In Search of Lions and Love (Magadi-Shompole)

We left Enoch’s house at 7.30am, headed for Magadi, where the Lale’enok Resource Centre was located. It was to be our home for the next 6 days, and is a community based resource centre owned by the Maasai women of Olkiramatian and Shompole group ranches. This section of the trip was a marked departure from earlier parts, for we were able to meet and shadow the many researchers, community scouts and resource assessors who worked there for a longer period of time.

Before we reached the resource centre, however, we were welcomed by the breathtaking sight of Lake Magadi. The lake is an example of a saline, alkaline lake, found in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Flamingos were abound, and we could see many pink flocks feeding on the blue-green algae that thrived in the lake.

Lake Magadi as seen on the drive across the causeway towards Magadi town, and beyond

Lake Magadi as seen on the drive across the causeway towards Magadi town, and beyond

On reaching the resource centre, we were greeted by Guy Western, coordinator of Rebuilding the Pride, one of the flagship projects of the resource centre. While the name of the project is somewhat of a misnomer, considering that lion numbers in the conservancies have been increasing even before the establishment of the project, it is undoubted that the project, which aims to promote ‘coexistence between predators and people in the South Rift’, has facilitated the rapid growth in recent years.

Many different methods are used to track and monitor the lion-community situation. First and foremost, GPS collars are used to track the movements of prides in the region. Additionally, around 5 camera traps have been deployed throughout the conservancy to give a better picture of the current situation on the ground. This is combined with cooperation with local community scouts, each with their designated walking blocks (each 4 x 2 km), where they observe the position and direction of animal tracks, such as hyenas or lions on a daily/weekly basis. This information is not only combined with the research being done in Rebuilding the Pride, but is also communicated to the locals living in the various bomas, so they know where to avoid letting their livestock graze, and be more prepared for any predator attack especially in the night.

One of the highlights for this segment was when we were able to set up 7 camera traps around the conservancy, as a taster of the research that is being done. I was quite enthused because we would be able to analyse the data we collected, and get an insight on the pros and cons of this data collection method.

Things got way more exciting, however, when a lion decided to observe what we were doing 20m away on a tree while we were setting up the 4th camera trap. Being hopelessly curious, Tom exclaimed ‘Where?’ and started to look for it while the rest scrambled back into the Land Cruiser. I had to point out that even our local Maasai guides were running back into the vehicle before he clambered in.

The profusion of pug-marks that immediately preceded the 'lion incident'

The profusion of pug-marks that immediately preceded the ‘lion incident’

Happier times having (safely) set up a camera trap

Happier times having (safely) set up a camera trap

Of course, realistically these short few days we were there limited the research questions we were able to ask and answer from the data we collected. Despite this, we did capture glimpses of lions, hyenas and other predators, a proof of the biodiversity present. (see:LINK) for a selection of camera traps photos)

Guy also allowed us to observe how he tracks collared lions and does call-ins, which he uses to conduct a yearly population census. We used an H antenna to track a VHS collared lioness, Namunyak. When we arrived near where she was, she seemed to be stalking a herd of zebra, possibly looking for a kill. It was all pretty exciting, and the tension built up as she crept closer to the herd, with the zebras seemingly unaware. While everyone held their breath in anticipation, however, she suddenly flopped down on the ground, killing any hopes that we would witness a kill. She became so comfortable that she even slept with one leg raised. While it isn’t something you see every day, I was still pretty disappointed. I’d rather see a kill than a lioness in a weird sleeping position.

One of the Magadi Lionesses

One of the other Magadi Lionesses

A sleeping Namunyak

A sleeping Namunyak

Part of the group (and Guy, and some of the other Lale'enok staff) VHF/radio tracking

Part of the group – Claire & Bhavik (and Guy, and some of the other Lale’enok staff) VHF/radio tracking [Photo Credit: Brendan]

After leaving Namunyak to her beauty sleep, we drove to an open area and proceeded on our call-in. We used the sound of an injured wildebeest calf to attract animals to the area. We didn’t attract much – around 3 jackals and some impalas. ‘For the sake of science’, we switched over to the even more unpleasant sounding recording of a hyena feeding frenzy over a buffalo, where the dying moans of the buffalo and the eerie seemingly laughing howls of the hyenas looped on repeat. We saw more this time, mainly hyenas and even one lion. Why anyone would record that and think it would be useful for science baffles me, but I guess it’s effective. The other half of the group conducted the call in a few days earlier, and were a little more successful – they managed to attract striped hyenas.

