Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lady Cave

Amanda joking refers to our laboratory tent as her "Lady Cave", because she spends so much time in there.  Well now...we can officially call it the Bat Cave!

A family of bats have moved in...and she has only been gone one week!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


It has been a rough week.  A ton of wildebeest have died in the river, our gearbox has serious issues (no first gear), I just learned our clutch plate is trashed and we have a crack in our pressure plate, we haven't showered in a week, it has been raining every day so we're covered in mud and our solar system hasn't charged anything, and we're running low on food.

But hey...we're having cheeseburgers tonight!  I dug out our secret stash of ground beef and Geemi and I grilled up some cheeseburgers on our biolite.  We had enough ground beef stashed so we cooked up and hooked up the neighboring researchers as well.

AND....I got my phone fully charged so I could make this post!  Things are starting to look up....

Friday, September 27, 2013

Another Failed Crossing Today

Another 1,500 wildebeest died today in the Mara River.  That brings us up to approximately 5,200 wildebeest dead in the last three days.

Last night, a flood pulse came through the Mara at around 11PM.  This flood came from they upper catchment.  The rising waters of the flood washed many of the wildebeest carcasses further downstream into Tanzania.  The following picture was taken at the Purungat Bridge at around 8AM this morning.

This picture, was taken at the same spot at around 4PM this afternoon.  

There were three large wildebeest crossings today in the southern half of the Mara Triangle.  The first one was between 9AM and 10AM, just downstream of the Serena Lunch Spot.  The crossing consisted of approximately 1,500 wildebeest and every single one of them drowned.  They crossed at a better location than the previous two days but the water was just too high and fast for them to make it across.  As you can see in the following graph, the water was highest today at between 9AM and 10AM.  This was courtesy of the Talek Catchment.  There must have been some heavy rains in the Loita Hills early this morning.  This also ended up causing a crash of the dissolved oxygen in the Mara at the Purungat Bridge.  

A second crossing occurred at approximately 2PM near the Hippo Pool, just North of the Purungat Bridge.  The crossing consisted of several hundred wildebeest and only 4 drowned.  The third crossing happened at approximately 5PM at the same spot.  All survived.  

While we were taking samples and surveying the river today, I tried to count what was left of the original herd that continues to try to cross at the Serena Lunch Spot.  There seemed to be only about 500 wildebeest left, on this side of the river.  The other survivors are somewhere on the other side.  I hope they don't try to cross tomorrow...with the river this high, they don't have a chance.  

I also checked on the wounded mother wildebeest from yesterday, the one who had broken her leg on the rocky bank at the crossing.  She was still alive.  Her young wildebeest son, was no longer there.  I'm guessing he left her there and joined the herd.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013


It all started with a dream.

Yesterday morning, I was talking to Amanda on the phone (she's in the US, I'm in Kenya).  Amanda said she had a dream that 2,000 wildebeest drowned and that I should go check the river.  Immediately after hanging up with her, I forgot.  

At around noon that same day, Charles, the Warden at the Purungat Bridge, called and told me that one thousand wildebeest had died in a crossing that morning.  I was shocked.  Then I remembered what Amanda had told me.  Geemi and I grabbed our gear and we immediately went down to the river.

The crossing that Charles was talking about happened at the Serena Lunch Spot between 8AM and 9AM on September 25th.  We arrived down in that area at around 1PM, grabbed a Ranger, deployed our monitoring equipment, took samples, and counted the carcasses in the river.  We counted 1,510 carcasses in a 3.5 kilometer stretch of river.  Over 2,000 wildebeest likely died in the crossing yesterday, the other 500 floated their way into Tanzania.  

Today, another ~2,000 wildebeest died at that same crossing.  We arrived in the area approximately 20 minutes after the crossing started and we counted over 1,300 bodies floating past us just downstream of the crossing. Overall, our total estimate for both events was 3,857 wildebeest.

