Day 15: Where the Wild Things Are

Our first full day in the Maasai Mara began at 5:30am, because apparently that’s when the animals are most active. Weirdos. We yawned our way into the jeep, shivering in the chilly morning air and waiting for some of that famous African sun to show up. Accompanying us on our morning game drive was a local Maasai guide who introduced himself as Mark. His English was faultless, and his traditional robes and Maasai jewellery were complemented by a very big, new-looking iPhone. It was clear to see the difference that tourism can make, for those who are able to reap the benefits.

Within a few minutes we were out of the encampment and trundling along a dirt road that led into the Maasai Mara proper. It was a long, straight road, bisecting a wide stretch of plains that was studded with antelopes. Many still lay huddled on the floor, their spindly legs tucked underneath them as they soaked up the first of the morning sun. Others trundled along in pairs or threes, sometimes stopping to absently nibble on the pale grass. The wildebeest were a notable exception – they were already a hive of activity, prancing around in what must have been a remarkable spectacle for the safari-goers in the hot air balloons up above. A long column of them streamed across the road in front of us, bound for the perilous river crossing that would mark the next stage of their migration.

Breakfast time for this Thomson’s gazelle.

The first sign of the great wildebeest migration.

The face of someone who will soon have to cross a crocodile-infested river.

Some visitors to the Maasai Mara prefer to get an aerial view.

It was soon clear to see why the Maasai Mara is such a popular destination for those wishing to experience Africa’s wildlife at its most unadulterated. Although Nairobi National Park was remarkable in its own way, the small size of the reserve and its proximity to the city meant that there was a sense of familiarity and safety to it all; the Maasai Mara, by contrast, felt vast, unknowable, a theatre for nature’s greatest dramas to play out in magnificent style. Perhaps the real difference was the elephants. Glimpsing a herd in the wild immediately put things into perspective: these are the biggest land animals on the planet; everything here is big.

A herd of elephants going about their business.

A young elephant making full use of its dexterous trunk.

Simply majestic.

That being said, there was no shortage of small creatures too, and they were no less impactful. I will never forget the sly, furtive expression of the first black-backed jackal we encountered, darting through the grass like a fugitive criminal. The hyenas were a welcome sight too, lolloping around with their strange sloping gait and grooming themselves in a decidedly dog-like fashion (despite superficial similarities in appearance, they are only distant relations). Several of the hyenas were shadowing a herd of topi, a large and striking species of antelope which we had so far only seen in the Maasai Mara. One of the hyenas made a half-hearted run in the direction of the herd, but its heart wasn’t really in it, and the topi hurried off without too much trouble. In the hazy dawn light, it felt less life and death, more dream sequence – nature soft in tooth and claw.

A definite troublemaker.

Some of the hyenas are fitted with radio collars, so researchers can track their location.

Just having a scratch.

The topi, a peculiar looking beast common in the Maasai Mara.

Predator and prey, apparently at ease.

If we were at risk of getting sentimental, the moment didn’t last for long. As we drove further, we spotted some considerable commotion up ahead. Amidst a swarm of shrieking beaks and gore-flecked feathers, a half-eaten carcass was experiencing the full efficiency and voraciousness of Kenya’s vultures. At least two species were present: the rather handsome white-backed vulture, and the genuinely nightmare-inducing lappet-faced vulture. With their exposed fleshy faces and sunken eyes, they looked like the sort of creatures that ought to have been off somewhere devouring the souls of the unworthy. Apparently content with antelope meat, they noisily crunched their way through with uncomfortable gusto, while their white-backed cousins looked on in something like dignified disapproval. Probably, it just wasn’t their turn at the kill yet, and they were twitching with impatience.

I’m not sure how that sight made me feel, really. It was the first reminder that all the beauty and harmony we had seen so far was ultimately predicated on some things dying, and other things eating them. Certainly it was natural, and necessary, but it didn’t make the crunching sounds any less spine-tingling.

The faces of these vultures will forever haunt my nightmares.

The white-backed vultures impatiently waiting their turn.

Other sightings were less emotionally confusing, and just made me grin from ear to ear. For example: a cheetah. We spotted her in the middle distance, lounging in the sun, alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cheetah was very cat-like, licking her paws to clean herself and contentedly swishing her tail. At one point, she rolled over onto her back and displayed her tummy – despite knowing she was a formidable predator and the world’s fastest land animal, I just wanted to give her a good tickle. Mark did little to dissuade me from this desire when he explained that unlike other big cats, cheetahs cannot roar, merely meow.

Even the world’s fastest animal needs to lie down sometimes.

A tummy that simply demands a good tickle.

As we drove towards the river, we quickly became aware of what at first looked like a second, darker river, and then revealed itself to be a monumental congregation of wildebeest. They were all marching along in a neatly ordered column, their queueing manners immaculate. We came to a stop, and watched them closely. They seemed restless, but unwilling to make the river crossing. They knew, just as we did, that the placid grey waters of the river concealed numerous crocodiles, and that the first animals to take the plunge were unlikely to make it through in one piece. We watched for a while longer, but their adventurous mood seemed to have passed, and the column came to a halt. Today was not the day.

We were a little disappointed at not having witnessed the crossing in all its chaotic, churning glory, although Mark pointed out that the wildebeest sometimes waited at the bank for over a week, so we would have had to have been extremely lucky to see the first one take the plunge. Still, it was incredible to witness the sheer scale of the migration, which sees up to two and a half million wildebeest and other ungulates make the gruelling 800 km trek from Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem in search of greener pastures.

A fraction of the two and a half million animals that make this annual migration.

Patiently waiting for the perfect moment.

The scaly, toothy reason for the delay.

We followed the river along its winding course, spotting the occasional hippopotamus poking its ears out above the water’s surface. Then, as we rounded a bend, we were rewarded with a glorious view of about twenty hippos, luxuriating in the sun and displaying their unwieldy bulk for all to see. Some lay on the bank while others splashed in the shallow water, looking comically rotund. It seems improbable that such a creature is capable of graceful swimming or swift overland sprinting, and yet they are able to haul their slug-like frames with shocking speed and agility. With the exception of mosquitoes, hippos kill more humans than any other animal in Africa. Left to their own devices, though, they appeared happiest just to sit and sunbathe.

Like slugs with feet.

Cooling off.

We took a meandering route back to the camp, passing the usual selection of zebras, wildebeest, antelopes and occasional giraffes, though by now our early start was beginning to catch up with us and all the animals were merging into a brown-grey blur. I should at this point note that all of the beautiful, non-blurry photos of said animals included in this blog are courtesy of Eunice, who arrived on this trip a total beginner to photography wielding a device borrowed from her brother. With a combination of frequent practice and advice from Mandela and Bryan (both of whom do paid photography jobs part time, we discovered), she managed to become quite the pro in just a few weeks. Expect to see her work in the pages of National Geographic by the end of the year.

Taking shelter from the afternoon sun.

The secretary bird and its comically long legs, which it uses to kill snakes.

With its eyes closed, you could almost be forgiven for calling a buffalo cute.

An unexpected lion, which we originally mistook for a termite mound.

Mark and the gang, glimpsed through some long grass.

To me, the Maasai Mara was a particularly impressive, dramatic example of why people care about conservation. Yes, it’s important to preserve the functioning of the earth’s ecosystems for the sake of all species, ourselves included. But in the Maasai Mara, there’s something more primal at play than any of the ecological or economic arguments driving conservation initiatives. Once, in its infancy, our species did not enjoy the dominant position at the top of the food chain that it now occupies like a despotic warlord. It is thrilling, and humbling, to be reminded of this on occasion.

Day 14: To the Mara!

In the early hours of Monday morning, on the fourteenth day of our trip, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Kiboko Camp behind to set off on a week of travels to the Maasai Mara and beyond. Packing our bags and saying goodbye to our new friends felt strange, knowing that we were only halfway through the trip and our most exciting experiences were likely still to come. We had little idea of what to expect, and Enoch was being as cagey as ever, giving cryptic answers to simple questions like “Where are we going?” and “Where will we sleep tonight?”

I decided the best approach was to sit back and let things happen, so I leafed through my guidebook and read up on the geography of the Great Rift Valley while the ceaseless vibrations of the jeep lulled me into a drowsy half-slumber. Here’s what I learned about the Great Rift Valley before I drifted out of consciousness: it’s a vast tectonic chasm stretching from the Red Sea all the way down to the Zambezi river, some of the earliest fossils of our hominid ancestors have been found there, and no amount of reading can prepare you for the visceral feeling of seeing it in person.

Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, in all its glory.

A magnificent vista, though hard to do it justice with a phone camera.

Even in this land before time, civilization clings on tenaciously.

When I resurfaced, the first thing I realised was that we were quite high up. Then I looked out of the window, and a whole host of other overwhelming realisations came crowding in as the valley opened up beneath us. The Great Rift Valley is the kind of landscape that makes you audibly gasp. Though I’ve included a few photos to give some sense of the view laid out before us, it’s almost impossible to capture the sheer scale of it all in a single static image. Picture this: you’re driving along at fairly high speed, as is the Kenyan way, with a mountainous wall on one side; on the other side of the road, the ground suddenly just falls away into a dizzying riot of valleys and escarpments, densely carpeted with trees and stretching out for miles in every direction. It feels like a glimpse into a time before recorded history, or even the rudiments of language – you expect to hear the distant roar of a dinosaur, rather than the rumbling of engines.

In spite of the throat-clenching, vertigo-inducing setting, a number of enterprising Kenyans had set up shop along the road. With space at such a premium, considering the road was really just a small outcropping on the edge of a mountain, the shopkeepers had come up with the ingenious solution of simply building outwards over the valley. A series of rickety-looking wooden platforms jutted out into the verdant abyss, tenaciously clinging onto the edge of the road while trucks hurtled past and unperturbed hawkers strolled back and forth trying to sell woolly hats and Maasai curios.

Life on the edge… sponsored by Coca-Cola!

After a long drive, the most beautiful sight of all.

The valley passed almost as quickly as it had appeared, and soon we found ourselves in the town of Narok, where we stopped for lunch. As we settled down to our food, Enoch introduced us to Sara, a colleague of his who would be joining us for the next few days in the Maasai Mara. It transpired that she had never been there before either, so it would be a first time for all of us. We chattered animatedly amongst ourselves over lunch, exchanging predictions about the wildlife we hoped to see.

As we left Narok behind to embark on the last leg of our journey, the roads became bumpier and the landscape wilder. Human settlements were few and far between, scattered around vast stretches of open plains and rocky scrubland. Of the small towns and villages that we did pass, almost all featured ramshackle hotels and bars proudly declaring their vicinity to the Maasai Mara; as perhaps the most popular and famous location for wildlife viewing in all of Kenya, its name quite literally precedes it.

We had been driving for some time by now, and fatigue was beginning to set in, but Caterina was positively jubilant – never before had she been able to dedicate so much time to her knitting. Inexplicably, she had spent most of the last week knitting a yellow woollen scarf, giving some vague justification about getting started on the Christmas presents early, and it had gradually become something of an obsession. Given a single spare minute, she would whip out the needles and get to work, so long car journeys were practically bliss as far as she was concerned. While we rattled our way through off-road paths, intermittently stopping to ask local Maasais where on earth we were, she continued to knit with one leg hanging nonchalantly out of the window. Sitting next to her, I couldn’t help but glance at the needles with deep apprehension every time we went over a particularly sizeable bump.

Evening approached, and we were treated to the kind of picturesque sunset that should only exist in postcards and nature documentaries. Douglas Adams was entirely correct when he once noted that, contrary to all known laws of physics, the sky is simply bigger in Kenya. While the sun worked its way down to the horizon through a corona of clouds, Enoch assured us that we were finally getting close to our destination. Nevertheless, night had well and truly fallen by the time we arrived at Talek, a small settlement which serves as a starting point for game drives into the various conservancies that make up the Maasai Mara.

