Friday, August 30, 2013

Waiting in Aitong

Waiting in Aitong to purchase some fresh beef, which just arrived by wheelbarrow.

Land Rover Laboratory

Spending the morning processing water samples at our mobile laboratory, over a cappuccino of course!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Get a Liter of Water...

This afternoon, we went out to collect a sample of river water from one of our sites. This was a fairly simple task we were fitting in at the end of a long day, and we expected it to take about 30 minutes. At this site, there is a small track you can drive down, but at some point, you have to park and walk several hundred meters through the bush. We were fortunate to be escorted by a Mara Conservancy ranger named Julius, who is an excellent ranger with whom we have worked before.

As we were walking through the fairly open shrubland, Geemi and Julius suddenly stopped and crouched down. Feeling blind to whatever was in front of us, I stopped and crouched down, too, waiting for an explanation. Julius had spotted a hippo wallowing in a small, mud pit about 75 m ahead of us. I have no idea how he saw this, as I couldn't see the hippo even after it was pointed out to me! These rangers aren't just invaluable because they're armed-- they also have amazing eyesight and an incredible sense of wildlife and the bush.

Hippos are the most dangerous when they're on land, and you get between them and the water, which is exactly where we were heading. I was ready to turn around and call it quits for the day, but Julius strategically threw a branch just towards where the hippo was basking. It was just enough to startle the hippo without hitting it, but the hippo stood up a bit angry and confused, and we held our breaths as we waited to see which way it would run. Fortunately, he headed away from the direction the branch had come from; however, he only went about 20 m before stopping. A bit hesitantly following Julius's lead, we continued to follow up from behind, with Julius throwing branches at strategic intervals, and the hippo gradually moving along, until he finally returned back to the river.

This was about 5:30, so all the hippos are in the river and a bit alert at this time, as it's right before they come out to feed for the night. Hippos are notoriously territorial, and we could hear the ripple effect of this lone hippo returning to the river through the calls and grunts of other hippo groups up and down the river. As we headed to our normal river entry point, which follows a hippo trail down the 7 m tall riverbank, all the hippos were now spread out evenly between access points, and all the males seemed a bit flustered and argumentative. Just standing on the bank, they were bluff charging us, snorting, diving and re-surfacing, and generally acting very unwelcoming.

Again, I was ready to turn back for the car, but Julius carefully walked along the bank, looking for a break in the ranks of hippos. Finding a spot safely nestled between two different family groups, he suggested we could safely approach the river there. Geemi and I went down, and he quickly took a water sample while I recorded readings from one of our water quality meters. Just as I was noting the final reading, Geemi said, "Amanda, a large hippo!" Suffice to say, that reading was unintelligible in my notebook. I jumped back and saw a large momma hippo surface about 15 m in front of us with the smallest baby hippo I have ever seen. Mothers and their babies will often go a bit away from the family group to protect their young ones from larger, dominant males, and we had unintentionally disrupted this mother's nursery. I quickly re-wrote the last reading in better hand-writing, and we walked back up the bank to the higher and safer ground.

As we walked back towards the car, we were all on high alert after our close encounter with the wallowing hippo, but feeling a bit relaxed about being done with the river. We were about 100 m from the car, but still in dense shrubland, when I heard the sound of breaking branches, coming not just from a single point, but from a wide swath. I motioned to Julius, and he said unconvincingly, "It's just branches." But there was no wind blowing, and I had only heard this type of sound from one other thing... elephants.

Elephants will break branches as they are walking through a forest to feed on leaves at the tops of the trees, and maybe for other reasons I don't know, but this sound was coming quickly, like a large herd running towards us. Just as I was processing the possibility that a herd of elephants was running towards us, Geemi, who is normally a bit more calm about animal encounters than I am, said, "Animals!" with a sense of alarm I have never before heard in his voice, and took off running. I could see Julius had had the same realization, and had also taken off running, although a bit more strategically, watching the direction of the noise and holding his gun at the ready. All I could think was, "Stay close to Julius!," and I took off running too.

As I dodged through the bushland, I tried to think through our options... the car was too far to run to, and it was through a clearing. As highly as I think of Julius, I wasn't sure one armed ranger was going to stop a herd of elephants. To our left was a steep drop to the river full of unwelcoming hippos. We were surrounded by small, bushy trees that you could never climb, and were shorter than an elephant anyway. Who the hell gets trampled by a herd of elephants?

All of a sudden, Julius stopped running and seemed totally calm. "It's just wildebeest," he said. My heart was racing like a herd of elephants by that point. "Are you sure?", I asked, interested in more evidence that I no longer need to fear for my life. But he was sure, and even though I couldn't see or hear anything to support his claims, I knew he must be right. I'm telling you, these guys are good! We all had a little laugh about the "herd of elephants" scare, got in the car and drove out of the bush to a clearing where a small herd of wildebeest were milling around, looking just as startled by us as we had been by them.

