Thursday, June 26, 2008

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Giraffe Center

We had a few extra hours in Nairobi and decided to check out the Giraffe Center. It was quite an experience.

The Giraffe (Twiga in Swahili) Center is located a little bit out of Nairobi. There are about a dozen Rothschild Giraffes in the center. Rothschild Giraffes are endangered ( We could also see about 6 warthogs but the guides told us that there are not supposed to be any warthogs at the center. The warthogs escaped from the Nairobi National Park and hang out with the Giraffes to eat the food pellets the Giraffes don't eat.

Beth and Amanda feeding one of the older female giraffes.

Yep....I was peer pressured into letting the giraffe kiss me too! Turns out, the giraffe saliva has wonderful anti-bacterial properties to it. The guide was telling us that the giraffe can easily eat from the thorny Acacia tree because the saliva protects the tongue from infection caused by any cuts or abrasions.

In this picture you can see a warthog hanging out under the giraffe to quickly collect any food pellets the giraffe misses.

This is the old estate of the Giraffe Center founders. It is currently a hotel...with rooms costing over $500 per night.

One picture....

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Mau Swamp

We were able to visit the Mau Swamp a few days ago. Here is one of the critters we found hanging out in the grasses surrounding the swamp.

This guy was amazing cool. We identified him as a Von Hohnel's Chameleon. Here is some more information on him:

Check this page of a few of the herps we've found and their locations on a map of East Africa:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Wildebeest Migration Has Begun!

Well, I guess the Maasai Warrior who called Amanda the other day to tell her that the Migration has begun...was right. We were driving to one of the sites near the Maasai Mara when a bunch of Wildebeest were running across the road. There was probably only about 100 or so...but this is only the beginning of the migration.

Look at the "older" Wildebeest in the bottom right of this picture. He was corralling the other Wildebeest and pushing them hard.

That same "older" Wildebeest is now in the bottom right of this picture. He was dictating the speed of the entire herd by pushing the younger ones along.
Here is a pretty little frog we captured at one of the sites yesterday. We are still working on positively identifying him. The problem is that the species that we "keyed" him out to is not suppossed to be present in this locality.

Here is a picture of the same frog species expect in the stage between tadpole and frog. Notice his long tail!

Amanda and some of the Maasai women and children that helped her collect some bugs. The Maasai women and children were down at the stream doing laundry and collecting water. Every time they see us at the stream they become very curious and end up watching everything she does very closely. This group helped her collect quite a few bugs from the stream.

Here is Amanda showing a frog to one of the Maasai boys that happened to be herding goats near one of the streams we visited. As the goats were drinking from the stream, he began to help Amanda collect bugs using a little strainer.

This is an example of the views we see on a daily basis.

Here is a picture of one of the Aloe plants present in Kenya.

We're currently staying in Nakuru and just ate dinner at an amazing Chinese restuarant. We'll be headed back out to the field tomorrow and then down to Nairobi for a few days of business.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to Take a Water Sample from a Hippo-Infested River

Yes, this is a question I have been asking myself since I first saw that Mara River, exactly, does one take a water sample from a river full of crocodiles and hippos?

Here's my first view of the Mara River. You can see the hippos to my right, welcoming me.

This is a hippo skull, with a crocodile skull in the background, that rested at one of the main gates to the park. I have been warned about hippos since I first started thinking about Africa. They are considered one of the most dangerous wildlife over here because they are easily frightened, and woe to the person who comes between them and their escape into water. Also, you can see here how menacing their teeth are, even though they are really just big, lazy plant eaters. Crocodiles are another danger, as they can be practically invisible as they stay underwater for long periods of time.

So, I kept thinking to myself, exactly how am I supposed to get this hippo to agree to let me take a water sample here?

Well, as it turns out, hippos and crocs are like most other wildlife in the sense that they are generally much more afraid of people than we are of them, and they are more than willing to move out of your way. You can see above the hippo watching me test the water, and then deciding he didn't want too much to do with me.

Fortunately, we were accompanied on our sampling by the wildlife vet for the Kenya Wildlife Service, who taught us a few basic rules for safe river work:

1) Wait and watch for a while to see who already lays claim to the area. Neither hippos nor crocs can hold their breath forever. Generally, if you approach slowly and watch carefully, you can tell what animals are hanging around.

2) Respect their boundaries. If someone doesn't move out of the way, or there are more of them than you are of you, just go somewhere else.

3) Don't set yourself up for failure. Only get close to the water in areas where the bottom is fairly clear and shallow, and you can see anything that may be approaching. Keep your eyes open, and have others watch out for you, too. And don't linger too long right at the water's edge.