Truly sublime.

Abby attempting to upstage the sunset.

Sabotaging a perfectly nice photoshoot.

The last of the evening light.

We briefly gained some bovine company on the final stretch of our journey.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that we were not in fact camping, as we had expected, but instead had rooms to ourselves in a charming little collection of huts that called itself G&G Hotel. There were a few more surprises in store for us before the day was through. As we hauled our things out of the jeep, we were greeted by a familiar face who had disappeared after our first few days at Kiboko Camp – Enoch Number 2! While we caught up on what he had been up to since we last saw him, we were also introduced to Jackson, a friend of Bryan’s from university. Jackson worked in the Maasai Mara, doing research on cheetahs which involved a lot of dung collection – an endless source of immature but irresistible jokes. This was the same Jackson who had previously been mentioned as Mandela’s cousin, the one who put him in touch with Bryan to begin with. Then, perhaps the greatest surprise of all: at the height of the Kenyan dry season, it began to rain.

This wasn’t just a brief shower – the inexplicably vast Kenyan sky burst wide open, and disgorged its contents with gusto. We sprinted for cover while the rain lashed down in thick sheets and arcs of lightning added to the sudden theatrics. Safe under the canopy of the little outdoor restaurant, we tucked into vegetables and ugali, making new friends and catching up with old ones over a few Tusker beers. The final surprise of the night was the best one: Mandela himself came sauntering in, wearing his prankster’s grin and brimming with stories to tell. By the time we turned in for the night we were all utterly spent, a full day’s travelling behind us. I fell asleep to the sound of the unseasonal rain, wondering what other surprises tomorrow would hold.

Days 11-13: Farewell to Kiboko Camp (for now)

We spent the last few days of our second week conducting more interviews, monitoring the camera traps, and preparing for the next leg of our trip into Kenya’s Rift Valley region. Mandela had left earlier in the week to return to his job at a conservancy in the Maasai Mara, where we would hopefully see him again once we arrived there. In his absence we were given a new guardian by the name of Bryan, who had apparently been roped in via Mandela’s cousin Jackson. He was strikingly tall and perennially well-dressed, with an easy-going manner and offbeat sense of humour that made us all take an instant liking to him.

As the week went on, we got to know Bryan better. He was 24 years old and fresh out of university, where he had studied environmental planning and management, but his graduation had been delayed by a year due to an administrative error (by the time we met him, this date was a mere week away, which filled him with considerable excitement). Unlike some of the wild-living, nature-loving conservationists we had met, Bryan was a city boy through and through, always dressed in his uniform of crisp shirt, skinny jeans and Oxford shoes. He was constantly making and receiving phone calls at all hours of the day, leaving us no choice but to assume that he was either a shady government agent or the most popular guy in Kenya. One consequence of Bryan’s urban sensibilities was that he only had experience driving automatic cars, so when it came to the manual controls of the unwieldy beast that was Jeeves, he was a little shaky. Once we got over the initial screaming terror of it all, we discovered that his jolty, juddering driving provided an excellent source of entertainment through the long hours out in the bush.

Bryan, looking dramatic and pensive.

Jeeves was in a bad way after our little hiccup at Michael Mbithi’s ranch, so we took our trusty steed to Kitengela for some refurbishment. Our most pressing mission was to get the front bar welded back on, because it also had the car’s registration plate on it and we had a sneaking suspicion that it was somewhat illegal to be driving around without one. We found a workshop on a back street in Kitengela, with a sign promising that its engineers could weld eggs back together. Though doubtful of the veracity of this claim, we felt safe in the assumption that they should at least be able to handle cars. While Bryan sorted out the logistics, we scrambled out of the jeep to avoid choking on the fumes that were billowing from a plastic fire a short distance away.

Stumbling out in a coughing, light-headed daze, we scurried to the other side of the road while one of the engineers pulled out his blowtorch and set to work right there on the street. Solomon slipped away muttering something about food, and returned a few minutes later with a corn on the cob, dusted with chilli powder and roasted to a perfect golden crisp. He passed it around the group in a manner that felt almost ceremonial, as we took it in turns to scrape off a row of kernels in hungry, appreciative silence. We stood this way by the road for some time, eating our corn on the cob, minding our business. A truck drove past with a man hanging off the back, nonchalantly holding on with one hand.

“That’s not safe,” noted Solomon in his soft monotone.

Making use of alternative forms of transport while Jeeves was out of action.

With our ride fully operational once again, it was almost time to depart for the Maasai Mara. Before we left, we had the chance to meet something of a local hero. His name was Richard, but everyone referred to him as Lion Boy. This was the celebrated inventor of the lion light, a piece of technology which has already improved the lives of numerous Kenyan cattle herders and influenced similar designs throughout Africa and the rest of the world. Remarkably, he designed the first lion light when he was only 11 years old; as I recall, when I was that age I had only just graduated from Lego.

We were immediately struck when we met him by how cool he was, for want of a less prosaic word; sitting in front of us was a fashionably dressed 19-year-old student, one year into a university course on conservation biology, who just happened to be the youngest patent holder in Kenya. He was thoughtful and measured in his responses to our questions, revealing a creative mind that was brimming with new ideas. Though he is still refining and improving the lion lights with new features like motion activation, his sights are set higher, and he hopes to transfer to an American university where he will have more opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation.

When we asked him to tell us more about his new projects, he was understandably cagey – though he secured a patent for lion lights when he was only 15 years old, this wasn’t soon enough, and a number of knock-off imitations exist which damage the credibility of his brand and lead people to lose trust in the concept if they buy a faulty version. It was never about the money for Richard, in any event – the lights are not sold for profit, and he has made their designs available online so if people want to build or fix their own at a reduced cost then they are free to do so. His motivation always came from a love of tinkering (he shared a story in which he tore apart his mother’s new radio as a child, and was only spared her ire by his ability to fix it just as quickly), and a deep respect for the wildlife that he has grown up with. As far as Richard is concerned, there is no need for conflict with lions and other wild animals so long as humans can peacefully coexist with them, and lion lights represent an innovative step in that direction.

He was less optimistic than I had expected about the future of conservation, citing corruption and ineffective governance in Kenya as a major barrier. His own project had received no government funding, relying instead on NGOs to make up the shortfall. He was particularly angry about the railway line which had recently been constructed straight through the middle of Nairobi National Park, despite widespread opposition from conservationists and several unresolved legal challenges. Lion Boy’s friend and sometime assistant, a wide-eyed joker named Harrison, began trying to convince us to help him with his guerrilla mission to tear down the railway by cover of darkness. His tone was humorous, but his frustration was real.

We thanked them for taking the time to speak to us, and came away feeling more than a little humbled. If Richard has already achieved this by the age of 19, who knows what he will do next? I only hope that his brilliance is not lost in the system, and that his big ideas are paired with the kind of money that can make them a reality.

With slightly heavy hearts, we packed our bags the following day and said our farewells to the camp that had become a home away from home for the last two weeks. What would we do without Chris’s cooking and Solomon’s deadpan comments? Who would build campfires for us, if not Jacob and Vincent? As we rolled out of Kiboko Camp and waved goodbye to the grinning gatekeeper, we comforted ourselves with the thought that we would return for our final week, with plenty of stories from the adventures soon to come.

Day 10: Lion Lights and Late Night Frights

We began our tenth day with a feast. Chris had been busy all morning whipping up a huge batch of mandazi, triangular pockets of fried pastry which taste of sugary warmth and are best eaten by the bucketload. The supply seemed to be limitless, and Chris showed no sign of letting up.

“Eat,” he exhorted us, “more as you can.”

I protested that I was too full, but he was having none of it.

More, as you can.”

And so I ate.

The master at work.

While we lay around the hut in a bloated stupor, Enoch briefed us on the plan for the day ahead. We were to meet a man by the name of Michael Mbithi, who by all accounts was something of a big deal. Michael, as we discovered, is one of the most senior human-wildlife coexistence consultants in East Africa, and has been involved in the refinement and distribution of lion lights since their infancy seven years ago. He also has a huge ranch full of cheetahs, which we had been told we might visit later in the day. To begin with, he was going to show us how lion lights worked by taking us to a boma where one of the original versions was installed, and guide us through the process of putting up some new ones.

In person, Michael was quite a character, with a gravelly voice and a dry sense of humour to match. He spoke with authority and charm, slipping freely between weighty scientific discussion and jovial small talk. At the boma, he tasked us with looking around for ten minutes and deciding ourselves where we thought the best locations for new lion lights would be. On the whole, he seemed pleased with our suggestions, although he emphasized the importance of putting the lights within the perimeter fence rather than on the outside. If the animals can get too close to the lion lights, the element of mystery is lost, and they begin to acclimatize. There is an additional benefit to be gained from having lion lights within the confines of a boma, as they can help residents avoid scorpions and snakes while walking around at night.

The lion light itself is a compact, sturdy bit of kit, with solar panels attached and a light that flashes in a series of changing patterns to prevent wildlife from getting desensitized. As I secured the light against a wooden post and started to hammer a nail into place, I was struck by how much difference such a small and simple piece of technology could make. When we conducted our interviews, we noticed a significant amount of variation in prosperity and optimism between those households which had lion lights, and those which did not, yet the price of each one is a mere 2000 KSh (less than 20 pounds). Though this represents a substantial investment for the average Maasai pastoralist, the costs should be swiftly recouped in terms of the attacks prevented and cattle saved.

Exemplary division of labour.

The newest lion lights are quite small, but the difference they make is immense.

Once the lion lights were all installed, Michael announced that he had taken a liking to us and we were going to go for a drive to see his ranch. Our journey first took us through the backstreets of Kitengela, where you can find every shop imaginable, their colourful names proudly painted on by hand. Along the way we passed ‘Decent Cabs’, ‘Glory Land’, ‘Mama Joy’s Salon’, ‘Remedy Business Season 2’, and my personal favourite, ‘Sacred Wholesale and Retail / Sacred Hardware – The Blessed Work of My Hands’. One particularly enterprising establishment offered the combined services of hotel, butchery, and ‘modern welding’; when we passed it again a few days later, the owner had added the slightly concerning ‘scalping ventures’ to the selection (not as sinister as it sounds, I’m told – something to do with trading).

With the hubbub of Kitengela behind us, we went off-road to take the scenic route, and as we drove Michael talked to us about land use and the challenges for conservation.

“Here in Kenya,” he explained, “there is a culture such that if you don’t own land, you are a nobody.”

The result is that land which would be ideal for conservation gets bought up very quickly by smallholders, for cattle grazing or just as property. We passed through a vast limestone quarry, now used for making cement, which was once prime cheetah territory until tracts of land were purchased for human use. Even more problematic is the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, which cuts through protected land and causes all manner of disturbances. The only animal we saw for a while was a lone rock hyrax, bounding across the road and disappearing into the dust as quickly as we spotted it.

As we neared our destination, the landscape seemed to come alive, with wildebeest, gazelles, giraffes and ostriches emerging from the dusty plains to greet us. At one point we were met with a visual gag that was almost too obvious to be funny, as we stopped the car for a zebra crossing the road. I know, I know, the temptation was just too strong. Michael explained that the change in our surroundings could be attested to the differences in land use – here, we were driving past privately owned ranches where conservation was given more of a priority treatment. These were sizeable tracts of land, in the order of tens of thousands of acres, allowing their animal residents sufficient space to live and move around.

