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Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-based Conservation in Kenya – Part V (Final)

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fifth and final post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Day 8:

Today was Community Day! Following a wrap-up of the ecological monitoring projects and our last group discussion on balancing human land use and conservation in the morning, the afternoon brought us a special treat. Students from various local schools were transported to Lale’enok Resource Centre for a cultural day. Other community members, including Maasai elders and members of the Women’s Group, came to partake in the festivities as well. The students presented on the theme of “Water is Life” in the form of traditional song, dance, poetry and debate. They even invited us to join them in some of the dancing.

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

I had prepared the Earth Expeditions group that they might want to come up with a presentation of their own. In years past, groups ended up singing silly songs like the Hokey Pokey. This year, one of the students, Jen, brought the idea of doing the BioBlitz Dance. The Bioblitz Dance was originally created for National Geographic’s Bioblitz Event and is a celebration of the outdoors, human diversity and biodiversity, and national parks. I’m not sure it was any less silly than the Hokey Pokey, but at least it had a connection to people and wildlife. The best thing it did was break down barriers between the local community and our students, make everyone laugh and smile, and allowed us to do something in return.

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz dance. I believe this move is called "the turkey vulture". (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz Dance. I believe this move is called “the turkey vulture”. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Later that afternoon once the students had departed, we had the chance to mingle and have small group conversations with the community members. No topic was off limits, and they were just as curious about us and our culture as we were about theirs. We talked about marriage, family and more. Everyone was so open and friendly.

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon, we all moved to the campfire for a traditional Maasai dinner featuring fire-roasted goat. There was much more conversation, singing, dancing and star gazing before heading to our tents for the night.

Day 9:

Our last full day in the South Rift began with an early morning walk just after sunrise to a ravine overlooking the river. We walked down to the riverbank and spent some time hanging out and reflecting on all the wonderful experiences we’d had so far. On the way back, a lone hyena burst out of the bush just ahead of us and booked it across the dirt road. Amazing!

Ewaso Ng'iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Ewaso Ng’iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We finished up the last of our coursework with a discussion about what the students planned to do for their Inquiry Action Projects once we returned home and how it fit into their Master Plans for those in the graduate program.

Then it was time to shop! Another way we can support the community and their conservation efforts is to support their livelihoods. As a group, we had the chance to purchase a variety of hand-crafted jewelry, belts, shukas (colorful cloths) and more directly from the women who made them.

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

At the Zoo, we have created a Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets program. More than 200 local Maasai women showed up to sell us bracelets made in a particular design to symbolize the coexistence of people and wildlife. Each color represents an integral component: red stands for lions, black for the Maasai people, blue for peace and white for clarity. Guests can then purchase these bracelets back at the Zoo. Revenue goes back to the Olkirimatian Women’s Group to provide tuition for local school girls and contribute to the operation of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We spent our last evening having a sundowner with the Lale’enok staff on top of a hill overlooking the South Rift and Mount Shompole. There were plenty of laughs, hugs and pictures as we said our farewells. It was a fantastic, life-changing expedition that no one will soon forget.

August 27, 2015   No Comments

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-Based Conservation in Kenya – Part IV

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fourth post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Days 5-7:

In addition to working alongside the researchers and staff at the Lale’enok Resource Centre, we also took part in some other amazing activities.

Open Inquiries and Group Discussions

Core to the mission of Earth Expeditions is inquiry. Following the QUEST model of inquiry promoted by Project Dragonfly, the students split up into small groups to conduct their own scientific investigations. Some of the creative comparative questions they asked included looking at whether there was greater terrestrial invertebrate species richness close to or farther from the river and whether DEET or dirt worked better as a bug repellent. The students also led a group discussion on community-based conservation.

Jamie and Ruth Anne tally how many different types of invertebrates they find along a transect. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jamie and Ruth Anne tally how many different types of invertebrates they find along a transect. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jill and Kirstie report on their dirt vs DEET investigation. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jill and Kirstie report on their dirt vs DEET investigation. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Game Drives

Each day, about an hour or so before sunset, we would split up into the three cruisers and head out to look for wildlife on a game drive through the Olkirimatian and Shompole conservancies. While driving through Amboseli National Park earlier in the week was amazing, seeing an abundance of diverse wildlife—from zebras to bat-eared foxes to giraffes— living here on Maasai land was even more compelling.

Seeing giraffe on a game drive (Photo: Jill Bailey)

Seeing giraffe on a game drive (Photo: Jill Bailey)

At one point, our guide, Patrick, stopped to cut small branches off of a Salvadora bush. Using a knife, he pared down one end of each twig and passed them out. We chewed the ends until the fibers separated, creating a brush and then brushed our teeth with it the way the Maasai do.

Brian brushes his teeth with a Salvadora twig (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Brian brushes his teeth with a Salvadora twig (Photo: Shasta Bray)

The most exciting moment had to be when my cruiser came upon a young lion laying in the middle of the dirt road just after sunset, and this happened not long after we had to stop to change a flat tire in the bush!

Oh no! A flat tire! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Oh no! A flat tire! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai Boma Visit

One late afternoon, instead of heading out on a typical game drive, we were invited to visit with a Maasai family at their boma. When we arrived, the woman and her two young girls greeted us and showed us around.