The next morning, we joined Cisco on a baboon walk. The night before, we were told that we would be able to get extremely close to the baboons, possibly even 2-3m away. While this did not happen in the end, we did have very good close-up views of them. Juveniles played with one another without care, and mothers carried their young towards the safety of trees. I really like the idea of this project, as it not only brings revenue to the community, but allows visitors to have a more intimate understanding of baboons, one of the key species in the conservancy.

That afternoon, we visited a local Maasai village – a much more ‘authentic’ experience than the one we had in the Maasai Mara, and we managed to get a good insight into how the Maasai in this area were adapting to the changing cultural and social environment. We visited in the evening time, as the livestock were being brought back into the boma for the night, and even attempted milking a goat (with varying levels of success).

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Milking a goat

Milking a goat

Another day, we crossed over the border to Tanzania to visit Lake Natron – and it was spectacular. A desolate moonscape with a massive, still lake fringed with flamingoes, completely unspoilt (and hopefully will remain that way, as the planned Soda Ash factory is on hold or cancelled, for now)

Spectacular Lake Natron

Spectacular Lake Natron

However, since we were at Magadi, it was imperative that we also visit the Lake that gave the area its name. While the rest of us were mesmerised by the natural beauty in front of us, Tom was preoccupied with the beauty beside him. Gwen is a Masters student from Yale, and she is currently doing a project on hornbills, or as Bhavik would put it, “BIRDS!” Having a shared interest in Avifauna, Tom and Gwen hit it off immediately, lost in conversation after introductions. While everyone else sat around at the dinner table, silently eating fruit, the pair obliviously carried on with their discussion on something to do with birds (or frogs, or snakes, or some obscure mammal – we can’t be sure). It was thus of no surprise when Gwen readily accepted our invitation (mostly Tom’s) to come along and visit the lake in order ‘to see some birds’ (smooth move, Tom).

Lake Magadi

Lake Magadi – lesser flamingoes

Greater flamingoes

Greater flamingoes

So while the rest of us walked around trying to get good photos of the beautiful flamingos, Gwen and Tom hung around at the back, setting up their scopes as far away from the group as possible, ostensibly to get a view of the birds in the area. They were so absorbed in the sights around them (or was it just the closeness between one another?) that they were reluctant to move on to the hot springs, even after the whole group was already back in the vehicle.

Part of the CUWCS group and Gwen (far right)

Part of the CUWCS group and Gwen (far right)

Park at Magadi Town

Park at Magadi Town

The warm water at the hot springs

The warm water at the hot springs

Alas, all banquets must come to an end, and Tom had to say good bye when we arrived back at the campsite. It is said that the two had an early morning walk the next day ‘to look at more birds’, but we can’t confirm. It is only known that Tom had a particularly sad face when we left the place, a hint that he would particularly miss something or someone. Perhaps it was just the prospect of not being able to ‘see birds’ again. We will never know.

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The Lake has wildlife living on the surrounding land, with Grant’s gazelle, ostrich, secretary bird, eastern white-bearded wildebeest etc all sighted as well as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and wild dogs being seen in the vicinity of the lake, from time-to-time

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The Lake has wildlife living on the surrounding land, with Grant's gazelle, ostrich, secretary bird, eastern white-bearded wildebeest etc all sighted as well as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and wild dogs being seen in the vicinity of the lake, from time-to-time

Secretary Bird with the Magadi Soda Factory in the background

Some photos taken in Shompole and Olkirimatian Conservancies

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By Brendan Tan

Photo credits: Bhavik

Samburu

As we drove to Samburu, the scenery was so different from what we had experienced in Kenya so far. It was so dry and everything looked so wild. When passing by a village, I was surprised by people’s clothes – so colourful and striking (I was wondering whether they dressed up for special events).

