An exploration of ecology, conservation, environments and culture of Kenya.

Category: Uncategorised (Page 1 of 2)

Our last day in Kenya – May 22

Today was our last day in Kenya. We arose early and had a 7:00 am breakfast. After breakfast we finished packing our bags and took down the tents which had served us well over the last few days at Lake Naivasha – especially with many showers. We ate a quick and early lunch at 11:00 and then departed for Nairobi. We arrived early afternoon and went to Kazuri Beads – a collective in Karen that has been around since the mid 1970s. At Kazuri, women make colourful beads for jewellery and design and glaze pottery, and receive both a reasonable wage and medical benefits. We received a tour of the facilities and were able to chat to a few of the workers. Afterwards we descended on the ‘show room’ and purchased more gifts for folks back home. After we finished up at Kazuri, we went to a local mall (The Hub) to relax and use up some time before getting to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Mukhtar showed up at 5:00, when we had congregated after our mall visit, and we said thanks and goodbye. We also bid adieu to Charles. We arrived at the airport at around 6:00 during a deluge but managed to say our goodbyes to the rest of the staff (Njoro, Joseph, Chenzen, and John), and proceeded through security, then got our boarding passes, passed through customs, and then another security clearance. A long wait before our flight but worth getting the bother of security and customs behind us.

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Boat Ride on Lake Naivasha and Tying Up Loose Ends – May 21

Our morning began at a leisurely pace, with breakfast not set until 9:00 am. A steady rain most of the night, but most of us slept very well. At 10:00 am we arranged for three boats to take us on a tour of the southern shoreline of Lake Naivasha, poking into the papyrus beds and exploring snakes protruding from the water – evidence of lower water levels in previous times. We saw many hippos and myriad bird species (well over 20), some of which are shown below.

After an amazing lunch (as always), we went to the camp restaurant, and over the course of the afternoon, we individually discussed possible topics for our course essays, which must focus on a contentious issue in wildlife conservation pertinent to East Africa,

After dinner we enjoyed a slide show of our adventures of the last few weeks, a bit of a bittersweet experience as we all realise that the trip is coming to an end, that we have learned much about Kenya, its people, culture, and biodiversity, and that we will depart for Canada and our respective busy lives tomorrow. Many of us repaired to the restaurant for a celebration of the course. Dr. Lougheed disappeared to his room to work.

Climbing Mount Longonot – May 20

By Evelyn and Davin

Last night, just as we were getting ready for bed, it started raining. It continued throughout the night and into the morning. Our tents kept us dry, except for poor Peiwen and Lily, who had their windows open when the rain started!

Despite the rain, we had an early breakfast and loaded into the Bunduz bus to go to Mount Longonot National Park, about an hour’s drive away. Mount Longonot is a volcanic mountain. The current crater is believed to have formed some 21,000 years ago, but there is some evidence of activity in the 1860’s. There is scrubby forest all the way up, with the low-statured acacia and heather trees becoming shorter near the top, making it almost an elfin forest!

The hike up the mountain was strenuous, and the cool damp conditions were welcome in comparison to our hot hike to the waterfall earlier in the week. The trail was very eroded in places, where runoff had carved deep gorges into the soft dirt path. The hike is 3.1 km to the top of the volcano’s crater, with an elevation gain of 414 meters. That’s the equivalent to climbing 2070 stairs! Depending on how big you consider a flight of stairs to be, that is ~130 flights of stairs!

On the way up we saw Grant’s gazelles, zebras and several interesting species of bird, including brimstone canaries, red winged starlings, speckled pigeons, and yellow crowned canaries. We came across the most exciting find just after the halfway point: a side-striped chameleon! It was cleverly camouflaged on an Acacia tree on the side of the trail and was nearly black in colour to match the nodules it was sitting on. As we watched, it slowly moved onto a branch, and turned colour to greenish brown with stripes. It snapped out its tongue to catch a small fly. It was really exciting to have spotted such a unique creature in the wild.

As we continued to the summit, walkways became increasingly narrow, making the climb even more daunting for those of us who have a fear of heights. The climax was a small goat path about 3 metres long falling sharply on the left and into a water carved channel on the right. Once we overcame the tenuous part of the hike it was a short jaunt to the top.