Why did so many die over the last two days?  A brutal combination of higher than average flows in the river and the wildebeest choosing a bad crossing point.  There has been tons of rain in the Mara over the last week and it has been speculated that the wildebeest chase the rain.  Maybe they're crossing so much right now because of all the spotty showers?  Who knows...

As you can see in this picture, once they get to the other side of the river, there is no way up.  Maybe 50% make it up the hill, and the others drown.  

Once they drown, their bodies float downstream and eventually get hung up on rocky outcroppings.  

These drownings are a natural part of the system and seem to have been happening for a long time. We found a paper from the 1970's discussing the deposition of wildebeest carcasses in the Mara River. However, the size and frequency of these drownings varies from year to year. We're trying to understand when and where these mass drownings occur and how they impact the river ecosystem.  Even though we've documented a few of them, they are always tough to see.  The sounds of a drowning wildebeest are haunting.  

It is exceptionally difficult to witness this...a young wildebeest and their mother...having safely made it across the river and up onto the rocky outcropping...and the mother ends up breaking a leg on the rocks.  The young wildebeest doesn't seem to understand what has happened, and just waits.  We checked back on him four hours later after this picture was taken and he was still waiting.  Heart breaking....

We counted carcasses again this evening.  As of 6PM, there are 1,846 wildebeest carcasses in a 3.5km stretch of the Mara River.  

At least 3,857 wildebeest died in the Mara River in the last two days.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Our Gearbox

It is extremely difficult to get a gearbox back up into a vehicle.

Rainy Days

Ever since Amanda left last week for the US, it has been raining in the Mara.  Lots of rain have brought the wildebeest back up from the Serengeti.  It rains every day....sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and almost always in the evening.  

This has made it incredibly difficult to keep all our electronics charged.  With all the overcast days, our solar batteries are depleted and we're having to keep our critical items charged from the Land Rover.  

The sun peeked out yesterday, so we took all our small solar chargers and everything else we needed dry, out into the small field next to camp.


We got a few hours of sun before having to quickly gather everything out of the field when the rain started.  

With all this rain, the river is up!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My day...

I've been busy working on the gearbox since Amanda left a few days ago.  If you remember, I re-built it in July.  Well, something happened over the last few weeks where it was getting close to impossible to get the vehicle into first gear.

This is what happened...a small spring broke.  I can't even remember what the spring is called, but it holds these three things in place that help to shift and maintain a gear position.

Here is Lokekwar and Moses with my gearbox.  Lokekewar works for the Mara Conservancy as a mechanic and his son, Moses, works in Aitong as a mechanic.  Moses has worked on our truck before, while we were living in Narok a few years ago.  Thankfully, the Conservancy allowed us to work with their mechanics on our gearbox at their garage.  They've got some great mechanics...and a garage pit, so we could drop the gearbox down instead of having to remove the seats (like I had to do in Narok in July...a huge pain).  

During repairs today, we also found a cracked universal joint.  Luckily, I keep a few spares so we were able to swap it out fairly easily.  

As I type this, it is about 8PM here in Kenya.  I just heard the rumbling of an elephant in camp, probably 20 meters up the hill from my tent.  Geemi and I heard them breaking branches a bit earlier while we were cooking dinner (spaghetti, in case you're interested) but I thought they were just moving through.  I guess they are here to stay the night.  The rumbling of an elephant at night sounds much like a lion growling.  A very low "rrrrrrrrrrrrr" sound.....

We also had a ton of rain in camp tonight.  We were able to collect over 80 liters of water with our rain water harvesting setup in just one hour!  80 liters may not seem much, but we have to carry all of our water into camp so every liter we can collect from the rain is one less liter we have to carry.  

Oh yea, you may have noticed that our Purungat Bridge Water Meter has not reported for the last two days.  My bad...I forgot to feed the meter.  ;)  I have to send it 300 Kenya Shillings every month for it to send the data.  I just sent it the money an hour ago so it should start updating again shortly.

Should be done with truck repairs tomorrow.  Hopefully....