 

After two hours drive, we settled down in a Catholic mission in Archer’s Post, a town close to Samburu National Reserve (2km from the gate), which is the highlight of this stop. It is also the place where we met John for the first time (and the second, third, forth…). I wasn’t impressed by him at first as I though he is just another person who tries to sell us bead bracelets we saw everywhere. However, he kept popping up every time we came back to the church or had meals at Ripples restaurant (which is just outside the church). The thing is we had already bought something from him when we first met (Tom bought a bead bracelet for his brother with only 100 Kenyan shillings – good price!). It seems that he just wanted to talk to us rather than selling us bracelets, and we were amused by his funny accent. We were so impressed by his “Oh my God” and “Take it easy, Mate” that we kept following him. On the day we left the church, Lauren and I did buy another two bracelets from John, which suggested that his strategy did work! Moses is the chef at Ripples and he is so creative that he boiled rice with watermelon (we did check with Noreen that it is not an Kenyan thing)! The food was so good and I really like the fresh juice.

 

Samburu National Reserve is definitely the highlight of our whole trip so far. We only spent an afternoon and a morning there but we saw so many different things. The landscape in Samburu National Reserve is so amazing. Unlike the other two places we visited so far – Masaai Mara is open plains (and the grass is so high that it’s not easy to see animals), and Laikipia is more about a different experience that we can actually walk rather than sitting in the car. Samburu is so diverse that we saw hills, forests and rivers. We found a big herd of Grevy’s, a kind of zebra with fully round ears and white belly. Considering that there are only 3,000 left in the world, we must have seen at least 5% of the population! Meanwhile, Bhavik started a new ‘Animal Bingo’ that whoever finds leopard/cheetah/wild dog wins. With a little help from his friends through the radio, our driver David drove us to a rocky hill that was surrounded by cars. It was the place where we found a leopard and a cub. The leopard was taking a nap on a warm rock – so lazy. When we got to the back of the hill, we saw the cub trying to feed itself with a dead animal hanging in a tree. It tried so hard and it almost fell off the tree several times. We waited for about an hour, and when all the cars moved away, the cub just walked to us. We were so lucky to see it in such a short distance – definitely no more than 2 meters. It was worth the wait and David won the bingo (Bhavik didn’t give him the prize – shame)! It seems that we finally finished our “big five”: elephant, lion, black rhino, buffalo and leopard. The next morning, we came back with high expectation. Samburu didn’t let us down. We were so close to lions this time. There were 4 lions just passed by our car (we were alone at this sighting) one by one. One of them even stopped and rested in front of us. We also found three cheetahs resting under a tree. However, they were too far away from us and I couldn’t see them with my eyes. Bhavik and Brendan took several pictures, and when zoomed in those pictures, I saw the black tear marks on their faces. Because off-road driving was not allowed in the reserve, the only thing we could do is to wait and see what would happen next. We waited for a while, and it became hotter. Our cheetah experts thought that they were not going to do anything, so we decided to carry on to explore the other side of the reserve. David was informed that the migration was happening in Maasai Mara. What a pity! We were so close to it and it was just one week after we went there. Definitely need to come back next time!

 

In that afternoon, we went to Namunyak Conservancy for wild dog tracking. Unlike the one we did in Mpala, we were actually in the bush this time. A local guide was supposed to lead us to places where wild dogs have been seen. As they used to hiding behind rocks, we need to do some hiking this time. Hiking was a good idea as we spent most of our time in the car. However, the truth is girls were not in the right kits – we were wearing shorts and flats – which caused us a lot of troubles. We were trapped by a kind of tree, which have lots of spikes. I don’t remember the Swahili name Noreen told us, but I remember it means “wait a minute”, as it stops you. We all got scratches, but we didn’t see the wild dogs. We were actually not as disappointed as we should have been except Bhavik….

