CUWCS-CUEX KENYA EXPEDITION 2017 – SIGNING OFF

The last leg of our expedition was to take place back in Nairobi, checking the results of the two week deployment of camera traps and preparing the project for long term functionality following our departure from Kenya.

Following the long drive from Amboseli we were all ready to fall into the inevitable embrace of the hallucinatory dreams induced by our anti-malarials, however, fate had other plans for us that night. To our horror we were to return to Enoch’s home to find the decrepit land rover that had beset us with trouble in Naivasha waiting for us in the drive like a leaking, wheeled spectre. The driver had deposited the car for us under the impression that Enoch was intending on buying it. Given its position blocking the drive we had to move it to park our car, however, the rickety demon of a land rover was to have other plans for us. With a dead battery leaving the spiteful hunk of steel immovable by engine power we were to resort to the man power of the entire CUWCS-CUEX Kenya Expedition 2017. To follow was two hours of pushing and heaving the dusty, creaking land rover back and forth to manoeuvre it out of the conveniently tight-walled driveway in which it had been parked.

Following a much deserved rest we were to awake to the chilly Nairobi air, preparing ourselves throughout the morning to retrieve the data from our camera traps in the field. Following a series of delays it was not until an hour before sun-down that we were able to leave to collect the memory cards from each trap. With a half hour drive to the study site this was to leave us with only half an hour before darkness descended across the Athi Plains. This was to leave us worryingly vulnerable to denizens of the night. With our time limit in mind and with the valiant assistance of Enoch’s son Darwin, our memory card retrieval mission was to proceed as an exercise in efficiency. With the last memory card in hand we were able to take our seats back in the car just as the sun sunk below the horizon and the roars of the local lions began to herald the rise of the moon.

Twilight camera trapping.

Charlie and Andrew ready to fend off anything that should come our way.

Melodrama aside, the fruits of our labour were worth the high speed hike through the bush. Inspecting the images of the memory cards was to reveal the use of the study area by a plethora of fauna. The exact details of the data collected from the camera traps is so significant for conservation activities in the area that we are unable to share it online due to the potential of its misuse by the wrong people. As such the two week trial had proved to be a huge success, confirming the effectiveness of our project in achieving conservation goals.

 

A selection of the less sensitive camera trap images:

A group of inquisitive impala (Aepyceros melampus).

Not everything passing into Nairobi National Park should be…

One of the many flocks of shoats (sheep/goats) that are herded around the boarder of Niarobi National Park.

Maasai giraffes (Giraffa tippelskirchi) leaving the national park.

Having analysed the camera trap data our next step was to finalise our long term plan for the project. Upon reviewing the data and following discussion with community leaders and partners we devised a two-year plan of monthly data collection and input into our data table, followed by a seasonal movement of camera traps to allow the whole community area to be sufficiently covered over a yearly period. This data can then be used to inform conservation action and livestock management over the short term. This framework will be reviewed after two years with the aim to use long term data collected to form the basis of an in depth study of movements across park boundaries.

Having arranged to meet with the community chief Nickson on the 24th to re-insert memory cards, move some camera traps to better locations, and deploy yet more traps we were left with a free day on the 23rd. Having run out of expedition-linked activities we paid a visit to one on Nairobi’s more touristy conservation-based attraction, the Nairobi Giraffe Centre. Set up in the 1970s as a breeding centre in response to the population collapse of the Rothschild giraffe (Giraffa rothschildi), the centre breeds these long necked giants, regularly reintroducing individuals into the wild. To provide an income for this exercise and as an opportunity to educate, the centre also offers the opportunity for visitors to come and see and feed their giraffes. The day was spent in a haze of long black giraffe tongues and food pellets, leaving us all thoroughly coated in giraffe saliva.

Making friends.

The next day was to be the final day of the expedition. Awaking early we travelled for the final time to the Athi Kapiti Plains. Meeting with Nickson we spent the day in the area we had come to know so well, hiking through the dusty plains, setting up camera traps and marking locations on the GPS. With all cameras set up we finished our final day of expedition with the customary cup of tea with Nickson.

Setting a camera trip whilst Charlie admires his machete.