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mara Day 2013

Happy Mara Day! Last year the East African Community began the annual tradition of having an official day to celebrate the Mara River Basin and work towards its conservation and sustainable use. The first Mara Day was held last year at the Mara River Water Users Association in Mulot, Kenya. This year, the celebrations were held in Mugumu, Tanzania, on the border of the Serengeti National Park.

This is a truly incredible event, as thousands of people come from all over the Mara basin to spend several days celebrating a river basin and talking about how they are working to conserve the remarkable natural resources the Mara provides. The celebrations went on for three days, including a research conference, tree planting events, bicycle race and the focal celebrations today.

It's difficult to describe the scale of this event. In a large fairground on the edge of town, there were rows and rows of tents. In the center was a large tent where the dignitaries sat and gave speeches. In front of them was a large open space for dancing and theatrical performances by community and school groups. In a large row surrounding this area were tents where a huge range of government, NGO and community groups from the basin presented on their work. And behind that was a huge row of tents housing small restaurants and bars serving freshly prepared food and cold drinks. Here's a great 360 degree shot Chris captured of the event.

Local government and community groups had developed a wide range of displays, including a miniature-scale version of the Mara River, complete with crossing wildebeest and feasting crocodiles.

There were a number of groups showcasing artistic work they are doing to support livelihoods that don't cause destruction of natural resources.

And our colleagues from WWF and the Mara River Water Users Association were there, talking about their work developing water users groups that promote grassroots water resources management.

We have been so excited about attending this event, as it's a great opportunity to celebrate the Mara River and to see colleagues from all over the Mara working on different aspects of conservation. Congratulations to the EAC, USAID (who provided the funding) and all the folks who worked so hard to host such a wonderful event!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Irony or Karma?

Amanda and I are staying the evening in Musoma, Tanzania.  We spent 7 hours driving down here from our camp for the Mara Day Celebrations in Mugumu, Tanzania, tomorrow.  After 7 hours of dirt road driving....we are covered in dust.  Glad to be back in Musoma.  Glad to be back to a hot shower.

The last few days have been extremely busy.  We covered our entire study area over the last few days.  Each day, we spent 8+ hours directly next to the river tending to experiments, in the heat of the sun (series we're currently watching).  We then spent several hours a day processing samples and driving to and from our sites.  On top of that, Amanda has been sick with a vicious cold.  Thankfully, she is starting to feel much better.

So....the point of this is that we are happy to be in our favorite Tanzanian town, Musoma.  We just had some amazing fish fingers and cold beers at our hotel and are ready for a hot shower....but...there is no water.

Musoma is on the largest tropical lake in the world, Lake Victoria....and there is no water at our hotel.  We study the quantity and quality of water of the Mara River...which flows into Lake Victoria.  I can smell the water from our hotel...I can see it from our window...but there is no water AT the hotel.  I can tell you exactly how much water is in the Mara River at the Purungat Bridge at any time, but I can't find any at our hotel right now.  We are here to celebrate an amazing river basin, the Mara River Basin, yet there is no water at our hotel in the river basin.  Irony or karma?

But thankfully, we do have we are catching up on all the recent music videos.  We'll be dirty for the celebrations tomorrow but at least we'll be caught up on pop culture.  

Live Data from the Mara River!

We are proud to announce that we now have real-time water level information from the Mara River at Purungat Bridge uploaded to the internet every 30 minutes!  This data is now available on our "Mara Live" page as a graph and at the top right of every page as a gauge tied to the environmental flow assessment recommendations.  The yellow and red areas on the gauge correspond to water levels that are below the environmental flow requirements.  When water drops below these levels, the river ecosystem begins to deteriorate.  Now, everyone can see what's going on with the river as it happens!  

The impetus for this project was our general unhappiness with the cost of water quality/quantity equipment.  This motivated us to design our own gear to do exactly what we want.  This system cost us under $400 to make and it only costs about $5 per month for the cellular service.  If we had purchased a similar system with these features, it would have cost us well over $2000 and up to $100 per month!  The best part about this unit is that it is open source.  