We stopped for a quick toilet break at Stoni Athi Resort, a hotel so luxurious that it was almost jarring, given the rather more homely conditions we had cheerfully been living with thus far. As we entered the lobby we were greeted with chandeliers, flat screen TVs, and a portrait of President Uhuru Kenyatta gazing benevolently down at us. By some odd quirk of coincidence, Stoni Athi Resort had its own tame gazelle too, this one called Tony rather than Tommy (a slightly more imaginative departure from the Thomson for which the species was originally named). Michael, ever the attentive host, decided we should all have a drink and linger for a short while, a suggestion that was met with minimal resistance. As I sat by the pool, sipping an ice cold Tusker beer and watching Tony frolic in the afternoon sun, I allowed myself to luxuriate for a moment in what was probably quite an unearned break. Apparently, conservation work does have its perks.

Truly idyllic – though also weirdly deserted…

We seized our chance to cool off, however briefly.

Some excellent wildlife sightings on the way to Michael’s ranch – spot the ostriches!

Fortunately, if our idling had made us feel at all guilty, Michael had just the thing to snap us out of it – the time had come to plant some trees. After giving us a brief tour of his ranch, he led us into a garden where several crates full of acacia seedlings lay in wait. We hauled them into wheelbarrows, taking care not to damage the loose roots or prick ourselves on the many thorns that studded their spindly branches. With the wheelbarrows loaded up, we carted our precious cargo over to a big field behind Michael’s house, and got to work. The first task was to place the seedlings at regular intervals in a grid formation, so that they could cover as broad an area as possible without being too dispersed. We were then given a selection of rather dubious looking tools, some of which were assembled before our eyes in a process that involved a lot of whacking.

Digging holes for the trees proved to be something of a challenge, as the elements conspired to thwart us at every turn. The soil was dense and dry, an inevitable consequence of little rainfall and lots of sun. The aforementioned sun was beating down relentlessly in a late afternoon surge, and before long we were doused in sweat and craving water. When water finally arrived, it wasn’t even for us – trees first, the humans can wait. To make matters worse, our hoes kept breaking. After repeatedly hacking away at the stony soil, eventually the hoe would give up and its head would quite literally make a break for it, as the wood splintered and the whole thing fell apart. The solution, apparently, was to shove the head back on, and wedge in a few more chips of wood if the fit seemed too lose. Unsurprisingly, these makeshift contraptions were not long for this world, and shortly disintegrated once again.

One of the seedlings looked a bit weird, so we decided not to plant it.

Delicate work.

Don’t be fooled by how much fun we seem to be having – planting trees is strenuous stuff.

Doing my best not to pull any muscles.

In the end, dispute our many tribulations, we planted around twenty trees and felt a sense of satisfaction at having done some straightforward work with visible results. The acacia seedlings lay snugly under their layer of dirt, ready to grow tall and play their part in the ecosystem of the ranch. We collapsed around the table in Michael’s house and exchanged drowsy conversation over buttered bread and milky Kenyan tea. The final slices disappeared with alarming rapidity, and we cast our eyes around in ravenous panic, sure that we still had another loaf. Solomon noticed our distress, and gave us a sly grin.

“You guys were looking for the bread?” He patted his stomach. “Here it is.”

Feeling sufficiently revived, we said our goodbyes to the ranch and bundled into the jeep, ready to get back to the camp and get some rest. Oh, how little did we know of what the night still held. On our way out of the ranch, we spotted a lone sheep stranded outside of the safety of the perimeter fence, which caused some consternation. The sun was setting, and Michael suspected that hyenas were on the prowl. After a quick phone call, a couple of men showed up on a motorbike to usher the sheep back home. Not a moment too soon – minutes later, we passed a small group of spotted hyenas, looking decidedly peeved at having been denied an easy meal.

Feeling celebratory after a job well done.

The sun sets quickly in Kenya – time to get going.

One of the thwarted hyenas.

We had been expecting to head straight back to Kiboko Camp at this point, but Michael had a final surprise in store for us. I was starting to nod off in the car, when I felt a sudden lurching in my stomach, indicating that the horizontal plane underneath me was shifting in a worryingly vertical direction. I opened my eyes, and blanched; we were on top of a massive, ramp-shaped mound of earth, around 40 feet high but barely wider than our vehicle. Quite how we’d wound up on top of it, I wasn’t sure, but Michael looked very pleased.

“I built this,” he announced. “Well, my father and I did. I use it as an observation point, to scan for wildlife – or poachers.” Once we got over our initial terror, we agreed that it was very impressive, and the view was indeed spectacular. Vast swathes of open plains unfolded around us, studded in the distance with the winking lights of Nairobi. After taking in our surroundings, and hearing a little more about how the structure beneath our feet came to be, we decided it was getting late and it was time to be on our way.

Thankfully the camera was too far away to capture our petrified expressions.

The jeep started reversing down the slope with all the elegance of a rhinoceros on a tricycle, and I realised a few seconds too late that something had gone very wrong. Glancing out of the window and immediately regretting it, I was met with a teetering drop over which we had somehow become suspended. In a tense but steady voice, Michael instructed us all to get out of the car. We were quick to oblige. Once we were out, we took in the full extent of the mess we had got ourselves into. While reversing, the unwieldy bulk of Jeeves the jeep had gradually drifted sideways until we were moving on a diagonal, which would have sent us flying off the side of the ramp had Michael not hit the brakes in time. We were all safe, now that we were out of the vehicle, but the same could not be said for Jeeves, who was jutting awkwardly off the edge of the ramp with one wheel unsupported and his rear end pointed in a decidedly hazardous direction.

We tried not to panic, and took stock of our options. One way or another, we were going to have to get that jeep back down onto solid ground – the question was how. In order to turn the jeep around sufficiently to reverse in a straight line down the slope, Michael would first have to drive it back up the slope to give himself some space to steer. The only problem was, the jeep was at such an incline that it would be impossible to gain enough momentum to drive uphill, not to mention the fact that one of the wheels wasn’t even in contact with anything.

Not the finest angle for Jeeves.

So, in tried and tested fashion, we opted for the approach we had favoured last time Jeeves got stuck in a compromising position, and gathered rocks to wedge under the wheels. Once they were all in place, Michael floored the pedal and valiantly attempted to convince our cantankerous four-wheel deathtrap to climb back up the slope. Jeeves bellowed and shook and spurted foul-smelling fumes from various metallic orifices, but inspection of the rocks revealed that we had barely moved more than a couple of inches.

Undeterred, we pressed on to Plan B: call the rangers and politely plead with them to rescue us. Once a team had confirmed that they were on their way, there was little for us to do other than sit and wait, so we made the best of our situation and indulged in some stargazing on top of the mound. The sky was dizzyingly clear, so thick with stars that they appeared to be arrayed in layers, some near and others deep in the distance. It was a beautiful view, and made for a welcome distraction as we attempted to ignore the unidentified growling sounds that resonated through the night around us.

At least Eunice got the chance to practice her moon photography.

At last, the rangers arrived, no doubt rolling their eyes at our incompetence but nonetheless happy to help. They attached a thick rope to the big metal bar on the front of the jeep, which they then used to assist in hauling it up the slope with their own car. Things were progressing smoothly, as Jeeves finally got the momentum he needed and looked sure to make it to the top, when it all suddenly fell apart in dramatic and literal fashion. A resonant snapping sound, followed by a dull thud, informed us that the metal bar had buckled under pressure and come flying off the front of the jeep. Such is the power of gravity – something had to give, and if the rope wasn’t going to snap then the car would have to take the hit.

Everyone stood there for a moment, blinking in disbelief. Once we had all registered what had happened, the rangers calmly untied the rope and carried the bar off to one side. (What do Kenyans make their ropes out of, anyway? This stuff must be indestructible!) While this was happening, Michael sheepishly rang up his father to ask for assistance. I couldn’t quite understand why one more person would make any difference, until he arrived. We heard him before we saw him, the thundering of a powerful engine accompanied by the sound of… dogs? Then he emerged from the darkness, a shining saviour astride a huge blue tractor. The cavalry was here. His faithful pack of hounds barked and snapped and danced around him, weaving in and out of the tractor’s wheels without any sign of fear. It was a singularly surreal image, as though we had stumbled into the path of a medieval lord out on a wild hunt – except his choice of steed was a tractor.

There was to be no more nonsense. The tractor and jeep were fastened together with the rope, and in a series of delicate manoeuvres the rescue was at last brought to completion. We were so giddy with relief, not to mention tiredness, that I barely remember what happened next. I’m not even sure if we had the chance to thank Michael’s father before he faded back into the night, engine throbbing, dogs in tow. Michael apologised profusely and repeatedly, while we assured him through fits of manic laughter that he shouldn’t worry, and if nothing else it had made for a memorable experience. It only occurred to me afterwards that it probably would have made more sense to park at the bottom of the mound, and just walk up on foot – but what fun would that have been?

Lights, camera… try again

We had something of a rocky start with our camera traps. On the morning of the wedding day, we made a foray out of the camp into the surrounding bushland, ready to get the cameras up and running so that we could start collecting data. It was a muggy day, and the air was thick with insects, as we trampled our way through the spiny acacia trees and kept our eyes peeled for any signs of wildlife activity. Solomon had come along to provide some local knowledge, helping us navigate through the forbidding sea of sharp shrubs and wielding his rungu in a manner that inspired great confidence, while Mandela was our source of ecological expertise. As we walked, he would identify birds that flitted past or squat down to sniff at the crumbling remnants of someone’s last meal and inform us that a hyena had recently passed through.

Boldly venturing into the bush, guided by a man in a customised Manchester United shirt.

Nearing the riverbed where we hoped to install a few of the cameras, we suddenly became aware of many eyes furtively watching us through the trees. A large group of impala were weaving their way past, grunting and tossing their heads as they went. Noticeably, they were all males, each sporting an impressive set of twisted horns.

“That,” announced Mandela, “is a bachelor herd. You see, a dominant impala male will control a harem of maybe one hundred females, and he guards them so no other male can mate with them. When his sons get older, they start to become a bit cocky and kinky, and he tells them ‘I don’t like the way you’re looking at your mother’ – so he drives them out of the herd. Then these young males form their own bachelor herd, some related, some not, and they practice locking horns together. Eventually, they will choose one of the males in the herd to oust the dominant male of a harem, and if he wins then the new guy takes over.”

“What do all the others in the bachelor herd get out of it?” I wondered.

Mandela grinned wickedly. “While the big guy is busy fighting off his new rival, the other males can get busy doing other things behind his back.”

The bachelors, getting a little shy.

Mandela was full of colourful facts like this, and they helped to pass the time as we marched along under the withering sun. Once we had reached the river, we followed it along its length until we arrived at a point where the water was shallow and a number of tracks indicated that this was a popular crossing point. We secured one of the camera traps on a thick branch that overlooked the river, and continued on our way. Two more camera traps were positioned in other key locations, one at a fork in an important migratory path and the other at a second bank further along the river. From these points, we hoped to be able to record the activity of the wildlife in the area and identify the routes they took while moving in and out of the national park to graze, drink or hunt.

Unfortunately, the camera traps had other ideas. When we checked back a few days later, we were decidedly deflated to discover that somehow each of the three cameras had malfunctioned in a different way. We resolved not to let this deter us, and after some extensive tinkering we managed to fix the various problems that were plaguing them. Confident now that the camera traps were fully operational, though still a bit confused about how they had failed in the first place (all three were working when we first tested them, I should add), we set out again that evening for another try.