4) Be willing to accept no for an answer. No data is worth risking your life, so if an area is just too full of wildlife, or you don't think a situation is safe, just don't take a sample.

Can you find the hippos in this picture? They are the two black marks in the water just beyond the whitecaps.

Hippos generally like to hang out in groups, so it's usually pretty easy to spot them. Oh yeah, and they are 3.4-4.2 m long and weigh 1,000-2,000 kg, so they're pretty hard to miss!

Watching for tracks along the bank, like these hippo tracks above, also gives you clues about who lives in the area.

Hippos are actually very charming animals, and all of the ones we met this last week were pretty accomodating to our visit into their home. Any place you work, you have to remember to give appropriate boundaries to the critters who live there, and Africa is no different... the reminders are just bigger! That said, I think we will still work on rigging up a sample bottle on a long stick... just to be safe!


This is what Amanda does in her spare time...when she is not reading water resource publications, participating in research, writing scholarly articles or planning conferences.

More Pictures From the Maasai Mara

You'll notice that most of our pictures are embedded with GPS data. We're embedding all of our pictures that so we can track the locations that we've spotted different types of wildlife. For instance, we've found several reptiles that may be out of their normal ranges so this enables us to document the exact location they've been discovered to document their range extension. We're doing this using a Trackstick (I purchased two several years ago for use overseas and they've recently updated their software to allow the embedding of photos) to record our locations and then correlating that with our pictures by the time embedded in the Trackstick records and the time embedded in the photos.

Here is a Vervet Green Monkey. We've seen two different groups of these monkeys spread throughout the Maasai Mara. They are quite curious and will watch us as we work or travel through an area. Occasionally, one or two will approach us but they will not any closer than about 6 feet.

We've also seen Savannah Baboons in several places throughout the reserve. They always run and hide if they see us. We understand they can be quite mean and exceptionally smart.

This is a Secretary Bird. He is quite the ferocious snake eater.

Herds of Zebra and other ungulates cover the reserve.

Terrorists, Maasai, Cows and the Buffalo.

A few tidbits:
  • We visited a traditional Maasai Manyatta last week. Here is part of their dance that they did to greet us. Funny....just before we left, one of the Maasai Warriors whipped out his cell phone and exchanged numbers with Amanda. That same warrior just called us yesterday and informed us that the Wildebeest migration has started.

  • The University of Nairobi has a basketball team. They are known as the Nairobi "Terrorists". I'm told that they've had that name way before all this terrorism business started up.

  • During our visit to the Maasai Manyatta, Amanda asked one of the warriors about their cultural beliefs. The Maasai believe that they descended down from heaven with their cattle. Their cattle are very essential to their lifestyle...encompassing all aspects of life. The wild buffalo that roam the savannahs are seen as cattle that got lost from the herd.

  • The wild buffalo are huge. We saw this herd of wild buffalo approximately 100 yards from where we were staying. We talked with a few of the Kenyan Wildlife Service personnel and were advised to not go outside after dark. They also gave us a few pointers about dealing with wild animals...such as...if chased by a buffalo, run as fast as you can and get up a tree.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Finally....we have a moment to post some pictures. We've spent the last week or so out in the field.....5000 pictures later, here are some of the best.

Follow this link for some more of them...


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Out of the City, Into the Unknown

Well, we had quite a productive week in Nairobi, and by the end of it, my head was practically bursting with knowledge. Fortunately, we are now headed out into the field, to finally meet this beautiful river which has called me half way around the world, and I think some time spent with her should help the thoughts filter properly through my brain. But first, a short recap…

Sometime after I wrote last, we had a very lovely coffee date at the Muthaiga Country Club, an old “Out of Africa”-esque establishment built in the early 1900’s and just every bit as swanky as it sounds. In fact, Chris and I got in trouble there THREE TIMES, once for working on a computer in the study, once for using a cell phone near the lobby and once because members only are allowed! We certainly felt a bit out of our league. But we had a wonderful meeting with a colleague who has lived in Africa for forty years and had a wealth of information and ideas to share with us, including a generous offer to rent a car from him during our stay. If I thought I could make it out of Nairobi alive, I would have already snatched it up…but I have to say, I have been really missing my great old Toyota seeing all these hearty field vehicles around.

That afternoon we headed out of the city for another wonderful visit at Jomo Kenyatta University, a rather new school built in the 1980’s, but growing rapidly in terms of students, branches and research funding. We met with a young and enthusiastic professor there whose research on hydrology in the region holds great promise for people living there. Just seeing the beautiful and modern facilities, walking amongst the busy campus and talking with this bright, energetic researcher gave me great hope for Kenya’s future.

