Category Archives: News

Solar eclipse

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!

A Tower of Giraffes

One of the magical things about this place is how many animals appear when it greens up like this. It’s as if they’ve been in hiding (where?) during the whole drought and have suddenly come out. On a regular basis we’re seeing big groups of zebras and elephants (one just trumpeted as I was writing this). The other day we drove through a huge mixed herd of impalas, waterbuck and giraffes.

Yesterday, as we were driving home, we came across a group of about 50 giraffes browsing on this hillside. See how many you can count in these two photos (and there were more!). Amazing, to see so many long necks peeking out among the acacias…

I think it’s funny and fitting that a group of giraffes is called a "tower." This certainly was a big heap of long creatures.

Respite from drought

Happy new year! 2010 has started well so far in Laikipia. We can’t yet say that the drought, which has now stretched on for more than a year, is fully over — but there has been a bit of respite, at least. It has been raining every day since just before Christmas. The grass is green and growing, and the rivers are roaring now. Take the case of  the little Nanyuki River that flows by our house: in April it was reduced to a few, tiny, slimy pools of water. Now it is full, the water fast and white as it rushes past:

We hope this rainy spell provides a bit of relief to all the hungry wildlife, livestock, and people.

Meantime in Kenya

Meantime back home in Laikipia, the drought that has been going on for nearly a year has finally broken – somewhat.

Up until the middle of October it had still hardly rained at all – just a few scattered showers. The humanitarian crisis and extreme livestock death rates have been in the international news quite a bit, lately. Back in Laikipia, we started to notice that wildlife, too, were dying. Many animals were rib-skinny, with new carcasses showing up daily. Usually in a drought like this, big animals like buffalo and eland are some of the hardest hit. Our friend Heather Larkin found this skinny eland along the (dry) Ewaso Nyiro River.

Plains zebras are pretty tough. How have the Grevy’s been faring? We didn’t hear any reports of Grevy’s dying from drought directly, but there have been some lion kills, and it’s quite possible that Grevy’s become more susceptible to predation when they are weak from a drought like this.

The first rains bathed Laikipia in mid-October, bringing relief, hope, flying termites, and a few shoots of green grass. Since then it has been raining sporadically, perhaps less than hoped for but a start, nonetheless. With at least a month still to go in the rainy season, we can hope that more rain will bring green grass and health back to the region.

Back from Ethiopia!

We’re back after a great trip to Ethiopia! We didn’t have any time or internet access to post updates during our trip, but over the next week or so, we’ll post a number of blog entries about our travels and work there.

The trip’s purpose was to work on our rangeland monitoring manual – expanding the scope to include Ethiopian rangelands as well as Kenyan rangelands. We were there to learn about the landscape, the management issues and activities going on there, and to network with organizations in Ethiopia which might find our manual useful.

All in all, it was a very successful and enjoyable trip. We hope you’ll enjoy reading about it!

Off to Ethiopia

We’re off to Ethiopia tomorrow to meet with various NGOs and communities as part of the rangeland monitoring manual we’re trying to put together. We’ll be there for 10 days in various parts of the country. Internet will be sporadic but we’ll try to post some updates when we can!

Fun with cameras

Hi everybody, sorry we’ve been offline lately. They installed a new internet system at the research centre, and we can’t post to the blog. Until they resolve this glitch, we’ll have to post when we can get an internet connection somewhere else. Sorry!

Some news: I’ve recently been setting up a bunch of camera traps for one of my projects. Camera traps are great for "catching" wildlife on film! For my research, I’m deploying them inside an experiment I’ve got. The experiment is designed to test the effects of tree density on wildlife, grasses, and the trees themselves. Why should we care about tree density? Well, overgrazing (usually by cattle) tends to "make trees" — that is, overgrazed areas tend to get taken over by trees, instead of grasses. This is a huge issue not just in Kenya, but in savannas and grasslands all over the world!

In any case, before putting out the camera traps in my experiment, I tested them out in a friend’s yard, since she said she was getting a lot of visitors. We saw an amazing number of different animals just outside her house. Here are a few of my favorites. Hopefully we’ll get some good ones in the experiment, too! (good data, that is, in addition to fun photos).

Enjoy!

-Corinna

A curious vervet monkey:

A hungry hyena:

An eland’s elegant leg:

Two dikdik reacting to something (what?):

Holy spines, a porcupine!

White-tailed mongoose stretching:

Collar me beautiful

Last month, between the 12th and 18th, we successfully collared 11 zebras. Five were Grevy’s and six were plains zebras. Last time we collared zebras, almost exactly two years ago, we had a hard time catching plains zebras, but this time, strangely, they were quite easy to capture. Maybe this was because the vet was able to shoot the tranquilizer dart from further away, or maybe we were just luckier this time.