Sitting now, with bag packed, and one final cup of Kenyan tea in hand all that remains are some thank yous. Thanks must go to the Empankasi community, our partners in the camera trap project. Without their willingness to partake in and support conservation in their land we would have no project and the wildlife in their land would have little hope of survival. It is the chief of the Empankasi, Nickson Parmesa, who has been our main partner and contact within the community and it will be him who takes responsibility for the regular checking of camera traps. Without Nickson’s partnership this expedition would never have happened. Of all the Kenyans that have shown us kindness on our expedition it is Enoch and his family that have made us feel most welcome. Enoch’s wife Jemima and son Darwin have been a constant source of warmth and hospitality to us, without them we would have felt far more like strangers in this foreign land, instead we were made to feel like family. Above all thanks must go to Enoch. Acting as translator, guide, driver, colleague and friend, nothing would have happened on this expedition without Enoch’s help. I hope in some small way our work will help to conserve the wildlife and help the people of the beautiful country of Kenya.

Signing off one last time,

Tom Jameson, CUWCS-CUEX Expedition 2017.

Amboseli – Elephants, Schools, and Mt Kilimanjaro

The next stage of our journey was to take us to Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya. The park and its surrounding area is famous for its elephants, with much of the key work on elephant behaviour developed through study of the Amboseli families. With such a huge elephant population the area is a flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict concerning elephants raiding crops and attacking people. It was this conflict that we were interested in, as a very different problem to that of predator-human conflict that our project in Nairobi is dealing with. In the Amboseli region we were to visit the national park to gain a perspective of the density of the elephant population as well as key local organisations that are attempting to manage the various conservation issues that concern such a population.

Before undertaking our investigation of the Amboseli region we first has to leave Niavasha. This was easier said than done. We were to say goodbye to our driver Isaac and his irrepressible van (“the van that can”), replacing each with a new driver and car to continue our journey to Amboseli. Having waived Isaac and his van goodbye we were to wait at the camp for the new vehicle… and wait we did. The day was to be spent sitting outside our huts in the sun with regular calls to the driver trying to establish where on earth he had got to. If Isaac’s van had been the van that can, this car was certainly the land rover that couldn’t. Shortly after sunset  a very ill sounding land rover was to roll into camp before grinding to a choking halt, leaking axle fluid, lacking seat belts and requiring us to learn how to hot wire a car to get the engine started. After some mildly electrocuted fingers we managed to restart the car to allow us to reach our dinning destination. Over dinner that evening we decided that the land rover would not be up to the greater than six hour drive to Amboseli. Enoch, pragmatic as ever, was able to organise his car to be driven up to Niavasha from Nairobi for our use the next morning in the drive down to Amboseli.

Setting out the next morning we were in for six hours of overtaking huge caravans of dangerously overloaded HGVs and choking through the smog they belched from their exhausts. Bruised and dust stained we arrived at our campsite and collapse into sleep plagued by strange anti-malarial induced dreams.

Mt Kilimanjaro at sunrise.

Waking before dawn we were met with the sight of Mt Kilimanjaro set ablaze by the rising sun. In the shadow of the world’s tallest free standing mountain we took a quick breakfast before jumping into our car to see Amboseli National Park. Like the Maasai Mara, Amboseli is an unfenced park located within an area of largely open, Maasai owned community land, part of a larger ecosystem spanning across the Tanzanian boarder. Unlike the Maasai Mara, but like Nairobi National Park, Amboseli is central government run, potentially leading to an increase in conflict with local people as locals receive minimal benefits from the park entry fees whist shouldering the burden of living alongside the high wildlife densities the park produces. The park itself was stunning, the morning sun lighting up the wetlands that make up the core of the park, the water shining gold around the legs of the wading elephants that dotted the open plain as far as the eye could see. As the day wore on and the temperature rocketed the glow of the sunrise was to be replaced by a heavy heat haze, driving all the animals of the park to take refuge in the wetlands. This was to our advantage facilitating stunning views of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), zebra (Equus burchelli), and elephants (Loxodonta africanus) all lounging within a few meters of one another. Amboseli also provided a stunning exhibition of some of East Africa’s most impressive bird life including the endangered lappet-faced vulture (Trogos tracheliotus) and one of the world’s largest owl species, Verreaux’s eagle-owl (Bubo lacteaus). Views of such a biodiverse and lush park were in stark contrast to the dry and dusty surrounding community land. This contrast provided the context for the resentment felt by local pastoralists who compete with wildlife for access limited pasture.

Mt Kilimanjaro towering above the clouds, elephant for scale.

A very pregnant spotted hyena that wandered a bit close for comfort.

Verreaux’s eagle-owl sleeping the day away.

Sunset over Amboseli National Park.