Our guide this time was John, a TWF employee who worked at the camp, and he impressed us all by tracking down a steaming pile of rhino dung. The sheer volume of it was monumental, putting Mandela’s hyena droppings to shame. John informed us that it was very fresh – as we followed the trail, the description shifted from “five minutes ago” to “a few minutes ago” to “just now.” He thought it was a pair of white rhinos, which slightly eased our nerves, as they are known to be less aggressive than the black rhinos which also occur in this area. In any event, we probably would have struggled to tell the difference if either kind was charging towards us, as both are a similar shade of dark grey and thus very unhelpfully named. The white rhino, in fact, owes its name to a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word ‘weit’, meaning wide and referring to the animal’s mouth (which is indeed wider than that of the black rhino, so the zoologists did get something right).

We moved one of our camera traps to the site of the rhino dung, hoping to catch the culprits in the act if they returned, while the other two we placed back in their original locations. Now that we knew the cameras were functioning properly, all that remained to do for the moment was wait, and return in due course to see what they had found.

One of our camera traps was right below a vulture’s nest; fortunately, camera traps don’t smell dead.

On our way back to the camp, we spotted a mass of vultures and maribou storks circling overhead, their wide wings riding the updrafts as they looked for carcasses to steal. We wondered if this was a sign of a recent kill, and John confirmed that a local lion had reportedly killed an impala today. I glanced up at the airborne scavengers, and shivered slightly. There is something very disconcerting about seeing vultures above you, even if you know you’re not the one they’re interested in; it suddenly makes you feel as though you should make it very clear how healthy and alive you are, just in case.

I also thought about the lion as we walked back to the camp, possibly tucking into an impala at that very moment. The impalas seemed to be thinking about it too, and darted around skittishly on the periphery of our vision. As long as the impalas were calm, we were calm. Whenever they got spooked, we opted for a brisk walk.

Watch this space for updates on the progress of the camera traps – once we’ve gathered our data, we’ll report our findings, and include some of the juiciest photos for your viewing pleasure. Fingers crossed for some lions!

A week of community interviews

Having spent a few days getting to know the area and its wonderful cast of characters, the time had come to start conducting our interviews and learning about human-wildlife conflict. This issue, which forms a major part of Enoch’s research, is a significant challenge for conservation and particularly salient in the case of Kenya. On the one hand, there are the numerous cultural and ethnic groups for whom pastoralism and agriculture form an essential part of their livelihood. On the other hand, there are the wild animals, who require space to feed and migrate freely if their populations are to be sustained. Conflict arises where the ranges of humans and animals overlap, leading to losses for both groups: the people lose their livestock to predation and disease, their crops are trampled and eaten, and sometimes they themselves are attacked; in retaliation, they may drive these wild animals away, or kill them.

These clashes need not be an inevitable consequence of living in proximity to wildlife, and a key goal of this grassroots conservation project is to ensure that local people are able to not only coexist with the animals, but actively benefit from them. In order to do this, their side of the story must be heard – a story that has regrettably often been ignored in the past. When Nairobi National Park was gazetted in 1946, the Maasai people living in the area were forcibly removed from their land by the ruling British to make way for the wild animals. Though a valuable conservation resource, the park impacted significantly on the traditional pastoralist way of life practiced by the Maasai, and continues to do so to this day.

Our plan was to meet the Maasai people living in the vicinity of Nairobi National Park, and hear first-hand their perception of human-wildlife conflict and the ways in which they were affected. Armed with this information, future conservation work in the area can be carried out in such a way that the interests of the local community are more fully recognised and accounted for. As practice, we began by informally interviewing Solomon, while Mandela advised us on the best protocol to follow – for example, make it feel like a friendly chat rather than a rigid questionnaire, don’t ask leading questions, and avoid making promises of solutions if you can’t actually provide them just yet.

Just from speaking to Solomon, we already began to gain a sense of the kind of challenges that the Maasai people living in the area face. When travelling to and from work and school, they are threatened by buffalo and rhino attacks; the increased availability of cars has made this less of an issue, but escorts of Maasai warriors are still required for children walking to school during the wet season (when animals come into closer proximity). Lions are a ubiquitous problem, too, regularly attacking the livestock upon whom many Maasai depend almost entirely for their livelihood. When livestock are killed by lions, the owners are supposed to receive monetary compensation, but Solomon explained that the amount given is never usually large enough because the lions tend to disproportionately target the largest (and most valuable) cattle. Despite these significant issues posed by living near the national park, Solomon had a positive outlook on conservation: some of the funds raised by ecotourism were channelled towards sponsoring children to attend school, and he was personally employed in this sector so he felt its direct benefits.

Abby tapping into her maternal instincts.

Saying our goodbyes after a successful visit.

As we went from one boma (homestead) to the next over the course of several days, meeting people and hearing their views, some general themes began to emerge. Inevitably, wild animals do cause problems: lions and hyenas attack and kill livestock, while herbivores such as zebras, elands and baboons trample fences or steal crops. People had a variety of methods for dealing with these issues – some used lion lights, a simple but highly effective deterrent which flashes intermittently to frighten away curious wildlife, others relied on their dogs to receive warning of any attacks, while others simply had to stay awake all night in constant vigilance. It soon emerged that the compensation for lost livestock, however insufficient it might have been to begin with, had dried up entirely, and when rangers from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) were called in to respond to an attack they tended to show up merely as a formality or not at all. While most people told us that they supported conservation, many of them could see no tangible benefit from it.

It is important to stress at this point that these were the frustrated responses of people whose livelihood is under constant threat – without having spoken to representatives from KWS, we would inevitably receive a biased account, and we did our best to be mindful of this while hearing people’s genuine grievances. Furthermore, many people we spoke to expressed a heartening amount of optimism: they saw the value of conservation as a source of green jobs in the area, and for some of them it was the reason they could afford to send their children to school. Frequently, we heard the very admirable view espoused that so long as some members of the community benefit, everyone does.

I was impressed by the immense love and respect that the Maasai have for the wildlife they coexist with – many of them believe they have a duty to protect the animals, whether or not they are rewarded for it. This deep sense of stewardship is sadly being tested to its limit, but theirs is a resilient and adaptable community. Once, it was necessary for a Maasai warrior to kill a lion if he was to be recognised as a man; now, the elders care more about sending their children to school.

In total, we conducted interviews at 20 homesteads over the period of a week, visiting different areas and speaking to a mixture of demographics to get as broad a view as possible in our limited time. With this information, we plan to conduct a focus group and discuss some of the recurring themes from the interviews in more detail, so that we can then produce an advisory report for the community and The Wildlife Foundation (TWF) to use – more to follow on this towards the end of the trip!

Day 5: Maasai Marriage

I had been feeling a little apprehensive about the community interviews that we were soon due to conduct. There was no doubt in my mind that everyone we spoke to would make us feel welcome, but I wanted to give them reason to like us, not merely tolerate our presence out of politeness. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to break the ice, it’s a proper Maasai wedding.

A few days earlier, Vincent had mentioned in passing that a friend of his was getting married on Saturday, and that we were welcome to come if we wanted to. We leapt at the opportunity, but as the days passed we began to wonder how serious he had really been. To us, the idea of inviting virtual strangers to your wedding seemed a little mad, but we weren’t complaining. Then the big day arrived, and we were informed once again that we were of course very welcome to attend. Unable to believe our luck, we neatened ourselves up for the occasion and piled into the jeep, rehearsing our congratulations in broken Swahili.

As well as Mandela, we were accompanied by a local Maasai man, Solomon. We were grateful for his presence, hoping that he could warn us against making any major social blunders and perhaps even help us make a few friends. He led us around for some introductions as we did our best to take in the sudden explosion of things to see, smell and hear. It quickly became apparent that this was to be an open-air wedding, with several sizeable marquees and a small army of plastic chairs dotted around the homestead. The savoury scent of nyama choma (barbequed meat, something of a Kenyan specialty) permeated the air, as the guests tucked in and exchanged warm greetings.

We took our seats and sipped our sodas nervously, hoping nobody challenged our presence. Though all seemed well, we still weren’t quite sure how we had wound up here – Vincent was nowhere to be seen, and we knew we stood out rather a lot. Even with Solomon’s help, it seemed we weren’t exactly a hit yet.

“Do you know Mombasa county?” he asked, out of the blue. We nodded – as the second biggest city in Kenya, Mombasa was a familiar name. Solomon nodded towards a well-dressed man sitting a few seats away from us. “That’s the governor.”

We caught his attention, and greeted him with a flurry of awkward waves.

Mzungu,” he chuckled. There wasn’t much we could add to that, and the conversation sputtered to a halt.

Undeterred, Solomon led us off to meet the Maasai elders. They were a short distance away from the site of the wedding itself, sitting under a tree in the middle of a grassy field. Next to them was a sizeable fire where some equally sizeable hunks of meat were cooking. These men looked as though they would happily enter into a staring contest with a lion, and win. Their faces were craggy and characterful, their expressions utterly inscrutable. They also didn’t seem to speak a word of English, so after introducing ourselves we were left with little to do other than smile foolishly and hope that Solomon was saying something nice about us.

Whatever he said seemed to do the trick, because we were then invited to stand by the fire and sample some meat. At this point, being a group with four vegetarians, we hit something of a roadblock. Luckily, Caterina had no qualms, and bravely tucked into a hefty slice which had been sheared off with an actual sword. She reported that it was quite tough on the jaws and blisteringly hot, but the flavour was good. I had never been so grateful to see someone else eating meat, and felt as though we had narrowly dodged a bullet of social embarrassment. The Maasai elders seemed not to mind either way, and we were offered another chance to get involved: a concoction of herbs was brewing away in a metal pot, which we were informed had potent medicinal properties. Solomon poured me a cup, and I looked down at the dark red liquid suspiciously, trying to figure out how many sips I could get away with before making my excuses. To my immense surprise, the flavour was close to that of a mild green tea, and I cheerfully downed the lot.

With a belly full of Maasai medicine, I felt ready to throw myself into this wedding wholeheartedly, which was just as well – the music had started, and things were about to get underway. We hurried back to the marquees and settled into our seats, trying and failing to look inconspicuous. Then, in a sudden burst of noise and colour, the bride and groom arrived. She wore a beautiful white dress accentuated with traditional Maasai jewellery, and he looked exceptionally sharp in a dark blue suit and purple tie. Amidst the gaggle of friends and family standing with them, we finally spotted Vincent, who flashed us a winning smile as they paraded past.

Cutting the cake: a tradition we were a little more familiar with.

Judging from the reactions, the multitude of speeches were excellent, but our limited linguistic capabilities meant we could do little more than smile and clap when everyone else did. At last, they switched to a language that we were all at least passingly familiar with – dancing. The proceedings were led by a girl who looked to be around our age, and a quartet of morans (Maasai warriors), all dressed in traditional garb. They danced with palpable enthusiasm, grinning at their audience as they lip-synced flawlessly with the music pulsing from the speakers. One by one, guests started to get up and join in, forming a series of concentric circles around the main dancers.

Maasai dancing is a peculiar, entrancing combination of bobbing your body up and down while pushing your head back and forth in a motion that is vaguely reminiscent of a pigeon but far more rhythmic. It appears simple, but the timing is surprisingly difficult, and it doesn’t look at all as good unless your neck is loaded with Maasai jewellery that bounces in unison with the rest of your body. From time to time, the warriors would leap into the air as though they were spring-loaded, reaching dizzying heights with apparent ease. As the dancing commenced, I dashed off quickly to use the bathroom, but I noticed the others boldly making a move towards the dancefloor. What were they planning?

If you need to get people up on their feet and dancing, these are your guys.

Audience participation: not compulsory, but strongly encouraged.

When I returned, a mere two minutes later, I found them at the front of a procession that seemed to consist of half the wedding guests and was winding its way through the grass with joyous abandon. Heads bobbing, grinning manically, they looked utterly in their element, and everyone else was loving it. At last, it seemed, we had successfully infiltrated a Maasai wedding.