At the summit we were elated to have a rest and contemplate our accomplishment, as some of us rehydrated with drinks and reenergized with bars or other snacks. There were some bird species flying by, for example the red-winged starling, although much of our focus became the scenic view. Initially we were somewhat diminished by the heavy clouds occluding the crater, and although we never got a clear view of the crater, the clouds did eventually part so we could see some of the forest which now inhabits the caldera of the volcano. After some selfies, panos, and a group photo, we began our descent down the mountain.

On the way down we revisited sights of flora and fauna, including a species of spider, beetle and buzzing cicada. We also added to our list of avian species, encountering a white fronted bee-eater and ashy flycatchers. There were several flowering plants that seemed to coincide with the particular elevations we spanned, however we couldn’t help but be taken by the sight of giraffes in the valley across the rift. There were several of them, grazing on acacia leaves, sitting down for a rest and some just meandering through the valley as giraffes do. Luckily with some decent zoom lenses, we were able to capture images of these beauties also.

Finally reaching the base, we returned to our awaiting bus and headed back to Camp Carnelley’s where Bunduz had a wonderful lunch ready. Following this we had down time to clean up, update field books, and have a debriefing before dinner, before the eventual comfort of our sleeping bags.

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Visit to a flower farm and lecture by Francis Mwaura – May 19

By Joaquin, Savi and Wenxi

This morning breakfast was scheduled for 8am, although a few people woke early to do some bird watching. Wenxi and Karen disappeared into the bush where they spotted a White-headed barbet for the first time this trip. The barbet was on Steve’s ‘to find’ list, and (mostly) everyone was very excited about their find. Evelyn stayed by the lakeshore where she spotted a Yellow-billed stork for the first time on the course, as well as sighting an African Drongo. While Savi saw the vervet monkeys attempt to raid the campsite, and desperately chased them away. Slowly, the rest of the class trickled out of their tents for a later than normal breakfast, which was as always, amazing. We had a short break after eating and drinking excessive amounts of Chenzen’s chai before we hopped on the bus and were on our way to Florensis flower farm.

Half of an hour late, we arrived at the site and were welcomed by employees, John and George. Florensis is one of the many flower farms in the Lake Naivasha region, reflecting this booming industry in the past 20 years. The farm is owned by V. D. Berg, a multination company based in the Netherlands and currently has over 1, 000 workers. With 28 varieties of rose growing in 17 greenhouse blocks (all together 7 hectares in area), Florensis is a formidable sight. Each day, over 500, 000 stems of roses are harvested in three patches: morning, noon and early afternoon. The stems will then go through quality check and grading process. Wrapped rose bunches will be stored in cold room (5.5 degrees C) for 24 hours before shipping away, mainly to Europe via Holland, but also to the USA and Canada, and other countries. Not far away from the farm, there is the Nairobi airport from where roses in tropical Kenya reach out to the world. To our amazement, each bunch of rose would be labelled with an employee ID and should quality issues arise the company would be able to keep track. On a side note, the farm is moving towards hydroponics with one small experimental field. Growing roses in certain medium (such as liquid or sand but not soil) with specialized nutrient supplements, the hydroponics technique would potentially reduce water usage for flower farming, albeit fairly expensive at the current stage of development. Besides water exploitation, pesticides and chemicals used in this industry also cast shadows on the sustainable development of Lake Naivasha region. These issues were subsequently discussed in the afternoon.

In the afternoon’s debrief discussion we referred back to the informative lecture given by Dr. Francis Mwuara. We first talked about some of the environmental issues, locally and globally that affect lakes like Lake Naivasha. For example, we talked about eutrophication and the effects of invasive species. We then discussed some of the socioeconomic issues that affect many Kenyans. We talked about the differences in wages internationally and even the need for policy to include, more broadly, rights like maternity leave. We were lucky to have Carol to illustrate and clarify some of the processes of implementation and oversight on environmental policy. We finally talked about water management issues and how, in Johannesburg, South Africa they are already having to deal with the scarcity of water. This is an issue that does not affect Canadian’s as much but it was enlightening to learn about, especially with the increasing importance of this issue globally. After this, we had some free time followed by some more hippo sightings, with the night culminating with a delectable dinner. We went to bed early for another adventure-filled day tomorrow.