Geemi placed our hard-won liter of river water in the cooler, looked over at me, and exercised the perfect use of a new English word I have been teaching him. "Epic?" he asked. "Epic!" I replied.

Hippo Breakfast

A Hippo, feeding on grass early one morning in our camp.

Testing one of our custom data loggers

It survived!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Roast Chicken

We've been on a kick lately...making roast chicken in our charcoal jiko.  I don't know how we ever lived in the bush before we got our Cookswell Jiko!  

And yes....we may post a bunch about food but we do water research too!  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Baby Season

It's baby season in the Mara.  Here is a video from our camp earlier this month of a baby Impala licking her mother.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How Many Bones are in the Mara River?

In both 2011 and 2012, approximately 8,000 wildebeest carcasses per year went into the river due to mass drowning events that occurred during river crossings. Thus far in 2013, we have already had about 2,300 carcasses go into the river, and we have about 2 months of the migration left. So what happens to all these carcasses and how do they affect the river ecosystem? A lot of our research is aimed at answering these questions.

Last year, to quantify how long it took a carcass to decompose in the river, we put different sections of the carcass (skin, muscle, intestine and bone) in small mesh bags, and measured the change in mass over a month period. By the end of the month, almost everything was gone... except the bones, which had lost only about 10% of their mass.

The skeleton makes up about 20% of a wildebeest carcass, which has an average mass of about 150 kg, so this is about 30 kg of bones per carcass. With 8,000 carcasses per year, that means there are about 240,000 kg of bones going into the river each year...and 90% is still remaining after one month?!

Because we will be in the field until May this year, we have the opportunity to measure bone decomposition over a longer period of time. This year, we made mesh bags of only bones we had retrieved from one of the carcasses in the river. Here is a picture of Paul Geemi, our field assistant who is helping me out while Chris is away in Tanzania, holding up part of our pretty bad smelling experiment.

We learned last year that if you just put mesh bags with carcass material in the river, the crocs and Nile monitors consider these little goody bags that they happily pluck off the string... hence the tough wire mesh cage we had welded in Narok to house our little bags. Here are Geemi and Charles, the Warden at Purungat Bridge who was our armed ranger for the day, with the highly scientific-looking unit we're about to install in the river.

I'm thinking we should take bets on how long it will take these bones to decompose. We put in sections of leg, rib, vertebrae and scapula, with two different mesh sizes-- one smaller mesh to only allow microbial decomposition, and one slightly larger mesh to allow aquatic insects and small fish. We will measure these bones each month until the end of April. I'm betting there will still be significant amounts of bone left after 8 months in the river. If this is true, think how many bones may be remaining in sections of the river where a lot of drownings have occurred! How long do you think it will take these bones to decompose?

Saturday, August 24, 2013


We are often stopped by tourists while we're out doing some of our sampling.  Last week, we met some nice folks from Texas and Amanda got an opportunity to tell them some about our research and why it is important.  

These tourists were just getting ready to return to the US, after having spent some time working at orphanages in Kenya.  

The Guardian Article

The Guardian has just published an article on some of the politics of the Mara.

The Masai Mara: 'It will not be long before it's gone' As lodges and shanty towns proliferate in Kenya's Masai Mara, drastic and urgent steps are needed to save this beautiful game reserve from becoming an environmental disaster

An interesting read....although I'm guessing Dickson was misquoted in the article...because the Mara never dried up in 2009.

Take a look...


We keep a bunch of Sugru in camp for fixing random things...including the Land Rover.  Last year, the plastic handle on top of our coffee making pot broke off.  Naturally, we fixed it with some Sugru.  The Sugru was working great...until a few nights ago, when some type of animal chewed it off.  I'm guessing it was a Serval Cat.  We've had a few Servals wandering around over the last few nights.

Servals are much less destructive than having lions in camp.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Morning coffee with hippos

We camped last night with some of our friends who are staying at one of the Mara Triangle private campsites. These are beautiful campsites located right on the Mara River. This morning, we enjoyed our coffee on the bank of the river while watching hippos bask in the rising sun.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Camp Day

After spending the last week visiting our field sites and getting our monitoring equipment up and running, we're taking a camp day today to do laundry and make bagels for the coming week.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mara - River of Death... and Life

Just this week, I returned to Kenya to join Chris at our field camp in the Mara. Last night, we sat on the "veranda" of our tent and watched a documentary called, "Mara - River of Death." (Unfortunately, you can't watch this from every country, but if you can watch it, you should check it out!)