By Friday, we were pretty exhausted. I had one final meeting, albeit with my primary contact in the region, so I was excited and a bit nervous to meet this woman with whom I have been corresponding for around 8 months now. Fortunately, she was just as gracious and friendly and lovely as every other person we had met. She had a vivacious energy about her, and you could feel her deep love for the rivers of southeastern Africa as she talked. As we walked home, I felt just ready to collapse, when suddenly, I got an unexpected phone call. My submitted letter had made its way, remarkably quickly, to one of the highest ranking officials at the Ministry of Water, and he wanted to meet with me in person… NOW!

I rushed to his office, cramming on information and statistics about GLOWS on the way. I confessed to my driver that I was bit nervous about this meeting, but he gamely reminded me that he’s just a person like everyone else. I tried to remember that as I walked into the long, wood-paneled expanse of his office and sat in front of his desk. “So, what is all of this about?” he asked, flipping through a packet that seemed to have accidentally landed upon his desk. Well, basically, we wanted his support and his authority to continue working in the basin, and after some discussion, he willingly granted it, which was quite a relief to me. He then proceeded to question me about American politics… “So,” he said, looking at me across his imposing desk, “you look like a Hillary supporter.” I laughed, and countered with my support for his countryman and obvious favorite, Obama, and that led into a long and friendly banter. Guess he is just a person after all!

Well, despite the success of our city adventures, we were very ready to leave it all behind for the adventures in the field when our ride came this morning. Chris and I loaded into a minivan equipped for safaris, complete with a raise-up roof and padded seats and walls to ease the bumpiness of the road and, after an express shopping trip to sustain the team for a week of fieldwork, we were off!

We rolled out of town, windows open, cool air blowing across us, watching the city turn into markets into villages into farms into land, just land. Africa is beautiful, and it really is just as you picture it would be, from all the images you have seen your whole life… you just have to remind yourself you’re now watching it through a window and not a television screen. As we rolled on, we came up to what appeared to be some mountains in the distance and suddenly, we crested over an escarpment and there, rolling out below us, was the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cradle of humanity. And as I looked over her broad, flat plains, dotted by acacias and blanketed by green grass, surrounded by impressive walls and old volcanoes, I believed it. It felt like this landscape had seen the beginning of our human time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

We pulled over for pictures at one of the many curios shops hawking Maasai crafts, including leather shields, sheepskin rugs and hats, and red, plaid blankets, before winding our way down to her floor. As the land became flat, it also started to feel familiar to me. It is semi-arid shrub and grassland, and there are acacias and large tress that appear to be cacti. With the potholed road and the landscape, I began to have visions of Baja California, or the Gran Chaco in Boliva, these semi-equatorial regions I had visited and known before. I started to feel comfortable then, seeing the dirt and the grass and the trees and the birds, and thinking, this is all the same earth that I already know, that I have spent my life knowing. And then I saw my first Maasai shepherd, wrapped in bright red blankets and walking along with a staff, tending his cattle. And then I saw an antelope. And then I saw a herd of zebra. And then I thought, no, this is all new.

This afternoon, as shadows were getting long, we rolled into the very dusty, very eclectic little village of Narok. This feels like a true frontier town to me, absolutely crammed full of tiny little stalls with folks selling every thing imaginable. This is the central place where the Maasai come to sell their crops, and the stepping off point for safaris into the Maasai Mara. It is loud and animated and there is a mosque in the center, often ringing the Muslim call to prayer. There are also cows ambling along, seemingly on the own adventure into town, women braiding hair, Maasai women in their brightly colored wraps and beautiful beaded jewelry, men roasting corn and making shoes out of tires, lots of trash scattered everywhere and small winding roads and paths leading you around all kinds of hidden corners. It is what I imagine the frontier towns looked like back in the Wild West, with a bit of a different flavor. I love it.

Tomorrow we head into the Maasai Mara National Reserve to sample some sites along the Mara. We are fortunate to be able to stay in a field station inside the park, eliminating the need to pay several hundred dollars for a room at one of the several upscale tourist lodges in the area. Also, I just like field stations. They are what field work is supposed to include, cooking your own pasta with tasteless sauce, tired from a long day of work, going to bed in simple surroundings, awakening with the sun. I am completely thrilled to be headed out for some field work, and I just can’t believe I will be in such a remarkable place.

We may be out of touch during our stay there, but I look forward to sending out an update as soon as we return. We should have quite a bit of wildlife photos to share with you all then, as well as some interesting stories, I am sure. I wish I could bring you all with me, but I’ll try to bring a piece of it back to share…