With the context provided by the park we were to investigate the conservation and human-wildlife conflict issues faced in the area, alongside potential solutions, by a visit to the headquarters of the conservation organisation Big Life. At Big Life HQ we met with the organisations programs manager Samar Ntalamia with whom we discussed the organisations major programs: The employment of a squad of over 250 anti-poaching rangers from the local community; the provisioning of communities with tangible benefits from wildlife conservation through sponsoring the education of bright children and employment of more teachers in local schools; The establishment a compensation program for local farmers who lose livestock to wildlife; the Moran education program, initiating culture change among young Maasia to halt ceremonial killing of lions, providing alternative outlets for shows of strength and skill through the Maasai Olympics. To demonstrate the success of Big Life’s programs Samar gave us access to the elephant poaching data collected by Big Life, a detailed database of all the elephant poaching events in the ecosystem since Big Life’s initiation. Though the accounts are a harrowing read, it is heartening to see how the situation has improved as Big Life have developed their programs in the area.

Impressed by what we had heard of Big Life’s programs so far we were to be taken to see some of their work on the ground. With Big Life’s conservation education officer we made our way to a local school which was support by Big Life through the employment of teachers and the running of conservation education classes. At the school we met with staff to discuss the challenges education faced in the area and the interplay between education and wildlife conservation. A dramatically different picture of school life was painted to that which most of us had grown up with. Here education issues are rather different from those faced by UK primary schools, no mention of SATs of teacher’s pay, rather problems with children needing to leave school early to avoid elephants and lions on the way home.

Returning to Big Life HQ we were to meet with the organisation’s Director of Operations Richard Bonham before taking our leave. With Richard we discussed the wider issues of human-wildlife conflict in the region and the potential future of funding and governance for conservation work in East Africa. Having felt thoroughly impressed and welcomed by Big Life we retired once again to our camp.

The following day we were to return to Nairobi for the final stage our expedition to assess how the camera traps had fared following long term deployment, before a final briefing with the local community to set the project off on its next stage. With one final look at the dizzying peak of Mt Kilimanjaro we alighted from camp for our final bone-rattling, dust covered cross country journey through Kenya.

 

Poorly organised pictures and prose courtesy of Tom Jameson.

Kericho and Nakuru – Tea, Frogs, and Thunder Storms

After saying farewell to our French amis, we left the Maasai Mara. The many rocky roads (not the kind with marshmallows unfortunately) that lay ahead were no challenge for the TVTC (the van that can), a 1.8L, two wheel drive, monster of a van that could cross rivers, climb hills and probably scale mountains – all with up to nine people in it.

It just can

On the journey we were fortunate enough to see the last two White Rhino left in the Maasai Mara region, accompanied by their 24/7 security team – an armed squadron that would have looked more suitable guarding some of Kenya’s elite politicians than these two horny beasts. Our incredibly fortuitous encounter * attributed to the Jamaican charm of Andrea and the lucky rock I had picked up back in Nairobi. Tongue out of cheek though, it’s very unfortunate that illegal poaching has affected their population so dramatically, the work and dedication of rangers to restore the species was impressive.

*: The maasai mara region is over 1,500 km2 in size and these rhinos were about 50m from the road we happened to be driving on.

Guards just out of shot

Many hours of disc-slipping, teeth-chattering driving later we made a stop for van to be repaired. Despite the expert manoeuvring of our driver Isaac, the front bumper had come loose and had to be welded back on. This did, however, give us a chance to explore the local area we had stopped in. It seemed that with each step another local child joined our sides and followed us around, kindly greeting us all as Wmzungus (Swahili for White people). After a bit of exploring we came across what, to the layman, may have just seemed like a roadside puddle filled with pollution, silt, livestock waste, algae and maybe even some water. However, it was in fact, a roadside puddle filled with frogs (as well as all of the above). Of course Tom “Frogman” Jameson couldn’t let the opportunity pass, and so got stuck in, trying to catch one of his amphibious friends. However, the nimble frogs evaded his capture and tactics had to be changed. Luckily, we had amassed quite a following by this point, around ten children and four moped drivers that had pulled over to watch – probably questioning what these crazy Wmzungus were doing elbow deep in filth. Enoch managed to recruit one of the moped drivers to buy us a net and another to fetch a shovel. So within mere minutes we were fully equipped to catch, arguably the most dangerous ** of all species we had encountered so far.

**: frogs reside in murky water, either in the form of crocodile infested rivers or cholera rich puddles – so this statement is not as ungrounded as it may seem.