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Lake Naivasha – May 18

Blog post by Lily, Nestor and Zoe

This morning we woke up early to do some walks around our lovely campsite. We’re surrounded by Naivasha thorns (also known as fever trees), a tall type of acacia tree (Acacia xanthroploea).

We’re at the intergrade zone between southern shores of the aquatic Lake Naivasha and the terrestrial camp zone. There are papyrus marshes separating us from the lake (and the rumbling hippos that we can hear feeding around the water’s edge).

We went on a walk to try and see just how many species this biodiverse little camp site hosts!

Here’s what we found:

  • Many helmeted guinea fowl in groups, pecking around on the ground (Numidia meleagris)
  • Lots of superb starlings with their beautiful iridescent blue wings and orange breasts (Spreo superbus)
  • Hadada ibis with their long, curved, red beaks for probing into the soil (Bostrychia olivacea)
  • Some Egyptian geese corralling their flock of 10 little goslings (Alopochen aegyptiacus)
  • A stunning lilac breasted roller perched on a high branch (Coracias caudatas)
  • A regal-looking colabus monkey with a black body but white face, white fluffy tail and white fluffy strip on it’s back (Colabus guereza)
  • A lone long-tailed cormorant (Phalacrocorax africanus)
  • A giant kingfisher flying by, searching for a mid-morning snack (Megaceryle maxima)
  • Some common fiscals flitting about (Lanius colleris)
  • A lesser grey shrike alone on a bush (Lanius minor) and a red-backed shrike (Lanius isabellinus)
  • An african fishing eagle on a tall branch (Haliaeetus vocifer)
  • Grey-headed gulls flying overhead (Larus cirrocephalus)
  • Pied flycatcher flying by (Ficedula hypoleuca)
  • Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) (note that pied means black and white feathers!) A lone Ruepells long-tailed starling with a long iridescent blue tail
  • An icheneumon mongoose nosing about in the bushes (Herpestes ichneumon)
  • Little egret (Egretta gazaretta)
  • Great white pelican (Pelecanus oncrotalus) flying overhead
  • Orange African hoopoe with a fabulous headdress of feathers (Hoopopa africana)
  • Two types of woodpeckers (grey, Dendropicos goetae and cardinal, Dendropicos fuscescens) who enjoy the soft moist wood of the acacia to make their cavities to nest in
  • Black-lored babbler, squeaking its silly song in the trees (Turtoides sharpei)
  • Fischer’s lovebirds sat on a branch, with bright green feathers and a red beak (Agaporris fishers)
  • Two white-browed robin chats with white stripes above their eyes and yellow bellies (Cossypha heuglimi)
  • Black crake pecking about (Amaurcornis flavirostris)
  • Some bubbling common hippos poking out their eyes and noses in the shallows of the lake (Hippopotamus amphibius)

Not a bad list! It’s interesting to note that the incredible diversity of piscivorous birds indicates the high quality fishy food sources contained in this incredible lake!!

In the afternoon, we were fortunate to have Dr. Francis Mwaura, a professor at the University of Nairobi whom we’d met previously, join us lakeside to give a talk about the environmental history of Lake Naivasha.

Dr. Mwaura discussed the importance of the lake in the local and global communities. Nestled in between Naivasha Town and Mount Longanault, our lakeside campsite provided a perfect visual aid to Dr. Mwaura’s insightful talk. We learned that this 160 square kilometre freshwater lake is home to 350 bird species, 200 buffalos, 500 hippos, and only five non-native fish species (these are the common carp, black bass, blue spotted tilapia, red-bellied tilapia, and the longfin barb). Internationally, Lake Naivasha is registered as a Ramsa site (area of wetland conservation) No. 1498, and International Bird Area (IBA) site No. 48.

Unlike other endorheric lakes in Kenya, Lake Naivasha is unique in that there is an outflow of water through underground springs. The outflow of water and the porous rocks allow the the ions in the lake to be filtered, thereby creating a sustainable freshwater lake. Historically, the lake was over 800 square meters but due to climate change, the lake has shrunk to almost ¼ its original size. Despite that, Lake Naivasha is the largest freshwater lake in the Rift Valley.