A big thanks goes out to the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design. We worked with four bright Yale undergrads -- Teddy Weisman, Travis Leighton, Kendrick Kirk and Bryan Duerfeldt -- to develop the first prototype of this design through a course taught by Eric Dufresne, Larry Wilen and Laura Chavez.

The Yale students designed the housing for the unit mounted at the Purungat Bridge, which uses a water filtration pump housing. We installed a second unit on the Talek River that is housed inside of a Pelican Case.  

The entire system is based off an open source microcontroller, Arduino.  We also have some other water quality/quantity measurement devices that we have built using an Arduino that we'll be talking about in the coming weeks.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Working with the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design

This past semester, we had the incredible opportunity to work with freshmen engineering students at Yale University through a course taught by the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design (CEID). Working at the CEID was one of the most exciting experiences I have had yet in academia. It's a large, working space with every kind of tool and machine and computer program you can imagine (think 3-D printers, woodworking tools, fume hoods, sewing machines, etc.), in which students, faculty, and other interested participants can come together and work on interdisciplinary approaches to the center's primary mission-- empowering students to improve human lives through the advancement of technology. 

The course we participated in brought together practitioners from various fields who had problems that needed solving, with engineering students interested in learning how to solve practical problems with innovative solutions. When we heard about this opportunity, we thought, "Boy, do we have problems!" From expensive water quality meters that occasionally get stepped on by large wildlife, to river monitoring needs in a remote environment, we had no shortage of ideas to pitch to the students that we really needed some help on. 

We were incredibly fortunate to have two awesome groups of students pick two of our project ideas to take on for their end-of-semester project. The first group-- comprised of Bryan Duerfeldt, Kendrick Kirk, Tavis Leighton, and Teddy Weisman-- decided to work on our problem of needing real-time data on the river's water level. As water level in the Mara determines water quality and the amount of water available for human extraction, knowing this data on a real-time basis is invaluable. However, commercially available solutions are prohibitively expensive.

The second group-- comprised of Charles Stone, Jack Holds, Brian Clark, and Natalia Dashan-- decided to work on our problem of needing to protect our expensive and fragile water quality meters, which we throw into a river full of really large animals. Last summer, a hippo stepped on the plastic housings we had improvised and cracked it, missing our meter by less than an inch. 

Both groups worked under the guidance of some awesome instructors, including Eric Dufresne, the CEID Director; Larry Wilen, a Design Mentor; and their Teaching Fellow Laura Chavez.

Throughout the latter part of the semester, we met with each group on a weekly basis, describing our problems and the Mara in more detail, hearing their developments on the project, and giving feedback on their progress. 

Chris meeting with the Depth Logger group
 After only about a month, each group had designed and built prototypes of their project idea, using a range of machines and equipment available in the CEID.

Components of the depth logger
 Each group gave a final presentation on their project, including the problem they were addressing, the challenges they faced in solving it (keeping costs low, making it easy to transport, etc.), and then presenting their final product.

The Depth Logger group presenting on their project
The Hippo-Proof Housing group presenting on their project
 It was really amazing the solutions these students came up with and built in such a short amount of time! The Depth Logger group designed a battery-powered ultrasonic depth logger with a SIM card to allow for data uplink to the internet, all inside a cleverly designed waterproof housing.

The Depth Logger group
The Hippo-Proof Housing group designed a meter housing out of aircraft aluminum, which they determined met both weight and strength requirements, with a sieve on one end and a polypropylene funnel on the other end to prevent meter clogging by hippo feces, which can both damage the meter and prevent accurate data collection.

The Hippo-Proof Housing group
Both of these projects addressed serious challenges we face in the field, and provided us with some really cool new equipment we're planning to deploy this field season. Most of all, it was exciting to work with such intelligent and interested students on addressing these unconventional challenges. Thanks so much to all the students and teachers at CEID for working with us on this. Stay tuned on the blog as we deploy these  awesome projects in the field and see how they fare!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Wildebeests are pretty funny...we never know if they're coming or going...and I don't think they know themselves.  Here are two videos from our camp taken within minutes of each other.