With a trench dug to drain a little of the water and the net placed across, we managed to catch two frogs, one of which jumped out of the net, the other required bagging into a ziplock bag for identification. Tom, the encyclopaedia that he is, identified it as the Lake Victoria clawed frog (Xenopus victoriana). The van was fixed, frog released and we were back on the road to Kericho.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a plantation manager, who also happened to be Enoch’s cousin. Enoch, our guide, seems to have a relative in every town, in every profession across the whole of Kenya. We were taken on a private tour of Kericho’s Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certified*** tea plantations and given an overview into the tea growing business. Tea is Kenya’s biggest export, the potential damage from fertiliser and insecticide over use, as well the deforestation associated with plantation creation, is of particular concern for conservation. RFA policies ensure fertiliser use is limited, damage on surrounding biodiversity is minimised, as well as protecting living and working standards for employees (to name a few). In the process we managed to, once again, gather quite the crowd; a whole class of school children followed us to the plantation to watch from the road.

***: Ever bought tea with a little frog logo on the front? Well keep going, we approve.

Tea fields

 

After the plantation we were taken to the factory. In true field scientist fashion, we the donned some lab coats. After the obligatory hand and shoe sanitations, we were taken around to see  how our English beverage of choice was dried, shredded, sieved and packaged before being sent around the world.

Who says you have to be qualified to look qualified

 

Got tea?

The following day, we were given a tour of the local area’s swamps by the very helpful manager from our accommodation. Using the wire mesh from the day before, machete chopped branches and some barbed wire, Frog net v2.0 was born – now with a handle, and a deeper net (buy yours today – frogs not inc.). With several more frogs (Angolan river frogs) and tadpoles bagged, Tom’s insatiable amphibious appetite quelled for the day; we got back on the road heading for Nakuru.

Froggin

With a hotel in the city for one night, we were given both a political and musical education over dinner in true Kenyan style – through the TV’s political propaganda and gospel music channels. The following day we arose early to visit Lake Nakuru National Park (NP). This park is distinct from those visited previously. The Maasai Mara NP is under Country council management, has no boarders and is continuous with the Serengeti national park in Tanzania – combined forming a highly wild ecosystem of over 16,000 km2. Nairobi NP is managed under KWS (Kenyan Wild Life Service – a central government agency) and has only partly fenced boarders – the open wildlife corridors that surround were the sites of our camera trap investigation. Lake Nakuru NP was also under KWS management and has fully closed boarders, a response made to increasing urbanisation pressures. The park provides a case study of a mature NP and hence gives useful predictions for potential future of Nairobi – of particular use to us given our study.

Lake Nakuru was a stunningly beautiful area, with a vastly different biome to the previous parks we visited. When we first arrived the luscious green rolling hills were peppered with herds of buffalo, all hidden behind a veil of mist that hung in the air. Attempts to call the herds closer with mediocre cow mooing impressions were unsuccessful, achieving little more than angry grunts and stares from the larger bulls.  By midday, the air was clear and the central lake was filled with migrating flamingos – their flamboyant pink bodies a stark contrast to the drowned forest that surrounded the lake. We also saw our first two male lions, these ferocious felines were found sleeping under a tree – obviously hunting wasn’t on the agenda for that afternoon.

Moo again, I dare you

Roar

Stay fabulous

We navigated back through the winding roads of the park and payed our protection money to the baboon gangs that ran the exit ****, we left heading for our hilltop huts overlooking the lake.

****: Well obviously not money, baboons don’t have pockets. They will steal just about everything from your van if you leave a window or door open though. As proven by the fights between alphas over bags of bread and shopping bags filled with fruit.

Gimme yo’ lunch

Upon arrival, we were all very happy with our accommodation near Lake Naivasha: sunny weather, hilltop views over the lake, wooden huts and outdoor fire pits. It was the ideal stop over point on our South West tour of Kenya. We split up, collecting firewood and setting up our rooms for the night. Things took a slight turn for the worse when the monsoon began. A tropical thunder storm orchestrated by bolts of lightning over the lake. Suddenly our huts seemed less attractive, their corrugated iron roofs and open air design, with gaps between the planks and no windows (holes for windows just nothing in them) proved to be slightly problematic. After some impromptu duct tape DIY our airy huts were slightly less so and our patchwork mosquito nets had been repaired. We spent almost an hour sitting under cover just watching the storm, taking in its slightly terrifying beauty.

We spent the rest of the evening at a pretty surreal bar by the lake. Meeting some other fellow Wmzungus for the first time and taking in the bar’s fine euro-pop music selection. The chilled out sexy vibe intermittently disturbed by someone shouting “hippo”, which passed by the electric fence that surrounded the bar.