Once the dancing started, it looked as though it would never stop. We hurled ourselves into it with a newfound surge of energy, twisting and leaping like three-legged gazelles. Well, perhaps I should only speak for myself – some members of our group were a touch more rhythmic than others, but we were certainly equal in our enthusiasm. Things got even better when the horde of children in attendance overcame their shyness and started to take an interest in us. Soon we could barely fend them off, as the kids flocked around us and bombarded us with hugs, high fives and flower petals.

Abby attempting to jump like a Maasai warrior – full marks for effort.

Actual photographic evidence of us making friends!

The rest of the wedding occupies a happy, blurry place in my memory. By the end, I had danced so much that I thought my knees might give way, and my face ached from grinning. We congratulated the bride and groom, thanking them for letting us be a part of such a special day and apologising for momentarily stealing the spotlight. Fortunately they seemed not to mind, and I optimistically thought to myself that we might have even helped a little by keeping all the children busy. The aforementioned children were the most boisterous and playful I have ever met, with an insatiable appetite for new dance moves (sated only momentarily when Caterina taught them the macarena) and a constant demand for selfies which we gladly supplied.

Nothing quite like an impromptu conga line.

One big happy family!

We left the wedding with a wonderful feeling of genuine warmth and acceptance. Our determined efforts not to embarrass ourselves had failed magnificently, and I think it was precisely for this reason that the other wedding guests seemed so happy to have us around. Energised by this brief, brilliant taste of Maasai culture, I was excited to learn more, and I found that my nervousness about the interviews had all but dissolved. After all, once you’ve danced with someone, what’s a few questions?

Day 4: The Big Beasts of Nairobi

Today I kissed a giraffe, and I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed it. Remarkably, this wasn’t even the most exciting thing that happened on our fourth day in Kenya – the giraffe-smooching barely made the top five. We had a packed schedule, so an early start was in order. To catch the best wildlife in Nairobi National Park, we would have to be there at the crack of dawn, which meant hauling our yawning carcasses out of bed at 5am. Having battled through the pulsating Nairobi traffic, which seemed to operate on a sort of carefully choreographed insanity, we arrived at the gates of the park and prayed for some lions.

Nairobi National Park is something of an oddity, as far as Kenyan wildlife reserves go. It is both the oldest and the smallest in the country, having originally been established by the British colonial government in 1946. What is most remarkable about this park is the fact that it lies in such close proximity to one of the biggest metropolitan hubs in East Africa, and yet within its confines can be found almost every major species of Kenyan megafauna. The most notable exception is the African elephant, but the rest of the so-called ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, black rhino) are all there for the spotting. There is something quite surreal about watching a giraffe silhouetted against a backdrop of skyscrapers, the world’s tallest animal peacefully going about its business while the world’s tallest buildings shimmer in the near distance.

Mandela was on top form this morning, spotting a new bird species every minute. Sometimes it would be a large, dark shape swooping overhead, with its curved bill and black-and-white plumage identifying it as the sacred ibis that was once revered in ancient Egypt. At other points, white-backed vultures would frown at us from the trees, wondering when we’d hurry up and start smelling a bit more dead. Helmeted guinea fowl shuffled through the undergrowth as we drove past, resplendent with their spotted feathers and blue heads but still somehow struggling to avoid looking like chickens in fancy dress.

It’s remarkable how quickly one can become blasé about animals that had the power to shock and delight only days ago. On the first morning, we yelped at every impala sighting; 48 hours later and they had become part of the scenery, eliciting little more than a passing nod. Luckily, Nairobi National Park had just the thing to shake us out of our complacency: a massive herd of African buffalo. One moment we were bumping along the dirt road, watching a grey crowned crane wheeling lazily through the air, and then all of a sudden we were surrounded. We gawked at the buffaloes, and they blinked back at us, entirely unbothered. Watching them peacefully chewing the cud, it was hard to believe that these gentle giants assembled before us were famed for their aggression and responsible for countless human attacks.

A buffalo, unimpressed.

Determined not to become a statistic, we drove on before the buffaloes got tired of tolerating our presence. Deeper into the park, we chanced upon a small body of water which was heaving with birds. As we looked closer, we realised that they were accompanied by some of their much larger, scalier relatives. The sun had finally come out, and the Nile crocodiles of Nairobi were making the most of it, enjoying a leisurely basking session. In another pool of water, we spotted a hippopotamus lurking beneath the surface, given away only by its tell-tale ears and nostrils.

Nile crocodiles and their feathery relatives soaking up some sunshine.

A hippopotamus engaging in a bout of lurking.

With our appetite for big beasts whetted, we turned our sights to the more ambitious goal of rhino-spotting, and were rewarded with a brief glimpse of something large and dark moving through the bushes up ahead. We set off in pursuit, but lost the trail, and had to content ourselves for the moment with a herd of Coke’s hartebeest. Then, as we scanned the horizon, not one but two black rhinoceroses came into view, idling under a tree and displaying their formidable horns. Even from a distance, I was struck by their sheer vastness – the kind of size that ought to command its own gravitational field, shaping and warping the environment around it.

Two rhinos at once – our lucky day!

We had entirely given up hope of seeing a lion that day, content with a strong selection of sightings and frankly quite smug about those rhinos – and then, there she was. Standing in the middle of the road, languidly pacing along in plain sight, as if daring us not to notice her: a lion. Naturally, we took a great deal of notice. In contrast to our squawking reactions to previous sightings, everyone went quite quiet, as if instinctually aware that a different kind of protocol was required in the lion’s regal presence. Our jeep inched closer, while the lion continued to sidle down the road, seemingly unfussed by our proximity.

At last, we pulled up alongside her, and she struck a pose – in profile, head held high, looking like the rightful ruler of all that she saw. She emitted a little throaty growl, not quite a roar, but enough to indicate that there were other lions at large. Then she turned away from us, and padded off into the long grass, melting into the background with an ease that suddenly made me appreciate how near we might have come to lions already without catching so much as a glimpse. When we could finally see her no longer, I became aware of how little I had been breathing, and exhaled deeply. We had come for lions, and Nairobi National Park had not disappointed.

A pose fit for a queen.

Our next stop was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a conservation body named for the founder warden of Tsavo National Park and established after his death in 1977. The trust cares for orphaned elephants, many of whom lost their parents due to poaching and other human activities. They are reared by hand, taught how to use their trunks, and fed a special milk formula that was first perfected by David’s wife Daphne – this milk is essential to their survival, as none can be obtained directly from wild elephants and calves under two years old can die within 24 hours without milk. When the elephants are old enough to be self-sufficient, usually around the age of three, they are released into Tsavo National Park (which is large enough to support elephants) and monitored until they have been adopted into a new family. These reintroductions have an impressive 98% success rate, and the trust has by now released over 200 elephants back into the wild. We were thrilled to be able to meet the 15 current residents of the orphanage, a lively bunch who rolled around cheerfully in the mud and hurled the odd lump at us whenever they decided we looked too clean.

This is what sheer joy looks like.

Still beaming about the baby elephants and feeling buoyed by this conservation success story, we continued on to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) Giraffe Centre to have a look at its population of Rothschild’s giraffe. This giraffe subspecies numbered only 130 individuals when the centre was set up, but it has recovered significantly as a result of reintroduction programmes that established herds in Lake Nakuru National Park, Mwea National Reserve and Ruma National Park. We had the opportunity to get rather intimate with several of the dozen or so giraffes living at the centre, feeding them first from our hands and then, on Mandela’s recommendation, from our mouths. It was a decidedly unnerving experience, placing a nondescript brown pellet in my mouth and thrusting it meaningfully towards a five-metre tall animal with a 20-inch blue tongue, but I kept my nerve and was richly rewarded. The giraffes were extraordinarily gentle, and handled their tongues with enough dexterity to make anyone blush.

A very well-fed Rothschild’s giraffe.

Eunice sharing an intimate moment with a particularly dashing resident of the Giraffe Centre.

We all agreed that was enough cavorting with wildlife for one day, and scurried off before the giraffes got any funny ideas. Much of the rest of the day was spent battling our way home through the churning roads of Nairobi, still locked in its perpetual rush hour. That evening, I found myself reflecting on the rosy picture of conservation that the day’s experiences had painted. The national park was a beautiful microcosm of Kenya’s rich biodiversity, and the elephants and giraffes were displayed for maximum heart-melting effect, allowing tourists to get up close with the most charismatic of Africa’s megafauna. We had seen the side of conservation that is most palatable for a visitor to Kenya – lions stalking through the long grass, baby elephants splashing in the mud. It was by turns exhilarating and heart-warming, everything I had hoped for. I wondered, though, what side we’d see when we spoke to the local people who had to coexist with these animals on a daily basis, and whether things would be quite so clear-cut.

Day 3: Getting kitted up in Kitengela

I awoke on Thursday morning to find Impi grazing outside my window. Our eyes met in a moment of polite acknowledgement: she was having her breakfast, I was about to have mine. As we tucked into our omelettes and Impi munched on her grass, Enoch Number 2 told us that he had been walking early in the morning and saw some lions around the perimeter of the camp. This news injected an air of excitement into the group, which we promptly diffused with some morning yoga and reading. Vervet monkeys watched our feeble attempts to stretch as they chattered and cartwheeled through the trees, no doubt laughing about how much easier downward dog would’ve been for them.

If you look closely, you can see that this vervet is, in fact, laughing at us.

After a hearty lunch of vegetables and ugali (an extraordinarily dense and filling block of maize which is beloved by Kenyans and feared by the stomachs of Cambridge students), it was time to get down to business. We inspected our camera traps, and found them a little lacking. In total, there were supposed to be eight of them floating around somewhere, left over from the 2015 and 2017 trips. At this present moment, we had four on the table in front of us, and one of them appeared to be somewhat broken. The others, apparently, were being used by TWF, which we were actually quite pleased about. The hope was that members of the community would make use of the camera traps while we weren’t around, so this was a Good Thing. A more salient problem was our lack of memory cards. No memory cards, no photos.

Fortunately, Enoch had a plan: we would drive to Kitengela, the nearest town, and indulge in a bit of shopping. Oddly enough, our trip to Kitengela turned out to yield our best wildlife sightings so far. As we rumbled through the bush, we encountered not only the usual bevy of impala, zebra and wildebeest, but also a whole family of olive baboons bounding alongside us. Even better, we then caught sight of some heads that were above the treeline, instead of below the trees as heads usually tend to be. These heads belong to reticulated giraffes, and we were very pleased to see them.

The local giraffes valiantly failing in their attempts to hide from us.

Before long, we had left the wildlife behind, and found ourselves in the dusty chaos of Kitengela. Most of the population of the town seemed to be scattered along the big dirt road that we were doing our best to circumnavigate. Exactly what they were doing was unclear – some were walking up or down the road with varying degrees of urgency, others were standing around selling anything from flip flops to chickens, and others seemed to just be standing. Though this made for an eye-catching backdrop as we drove through Kitengela, it was also a stark reminder of how many Kenyans struggle with unemployment. The places that might’ve employed them didn’t look all that promising either, sporting names like ‘Arusha Meat Den’ and ‘Klub Uncle Dave’.

Doing our best to avoid reckless motorcyclists and errant chickens, we weaved through Kitengela until we arrived in a sort of shopping district, patrolled by gun-toting men in uniform for no reason that we could discern. Enoch acquired a fresh batch of memory cards for the camera traps, while several of us decided that we could abide the lack of WiFi no longer and bought some Kenyan SIM cards. This turned out to be a fairly complicated process in which Enoch had to provide ID and let the shopkeeper photograph his ever-bemused face, but the cards were dirt cheap and worked excellently. Satisfied with our acquisitions, the time had come to hightail it out of Kitengela, but the cars, trucks, motorbikes and goats in front of us had other ideas.

