuary because it is so hard to spot rhinos. We never saw a rhino, though we did see dung and tracks and it was a beautiful area. After the sanctuary, we spent the afternoon at Ngulia Lodge, which is perched on the escarpment overlooking the sanctuary. It was the most relaxed afternoon we’ve had in a while – I spent about 3 hours lounging on a chair and reading, or swimming in the pool. It was the smallest pool so far – maybe 15 yards long, but still so nice! I also spent some time searching for rhinos with my binoculars, but no luck. We left around 4 to drive back to the camp, which was too bad because we heard that you can spot rhinos at the watering holes in the later afternoon. It was still a really great day, though, and it was really interesting to hear about rhino conservation, which is making strong improvements in Kenya and Africa in general. We finally got our dose of rain last night, we had been really lucky until then. It started pouring on us around 7 pm and it stopped raining by 1 am. We were very wet and cold in our tents, but now we are all really excited to sleep in dry, warm beds here at camp.
            This morning we packed up camp and rode back to camp. We had the afternoon to unpack, do laundry, and start studying for our final exam. Tomorrow is a non-program day and as long as it doesn’t pour we will go on a hike in a gorge and then visit a HIV/AIDs Voluntary Counseling and Testing center (VCT) to meet the people there. 

I hope I can post some photos soon, but that depends on the internet and also I have misplaced my camera cord. We returned today and I discovered a large hole in the screen of the window above my bed. It was definitely made by something strong (probably a baboon) and so now I am nervous that there is a baboon running around with my camera cord and ipod (also mysteriously missing). I think I am paranoid - hopefully they will turn up soon. only in Africa!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Kenya Time

When we were in Tanzania we were told about how Kenyans are louder and live an overall faster lifestyle than Tanzanians. We have definitely experienced a pick-up of the pace since arriving in Kenya. It has been a busy week here, with lots of classes that are being fit in before our expedition (we leave tomorrow morning for Tsavo West National Park), final exam, and directed research projects. We’ve had a number of field lectures and exercises to familiarize ourselves with our area of Kenya and the environmental issues present in the area. I just turned in a paper summarizing the results of a rangeland condition assessment (we set up plots along transects in the bush near our camp and looked at vegetation and soil characteristics).

We’ll all be relieved when we get to Tsavo, because it feels like we’ve been constantly busy all week and I haven’t had much time to get excited about expedition. We’ll have a bunch of field lectures and some exercises and also we’ll hear from some park rangers in Tsavo and in a rhino sanctuary that we’ll visit close to the park. We just watched a movie about Mzima Springs, where we’ll go tomorrow, which is a site in the park known for its hippos and crocodiles. So, here are some interesting facts about hippos – an adult hippo produces about 20 kilograms of fertilizer per day, baby food for hippos is adult hippo dung, and a newborn hippo weighs around 40 kilos.

