Today on our way to work, we saw something pretty wild. Two male giraffes were walking on either side of a rhino fence. One decided to cross at one of the gaps in the fence. It took several awkward steps through the posts and across the rocks. Meantime, the other giraffe came closer to meet it. Then it reared up to face its adversary.
The first giraffe — the one crossing the fence — then also reared up and struck the second giraffe, which literally went over backwards, neck first. It landed very awkwardly and then lay totally still.
By coincidence, in the car with us was the retired Head Vet from the Denver Zoo, Dave Kenney, who now does conservation vet work with the zoo. We stopped and got out to look at the prone giraffe, assuming he was probably dead or unconcious. We were just approaching the giraffe — who had still not moved at all — when suddenly the giraffe sprang up and leapt away, leaving a small pool of blood on the ground where his head had been.
Most likely the giraffe was knocked unconsious in the fall and we happened to be right there when he woke up. It was a good thing Dave was NOT inspecting the giraffe for injuries as he had planned to do, right at that moment!
How does one use photos to "monitor" Grevy’s anyhow? Our field assistant, Hussein, regularly conducts surveys for zebra and livestock on Mpala. Over the course of three days, he covers as much of the ranch’s 48,000 acres as possible by driving a standardized network of roads and tracks.
Along the route, each time he encounters a group of Grevy’s, he attempts to
photograph every individual:
This is a simple task when he encounters a lone territorial male, but can become quite difficult when he stumbles upon a tightly spaced group of 20+ females and their young! He records the number of animals seen, as well as the group structure. We therefore know how many males (territorial or bachelor), females (pregnant, lactacting, or non-lactating), juveniles, and foals of different age categories there were. See for yourself how hard it can be to get a photo (and data) for every member of a group!
This isn’t the only data he collects, however. Each of these sightings is associated with a location, weather conditions, vegetation characteristics, and what the group was busy doing when they were first sighted. This teaches us about the Grevy’s habitat preferences and behavior.
All of this same habitat information is recorded for plains zebra and livestock (cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys) as well. Not only can we use this information to make comparisons across species, but we can see how Grevy’s interact with other competing grazers.
You have probably heard a lot about GPS collars and how they can be used to track the whereabouts of critters like Grevy’s zebra (you may recall that we adorned five lucky Grevy’s with GPS collars here on Mpala last June). But these collars are not the only means we have for seeing where animals go and who they hang out with.
Using photo identification software, we can recognize individual zebra from our collection of photos that date back to 2002. Just as a human fingerprint is a unique identifier, zebra stripes patterns are one-of-a-kind and can be recognized by a computer. The photos are stored in a database and ‘matched’ against any new pictures. That way we can tell whether we have a new photo of a zebra or if we’ve encountered one of our Mpala regulars.
Most of these zebra have been ‘captured’ by Hussein Mohamed, our field assistant, during his census loops covering the whole of Mpala. At the moment we have only combed through photographs taken here. However, we are hoping to soon expand the database to include photos taken in other areas, which ought to give us some idea of the larger scale movements of these awesome creatures at a fraction of the cost of a GPS collar.
While we are using this data mostly to investigate zebra movement, habitat preference and demographics, there are some fun consequences of having photographic series spanning multiple years. For example, we have been able to watch this male grow up. He was first seen on Mpala in 2004 as a fuzzy foal:
He was last seen in November 2009 as a fully grown bachelor. Perhaps we’ll see him acquire his own territory sometime in the near future.
Siva is still in the north, most recently in an area called Hurri Hills near the Ethiopian border. The trip is going well so far and he should be back next week.
Meantime, we wanted to introduce you to one of the important members of the Laikipia Grevy’s Zebra Project, Vicky Zero.
Vicky first came to Kenya in January 2009 (having mostly worked on lizards and fish, before then), working for another project based at Mpala that is studying parasites and disease in Grant’s gazelles. Starting in March, Vicky began working part time for Siva, looking at parasites in Grevy’s dung (see some of our earlier posts about this). She began working full-time on the Grevy’s project in August and has been helping with parasite and genetics work, Grevy’s censuses, as well as data and database management. She is a great member of the team and a real asset to the project!
Vicky is going to be writing more about her work, particularly the zebra photo-ID database she has been working with, over several posts, so check back soon to hear more!