 

By Zheng

 

 

Laikipia

As we drove through Mpala the team (minus Tom) were having a heated debate about whether the Grevy’s or Common Zebra could be seen as more attractive; at this point I realised my motives for signing up for this trip were different to these other 6 keen conservationists, in my eyes both species of zebra were essentially stripey donkey. The last few days in Laikipia have however been of particular interest to me, having allowed me to view the relationship between humans and wildlife in a different light.

Dear Bhavik, I apologise in advance for any controversial statements posted in this blog (I dislike Richard).

Having proudly announced to our family and friends back home we were to embark on a month long camping exhibition, we were both surprised and excited to spontaneously spend the night at the glorious Maxoil hotel. Christmas had come early. The highlight of this unanticipated section of the trip was when we met manager Peter and his friend Dave* at dinner. Both men had exposed their alter egos as country western singers, following (what we could only presume were) several Tuskers. Dave* then declared his love for Annie (Claire), and when poor diplomatic Peter tried to acclaim that ‘all the girls are beautiful’, Dave simply responded with ‘No!’ Enoch then offered to exchange Claire for 25 cows and 75 sheep (much to her disappointment) and the boys rejoiced over the fact they had manage to rid themselves of half their female teammates. Once we had patiently waited an hour for what can only be described as rather mediocre toast in the morning, we set off for Margaret’s campsite. Our supreme leader tried to accuse dear Margaret of ‘’slowly, unintentionally poisoning us all’, however the general consensus was that the mystery plague which had swept over the group had been caused by undercooked rice at Maasai Mara (Margaret I do not blame you).

 

Day 1 in Laikipia featured a trip to the Ngusishi Water Resource Users Association. It was interesting to discover that even in the case of an extreme drought, the quota of water allocated to the environment would not be cut, even if that meant completely closing off the pipelines that fed domestic, industrial and agricultural projects. I was slightly sceptical about this rule, as it seemed to me it could encourage the sort of unregulated, free-for-all, default approach to water usage, which the association had aimed to suspend (however, I was part of a minority). The trip to the water association became more comical when we ventured upon a farm where water was being used efficiently to sustain a thriving business. Enoch decided it would be acceptable to start ransacking the poor man’s crops and forced us all to eat his stolen tree tomatoes. The CEO of the Water association thought it best to follow Enoch’s lead and proceeded to dig around for carrots, (he shall now be referred to as ‘Carrot Man’); I diagnosed him with ADHD, as he seemed incapable of talking to us without picking, harvesting, plucking or fishing.

 

The next day in Laikipia was spent at Ol Pejeta. The conservancy is renounced for its heavy management strategy and is well regarded when it comes to dealing with human-wildlife conflict. While the majority of the team were impressed with the resourceful ways in which private landowners had funded the conservation initiatives at Ol Pejeta, I felt indignant towards the ‘Cattle to Market’ scheme. Essentially, the pastoralists are denied access to the land to graze their cattle for reasons associated with grassland depletion and disease; only to have their most desirable cattle bought off them for ‘a fair price’ and transferred onto the very land their were told was off limits to cattle. The cattle are subsequently fattened up and sold to market for a much higher price. I was encouraged by Bhavik to confront CEO Richard Vigne about my reservations, whilst the others feasted on overpriced chips and milkshake served by his rather rude other-half. I disclosed to dear, misogynistic Richard my thoughts on the rather exploitative programme, which he understandably defended considering its contribution to 30% of the conservancy’s revenue. The issue I have is, conservation is money. The environment comes secondary to economics. Whilst economic development is hugely important in Kenya, it cannot be seen as an end in itself. Economic development should be seen as synonymous with social development, but in actual fact this is where the main conflict lies. Conservation can sometimes be a murky issue, and I think that is something we are all beginning to recognize, particularly me.

 

On our final day we went to Mpala ranch. After being greeted by the slightly robotic Cosmos, whose over-enthusiastic smile sent shivers down my spine, we were led on a tour of the site. We were all slightly confused when we were taken into the laboratory and told to browse but not ask questions; Cosmos was clearly unsure of what specimens were actually being held in the various test tubes and boxes. I must also mention the 10’ O’clock pancakes, THEY WERE INCREDIBLE. We had a morning game drive during which we saw some of Northern Kenya’s striking ‘specialty species’ including Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe.