In any case, the whole round of collaring went very smoothly. We didn’t even have to go very far, because there were plenty of zebras on the Mpala property. By now, though, many of those zebras have dispersed to neighboring properties – which is good, because it will tell us where they’ve gone and how far and wide an animal travels looking for food and water.

Typically, the collaring process goes like this: Once we’ve found a group of zebras, we pick the one we want to collar (any female, for Grevy’s zebras, since we’re more interested in their movements). Then the vet aims and shoots a tranquilizer dart (see the pink fluff on its end as it moves through the air).

 With a little luck, the dart hits the zebra, preferably in the rump or shoulder.

After 4-6 minutes, the zebra goes down. We immediately go to it and ensure that it’s gone down in a good position (flat on its side, and not in any thorn bushes). Then we start monitoring it – its body temperature, blood oxygen concentration, breathing and heart rate.

 If the zebra is getting hot, we pour some water on her so that she can cool down (the sedatives can interfere with her body’s natural temperature regulation).

As we are monitoring her, we are also doing all the other tasks: putting the collar on, taking a blood sample, taking a tissue sample, examining her teeth, and collecting some ticks from her (more on this later). By examining the teeth, we can learn approximately how old she is.

Once we have finished all of these tasks, the vet gives her a reverser drug. Within a minute or two, she gets up, takes a few wobbly steps, and runs off.

One interesting thing I noticed during the collaring is that plains zebras always seem to bray when they wake up from the tranquilizer. “Whoop-whoop, whoop-whoop,” they shout to their companions. This lets them find their harem quickly and rejoin the group.

Once, when a female woke up and brayed, the stallion came running over to retrieve her; it seemed like he was just as relieved as she was! See here how he comes to get her and herds her back to the rest of the harem.

The Grevy’s, in contrast, don’t seem to be so anxious about rejoining their group. It’s interesting because it’s exactly what you would expect, given that plains zebras have such a tight social structure while Grevy’s don’t.

The collars will store the GPS location of each zebra every hour, so that we can track where they zebra has gone and how much time it has spent in different areas. We also set the collars to collect more fine-grain data (GPS coordinates every 15 minutes) for three days of each month. Why did we do this? The fine-grain data will allow us to ask more subtle questions, like how much time do zebras appear to spend grazing (in one area) and when do they walk quickly to cover a lot of distance in a short time. For example, it might be that zebras move quickly through inhabited areas during the day to avoid people and cattle, but they might graze in those same areas during the night.

Some more technical specs: of the eleven collars we put out on zebras, ten were made by a Swedish company, while one was made locally (assembled from various parts made in Europe). We are testing the locally-made collar on one zebra and several lions (including the one I helped Alayne collar in March). If these collars work well, we’ll put out a bunch more on lions in this area. This will let us see how zebras move to avoid being eaten by lions, or what kind of habitat brings zebras and lions close together.

-Siva

Black water river

On Saturday afternoon, we went down to the river in front of our house and noticed something very strange: it was black!

Lately the river water has been various shades of brown — full of silt and soil from upstream areas where rain has caused some erosion. But black? That didn’t seem normal at all.

On closer inspection, we realized what it was: lots and lots of tiny, charred particles. Back in late March, there were fires burning on Mount Kenya for about a week. We can only guess that it has finally rained in the burned areas — washing lots of ash and charred material into the river. It must have been a very heavy rainfall. Sadly, this means a lot of the nutrients released by the fire have now been washed into the river. We do hope the vegetation will recover, nonetheless!

On another note entirely, we are leaving tomorrow for our tour of various parts of Kenya, doing background research for our rangeland monitoring manual project. We will be in southern Kenya until next Monday and then in northern Kenya for a couple of days. Our internet connection will be sporadic, but we’ll try to post some updates when we can!

-Corinna & Siva

Rain!

Yesterday evening I came home to some exciting news: it had rained! I had watched the storm coming off Mount Kenya in the afternoon and had felt confident it would make it all the way up to the Research Centre, but it never did get there. As I drove home (towards the mountain; home is 12 km south of the Research Centre) I saw that the rain had made it to about 1 km north of home. North of there it was dry as a bone. South of there, the road was fresh, soft, gently muddy — as if I’d entered a different world.

But rain! What a wonderful thing! Within hours, the whole feeling of the place changes — and not just the squelchy feeling of mud under your feet! There is something truly magical about the first proper rain of the season. The flying termites and flying ants come out in droves, setting off to try to start new colonies. They bumble awkwardly through the sky, as if drunk off the rain itself. The birds go crazy, stuffing their hungry mouths with bumbling bugs until twilight. The earth emits a rich, damp smell. You can almost feel the grass starting to grow (within days it will be green). And in the morning — dew! — wet feet on the morning dog walk — things I had forgotten about in the months of dry.

Today a small shower followed up on yesterday, and we can only hope that this heralds the start of the rainy season (a month late, but better than never).

-Corinna