Two beautiful young Maasai girls (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Two beautiful young Maasai girls (Photo: Shasta Bray)

As it neared sunset, we joined the herder as he brought his cattle home. In fact, he handed over the herding stick and a few of the students took over. Apparently, herding cattle is much harder than it looks! It was quite comical to watch the students try to keep the cows all moving in the right direction at the right pace.

Brian, Kirstie and Alex try to herd cattle  (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Brian, Kirstie and Alex try to herd cattle (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Once the cattle were finally in their corral, the woman then showed us how she milks the cows. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble we’d have if she’d asked us to give that a try!

Maasai woman milks a cow (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai woman milks a cow (Photo: Shasta Bray)

To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!

August 20, 2015   2 Comments

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-Based Conservation in Kenya – Part III

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the third post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Days 5-7:

During our time at the Lale’enok Resource Centre, we had the opportunity to work alongside the researchers and staff. We split into three groups and rotated through these awesome experiences over the course of three days.

Baboon Project

We headed out at 6:30am with Sisco, the baboon researcher, to locate the olive baboon troop. Over the past few years, he has been able to habituate the troop so that he can walk with them and study their behavior. That is, over time, the baboons have accepted his presence. As long as he wears a ball cap and avoids wearing red clothing to distinguish himself from the traditional Maasai dress, he says the baboons know he is only there to observe and will allow him to do so.

Sisco tells us about the Baboon Project (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Sisco tells us about the Baboon Project (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Baboons are often considered pests because they are opportunistic, raiding bomas for food and destroying manyattas (huts). One of Sisco’s goals is to show the community that they can benefit from the baboons through eco-tourism.

Olive baboons foraging just outside a Maasai boma (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Olive baboons foraging just outside a Maasai boma (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We found the troop just waking up from a night spent in the ficus trees alongside the Ewaso Nigro River. We watched them scramble down and drink from the river before they headed out in search of Acacia flowers and seed pods for breakfast. As we followed, Sisco pointed out who is who – he has named them all and can identify each one – and told us more about their social structure and behavior.

Olive baboon (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Olive baboon (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Ecological Monitoring Program

The ecological monitoring program looks at the health of the whole ecosystem by keeping tabs on the plant and animal communities, including both wild and domestic species, and looking for trends in population size, health and use of space. Led by researcher, Samantha duToit (formerly Russell), a team of local Maasai are employed as Resource Assessors to collect data. The data is then shared with the community to inform their decisions on where and when to move their livestock for grazing.

Samantha and Resource Assessors collecting vegetation data (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Samantha and Resource Assessors collecting vegetation data (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Over the course of three days, the students collected data to compare the situation on the east (currently allowed grazing) and west (conservation area) sides of the Ewaso Nigro River. They counted the number of wild and domestic species they saw or identified signs of (i.e. tracks, dung) as well as counted grass and noted its color in sample plots.

Amy Young and Jamie Dawson present the results from their group's ecological study (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Amy Young and Jamie Dawson present the results from their group’s ecological study (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Rebuilding the Pride

The goal of the Rebuilding the Pride program is to promote coexistence between pastoralists and predators and restore a healthy lion population in the area while reducing the loss of livestock to lions. With support from the Zoo, Rebuilding the Pride has been able to track lions wearing Global Positioning System (GPS) collars for the past five years. The collars transmit four locations a day to a central server, providing detailed information on the exact movement of the lions. Knowing where the prides are, they can let herders know where to avoid grazing their livestock at any given time, and thus, avoid conflict. Since the start of the program, lion numbers have grown from an estimated low of 10 to more than 65 in 2014.

Listening for signals from lion collars (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Listening for signals from lion collars (Photo: Shasta Bray)

The lions are primarily nocturnal so we headed out before sunrise at 5:00am in the hopes that we could find them while they were still active. At this time, there are four lions wearing collars. We drove out to an area where a couple of them have been hanging out recently and stopped to listen for signals sent from the collars to a radio antenna. We picked up a signal for the dominant male named Ol Choro (after the swampy bush area he frequents) and drove into some pretty thick bush. After driving in circles with a spotlight, we pinpointed a thick patch of vegetation in which he was hiding, but didn’t get a glimpse of him. Next we set out to find Nasha, a lioness who has three older cubs. She and her pride were also already bedded down in the thicket and eluded us.

We saw plenty of lion tracks! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We saw plenty of lion tracks! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

The thing about lion tracking is that you can “find” the lions and it’s a great data point for the research without ever seeing the animal itself. Still, it’s hard not to get frustrated when you don’t get to see them! By now the sun was up and our chances of finding a second female, Namunyak, out in the open were slim. This time we got lucky! We found Namunyak, whose name coincidentally means lucky, and her pride casually ambling across the savannah. They were headed for thicker cover, but didn’t seem to be in any hurry.

Namunyak with collar and her elder cub (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Namunyak with collar and her elder cub (Photo: Shasta Bray)

With her she had an older cub as well as three 8-month-old cubs (about the same age as our three at the Zoo). Keeping a safe distance in the vehicles, of course, we followed alongside them for about 15 minutes. They didn’t seem to mind us being there at all. They would walk a bit. Then one would flop down and rest for a minute or two. Sometimes the others would stop and wait. Occasionally, one cub would bite another’s tail or jump on top of mom. How exciting it was to see them acting just like our cubs out here in the wild!

Namunyak and one of her young cubs taking a break (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Namunyak and one of her young cubs taking a break (Photo: Shasta Bray)

To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!

August 13, 2015   1 Comment