I spoke to Siva on the phone yesterday and they were in the town of North Horr, east of Lake Turkana. Their trip seems to be going well so far. They found a few zebras a couple of days ago — although I didn’t hear where exactly. I’ll keep you posted when I hear anything more about their progress!
Today I’m heading off to northern Kenya on “the big trip” several colleagues and I have been planning for almost two years now.
The purpose of the trip is to look for remnant populations of Grevy’s zebra in the vast area of northern Kenya. Historically, this area was the heart of the Grevy’s range. Now, Grevy’s are found almost exclusively in the far southern part of their former range, in Samburu and Laikipia districts. (Interestingly, Grevy’s were never found in Laikipia until a few decades ago; now, Laikipia – where I do most of my work – is home to more than a third of the remaining Grevy’s).
The area north of Laikipia and stretching on up to the border with Ethiopia is a huge, arid terrain with very little infrastructure. It is in many ways the “Wild West” of Kenya – where livestock rustling and banditry still prevail. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be traveling up through the “frontier” town of Laisamis, continuing north along the eastern edge of Lake Turkana, then northeast to the Ethiopian border, down to the Chalbi Desert, and back down to Samburu and Laikipia through Marsabit. See the map below prepared by my colleagues Guy and Zeke from Marwell Wildlife:
Based on past surveys and anecdotal information, we only expect there to be a few hundred Grevy’s left in this large area. We know little about Grevy’s in this area because of its remoteness and poor infrastructure. During the trip, we’ll be looking for zebras and trying to figure out what steps might be taken to save them. We’ll be interviewing local people to learn where they may have seen Grevy’s (and any other wildlife), what they know about Grevy’s conservation status, and what threats there might be to Grevy’s in those areas.
With this information, we hope to identify areas where conservation projects and investment might help to save – and ideally rehabilitate – remnant Grevy’s populations.
I’ll be traveling along with a group of close collaborators from Grevy’s Zebra Trust and Marwell Wildlife. We’ll be a total of 13 people in three Land Cruisers. We’ll have to take all our fuel and provisions for the whole trip, finding water along the way wherever we can. We’ll have a satellite phone for emergency communications, but I won’t be able to post anything to the blog until I come back. Corinna will be posting some updates.
I’ll ook forward to telling you about the trip when I get back in late February!
We were lucky enough to get a clear view of the annular eclipse over Kenya this morning. The morning dawned sunny and bright, but by 7:30 AM the sun was becoming strangely less powerful than usual… It never got fully dark and the birds didn’t stop singing; the little ring of sunlight left at 8:30 was enough to keep the day bright, about as bright as it usually is just after sunrise.
One of the most mesmerizing things about the eclipse was the way it affected the shadows around us. Trees next to the house were transformed into a series of hoops and circles on the ground and walls. It was a very unusual and beautiful way to start the day!
It’s not just wildlife that sprout up out of nowhere, after it rains!
The other morning I took my camera along on my early morning dog-walk. Here are some of the colorful flowers I saw along the way…
This is the one we callt he "tissue paper flower" because from far away it looks like discarded tissue, but up close it is quite pretty:
A delicate little violet:
Thanks to everybody who expressed an interest in the monitoring manual! The "ready to use" Version 2 will be available by the end of February. If you want me to send you a PDF copy when that’s ready, send me an e-mail ([email protected]) and I will add you to my list of people to send Version 2 to.
In December, we were happy to release Draft Version 1 of Monitoring Rangeland Health — a simple guide to monitoring rangelands in the Horn of Africa region.
This manual has been my (Corinna’s) main project over the last few months, with Siva also contributing substantially to it. As some of you remember, we traveled around quite a bit last year doing background research for this project. All our efforts finally came together at the end of 2009, when we unveiled the "final first draft" of this manual.
In December we held several workshops and lots of meetings, both in Kenya and in Ethiopia, getting feedback on the manual. We were joined by our collaborator from the US Department of Agriculture, Jeff Herrick. Jeff has spent the last 10 years working on issues of monitoring in the western US. We tend to think that, together, we’ve written a manual that is scientifically sound, yet simple and easy to use.
Fortunately, other people seem to agree! In the workshops, we found that workshop participants were quick to pick up the simple methods for monitoring changes in land health. This group in Ethiopia actually seemed to be having fun practicing the methods!
We got so much good feedback and positive support for the project that we’re already busy working on Version 2 — which will be ready for wider distribution and — hopefully — adoption in April.
What’s actually involved in monitoring rangeland health? More about that another time!