The lake is vital to the Kenyan economy, supporting many local fishermen and flower greenhouses in the area. The fishing industry generates substantial revenue for local fishermen. To protect overfishing, the Kenyan government has implemented a prohibited fishing period, usually for one season, to allow for the fish populations to recuperate and reproduce. Unfortunately, this dry season is difficult for the fishermen, forcing them to find other jobs in community. Some fishermen might fish in Lake Victoria, or Tanzanian or Ugandan waters. The Kenyan flower industry exports 70% of its product to Europe, specifically to Holland, France and the UK. In fact, the average annual floriculture revenue is approximately $180 million USD. Dr. Mwaura hopes that the implementation of direct flights from New York to Nairobi will boost the flower industry, thereby further supporting the Kenyan economy.

Additionally, the lake is also responsible for generating geothermal power through the underground springs, thereby allowing the local businesses and homes to benefit from this resource.

Despite these benefits, the lake is struggling with an increase in human population, cultivation, and livestock. As well, the impact of invasive species, such as the water hyacinths, are creating a massive issue for the local community. Dr. Mwaura suggests that further research and improvements in government policy need to happen to ensure the viability and longevity of this beautiful lake.

We appreciate Dr. Mwaura for taking the time to come speak to us today. We are grateful to have learned about the economic and cultural importance of this lake. Dr. Mwaura did an excellent job of staying focused despite the mischievous vervet monkeys who were running around our campsite. Special shoutout to Davin for his effort in chasing away all twelve of the agile and determined primates. Thanks to Davin, the monkeys only got away with one loaf of bread.

In the evening, after an enjoyable Tusker (or two) at Fisherman’s Bar/Restaurant, we continued on with the article review presentations. Joaquin discussed models for quantifying the international illegal wildlife trade and the current pitfalls facing many mitigation and prevention strategies. He argued the need for DNA barcoding and integration of international reporting systems to give a more extensive and accurate overview of this illegal industry. Additionally, resources should be targeted primarily towards areas with lesser understood models with higher levels of biodiversity, since they are most likely to experience illegal wildlife trading. Savi followed with her review, exposing the risks facing the sacred Kaya forest—a sacred forest in Kenya coastal regions that locals have refrained from using for purposes other than their rituals. However, the increasing human population has been placing increasing pressure on the forest for its abundance of natural resources. Forest areas have been decreasing due to pastoralists burning down the trees to generate grazing land for their livestock. It is imperative to reduce rural poverty to increase the support for conservation. This can be achieved by building tourism, which would help economy and thus reduce pressure on forest. Karen wrapped up the talks with a paper on wildlife management areas (WMAs). WMA’s are areas where community members are able to benefit from wildlife tourism, providing incentive to protect wildlife habitat and decrease pastoral land use. In a review of WMA’s in Tanzania, it was found that the number of dikdiks and giraffes increased, indicating that the WMA may have been a success. The group discussed the contrasting evidence for whether the separation of pastoralists and wildlife is beneficial.

A great set of talks to round up the awesome papers and discussions we’ve had during the course!

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From Angiri Camp to Camp Carnelley’s, Lake Naivasha – May 17

Post by  Peiwen Li and Karen Ong

After breakfast, we loaded the gargantuan bus and headed off for Lake Naivasha, leaving  at 9 am. We shared bittersweet goodbyes to the new friends we made at Angiri Camp, including Peter, Maurice, and Susan. We’ll miss them dearly –  Maurice even fried up some chicken samosas and vegetarian chapati for our last meal. We travelled to Lake Naivasha via Nairobi and along the way, we encountered a flooded underpass. Cautiously, we proceeded and continued along winding roads to see the Rift Valley escarpment.

Initially when we disembarked from the bus, the sun was shining bright giving us a clear view of vast forests beneath us. We saw three tree hyraxes foraging in the branches of trees beneath the retaining wall. Hyraxes (Order: Hyracoideaare among the closest extant relatives of the elephants and sea cows. These little critters resemble small groundhogs in size but sport a dark cinnamon pelt. Colouring depends on geographic location, ranging from light grey to dark brown. Amongst the lush green valleys, a man-made concrete road stood out, disrupting the harmonies view below. On our way back to the bus, we stopped by a small souvenir shop. One of the workers there informed us that all the stores in this area provide support to the local orphanage located deep in the valley. These orphans actually made some of the jewellery that is sold in the store. We picked up a few more gifts and continued on our way.

Just a few minutes after we left, the skies opened and rain started pouring. A thick fog set over the Rift Valley casting an ominous pall over the truck. The roads quickly flooded but the locals appeared unalarmed and carried on with their days.