Stuck in such formidable traffic, we contented ourselves to make friends with the locals, who pointed and cackled at each sweaty mzungu (a Swahili word for white people that we had become very used to hearing) baking in the jeep. One man reached out a hand in greeting, hollering that I looked familiar and that he had seen me before, which was either the start of a scam or a wonderful reunion. The girls were propositioned with remarkable ardour, receiving phone numbers and even a mildly concerning offer of money from one particularly determined suitor. Feeling like minor celebrities, but also slightly like the butt of a big joke that everyone else was in on, we pulled our windows closed and at last made our escape from Kitengela.

The delighted faces of people with a fresh batch of memory cards.

At this point, I should probably say something about Mandela. No, not that one. Mandela was a friend of Enoch’s who joined us on the trip to Kitengela, and would be accompanying us for the next few days while Enoch attended to other business. Ah, Mandela. How to explain him? I have met few people as simultaneously thoughtful and irreverent as him. He had a devilish sense of humour, and wanted to know everything – our thoughts on religion, politics, vegetarianism, the death penalty. Sometimes he would say things that scandalised us, other times he would be insightful and profound. Most importantly, he was extremely knowledgeable about Kenyan wildlife, having spent years researching cheetahs in the Maasai Mara. He could identify every winged speck and distant lumbering shape, which would prove invaluable for our foray into Nairobi National Park the following day.

Stay tuned for that one – there might even be a lion.

Day 2: Welcome to Kiboko

My first night in Kenya certainly lived up to expectations – the whirring of mosquitoes sounded like it was coming from inside my skull, the local dogs barked with such gusto that I thought half the lions in Africa had descended on them, and I felt very small and mortal indeed. Although I slept fitfully, I awoke with a sense of groggy optimism. What adventures would our first full day hold? Apparently, chilli for breakfast. Chris, our cook and soon-to-be favourite person, served up a selection of beans, tomatoes and yams (if you’re unfamiliar with the latter, imagine a starchy loaf of rice as a rough approximation). Alongside this fairly standard fare was a bowl of freshly cut chilli (pilipili hoho), which we were informed would cleanse our bodies of toxins, if we could handle the spice. Naturally, we took this as a challenge, but any veneer of bravado soon crumbled into a mess of watery eyes and gasping throats.

Once we had recovered from our ill-advised bout of chilli-eating, we decided it would be a good idea to explore the place that would be our base of operations for three of the next four weeks. Kiboko Camp is a decently-sized plot of land on the side of a gently sloping hill, dotted with huts and connected by dusty paths. As we meandered aimlessly along one of these paths, admiring the basket-like weaver bird nests that festooned the trees, we suddenly found ourselves in somebody’s garden. That somebody was standing in the doorway of his house, giving us an inscrutable look through his thick mane of grey hair. He was the first white person we had seen since leaving the airport, but something told us that he wasn’t a tourist. The assortment of skulls dotted around his garden were a good indication that he had been here for a while, at the very least. When he opened his mouth to greet us, the most remarkable sound emerged – a sort of dry rattle, as if his voice had been put through a blender and then laced with gravel.

He introduced himself as Oscar, a name that sparked recognition among our group. We had been told about an eccentric old man who owned half the land that the camp was built on, and apparently had a knack for surviving things that people tended otherwise not to.

“Oscar has lived nine lives,” explained Enoch the night before. When we asked Oscar if this was true, he let out a bark of a laugh.

“No, no. Not nine lives. Eleven.”

Among his near death experiences were a plane crash, a brutal attack by a group of thugs, and a dicey incident involving a car and a cliff. As for his shredded vocal cords, it surmised that they had quite literally been torn apart in a lion attack. Before that, Enoch had told us, Oscar could roar just like a lion. Perhaps, I thought, the lions got jealous. Although Oscar spoke with an English accent and had attended a university in London, he explained to us that Kenya was his birthplace and he considered himself first and foremost a Kenyan.

The friendliest hippo we were likely to encounter.

A prime example of the camp’s cosy decor.

At this point, our guides for the day caught up with us, and quickly dragged us away from Oscar’s garden. Once we were out of earshot, they explained that Oscar could be very temperamental, and often took a strong dislike to guests if they wandered onto his property and caught him on a bad day. We were relieved not to have seen the grumpy side of a man who had survived a lion attack, and decided it was best not to push our luck. The two men taking us around the camp were Vincent, a conservation journalist working for The Wildlife Foundation (TWF) who seemed to know his way around the place rather well, and another Enoch (sadly but inevitably dubbed Enoch Number 2), who worked on something environment-related in urban Nairobi and seemed to be even more scared of running into a lion than we were. Vincent gave us a proper tour of the camp’s facilities, which included a cosy-looking firepit, a large communal dining area, and a formidable electric fence that we found ourselves glancing at with a mixture of fear and gratitude for the rest of the day.

We were then introduced to the real celebrities of the camp, Impi the impala and Tommy the Thomson’s gazelle (creatively named, I know). Although a different species, Tommy looked very much like a miniature version of Impi, as though they were twins and one of them had been hit with a shrink ray. Vincent explained that they were Oscar’s pets, orphans that he had rescued and now reared himself. They were a little shy, but this of course only made them more adorable, and we clucked and cooed at them without a shred of embarrassment. This taste of Kenyan fauna had made us keen to see the real thing in the wild, so we left the borders of the camp and the safety of its electric fence for an excursion into the surrounding bushland.

Impi the impala.

Tommy the Thomson’s gazelle.

When Enoch Number 2 heard that we were making a foray out of the camp, he disappeared, which we assumed was a sign that his lion-phobia had got the better of him. To our surprise, he reappeared as we were working our way up the first hill past the camp’s gate, with a sturdy wooden club in hand. He explained that it was a rungu, which Maasai men used to protect themselves from wild animals out in the bush. We all eyed it enviously, and wondered how our bare hands would fare by comparison if things got hairy. In the end, we saw nothing hairier than some zebras and impala, as well as an impressively large eland. Our most eventful encounter was with a small group of local women, who had set up shop by a river and were selling an impressive selection of jewellery, carvings and other trinkets. We hadn’t come with the intention of buying anything, but we soon found ourselves at the receiving end of such an emphatic sales pitch that we knew some money was going to have to change hands. The prices were eye-watering, and we gamely tried to haggle, but our hearts weren’t in it and the smiles of the women were unwavering. We came away feeling like we had experienced an extremely polite mugging, and our newly acquired bracelets and beads were compensation for going along with it so cheerfully.

After dinner, we set out on an evening game drive, bundling into a bashed-up jeep who we decided ought to be called Jeeves. Though a sturdy specimen, Jeeves looked as though he had seen better days. One of the doors refused to fully close, so Enoch’s innovative solution was to tie it in place with a bit of rope. This didn’t bother us too much, because we were already voluntarily exposing ourselves to the elements, heads poking out through the openings in the roof while the wind did its best to rearrange our faces. There was a heady thrill to the whole thing, driving off into the fading light and gazing out to see what Jeeves’ headlights could pick out of the shadows. Whenever the lights caught a pair of eyes, they would glint back at us, and we would shriek in excitement until the poor creature scampered off to find some peace and quiet. Once we managed to pull ourselves together, we started to get some good sightings, with the undeniable highlight coming in the form of a trio of ostriches. Upon noticing us, they hurriedly got to their feet and launched into the most ridiculous run I had ever seen. Enoch pointed out that those comically long legs could deliver a devastating kick, and I decided it was probably best to stop laughing.

Emerging from the safety of Jeeves.

Why use the door when a window will do?

In the end, it was the Kenyan bushland that got the last laugh. Jeeves was dutifully trundling along when we felt a sudden jolt, hurling us halfway out of our seats. Far more ominous than the loud thud was the silence that followed. We appeared, quite regrettably, to be stuck. Enoch put his foot to the pedal, but the wheels of the jeep seemed to be struggling to gain any traction, and the engine roared impotently while we continued to stay in precisely the same place. Gradually, it dawned on us that we were in the middle of a sizeable expanse of land, night had fallen, wild animals were at large, and our sole means of transport had fallen halfway into a ditch. Our entirely reasonable response was to get out of the jeep, and try and push it out of the ditch. When this of course failed miserably, we lay in the grass and stargazed while Enoch took the more practical route of calling some rangers. Once the rangers arrived, it turned out their plan was the same as ours: push the jeep out of the ditch, but with more manpower, and a stick. Finally, someone suggested towing the jeep, which was exactly the sort of logical solution that we had wisely resisted until then. With Jeeves rescued from his shallow grave, and our song repertoire exhausted for the moment, we decided it was time to hurry back to the camp and get to bed before the lions finally got busy.

Day 1: Here be lions (probably)

I hadn’t expected to see a zebra in the headlights within an hour of touching down in Nairobi – but, then again, I’m not sure what I should’ve been expecting, and our driver certainly seemed unfazed. Fortunately, so did the zebra.

Eight hours ago, there were no zebras, just five tired Cambridge students sitting in a café in Heathrow and wondering what on earth we had signed ourselves up for. We knew a few things for certain: over the course of the next month, we would be learning about human-wildlife conflict in Kenya’s national parks, and aiding the efforts of the tireless conservationists that protect the country’s rich biodiversity. Largely, this would involve setting up camera traps, collecting data, talking to experts and consulting with local people through focus groups and informal discussions.

After getting properly introduced, we also knew a little about each other: our not-very-famous five consisted of Harry, a freshly graduated mathematician, Abby, a geographer, Eunice and Caterina, both vets, and myself, a biologist. I should at this point add that our expedition was primarily masterminded by Charlotte and Matt, the tireless president and vice-president of the Cambridge University Wildlife Conservation Society (CUWCS). Sadly, due to various scheduling problems and summer internships, none of the committee would be able to join us on the trip – hats off to them, though, for putting so much effort into organising something that they themselves couldn’t be there for.

Although this made us feel ever so adventurous and intrepid, we weren’t quite boldly going where no Cambridge committee had gone before. The 2019 CUWCS Kenya Trip, for those who have never stumbled across this blog before, is the third iteration of an ongoing project that began in 2015. The man behind it all is the brilliant Enoch Mobisa, a PhD student at the University of Exeter who is conducting research into human-wildlife conflict and the ways in which pastoralist tribes in Kenya such as the Maasai are impacted by their proximity to Nairobi National Park. With each biennial trip, the goal is to expand the scope of the project, so that more camera traps can be distributed and local people can be taught to maintain and collect data from them, enabling them to make informed decisions about land use and continue their traditional way of life without hindering wildlife conservation.

A good plan, we thought – now to go about putting it into action, and hoping that the border guards didn’t take a disliking to our noisy English and non-existent Swahili. As soon as we touched down in Jomo Kenyatta Airport, we found ourselves shunted continuously from one queue to the next, as we half-heartedly waved our printed eVisas and tried to figure out whose instructions bore the most semblance to reality. Finally, we were presented with an impassive official, who asked us if we were a family as all five of us thronged around her desk at once.

“Of sorts,” chirped Abby, which we found unreasonably funny in our exhausted post-flight delirium. This was met with a thin smile, and a request that we please show our eVisas one at a time, thank you. We did so, dutifully scanning our fingerprints, until it was Harry’s turn. Due to his murky, cello-playing past, he had no fingerprints to speak of, confounding the machine and causing a great deal of confusion. In the end, he was waved through, while we reflected on the successful criminal career that he could have pursued in another life.