After dinner we headed back to our rooms, and passed out for about 12 hours. Reflecting what had been an eventful, yet undeniably special, three days.

Charlie Jordan

MAASAI MARA – LIKE THE LION KING, BUT WITH LIMITED ELTON JOHN

A new day, a new destination, and a new means of travel. We were met at the house by Isaac and his van, a vehicle capable of amazing feats, largely as a result of Isaac’s immense driving skills, later becoming referred to as simply ‘the van that could’. Travelling through Nairobi was a tiresome experience, with traffic being characteristically congested, and patience limited. Leaving the bustling streets of Nairobi, and moving into the Rift Valley itself, it became clear that driving in Kenya as a whole, not simply the capital city, would be dissimilar to that of the UK, with possibly only the apparent lack of time displayed by the residents being comparable to that which I am used to living in London. As we speed along expansive highways overlooking the open savanna of the valley, it began to feel as though the journey had truly begun. No longer were we to be within arms distance to the busy streets of Nairobi, enclosed by fences and roads, we would be heading towards more wild, more free lands.

The impact of human settlement remained apparent, with townships being dispersed at regular intervals as the highways sprawled away from the city, notable due to the abundance of hand painted advertisements covering the faces of houses and shops alike. We stopped at the largest town on the route to the Mara, the hectic town of Narok, where we took refreshments in a coffee shop which would not have seemed particularly out of place in the most hipster rich areas of our home country, were it not for the lack of waxed moustaches and wide brimmed glasses.

From Narok Town we travelled the remaining hours on dirt roads, and I should add, with limited suspension, until we made it to our campsite, located only a short jaunt away from the entrance to the Maasai Mara itself. Although leaving slightly later than planned had meant that we arrived at our lodgings in darkness, it did also provide us a brilliant opportunity to view the sun setting as we travelled along newly constructed Chinese roads, with the brilliance coming largely from the visual spectacle provide, and less so due to the new investment of the Chinese government in the area. Collapsing into our beds, we set out to recover from the day of travelling which we had just endured, with an early morning being required if we were to make the most of the wonderful fauna which the Mara had to offer.  We slept to the rhythmic grunting of blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), interspersed by the howling of local spotted hyena (Crocula crocula) clans, and the distant male lions (Panthera leo).

Although we woke at 5:00am, the potential tiredness was apparently overcome in full by the excitement of what was to come. A hearty breakfast, provided by a local hotel, was all that would be required to sustain us, and before long we were packed back into our heroic little van to continue into the park.

Unlike Nairobi National Park the Maasai Mara was not run by the central government, through the Kenyan Wildlife Service, instead being controlled by the local county government, being a national reserve as opposed to a national park. Our visit would allow us to compare the differences between the successes of the different management strategies, viewing the dissimilarities seen on the ground. The scale of the areas also vary greatly, with the Mara being far larger than Nairobi National Park, as well as the regions in which they are found. Nairobi National Park, for example borders Nairobi on three sides, whilst the Maasai Mara borders the Serengeti in Tanzania, an area roughly the size of Wales, with an abundance of fauna, and lack of human activity.

As we drove towards the reserve entrance, only a short trip from our breakfast stop, we met a pair of French travellers who joined us for our journey.*

‘That’s a lot of wildebeest’ is likely a good description of the general sense of the day. The great migration of wildebeest north from the Greater Serengeti ecosystem is truly spectacular. The number of the beasts seen is difficult to comprehend, with literally thousands upon thousands of the creatures being present. Not only were the wildebeest in great abundance, with other bovids such as Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles (Gazella granti and thomsoni respectively), and common eland (Tragelanhus oryx) being present in herds an order of magnitude larger than those seen in Nairobi.

A lot of wildebeest

This photo actually contains many zebra, although their camouflage may make this difficult to spot

‘A series of National Geographic highlights’ would also be an apt description of the day, with marvel upon marvel being observed as we travelled through the park. From the rather boisterous cheetah cubs play fighting and their unimpressed looking mother within arm’s reach of our van, to infiltration of Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) herds, being unmoved by our presence. A live wildebeest river crossing, complete with dust galore; a riverside walk accompanied by huge Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) and hippopotamus (Hippopdomas amphibius) pods (as well as an armed guard); a 20 strong spotted hyena clan cooling down in muddy pools after an apparently particularly filling meal.

A couple of lanky leopards/feliform greyhounds

River horses

Lunch, too was both novel and extraordinary, eating the contents of our picnic alongside the bones of what appeared to be a zebra, with a pair of large male African elephants coming within 150 metres of us to investigate what was occurring (a distance which feels much shorter when in relation to animals so large).

