Friday, July 25, 2008

The Most Beautiful Animals, and an Incredible Opportunity

from Sunday, June 29, 2008
Day 5
Breakfast at 6:30 am as usual (this would get progressively later by the end of the trip, when we were more tired...). After eating our fill of fresh mangoes and burnt toast (and the daily morning fight for the butter...I stuck with the peanut butter), we went out to study the time ungulates spend foraging versus being vigilant. On the way out, we once again saw hyenas getting some last scraps of dead giraffe. One hyena ran off into the bush carrying the entire giraffe head in its jaws...that was the last we saw of the skull.

We used two different methods, each one in each vehicle. However, due to some severe lack of foresight, we realized just a little too late that we had never completely agreed on methods. As a result, the students in each van conducted the study in a slightly different manner. We would later have a very, um, fun time combining data! Despite our issues, it was pretty exciting to study the behavior of such distinctly African mammals.

vigilant gazelles

After dinner we went out for another night drive. I was nervous on the way out, as we had seen many elephants along the road to camp earlier. I forgot about the elephants though, when we spotted the leopard on the airstrip again! We actually had two leopard sightings this night, but some thought the first one looked a lot smaller, maybe another individual. We saw hyenas still tearing away at the giraffe carcass.

However, the highlight of the night was seeing an AARDVARK! These animals are tough to see; my Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals says, "The Aardvark is a shy nocturnal animal and rarely seen." To be more exact, I should say this was the highlight for those of us in Dustin's van. Irby's van did not see the aardvark, to Irby's great dismay. The aardvark would henceforth be called the "damn aardvark."

from Monday, June 30, 2008
Day 6
Went on a bird walk around camp in the morning. It was already 7am though, and was getting to be a little to late for some birds so we didn't see a whole lot. Saw a black crake, which is a cool little wading bird, and some brown babblers. Next we did a marathon paper discussion, getting through four or so of our reading topics in a row before lunch. After lunch, it was time for more work writing and revising our project papers.

Dinner consisted of delicious chapatis (testimony to the Indian influence on East Africa). After dinner, we ate s'mores by the campfire ring and learned Swahili from some of the camp staff, Simon and Grace (Kenya students), and Callistus, our guide. I talked to Collistus for a while about the smallest Kenyan tribe, who come from the village of El Molo. They once lived on an island in Lake Turkana, until the British bombed it. They eat mostly fish and drink water from the lake, which causes them to develop health problems such as blindness. I found some nice photography here.

Funny highlight of the day: Jamie (Irby's son) wore his clothes backwards, ALL DAY, and often walked backwards. It must have greatly confused the camp staff...

Also, right near my tent I saw saw a little pair of eyes that turned out to belong to a Genet, a small feline-like carnivore.

from Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Day 7
July! Hard to believe how fast time passes sometimes. Gita and I noticed how out of touch we felt with the outside world. Some people were discussing the presidential campaign today, and we realized how little we'd thought about it. In contrast, every Kenyan is following every twist in the campaign. Because his father is Kenyan, Barack Obama has an intense national following. In hindsight, I think if we had brought some Vote for Obama! paraphernalia, we could have bought many more souvenirs than with Kenyan shillings alone. It was pretty humbling to realize how much the Kenyans knew and cared about our political system and the candidates. As Americans, (and I speak only in general terms), we tend to not care as much as we should about our government. Grace told me how tense it had been in the final Hillary vs Obama moments.

In the morning, we drove around on some black cotton soil, which is a specific ecosystem that forms on patches of the volcanic, dark blackish, ashy soil. The environment looks much different from surrounding areas, as there is very low plant diversity - just some tall grass and Acacia drepanolobium trees. These little trees are unique, as they form swollen thorns to house a few species of Acacia ants. These ants are the reason Ben came back to Kenya; he is collecting them in order to study their social structure.

It is dry and cracked here, but black cotton soil turns into quicksand when it rains.

Acacia ants (here, Crematogaster mimosae; its abbreviated name: red-red-black, or RRB) on a swollen thorn.

There are also many glades, which are open areas where there are no trees and short grass. These glades form from abandoned cattle bomas. A boma is type of temporary corral for livestock which the Maasai people have used for thousands of years. Ranchers build bomas out of thick walls made from spiny Acacia tree branches. During the day, they herd cattle across the landscape to graze. At night, they direct the cattle into the boma so they will be safe from predators. Manure gets concentrated in the bomas, as all the nitrogen and phosporus from surrounding areas gets dumped in one spot. Herdsman move the bomas every several months to a year. In the years after they abandon a boma, nutritious short grass colonizes the area. Small gazelles and other vulnerable species like to gather in such glades to forage and to find protection from predators, as the short grass makes it difficult for predators to sneak up on them.

Giraffe among Acacia drepanolobium trees

After lunch, we were sitting in the classroom writing papers and sulking, when Dustin walked in and declared that we could "sit in here and work on reports until dinner, or we could go look at a pack of wild dogs and their pups!" I don't think we could have moved any faster, even if there had been an elephant charging straight at us. We all ran to the door expecting them to be right outside. Turned out there was no rush; a woman studying the African wild dogs had directed Dustin to their den. We got in the vans with some radio tracking equipment, just in case we couldn't find them (a couple of the dogs had radio collars). The den was a short drive away from the Centre, just up the hill from our camp. It felt a little bit like cheating to have someone tell us where to see the animals, but it was still amazing to see them. Before arriving in Kenya, I had decided the two animals which I most wanted to see were: 1. cheetah, 2. wild dog. Check off number two!

What stunning animals. I was surprised to see how dark the dogs were; apparently in the Laikipia region in East Africa they tend to have darker coloration than the dogs most often photographed in South Africa. They were still wonderfully splotchy. I think their scientific name is beautiful and fitting: Lycaon pictus, or painted wolf. They are only distantly related to actual dogs.

The dogs were spooked at first, but then calmed down and went back to their afternoon snooze. We stayed and watched them from the vans for a long time, maybe an hour. Collectively, we may have shot a thousand pictures. We were supposed to give the best side shots to the researcher, who will use them to help identify the unique coat patterns of each individual. It was neat to watch them behave similar to pet dogs - they rolled around, curled up to sleep, and licked each other. They do not bark though, but do make some high pitched noises and yelps.

notice the radio collar on this one...

We were all pretty speechless afterwards. It was definitely a unique experience to have the opportunity to observe such an endangered animal in its natural habitat.

Nothing else seemed too exciting for the rest of the night; I was still riding high from seeing the dogs. However, the one thing that jeopardized my happiness is when I thought I was going to get eaten on the way to the latrine. I heard an animal jump out of the bushes behind me and I froze, only to whip my head around and find out it was just a stupid hare. What a wimp!

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Hi Jessica,
Your photos are fantastic! I'm currently doing a degree in animal conservation science and I'm preparing a presentation for an assignment on wild dogs. I was wondering if you could send me your picture of the wild dog with the collar on please? The quality isn't very good when I copy it from the blog. It won't be used in anything official and if you want to put a "copyright" logo on with your name then thats fine! I'd really appreciate it if you could! My email address if Thanks for your time, Rachel