            Ok, now I will talk about our trip to Amboseli National Park, which we took on Thursday. We had a guest lecture on Thursday morning by a woman who works on the Amboseli elephant project, and then we drove to the park and had a class as we drove around the park. It rained all morning so we sat in the land cruisers and took notes as our professor, Shem, spoke to us over the vehicle radios. It was still really interesting, and kind of fun to drive through a park in the rain. We saw a cheetah lounging in the grass and seeing it shrouded by the rain was pretty eerie and mysterious. We also realized that it is always possible for roads in Africa to get worse…
            After our morning class we drove to Amboseli Serena Lodge, a really nice tourist lodge within the park. I had been optimistic about the possibility of going to the lodge and having time to swim, so I had thrown my suit into my bag that morning, even as it was pouring rain. The rain cleared by the afternoon so I spent a glorious 25 minutes swimming all alone in a nice, kidney bean-shaped pool. I have really been missing swimming lately (as I think about how the NESCAC season just started!) so it was really refreshing to steep in chlorine for a bit.
            We had a game drive out of the park in the late afternoon and, because the weather had cleared, we got to enjoy the views of the park more than we had in the morning. Amboseli is known for its large mammals, particularly elephants, because it contains three swamps that support them during the dry season. So we were able to see huge groups of elephants munching on grass in and around the swamps. The highlight of this part of the day was when we came upon a group of elephants that were really close to the road and had one extremely aggravated young male. We figured that he was in mus
tth (wanting to mate) and that he was trying to challenge the resident, dominant male of the herd. He would approach the dominant male and they’d clash tusks and push at each other, but the dominant male wasn’t very perturbed by him and often kept on eating grass as they fought. Then the young male crossed the road and tried to put the moves, so to speak, on a female who was similarly unimpressed.
            I should put the situation in context a little before I describe what happened next… At least 8 cars were parked along the road near this elephant battle ground, and half of the cars were facing one way while the other half faced the other way. So a bunch of cars were piled together and I’m sure were uncomfortably close for the angry elephant. A car across from my car decided it was time to drive away right after the male confronted the female (probably not a good idea) and the only direction for them to go was forward – towards our car and straight towards the angry elephant. This car’s movement forced our driver, Harrison, to maneuver the car out of its way, but as we did this, the angry elephant channeled his testosterone at us and started to run towards us. So… we were being chased by an angry elephant while at the same time coming close to a head-on collision with another car. Harrison’s superb driving skills and fast reflexes brought us to safety – he floored the land rover and veered around the approaching car. The angry elephant didn’t follow us for very long – he stopped in the center of the road and gave a loud and frustrated trumpet sound. Then he proceeded to go challenge the dominant male again…    
 We all felt pretty awestruck after this experience. Moments before, we had been happily watching the proceedings, just like all the other cars. Then, all of a sudden, we were being charged! It was exhilarating, scary, and then funny after the fact. We all decided it was also humbling – we, extremely environmentally aware SFS students, always look at other tourists in the parks as kind of silly and unaware compared to us. We would never expect that it would be one of our cars that gets chased by an elephant!
            Suffice it to say, Thursday was a really fun day and we all want to go back to Amboseli. I think we’ll be able to go on one of our non-program days in late November. It will be fun to see more elephants, though hopefully we won’t provoke one again… Also, Aboseli is directly below Mount Kilimanjaro. Because of the rain and super low cloud cover on Thursday, we never saw it. But if we go when it is clear it will be stunning!

All right, I look forward to recounting tales from our expedition. If you are interested, you can look up info on Tsavo West National Park, Chyulu Hills, and Mzima Springs to learn about where we’ll be. Tsavo West is known for its aggressive animals (something we were briefed about today by the student affairs manager). So you might encounter stories about the man-eating lions of the park… There is also a movie called “Ghost in the Darkness”, or something like that, which tells the story of some particularly ravenous lions. Don’t worry too much though, because we will have armed guards around our campsite at night and now that we have survived being charged by an elephant, we can handle anything!

Baadaye, Catherine

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Here is a photo of Kili taken from camp. In the mornings it is very detailed, but as the day progresses it gets hazier and often clouds cover it. The other morning we woke up to see that there had been a snow storm over night, so the slopes were covered in snow. Everyone who is climbing Kili in December is getting really excited, it is good motivation to see Kili as you run. 

Today was a non-program day and this morning I did some laundry and worked on a paper that is due in a few days. It discusses human-wildlife conflict in the Kimana area, and we did interviews with community members on Sunday morning to learn about this. Elephant destruction of crops is a very prevalent problem - elephants raid fields almost nightly during the dry season. Hopefully conflicts will die down soon, because we are entering the short rainy season. It is actually raining right now! This afternoon was the first time we have seen rain since the Serengeti - so refreshing! 

Tomorrow we have a very full day of classes - with a field lecture leaving at 7:15 and then about 6 hours of class between 8 and 4. On Thursday afternoon we will go to Amboseli National Park - our first Kenyan park! I look forward to talking more about what we are learning here in Kenya and about DR once we figure out what projects we are doing. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Here is another article you should look at from the New York Times that I found yesterday. Not only is this a serious issue in Tanzania and in the world of conservation in general, but a certain professor from Tanzania is quoted at the end of the article! (Kissui is the Wildlife Management professor and he is the one who does lion research in Tarangire and we all wish he could be our uncle because he is so great!) This goes to show how awesome our professors here are...