Supposedly elephants display a fondness for buns – this is not relevant

The diversity, as well as the abundance, of organisms seen in the Mara was astounding, providing both an unforgettable experience, and a brilliant set point with which other parks and reserves should be compared.

The following day would be spent visiting the Olerai Conservancy, only a short distance from the Mara reserve, where we were given a guided tour by its manager, Saleem Mandela. We had met Saleem the previous evening over dinner, where he gave us an overview of the structuring of the conservancy. At one point he asked ‘Will you be wanting to do a walking or driven safari?’, to which Enoch replied ‘I think that we will decide tomorrow’.  ‘My elephants are very fierce’ chuckled Saleem, and we responded with laughter, that was until, with brilliant comedic timing, Saleem stopped us, stating ‘No, seriously, they’ve killed three people in the last week’. We were reassured that neither this, nor the description of the sheep flattened to a pancake-like state recently, should however put us off from visiting. As dedicated students of the University of Cambridge, a small risk of being crushed to death by elephants would not prevent us from being able to learn from Mr Mandela about the management, governance, and history of his conservancy, to gain an insight into the modern approach to conservation in Kenya. We would not, however, be going on any walking safaris.

The tour, this time not in the company of a pair of French tourists, did bring us into close proximity to a young bull elephant in must, but this was from the safety of our trusty van, and with Isaac at the helm it was clear that we were in safe hands. We also observed a multitude of bird species, rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis), and agamas (both Acanthocercus atricollis and Agama mwanzae), previously unseen, as well as many of the giraffes, zebra, and various bovids with which we have become familiar. We finished our tour with a discussion about the conservancy and its future, before returning to our campsite, where we would be able to rest, recovering from a multitude of early starts, bumpy journeys, and very un-English weather.

French tourists not included

Excessively long sentences constructed by Andrew Dixon.

*This is likely as confusing to us as it is to you.

 

 

 

Niarobi – Maasai, Camera Traps, and Orphan Impala

The first component of the CUWCS-CUEX Kenya expedition 2017 was to take place in the Athi Kapiti plains. This area lies south of Nairobi National Park, providing the only migration corridor out of the park to the rest of Kenya with the Northern side of the park being bordered by the ever encroaching city.

After a few hours’ sleep following our flight we had arranged to meet with the local chief of the Empakasi community, the owners of the key migration corridor of the Athi Kapiti plains and our partner community. The chief, Nickson Parmesa, had been using trail cameras, donated by the CUWCS two years previously, and was to be the major local coordinator of the camera trap project. Since our meeting was arranged for the evening we took the opportunity in the morning to explore Athi Kapiti.

Driving through clouds of dust and risking whiplash from rocks and potholes along the tracks of Athi Kapiti it wasn’t long before we were to come across our first iconic African species. Thompson’s and Grant’s Gazelles (Gazella thompsoni and granti) were the first to be spotted with blue wildebeests (Connochaetes crumeniferus) soon seen in large herds throughout the plains. After about hours’ drive through the plains we arrived at the home of Oscar, an eccentric friend of Enoch’s from whose land we could access a hiking route along the border of Nairobi National Park. Before starting our hike we were treated to the company of Oscar’s house guest, Impy, a five month old orphaned Impala (Aepyceros melampus). After copious stroking, scratching, and feeding of Impy we set out on our hike along the creek that demarcates the boarder of the national park. Here we were treated to copious birdlife, with speckled mousebirds (Colious striatus), grey-headed kingfishers (Halcyon leucocephala) and hadada ibis (Bostrychia hayedash) making an appearance. We were also pleased to see our first non-human primates with the eyes of vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus pygerythus) following us from the tree tops. Making our way back through the undergrowth to Oscar’s house the herpetologists in the group were delighted to catch sight of our first African reptiles of the trip, with large serrated hinged terrapins (Pelusius sinafus) spotted floating in the creek, and the nimble hands of Andrew managing to catch a juvenile red-headed agama (Agama agama). Returning to Oscar’s we said our goodbyes to Impy before making or way to Nickson’s farm to start our project.

Tom getting to know Impy the Impala

Charlie being the farther Impy never had

As the sun began to set over the plains we rolled into the dusty drive of Nickson’s farm. In Nickson’s home we were presented with multiple mugs of sweet tea over which we discussed the logistics of the project. With mugs drained our action plan for the next few days had been arranged, with two days set aside for trailing the functionality of the new make of camera traps in the field followed by a three week trail of the full contingent of camera traps in test locations throughout the Athi Kapiti plains. With this in mind we set out with Nickson to set up the first trial camera trap for the coming night.