We arrived at Camp Carnelley’s at 5pm, right at the shore of Lake Naivasha. Njoro and Chenzen demonstrated how to set up the tents then we each claimed our spots and set up our tent homes for the next 5 days. After setting up, we spread out and explored the campsite. We stumbled upon an African fish eagle perched at the top of a dead tree, surveying the surface of the lake for prey (we presume). It had a gleaming white head, neck and breast. The beak was bright yellow and black. The body was a pure black except for a reddish-brown shoulder stripe. We learned that females are larger than males, which commonly occurs in raptors.

Wenxi hand-caught a Mascarene rocket frog (Ptychadena mascareniensis) near the lake. It had a greenish-brown back and a broad yellow dorsal line with 8 dorsal folds. Currently, it is their breeding season and males will produce duck-like calls to attract mates. Wenxi was actually trying to identify another frog but was distracted by this beautiful frog chorus.

Distributed throughout campsite, fever trees (Acacia xanthophloea) towered, providing us and the vervet monkeys a dense canopy from the hot sun. Vervet monkeys have a sandy-brown coat and black face. When in heat, the testicles turn a bright blue to attract a female.

As the sky darkened, the hippos began foraging along the shoreline. With our headlamps on, we rushed to the edge of the electric fence and watched two hippos eating grass. They shuffled back to the lake shortly after we arrived. Their slow steps don’t reveal their immense burst speeds, able to attain burst velocities of >30 km/hr.

After dinner, Nestor and Zoey presented their article reviews. Nestor’s paper studied mammalian hotspots and Zoey discussed how habitat fragmentation poses an especially high threat to forest  understory bird species. This wrapped up our day perfectly and we can’t wait to see the dawn on Lake Naivasha!

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Ol Pejeta Conservancy – May 16

Blog post by ‘Team Room Geckos’ – Hannah, Chloe, Danya

To start our day off, we had a lovely breakfast of eggs, plantains and fruit prepared by our chef Chenzen and John. Afterwards we headed to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in our magic safari bus. Once inside the gates, our first stop was the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary founded by Jane Goodall in 1993. The sanctuary is home to over 20 chimps that were rescued from different situations all across Africa. We met two chimpanzees by the names of Max and Poko, who thought it was hilarious to watch our reactions as they threw dirt and poop at us! Though this may not have been our preferred way of interacting with our closest living relatives we were still able to appreciate their intelligence, and ability to produce ammo on demand. The next stop on our tour was the blind, black rhino named Baraka, who is housed in a separate area within the conservancy. Baraka lost his sight as a result of fighting with other males and had to be taken to his own separate enclosure so that he wouldn’t be killed by other rhinos in the wild. Lucky for us, he is used to human interaction and we were able to hand-feed him sugar canes (his favourite treat) as well as pet him. As we emerged from the bush, we were greeted with an outdoor picnic. Thanks to the staff at Bunduz, we were able to enjoy lunch while the park and its many wild inhabitants served as the perfect backdrop.

We then embarked on our second game drive of the trip! A look out the window in any direction offered the perfect view of the beloved grassland landscape that comes to mind when one thinks of Africa. Everywhere we looked there was something new and at times we found ourselves conflicted as to which species to look at first. Unfortunately, we forgot our catnip today for the lions, but we still got to see three of Kenya’s “Big 5” being Cape Buffalo, White Rhino and Bush Elephant. A definite favourite were the memories (herds) of elephants each being just as majestic as the last! We noticed that female elephants tended to stay in group with their young, but some bull males chose to brave the vast grassland on their own. In contrast, some of the wildlife we saw like zebras, Thompsons Gizelle, Impala and Warthogs seemed to feel the strength of numbers, as they were often found roaming and grazing together.

We can all agree that today’s highlight came in the form of four Southern White Rhinos. We were lucky enough to observe two females, a male and a calf for over half an hour as they grazed and interacted just metres from our truck. Named after their wide mouth, this species is less endangered than their northern cousins but is still a rare site we were lucky to see especially in the wild. The seemingly hundreds of photos we each took of the elephants reflect this.