In the afternoon we spent 5 hours on a wild dog chase… quite literally. They most definitely are a mythical species BUT that is a story which will be continued…

 

By Lauren

Maasai Mara Days 2-4

As the CUWCS team awoke on day two of our trip, after a short but good night’s sleep in our lovely guide Enoch’s house, we prepared ourselves for the 6 hour drive from Kitengela to the Maasai Mara. 13 long, long hours later (Mr Shah is a liar) we found ourselves still in the minivan, lost on top of the escarpment overlooking the Maasai Mara National Reserve (the Mara Triangle) as we attempted to find our accommodation for the next few days. After the Enoch stopped to urinate in the bushes (at the risk of a lion attack), we came across a group of donkeys laden with white sacks. We were told that the donkeys were carrying illegal charcoal and we were witnessing the Nyakweri forest being carried out before our very eyes. This sighting served as a good introduction to the continual human-wildlife conflicts we would encounter throughout this trip. The Maasai Mara, as well as many areas throughout Kenya, face a constant battle in balance the needs of the population and the needs of the wildlife.

 

After another 2 hours lost on top of the escarpment, we finally found our accommodation, and after collapsing into bed immediately on arrival, woke up to an incredible view over the reserve. Venturing into the triangle for the first time, the group was excited to have multiple sightings of lions, elephants, giraffe and zebra, alongside vast amounts of impala, topi and gazelle. From a distance, we even saw several black rhino, much to the excitement of Bhavik, and several apparently rare species of bird, much to the delight of resident bird-lover and frog-catcher Tom. The afternoon game drive quickly descended into a competitive game of Animal Bingo, with much debate and discussion as to whether certain animals were far too common to count. Allegations of cheating, bribery and favouritism were sent in a barrage to our beloved leader (read: dictator) Bhavik, who organised the so-called game. Several group members were also told to be quiet after exclaiming far too loudly when a spotted hyena was discovered, and another animal could be checked off their bingo cards. After the bingo nearly tore us apart, the CUWCS team reconciled in the evening over a good meal and a night of chatting and bonding, and all wrongs were forgotten (apart from Tom, who was busy trying to find frogs in accommodation grounds).

 

Our second day began with a trip to the Mara North Conservancy. This was a very different experience to that of the national reserve the day before; here community members own the land privately, but the land is under management by the conservancy body to allow wildlife to roam. Patrick, the manager of the conservancy, told us how the community members are paid monthly lease fee by the conservancy and in return they allow wildlife onto their land, and have a grazing plan whereby livestock only graze in certain areas, rotated over time, to prevent the land from becoming degraded. We were told how balancing the needs of the community against the needs of wildlife is a constant struggle, but that with careful supervision and strong community engagement, alongside education and training projects for community members, the Mara North Conservancy is effective in protecting vulnerable land surrounding the reserve.

 

We then visited one of the settlements in Mara North Conservancy, Mara Rianta, and were shown a predator-proofed boma. A key issue within community conservancies is the predation of livestock by wildlife, and it was explained how communities in this area have adapted their enclosures by adding wire mesh and metal sheets to protect the animals from predators and how they have adapted the design to address weaknesses, such as hyenas biting the goats’ heads and backsides!

 

In the afternoon, we visited a Maasai boma to see the pastoralist group’s way of life. After a demonstration from the Maasai, the male group members attempted to create fire in order to demonstrate their masculinity: Bhavik and Brendan will now never find wives. After a tour of the boma, Lauren fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming betrothed to a Maasai man for the princely sum of 650 goats. Although an interesting insight into this traditional tribal culture, the experience somewhat lacked authenticity, and the group remain keen to see a less-commercialised portrayal of the Maasai way of life.

 

The CUWCS team collapsed into bed after several busy days in the Maasai Mara, which featured flat tires, long drop toilets and a two hour unplanned late-night tour of the escarpment, ready to continue the adventure to Laikipia in the morning.

-Louise