 

With camera trap installed along an isolated trail we made our way back to our beds through the warm night. Armed with the most powerful torch Charlie could find on the internet we were able to take the night drive as an opportunity to look for nocturnal species by “eye flashing”. This technique involves shining a powerful light from a moving car, scanning for the eye shine of mammal species produced by reflection from the tapetum lucidum in the eye. We were pleased with the success of this technique, allowing us to spot snoozing wildebeest, springhares (Pedetes surdaster), and our first giraffes (Giraffa tippelskirchi). After a very busy first day in Africa we settled down for some much needed sleep.

Our second day varied dramatically from the first, with the camera traps being left to run for twenty-four hours before being checked in our second meeting with Nickson we had a day to kill. Since we were close to Nairobi the decision was made to take the opportunity to visit the national museum. As a herpetologist I was particularly interested to view the herpetology collections of the museum, representing the most complete record of East African amphibians and reptiles of anywhere in the world. At the museum we were lucky enough to be hosted by the assistant curator of herpetology Victor Wasomgas who was kind enough to show us the collection along with providing a tour of the world famous Nairobi snake park. Following our stay at the museum we set out to make our way back to Nickson’s farm to check the camera traps and join him to celebrate with the whole community his recent graduation and attainment of an undergraduate degree.

Though we left in good time what we didn’t bank on was the Nairobi traffic. Travelling at around three in the afternoon, long before rush hour, we sat in gridlocked traffic for what seemed an eternity. This was not due to any accidents, nor road works, simply representing the normal operations of the capital city’s road system. Though hot and uncomfortable this was by no means a boring experience, giving us a chance to soak up the sights and sounds of Nairobi in all their shouting, beeping glory.  After forcing our way through the Nairobi traffic we finally arrived at Nickson’s farm, having missed the festivities we were to arrive just in time to see Nickson before he removed his mortar board and graduation robes. After the meat-eaters in the group were treated to what was left of the ceremonially slaughtered goat we set out to check our trial camera trap, before resetting it for the second trial night. The first trail night was to yield great results, capturing a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in the night, followed by a passing farmer and his herd the next morning, and a close up of an Impala’s behind in the afternoon. Pleased with our yield we set up our camera trap for the following day to allow us to test the video settings.

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) captured during camera trap trial

Impala (Aepyceros melampus) captured during camera trap trial

With another day waiting for the results of the camera traps we took the opportunity to visit another local community, the Reachani Maasai of south Athi Kapiti. In this visit we were meeting with six representative of the community to conduct a semi structured interview investigate the issues of human-wildlife conflict faced by the community. This activity not only provided an excellent way for the group to learn about the history and attitudes of the local people as well as the conservation issues they faced, but also provided initial training for us in semi structured interview techniques used by field conservationists to collect qualitative data from communities. To conduct this interview we were directed to a farm were the group was to meet. Unbeknown to us this same farm was hosting a graduation celebration for one of the community members that had recently graduated. As a result we arrived to find the entirety of the Reachani Maasai ready to meet us and ply us with freshly slaughter goat and soda. After finding a quiet spot in the shade we were able to sit down with our focus group and begin our interview with the laughter and music of the celebrations surrounding us. Through our discussion we were to learn about the governance history of the community as it transition from a communally run group ranch to subdivided, settled individual plots of land. We discussed the problems such reorganisation caused local people and the effects such subdivision and enclosement of land had on wildlife migration. Here we were able to direct the conversation to the topic of human-wildlife conflict, allowing us to investigate the changing pressures and responses of the community to predators. After about two hours of discussion we were to bid goodbye to our generous hosts, leaving them to their celebrations.

Focus group session with Reachani Maasai

Returning to our study site we received a call from Nickson informing us that he would not be available to work with us that evening as since we last saw him he was over 150km away with his cattle. As such we took the opportunity to spend the rest of our evening back at base camp, prepping the remaining camera traps for deployment and get an early night for our pre-dawn start the next day to visit Nairobi National Park. Before we retired to bed we set up a single camera trap at the perimeter of our base camp to see what was lurking on the other side of the wall.