Ol Pejeta has become well known lately thanks to Sudan, the last male northern white rhino who recently passed away here. On our tour we were able to drive past the enclosure that is home to Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter, the last two northern white rhinos in the world. It was humbling to have this experience, as it was likely our last chance to see this species. We also visited Sudan’s head stone which was presented among other rhino’s graves that had been poached within the conservatory for their valuable horns.

On our way out of the conservancy, we had the perfect photo-op as we passed right over the equator which was marked loud and clear for all us tourists with a sign (see photos below). The day was also a success for our resident ornithologists who were able to add the lilac breasted roller, African Crowed Crane, Speke’s weaver and Egyptian Goose to their species spotted lists. With all the mammals and beautiful birds we saw, it’s safe to say we all left with our memory cards full!

A delicious meal was awaiting us upon our return to Angiri Camp, and we all ate as if we hadn’t eaten in days! The night ended with two more interesting and informative presentations – the first was by Julia, who spoke about the impacts of climate change and human activities on land use in Laikipia, and the second was by Quinn, who talked about the importance (or lack thereof) of environmental and spatial patterns in vertebrate geographic ranges on their conservation statuses. Overall, it was a great day filled with laughs, good food, and a whole lot of wildlife.

Ndare Ngare Forest – May 15

Blog post by Katie, Quinn and Julia

You haven’t experienced bumpy roads until you’ve driven down the trail to Ndare Ngare Forest. Despite the upset stomachs endured on the way, today we had the amazing experience of visiting this community- and privately-owned conservancy. Ndare Ngare Forest is known for its spectacular view of Mt. Kenya, its abundant wildlife, and its refreshing waterfalls. As a community-owned conservancy, this forest is a key step in future conservation efforts because it allows wildlife and farmers to coexist in harmony.

Once we arrived at Ndare Ngare (which we learned was Swahili for “goat’s water”), we got to explore the forest through a canopy walk. We climbed to a dizzying height, level with the tree canopy, which allowed us to have a bird’s eye view and appreciate the vast biodiversity on the forest floor. As we walked along what appeared to be bridges made out of chicken wire, we caught glimpses of a flash of red, green, and black. It turns out, this was the exotic bird known as the Hartlaub’s Turaco (Tauraco hartlaubi), found only in East Africa. Turacos are named after the green pigment in their wings, turacoverdin. Despite being located in the canopies, Hartlaub’s Turaco only flies when necessary, and instead use their excellent climbing abilities to get around. However when they do fly, their brilliant crimson wings are visible. We also saw elephant skulls lying in the forest, and while we did not see live elephants, this does clearly reflect their presence in the forest. While traversing the chicken wire bridge, we also came across trees filled with what looked like spider webs. After consulting our guide, Daniel, we discovered that these “spider webs” were actually caterpillar nests that are only found in the moth tree. This moth tree is the perfect place to host caterpillar babies because the leaves are poisonous to other organisms, offering an important layer of protection from predators.

After exploring the forest canopy, our guides took us on a strenuous hike over difficult terrain with astonishing views of the Kenyan plains in the distance. Our destination was an effervescent waterfall, which was is a trademark of the forest. During the hike, the dung beetles feasting on rhino and cow poop was a fascinating diversion. When we finally made it to the waterfall, sweating and out of breath, many of us were tempted to go in for a dip. However, we did not bring our swimsuits and we found the pond already occupied – some British soldiers on their day off were bravely repelling down the waterfall. After enjoying our packed lunches, we started the trek back. Danya had a particularly painful trek back, showing off a behemoth blister by the time we reached the truck (see picture). We thanks our guide Danielle and armed game warden Alex and departed for our home base – Angiri Camp. Lily also had some excitement on the ride home when a weaver bird’s nest flew in through the window, right into her lap. Luckily, no baby birds were present.

We finished off the day with two oral presentations by Danya and Chloe about how humans have historically impacted different ecosystems in Africa. Both papers used paleolimnological and radiocarbon-dating approaches to quantify how ecosystems have changed over time with the advent of agriculture. Danya’s paper found that in southwestern Kenya, ecosystems have changed over time as human activity increased; however Chloe’s paper found that in a mountainous region in South Africa, ecosystems have remained relatively constant over five millennia even with human activity. The opposing results of these papers on two different regions gave us a valuable lesson about how the results of one study cannot be generalized to all situations, and we should always remain curious.