With the airport shenanigans out of the way, it was time to meet Enoch, our inside man. At this point our group had spoken to him twice over Skype, and I was already charmed by his easy manner and deadpan sense of humour. In person, he certainly did not disappoint. He shook our hands warmly, helped us with our luggage, and welcomed us to Kenya. As we headed out of the airport in a sturdy four-wheel drive, we offhandedly asked what the camp was like, and whether we would be sleeping in tents or beds.

“We shall see,” Enoch responded, with an air of serene calm that we felt compelled to follow. Naturally, this air of calm did not last very long, as our car bumped across the rocky scrubland on the outskirts of Nairobi and the animals began to emerge.

So, back to those zebras. Before long we learned that if we got excited about every zebra that we saw, this would be a long month indeed; whole families trotted in front of our car, as we bumped and juddered our way through the darkness. Soon the zebras were joined by impala, Thomson’s gazelle and even a few wildebeest, giving the impression that we’d somehow stumbled into a miniature safari on our way to the camp. Abby was very keen to know if we would be encountering any lions. Enoch’s answer to this, as would so often be the case, was a bemused smile and not a great deal else. As our questioning got a little more panicked, he finally assured us that a lion would struggle to unlock our car doors, and we would be safe as long as we kept our limbs inside. How much of this was a joke, we preferred not to ask, but thankfully we made it to our destination without incident.

A sign painted on a friendly-looking wooden hippo informed us that we had arrived at Kiboko Camp, as a man in a red and black shuka emerged from the shadows to open the gate. Rather less welcoming was the buffalo skull gazing at us balefully from the other end of the road, contributing to an atmosphere that was more wild west than Kenyan safari. With a palpable sense of relief that our journeying for the day was complete, we collapsed around the table in our hut and descended into the manic, sleep-deprivation induced chatter of people who were a long way from home, entirely out of their depth, and embarrassingly excited. After a comforting mug of hot chocolate (Cadbury’s, just like home!), we retired to our beds, and grappled with the mosquito nets (nothing like home!) until we accepted that the price to pay for no bites was a rough caressing of the face for the rest of the night.

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.

The Rift Valley Lakes: Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria & the Kerio Valley

Leaving Magadi we once again faced a full day of driving across the length of Kenya to reach the shores of the lakes Nakuru, Baringo and Bogoria that would hold our attention for the next few days. As always such a day involved amazing views, a huge array of different habitats and copious amounts of napping.

Once at Nakuru town we were faced with the prospect of our accommodation for the night, The Murius Guest House, with its catchy slogan: “No illicit sex allowed under Christian morals. Unmarried couples not allowed to board.” Though we tried to rent double rooms our inability to present valid marriage certificates for the sharing pairs swiftly halted negotiations. In hindsight the fact that we didn’t reveal the pairs were same sex probably saved us a burning at the stake.

Having survived the night without being baptised or forced into marriage, we spent the morning at Lake Nakuru National Park. The park presented the usual wonders of the Kenyan wilderness; sweeping vistas, big game and a plethora of birdlife. Not only this but it was at Nakuru that we spotted the third, final and most endangered of Kenya’s three Giraffe subspecies/species (dependent on which expert you talk to), the Rothschild’s Giraffe. Despite all this Nakuru National Park felt decidedly strange upon our visit; large black tarpaulins lay covering strange shapes along the road sides, whilst grim faced Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers drove wordlessly around the park. We were soon to find the reason for such an atmosphere as deeper in the park buffalo carcasses (untouched by any scavengers) began to appear along the roadside. A concerned call to the KWS head vet from Enoch yielded only the words “I am not at liberty to disclose…” It was not until several days later that we read in the papers that the mass buffalo die off at Nakuru was caused by an anthrax epidemic stemming from poor treatment of the sewage flowing from the town into the lake. Devastatingly alongside the death of over 100 buffalo 3 of the parks white rhino population have also so far succumbed to the disease.

 

Lake Nakuru National Park - the dead trees give an indication of how the water level has risen recently, and the 'hard edge' between the National Park and Nakuru town

Lake Nakuru National Park – the dead trees give an indication of how the water level has risen recently, and the ‘hard edge’ between the National Park and Nakuru town

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A distant male lion in Lake Nakuru NP

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A male buffalo with very few flamingoes in the background

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A close-up of a Rothschild’s giraffe

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Buffaloes… Of which there are too many in Lake Nakuru NP – the park has exceeded its ecological carrying capacity for this species

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Group photo with the submerged signpost in the background

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Leaving the uncomfortable atmosphere of Lake Nakuru behind us we made our way to Lake Baringo. After finding our planned rooms in a local hotel had been given over to other guests an unscheduled change of plan ensued, ultimately resulting in our spending the night in a rather nice safari lodge on the shores of the lake. As I had attempted every other night of our trip I spent the evening looking for frogs within the lodge grounds. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that unlike in previous accommodation we were sharing the lodge area with ostriches and crocodiles. Long story short, ostriches don’t like to be woken up and crocodiles are intent on eating errant night wandering herpetologists. Having survived the night (just) we embarked on a boat tour of Lake Baringo. The lake teemed with birdlife, amongst other things giving us a sighting of our first (and last) African owl (Verreaux’s Eagle Owl). Disembarking onto a small island in the lake (Ruko Island Conservancy, part of the Northern Rangelands Trust) we were greeted at very close quarters by more Rothschild’s Giraffes and one very sleepy warthog. After getting distracted hunting for skinks amongst the rocks I was eventually dragged off the island to visit some of the lake’s hot springs.

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Soi Safari Lodge

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A Baringo Hippo

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A crocodile, resting on the concrete platform of the now-submerged Baringo Reptile Centre

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Friendly warthog on Ruko Island Conservancy

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Ruko’s friendly Rothschild’s giraffe

 

Rothschild's giraffe of Ruko Island Conservancy

Rothschild’s giraffe of Ruko Island Conservancy

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Visitors can get up close to wildlife on Ruko Island… Ostriches

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Boiling hot springs of Lake Baringo

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Fisherman at Lake Baringo

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The next day we made our way to our third and final Kenyan lake – Lake Bogoria. Famed for its abundance of flamingo and for containing an isolated population of Greater Kudu, the prospect of Lake Bogoria National Reserve was an exciting one. We were all therefore rather shocked and distressed to see the state of the park. Though the flamingo density was astonishing and the views stunning, we saw more livestock than native mammals wandering through the park, with members of the public using the roads as a thoroughfare. Such activities are seen in national parks throughout the world, however the sheer scale of the problem in Bogoria was truly disconcerting. Upon investigation we were informed that after the county government took over control of the park from KWS lack of capacity and political will has led to a degradation of park management standards. We left Lake Bogoria concern for its future (though with excellent photos of flamingos, and good sightings of greater kudu).

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Elusive male lesser kudu

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Greater flamingoes

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Lesser flamingoes preparing to take off

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Greater flamingoes in the background, and many lesser flamingoes in the foreground

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Young Impala

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Our final official destination before many of the group finished their time in Kenya was Rimoi National Reserve. A long and very bumpy ride to Rimoi was unexpectedly interrupted by the Cheloch Gorge divers; a group of mad/stupid/brave teenagers diving of metal girders into the fast flowing waters of the River Kerio 10m below

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Spectacular Kerio Valley

The divers...

The divers…

Who dived down into THIS valley!

Who dived down into THIS valley!

 

After spending half an hour wincing as each young man plunged into the brown, crocodile-infested (we saw one right on the bank) water we decided it was time to move on to the National Reserve. Far off the tourist trail, we were the only visitors to Rimoi National Reserve that week, a fact that allowed us to persuade the staff to cook us lunch (great service).

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A picturesque dam in Rimoi National Reserve, named ‘Elephant Dam’, but sadly the only animals around were… cows

As with Lake Bogoria National Reserve we sadly saw more cows than anything else, however, the attitudes of the enthusiastic young rangers seeking to ever improve their park left us with hope for its future. Leaving the others in the somewhat incapable hands of our driver Kenyatta, Enoch, Bhavik and I took Enoch’s landcruiser deep into the Park to find elephants. Having tracked footprints on the road for almost an hour we stopped the vehicle and proceeded into the bush on foot. Following broken branches, elephant poo and ever fresher footprints deep into the bush our chatter died down into whispers and then silence as our hearts began to race. Each of us could sense elephants were close and despite Bhavik’s skill with a panga/machete against small shrubs none of us felt this would be much help against a charging elephant when on foot and hence retreated at pace. Untrampled by elephants we made our way to the town of Iten for the night, having seen impala, baboons, dik dik, warthog and ground hornbills at Rimoi. Though not a long drive it took us several hours as we managed to successfully destroy a tire on Enoch’s car. After half an hour of learning how to change a tire on a land cruiser on the side of a mountain during a storm whilst ripping the back bumped off the car with the jack, Bhavik, Enoch and I eventually re-joined the rest of the group. Driving along the long, windy road to Iten, Bhavik was lucky enough to spot a honey badger by the roadside. We were to spend the night in what yet again turned out to be a very characterful hotel. It is not every meal a very drunk African man invades your personal space, steals your food and is dragged off the premises by the chef and his drunk friends, but in Iten it seems it is normal to experience such dinnertime “entertainment”.

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Long-crested eagle at Rimoi NR

 

Another full day travelling involved getting hopelessly lost in Nairobi before reaching the final Kenyan beds most of the group would sleep in. The next morning saw us eating the most uncooked cooked breakfast any of us had ever experienced before bidding farewell to Brendan, Lauren, Louise and Zheng at Nairobi airport. It was with teary eyes that the remainder of the CUWCS 2015 Kenya trip prepared for the final and most ambitious leg of our journey in Tsavo National Park.

By Tom

Photo Credits: Bhavik

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

Athi-Kapiti

The journey back to Nairobi was predictably long, but not without its fair share of excitement and intrigue. The third female member of the group, Zheng, was sold for an impressive 20 camels (which Brendan attempted to push to 200, without success). This came much to the disappointment of Louise, now the final single lady, and she began to worry that the rest of the trip would be spent in despair as a lonely spinster. As we’ll soon find out, however, Enoch had been working his magic to find the perfect Prince Charming.

 

The following day we met up once again with local chief, Nickson Parmisa, who permitted us to join a local Maasai gathering in Kitengela to discuss their views as pastoralists on human-wildlife conflict and the management strategies implemented by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). We decided on the questions to be asked as: 1. What issues do you have with wildlife? 2. What are the benefits to wildlife? 3. What, if any, compensation is offered by KWS? 4. Which species are harming the pastoralist way of life the most?

At the Baraza

At the Baraza

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The community was quick to point out that as pastoralists, they had grown up surrounded by animals. The sheep, goats and cows were and still are their bank accounts, and if livestock was predated on by predators such as a lion, the response could only be to kill in order to prevent such attacks occurring again. The lion was an animal that caused economic devastation, and it wasn’t until a collective agreement was reached that this would lead to its extinction, and that tourists were arriving to pay to see the majestic creatures, that the lion’s identity was transformed into a potential economic benefit. The importance of wildlife being seen as something that can improve economic standing has been expressed to us on previous occasions, and hearing it from people directly affected by their presence allowed us to truly understand that conservation cannot focus purely on increasing wildlife numbers, but making sure the local community can also benefit, both socially and economically. To this end, the KWS introduced consolation and a land lease programme.

 

During the 2003 drought, a huge increase in predation of livestock led to large numbers of lions killed. The lack of water and desperation for the need of sheep, goats and cattle by both lions and humans could only end with humans on top. The consolation programme aimed to prevent this showdown occurring, and now if a cow, sheep or goat is taken by predation, the community receives a sum of money less than the market price of the livestock, but enough to prevent the need to kill the perpetrator. The land lease programme similarly aimed to increase the habitat needed for Kenyan wildlife by paying the community around $4 per acre per year to stop the grazing of livestock on this land.