Our fourth day in Kenya started many hours before dawn, with the group awaking to the freezing 4:00 am air of Nairobi. Arriving shivering to the gate of Nairobi National Park at 6am we set out into the park. It is a surreal experience to watch the dawn break simultaneously over a capital city and open savanna, the same rays of light bouncing of the glass of sky scrapers and the steaming coats of zebras. Over the course of over six hours in the national park we were to see nineteen different mammal species and over twenty five different species of birds. Particular highlights included both black (Diceros biceros) and white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) including a calf, hippos (hippopotamus amphibious) and crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) basking in pools, and most impressively a trio of lionesses (Panthera leo) attempting to hunt a large male buffalo (Syncerus caffer). With such amazing sights in one of Kenya’s smaller and most urban National Park the whole team was excited to see what the larger and wilder parks hold.

Sunrise over Niarobi National Park featuring zebra (Equus burchelli)

Black rhino (Diceros biceros) in Nairobi National Park

Lioness (Panthera leo) in Niarobi National Park

Following a quick lunch after leaving the park it was back to the Athi Kapiti plains for the team to deploy the prepped camera traps in bulk.  With six key crossing points identified from the National park into the Empakasi land we set out to deploy traps in each of these regions to trial the effectiveness of long term, large scale camera trap use in information gathering informative in managing human-wildlife conflict. Meeting Nickson at his farm we set off on foot to the deployment sites, trekking along the river that boarders the Nairobi National Park. In setting up the trial conversation meandered to the topic of what to do if we came face to face with a lion on foot. Whilst nonchalantly strapping a camera trap to a tree Enoch imparted his wisdom, stating that one should stand one’s ground if faced with a lion and carry on as normal, the lion usually ignoring you, if a lion is to charge you then there is little you can do, it is simply “a bad day for you”. Baring this wisdom in mind we finished setting up camera traps as the sun set, returning back to base camp for the final time for a few weeks.

Andrew and Enoch setting up camera traps on large scale deployment

Tom and Charlie struggle with a particularly uncooperative camera trap

Back at camp we decided to assess the camera trap we had set up the night before, interested to know which of Kenya’s megafauna had set the dog off barking the night before. We were somewhat disappointed to find that the beast that had so terrified the dog was in fact merely other local dogs and a rather lost goat.

Retiring to our beds for the last time in a while in Nairobi we planned to awake the next day to continue our expedition in Amboseli National Park. However, that night we were to change our plans. Word was received from the Maasai Mara that the wildebeest migration had begun, since this globally renowned spectacle may only last for a few days per year we made the last minute decision to change our plans, traveling to the Maasai Mara in the morning to observe this wonder of the world and start our work in the area.

CUWCS-CUEX Kenya Expedition 2017

In the early hours of the 6th of July three very fatigued members of the Cambridge University Wildlife Conservation Society (CUWCS) and Cambridge University Expedition Society (CUEX) touched down in windy Nairobi to embark on the CUWCS-CUEX Kenya expedition 2017. Battling through tedious visa forms and fears of lost luggage the expedition members managed to fight their way out of Nairobi airport to meet their local guide and fourth member of the expedition. Pilling into a beat up four-by-four the full contingent of the CUWCS-CUEX Kenya expedition 2017 made their way to their beds for the night to catch a few hours’ sleep before starting their work in the savannas and villages of South Kenya.

The expedition team aims to develop a project to train pastoralist communities in the use of camera trap technology to reduce human-wildlife conflict in key wildlife migration corridors around Nairobi National Park. Such capacity building aims to allow communities to monitor predator movements into their land, allowing pre-emptive changes to livestock management regimes so as to reduce livestock losses to wildlife, and as a result reducing retaliatory killing of wildlife. By reducing such conflict this project will prevent loss of wildlife along key migration routes into Nairobi National Park allowing local wildlife populations to remain viable and hence the park to remain an effective conservation asset.

A pilot project with target communities was started by CUWCS in 2015 where a small number of camera traps were donated to communities following training. The results of this pilot project have been closely monitored over the last two years. Based on the very positive feedback from communities and local wildlife conservation organisations the CUWCS is pleased to be able to enact the project in full, starting larger scale camera trap implementation as of the 2017 expedition.

Over the coming three weeks the team of three University of Cambridge students (Tom Jameson, Charlie Jordan, and Andrew Dixon) along with support from local guide and University of Exeter PhD student, Enoch Mobisa, aim to develop this project whilst also gaining a first-hand insight into some of the conservation issues and solutions present in East Africa. Through these blog posts we hope to keep CUWCS members and supporters updated with how our project develops and our experiences of Kenya.

Check for updates regularly as we’ll be posting whenever we come across wild patches of Wi-Fi. For information on 2015’s pilot project see earlier posts below.