Birds, birds and birds, and a guest lecture on Kenya conservation – May 14

Blog post by Evelyn and Davin

It’s hard to believe that a week has passed since we departed on our journey to Kenya. We have enjoyed so many unique adventures thus far, already leaving us with a plethora of lasting memories. Today we awoke at the crack of dawn to try our luck at some morning bird watching, with hopes of getting that perfect shot. Steve, Evelyn and Davin dawned cameras and headed out. At this time of day the main gates of Angiri Camp aren’t yet open; nevertheless, there are many birding opportunities within the camp. As we strolled along we watched a variety of local species including the Common Fiscal, Speckled Mousebird, Baglafecht Weaver, Ring-Necked Dove, Bronze Sunbird and Cape Robin-chat. Following our stroll, we were joined by the rest of our group for breakfast.

On a personal note, birding has never been a passion of mine (Davin), although I’ve had an appreciation for animals since I was young. Something about the beauty of Kenya, or the magnificence of its creatures affected me from our first game drive in Nairobi. Equipped with a camera, I was fixated on each creature we encountered, but there was something more powerful about our winged friends. Their quick movement and unpredictable behaviour was an instant attractant, and a new love and appreciation for birds formed. I’m not sure whether this novel passion will subside, but at the moment the vastness of this new avenue fills me with hope and joy.

Over the course of the day, our five graduate students each presented a peer-reviewed paper from the primary literature on patterns of biodiversity on topics that included environmental correlates of phylogenetic endemism, and the latitudinal gradient in biodiversity. It was good to spend time thinking about these broader patterns and making connections to what we see around us. Where we are in Laikipia is a plant biodiversity hotspot!

Just before lunch, we also had a fascinating and challenging talk from Dr Mordecai Ogada, coauthor of the book “The Big Conservation Lie”. He shared with us his frank opinions on what he sees as the crisis in African conservation, where human circumstances come second to the big business of conservation. He cautioned us to be sceptical of the saviour narrative built around individual conservationists and to recognize the role of imagery and media in spinning stories about situations in Africa. He was a very compelling speaker, and gave us a lot to contemplate. The discussion built really well on the debates we had over the last few days. We are all excited to read The Big Conservation Lie, and Dr Ogada is going to drop off signed copies for us later this week.

It turns out that I (Davin) am not the only one with an emerging passion for birds, as other participants seem to be catching the bird ‘bug.’ While we eschewed the possibility of working outdoors during the heat of the day, we were able to go on another bird walk later in the afternoon with the entire class to learn more about the local avifauna. This time we broke into groups and ventured out with cameras, binoculars and a bird identification guides for each group in pursuit of new species – seeking to key them out on our own. As we sauntered down the tree-lined country road, we saw small local farms, a variety of farm animals and yes, birds. It was interesting to see a local herder push cattle up the road for their evening return to the paddocks, and to see the local school bus dropping off students after their school day. There are always reminders of some of the trials endured by local rural Kenyans, disparity of wealth and power, all of this portrayed poignantly by the image of an elderly woman walking up the road with an orphaned boy. Resilience. We stopped for a brief yet thorough tutorial of strategies for identifying the myriad bird species here and elsewhere by our resident expert Steve. Following this learning moment we headed back to camp for dinner and our evening debriefing. Week one complete!

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Angiri Camp and environs – May 13

Blog entry by Wenxi, Savi and Joaquin

This morning we woke up to beautiful weather, with clear skies dotted with puffy clouds. The scenery in front of the campgrounds was unbelievable, a long sunlight layered plateau followed by some volcanic mountains in the background. After another great breakfast, we continued with our student debates.

The first debate of the day was moderated by Lilly, with Nestor and Zoe arguing for or against the effectiveness of ‘debt for nature’ swaps. Lilly opened the debate with a brief introduction and explanation of the history of ‘debt for nature’ swaps before handing the stage to Zoe and Nestor for their point-counter point arguments. Lilly explained that debt for nature swaps is a way for a country to relieve some of its outstanding debt burden. In lieu of a developing nation paying back their debt in full to another country, the debt of the former will be forgiven and instead the money previously owed will then be invested in conservation. Zoe supported this proposition, and argued that ‘debt for nature’ swaps are effective in reducing the indebtedness. It also involves many parties which therefore increases accountability. In terms of policy alignment debtor nations must work hard to include indigenous peoples, increasing the effectiveness of the swap within their country. To conclude, Zoe argued that it was economically effective and a plausible solution for indebted countries. To counter this proposition, Nestor argued against ‘debt for nature’ swaps, with such multi-party agreement being ineffective, and often taking a very long time to unfold. He also argued that these swaps often do not involve indigenous peoples which leads to conflict with locals, and an ineffectiveness of the conservation initiative. His last point was that indebted countries must carefully track where the money goes as often the effectiveness of the debt forgiveness is compromised by ineffective use of funds. It was a compelling topic, and provided interesting insights into the economics side of conservation.