 

The Maasai community described the difficulties occurring with both of these programmes, as the total income from the leasing and consolation was far less than the loss from predation, making it economically unviable for the locals. The consolation income often doesn’t trickle down to individual families, and is suffering from a lack of funding, and the lease programme has stopped due to the loss of funding. A further problem with the lease programme was that herders would be fined for moving into any protected areas, yet little was done when wildlife came onto their own land, considering the consolation money proved fruitless. Ultimately, the main issue is considered the leadership of the programmes, with a lack of consideration for the best solutions for pastoralists. The Kikuyu tribe, which focuses on agriculture, dominates the government, thus pastoralism and the Maasai way of life is believed to be hindering their own economic development.

 

Finally, the group said somewhat surprisingly that the most harming species was the zebra, due to being able to jump the Maasai fences and taking crops vital for livestock success. In this way, the zebra is a core threat to the livestock as a whole, compared to predators such as lions, which may kill a few of the animals, making it a single devastating event. Wildebeest are also an issue by carrying Malignant Catarrhal Fever. With no vaccine and it being easily passed on to livestock, there can be no way of protecting herds – cattle are very vulnerable and it is fatal to them, but it doesn’t affect the host wildebeest. Overall, the Maasai were enthusiastic in their support of the wildlife around their homes, agreeing that although they may not benefit significantly economically, they would never give up the animals that made up such an integral part of their livelihoods and traditions.

 

Just South of the National Park, the Athi-Plains (Kitengela Dispersal Area), willdlife and cattle co-exist.

Just South of the National Park, the Athi-Plains (Kitengela Dispersal Area), willdlife and cattle co-exist.

Lots of wildlife here: giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, eland, buffalo....

Lots of wildlife here: giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle…

It was interesting to note that only one person at the meeting proposed the fencing of the park’s southern boundary, comparing the situation to the Aberdare National Park, where the park has been completely fenced. This person was an immigrant from another part of the country, and his views contrasted with the more local Maasais’, who knew that this would be disastrous for the wildlife of Nairobi National Park. By confining animals, which would otherwise move with the rains, wildlife would be limited to grazing on land found in the park, and would have no access to the greater variety of pasture located outside the boundaries. At the end of the discussion, Louise was eventually promised to someone’s son (hurrah!), and Enoch could now rest, safe in the knowledge that over half the group would no longer be returning to England. Having rounded up our conversation with the group, we went away feeling much better informed on the impacts of management strategies on the ground. We could now more critically evaluate the successes of the management schemes, previously only heard of from those in charge of the programmes.

 

Nairobi National Park: In need of friends.

Nairobi National Park: In need of friends

The next day the group traversed Nairobi National Park, with all eyes peeled for rhinos and lions. We were unfortunate not to find any lions, and only glimpsed a black rhino from far away, however for bird lover Tom, the day was filled with much excitement. We were soon stopping at every sighting, including Marabou Stalks and Fischer’s Lovebirds, until the president decreed a ban on stopping for any bird not on his personal list, which excluded anything small and brown. The most exciting sighting of the day was found almost driving over a baby Leopard Tortoise, which had to be rescued and put into the safety of the long grass. From here we travelled to Lisa Ranch (along the way we saw numerous plains game plus a hyena), where the next few hours would test the group’s ability to cope with fear, sleep deprivation and very bad singing.

 

Lisa Ranch is a 6000-acre (24sq km) ranch owned by Professor Mbithi, ex-Secretary to the Cabinet. It is here that we met Michael, Professor Mbithi’s son, and Akhil, who are running a Lion and Cheetah project within the ranch and wider area of the vast Kapiti Plains, and who took us to our bush campsite to settle down for the night ahead. Once the sun had set, we headed out on a night game drive, using a female lion call to attract the males in the area. We soon met up with Osapuk, a male who has migrated from Amboseli, hundreds of kilometres away, and from here we followed the lion to see it almost make a kill on the neighbouring impala. Having spent an exciting couple of hours following the lion, we were ready to head back to the campsite. Michael’s car, on the other hand, had other ideas, and decided to run out of fuel and break down just before our destination. With 9 of us in the car and only 6 seats, we eagerly awaited assistance and a speedy recovery. This, unfortunately, did not materialise, and instead we were greeted by Osapuk, who encircled the car once Michael left for more fuel. Some of the group handled this better than others, falling asleep and becoming oblivious to the surrounding danger, leaving the rest to descend into delirium, which could be the only explanation for the subsequent rendition of the well-known song ‘Milk a Ferret’ (link song here). After waiting a further 4 hours, we were finally rescued at 4.30am and towed back to base. “Maybe we’ll skip the 6.30am game drive”, Michael suggested. We agreed.

 

Osapuk, the lion positively identified by Lion Guardians as having migrated here from Amboseli area (and one of his parents was from Tsavo!)

Osapuk, the lion positively identified by Lion Guardians as having migrated here from Amboseli area (and one of his parents was from Tsavo!)

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Waking up at 9am (the longest lie-in to date), we went out to find camera traps to see what wildlife existed in the area. We were shown lion, cheetah and caracal, an exciting array of the big cats. Afterwards, Michael told us of the difficulties of owning such a large plot so close to Nairobi. A number of offers had been made for the land, some reaching 5 million Ksh per acre. Such appealing amounts of money was turned down by Professor Mbithi, who insisted that the value of the wildlife, in the present and for future generations, was much greater than anything anyone else could offer. Opposite the ranch, Konza Technology City (nicknamed Silicon Savanna) was in the process of being developed on a similar sized, fully-fenced plot. We could see wildebeest, hartebeest, zebra and Grant’s gazelle inside the fence. At first we considered this to be harmful to the wildlife of the Athi-Kapiti ecosystem, however Michael suggested that the subsequent employment opportunities would lead to fewer poachers in the area. Developments of the railway were also cause for concern, as this prevents the migration of numerous species between Amboseli and Nairobi. Passages have been created beneath the tracks for wildlife to cross the boundary, however as Akhil voiced, this could create hotspots for poachers, who would be able to pick out animals with ease using snares and a scooter for a quick getaway. We left Lisa Ranch hoping that a future visit to Nairobi would be met with just as much wildlife, but with concern as to the compatibility of increased development and conservation.

 

Lisa Ranch and the expansive Kapiti Plains

Lisa Ranch and the expansive Kapiti Plains

From Lisa Ranch we met up with the founder and senior representatives of Friends of Maasai Mara (FoMM). The members themselves are Maasai, but have become professionals in subjects including law, engineering and medicine. With their expertise, they are now in the position to assist Maasai communities, such as by using a legal team to advise the communities on how to receive consolation from KWS, and by educating people on the reasons for conservation. The group believes there are too many conservancies using alternate management strategies, leading to rivalry and an uneven spread of large lodges, the main way locals are considered to be profiting from wildlife. This was a new perspective of conservation in Kenya, with previous discussions with managers of the conservancies focussing on the advantages and difficulties of their schemes, rather than an issue with conservancies themselves.

 

After meeting with FoMM, the group was promised a meal in one of the excellent Chinese restaurants of Nairobi. Having left after 9pm, we were soon disappointed and surprised to find that every restaurant was closed, and we began to consider Nakumatt (a supermarket) as our only option. We were eventually rewarded with the only available restaurant, the Sarova Stanley, also one of the finest hotels in Nairobi. Heading in with walking boots, tracksuit bottoms and greasy hair, we felt sufficiently under dressed compared to the usual clientele, but tucked in to our non-Chinese food nonetheless. Leaving the restaurant well after midnight, we headed back to Kitengela for another sleep-deprived night, waking up early to reach the next destination of Magadi.

 

– Claire Gibson

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

Day One

Landing in Kenya was a shock to many of us. Leaving behind England in a heat wave, arriving to the chilly Nairobi morning made us question our packing of only t-shirts, shorts and copious amounts of sun cream. Having been met by our guide and host Enoch (grinning at our shivering) we packed into the land cruiser and made for our base for the day in the Kitengela district on the outskirts of Nairobi… at least we tried to reach Kitengela. Nairobi traffic is like nothing those of us new to Africa have ever seen, if the city has a highway code its only rules seem to be overtake and don’t hit a cow. Having negotiated the road system to Kitengela, with the odd Giraffe to cheer us along on the way, a brief recuperation period was allowed before once again braving the dust, potholes and traffic of Nairobi to reach the head quarters of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS). After a bone-shaking journey we at last arrived at the picturesque HQ of the KWS to discuss the history, politic and goals of the KWS with the only education officer brave enough to face the onslaught of question and accusations levelled at him by the CUWCS. He should be commended for not quailing under the scrutiny of the irrepressible Mr Bhavik Shah.

Talk from Kenya Wildlife Service

Talk from Kenya Wildlife Service

Leaving the HQ we were treated to a show by a delightful troop of very vocal Sykes’s Monkeys. Before the sun set on what had already been a very eventful first day we braved the roads one final time to reach the pasturelands of the Kitengela district that border Nairobi National Park. Though not a protected area the residents of the national park move freely between the pastureland and the park itself, hence the opportunity to see many of the wonders of Nairobi National Park presented itself to us. We were not to be disappointed; large herds of Plains Zebra, Giraffe, Thompson’s Gazelle and Blue Wildebeest abounded. These groups were interspersed with the odd Common Eland, Coke’s Hartebeest, Impala, Warthog and Ostrich.

Eastern white-bearded wildebeest (world population estimated at under 10,000)

Eastern white-bearded wildebeest (world population estimated at under 10,000)

Maasai Ostrich (female)

Maasai Ostrich (female)

Maasai Giraffe and Wildebeest

Maasai Giraffe and Wildebeest

Plains Zebra

Plains Zebra

Though we could have simply sat and gawped at the wildlife within an arms length, as the sun set over the plains we instead shared our company with some of the heroes at the front line of conservation in Kenya. Meeting with Nickson, a Maasai chief and community leader in mitigating human-wildlife conflict for the district, we were taken to a KWS ranger outpost where the rangers spend their nights watching over the fauna of Nairobi National Park and Kitengela Game Dispersal Area, particularly watching out for black rhinos and lions straying out of the park through its unfenced southern boundary. It is the lions of the area that are causing the main strife for the local Maasai pastoralists, and in the dying light we discussed and debated how do deal with such issues both as a ranger on the ground and a foreign westerner living many thousands of miles away. So, despite the fact few of us managed to sleep at all during our flights, we managed a very full first day, already meeting some inspirational people and seeing some amazing wildlife. Though I could continue and list the various birds and reptiles seen along the roadsides and the specific subspecies of ostrich seen in Kitengela (it was the massaicus race for anyone interested) we all now long for our beds to catch a few hours sleep before beginning our six hour journey at the crack of dawn to see the wonders of the Maasai Mara.

Group photograph with KWS Rangers and Enoch (centre) and Nickson (short-sleeved shirt to the left of KWS

Group photograph with KWS Rangers and Enoch (centre) and Nickson (short-sleeved shirt to the left of KWS

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– Tom

Photo credits: Bhavik

Kenya pre-trip

We will be blogging right here about our trip to Kenya, where individuals will be visiting and working alongside conservation initiatives and local communities including the Maasai and Samburu, two pastoralist tribes that have historically co-existed with wildlife for hundreds of years. We will be visiting Kenya’s famous wildlife areas such as the Maasai Mara and Samburu, as well as a whole host of other community-led conservancies. The team will be participating in research activities such as camera-trapping, spotlighting, radio-collar tracking as well as getting close to the animals themselves – lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, rhinos, giraffes… the whole host of Africa’s famous wildlife. Follow our blog here to see how the team gets on and the fantastic wildlife that they encounter!