This is a pretty spectacular documentary of the Mara River, and it does a great job of explaining the current state of the river and challenges it faces, while also just having a lot of amazing videography of all the wildlife the river sustains. This documentary was filmed by a fellow we met here in the Mara named Peter Glaub, a dedicated and passionate photographer and videographer who has spent many years here in the Mara.

This documentary also happens to be the same one my former boss, Michael McClain, sent me just before I moved to Kenya to start working on the Mara in 2008. I watched it at home alone in Texas, on the eve of this great new adventure, and I still clearly remember being filled with a combination of incredible awe and overwhelming panic. On one hand, the Mara is an incredible river that sustains "one of the world's last great ecosystems," and the opportunity to study this river and contribute to its conservation in some small way was a dream come true for me. On the other hand, I watched clip after clip after clip of mammoth crocodiles launching into the air to take down unsuspecting zebras, Thomson's gazelles and wildebeest, who surely had more natural instincts than me, whose only mistake was to come to the river for a drink. This was the river I was supposed to study? How do you study a river you can't even get into?

Six years later, I still feel a tremendous sense of awe in being able to work on the Mara River, and I still hold a tremendous amount of respect for the Nile crocodiles and hippos who truly call this river home. We have figured out how to work in this river in the safest manner possible, hiring armed rangers, using the same familiar sites, and taking a lot of time to study the river each time before cautiously entering only carefully selected areas. But today, as we worked at our most familiar study site at the Lower Mara Bridge, we watched a huge crocodile feasting on the body of a drowned wildebeest... in the place we normally get in the river to work.

It was a great reminder to hold onto those feelings I felt when I was first introduced to this river those six years ago-- the respect for the large wildlife in whose home I'm only a visitor, and the sense of awe and wonder at the opportunity to work here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Fuzzy Math

I meant to write about this earlier...because it is insightful into the Kenyan economy.

Kenya has the perfect economy...people pay what they are willing to pay for a service or item and the seller sells it for what they are willing to sell it to you for.  Everyone is happy.  It is a sliding scale...some people pay more...some less.  (disclaimer:  I'm not an economist).

Two weeks ago, I stopped in Narok to purchase two boxes of wine...a red and a white.  Boxed wine is an essential research supply because you never know when an unexpected guest will stop by your camp.  We may live in the bush and go for days without a decent shower...but we'll always greet you with a nice glass of wine if you stop by.  If you do stop may have to help process samples or perform some preventative maintenance on the truck...but you'll get a nice glass of wine.

In Narok, and most places in Kenya (except the large supermarkets like Nakumatt, Tusky's, and Naivas), there are no price tags on anything.  You negotiate the price.  You pay what you're willing to pay for the items and the seller sells them for what they are willing to sell them for.  That's why it is important to know what things cost and what your'e willing to buy it for.

I asked the seller, "how much for two boxes of wine, one red and one white."  She said, "6,000 shillings."  I knew that one box of good wine would cost between 2,000 and about 2,600.  I was willing to pay no more than 5,000 shillings.  But of course, I don't tell her this....and she doesn't tell me the lowest price she is willing to sell them for.

She was aiming high.  They always start off high...because some people will immediately agree to that.  But, I wasn't willing to pay that much because I couldn't afford it.

So, I shot low.  "I'll pay 3,000 shillings."  She laughs.  I laugh back.  I knew that it was ridiculous to think that I could buy two boxes of wine for 3,000 shillings...but you have to start low...but not too crazy.

She starts to tell me how expensive these boxes of wine are and how much it costs to bring them to Narok.  She says, "I can go no lower than 5,900 shillings."  She then converses in swahili with her colleague, some of which I understand.

Now...the fuzzy math comes in.  All shop keepers will have a handheld calculator.  Usually, one of those solar powered ones.  They will always punch numbers in make it seem like they are making legitimate calculations as to what the price should be. In reality, they are just trying to justify their elevated price to you by backing it up with a calculation.  Sometimes...this can work to your favor.

I told her that I always buy my wine in Nairobi for 2,000 a box and I would be willing to come up a little bit since this is Narok.  That wasn't totally true, but since I'm the buyer, I have to keep shooting low but show that I'm willing to come up a little.  

She then gets her calculator out and demonstrates to me that she cannot sell it to me for lower than 5,900 because she pays 2,400 for the red (punches it into the calculator) and that she pays 1,900 for the white (punches into the calculator).

This comes out to 4,300.

I ended up giving her 4,500.  She came down from her initial offer of 6,000 and I came up from my initial offer of 3,000.  We both negotiated to find the ideal price I was willing to pay and the ideal price she was willing to sell it for to me.

A perfect economic transaction.