Following this informative discussion, we had another debate, where Wenxi acted as a moderator, Savi supported the proposition that traditional medicine is of little demonstrated value to human health, but a leading cause of biodiversity loss and Joaquin would argue against this proposition. Savi’s arguments for the proposition were that: 1. traditional medicine is not proven to be clinically effective, 2. it causes an increased demand for animal parts, and 3. the development of new hunting technologies lead t ever more rapid removal of animals and plants from their habitats and habitat destruction. Joaquin countered that local communities can often sustainably and effectively preserve local biodiversity, some traditional medicine does have demonstrated value in enhancing prospects for human health; and that for many remote  communities local traditional medicine is the only option. Thus the value of traditional medicine should be considered on a case by case basis. The floor was then opened to all, and many good points were brought forth. Carol, explained to us how in Kenya there is a 6 tiered approach to health care and that the country is working to integrate the traditional practices into this system. Wenxi closed the debate by summarizing the points and the discussion.

After lunch, the group reconvened for the last debate of the course, focused on the proposition that “International treaties and conventions are effective tools in diminishing illegal trade in wildlife and wild plants and enhancing conservation.” Peiwen moderated this debate between Karen and Evelyn, arguing for and against, respectively. Some of Karen’s arguments for the proposition included that: 1.  CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), has been effective in reducing international trade in endangered species; 2. these agreements do take into account and even enhance economic development of nations; and 3. there is a desperate need for such accords as political borders have no relevance to wildlife. In opposition, Evelyn, among other points, indicated that agreements like CITES: 1. often do not benefit nations economically and can harm the environment through black market activities; 2. that some poorer countries can be ‘held hostage’ by larger , richer nations Both sides made interesting and effective arguments and once the floor was opened it was evident that there were many alternate viewpoints.

Following this last debate, we had some free time. Part of the class went for an enjoyable birdwatch locally. We wandered down the country road just outside the camp with bucolic country scenery. Once in while the group would make a seemingly random stop where everyone pulled out binoculars and cameras and started to flip through pages of a trustworthy Kenyan bird guide: this funny nerdy behaviour attracted much friendly attention from the local people. Obviously they are well acquainted with their avian friends, and we were just starting to learn. After 45 minutes we reached an open shrub field with waves of yellow flowers stretching along the horizon. Time for a group photo! Fearing the approaching clouds from afar with a diminishing sunlight, we headed back to the camp with a handful of birds on our ‘bird list’: oreo-like puffball is the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris), hopping tiny little bird ground with a fusion of pink and grey from belly to back goes to Red-billed firefinch. The list included another 7 species in just half an hour!

Others stayed back and played some football (soccer) with some new friends [see gallery photo below]. One of the boys, Java, who was about 8 years old and loved Neymar, accidentally kicked the ball at Joaquin’s face pushing his glasses against his nose, resulting in a small cut. Luckily, Zoe was around to help take care of the wound. Nestor and Joaquin continued playing with the three boys for a few hours until the rest of the group returned from their lovely birdwalk.

At night Davin, Zoe, Karen and Joaquin had the opportunity to speak with a new local friend, Maurice. He let us know about some of the issues that the local communities confront. He told us about some of the traditional customs in Kenya which he strongly disagreed with, mostly pertaining to rituals of achieving manhood and FGM. He also mentioned a few political issues, discussing the large socioeconomic disparity that still exists in Kenya. He then shared his perspective on the need for greater inclusion of local communities and accessibility to wildlife for many Kenyans and even talked about some of the local issues regarding wildlife-human conflict, specifically pertaining to baboon attacks and some other monkeys in the region.

All things considered, this was a much more relaxed and restful day then the others, but it was still filled with much fun and many educational opportunities.

Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions of these photos.

Immature red-backed shrike

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