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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

Help Us Save Elephants on World Elephant Day, August 12

In 1980, there were an estimated 1.2 million African elephants. Today, there are less than 420,000. This is largely due to the demand for ivory.

African elephant in Amboseli National Park, Kenya (Photo: Shasta Bray)

African elephant in Amboseli National Park, Kenya (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Last month, President Obama announced a proposal to ban the sale of ivory in the United States. The ban would be a huge victory for elephants, considering that the United States is the second largest ivory consumer nation behind China.

As a coalition partner with more than 150 institutions, the Zoo is working with the 96 Elephants campaign to collect letters in support of the strongest possible ivory ban. This week, which coincides with World Elephant Day on Wednesday, August 12, we will be encouraging guests that visit the Elephant Wild Discover Zone at the Zoo to write letters. If you can’t make it to Zoo, but want to take part in the letter writing campaign, you can download the 96 Elephant Letter and send it in.96 Elephant letter

We also encourage you to #GoGrey on World Elephant Day. Wear grey, take an #elphie (that is, a selfie) and post it to social media to help spread the word.

Cat Ambassador Program staff  #GoGrey!

Cat Ambassador Program staff #GoGrey!

Lastly, just by coming to the Zoo on World Elephant Day or any other day, you are helping us save species across the globe. So pack your trunk and lead your herd on out to the Zoo!

Sabu says come celebrate World Elephant Day with me! (Photo: David Jenike)

Sabu says come celebrate World Elephant Day with me! (Photo: David Jenike)

August 10, 2015   1 Comment

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

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 second post in a series about our experience. Read the first post in this blog series here.

The South Rift landscape seemed to stretch on forever (Photo: Shasta Bray)

The South Rift landscape seemed to stretch on forever (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Day 4 (continued):

We arrived at the Lale’enok Resource Centre in the early afternoon. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles, we were greeted by a welcoming committee. The Olkirimatian Women’s Group welcomed us with a beautiful song once we made our way into the shelter that would serve as our home base for meals and meetings throughout the week. The Operations Manager, Joel Ngongo, then introduced us to the Centre’s staff, researchers and community members that were there.

Maasai women from the Olkirimatian Women's Group welcome us with song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai women from the Olkirimatian Women’s Group welcome us with song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We received a quick orientation to camp, including very important safety information such as always be alert; there was a venomous snake spotted in camp earlier that day. Near the tents, they had set up temporary sand pit toilets and showers that basically consist of a bucket of water with a spout that you open and close. Water is a very precious resource here in the South Rift Valley, especially during the dry season, so we kept showers to a minimum and were sure to turn the water off when soaping up.

Bucket showers and the water tap (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Bucket showers and the water tap (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We returned to the shelter for a conversation with John Kamanga, Director of SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners) and Chairman of Olkirimatian Group Ranch. He shared with us the history and background of the Maasai culture and how the Lale’enok Resource Centre came to be. The Maasai have coexisted with wildlife as nomadic pastoralists that herd livestock for thousands of years. However, as times change and their culture evolves, the traditional Maasai way of maintaining that coexistence must also adapt. For example, there is growing pressure to subdivide the land and build fences, which would prevent wildlife as well as people and their livestock from migrating to find good grazing areas. Also, many of the young Maasai men who traditionally protect livestock from lions now go off to school, leaving their herds more vulnerable to attack. The community-based research and programs conducted out of Lale’enok aim to solve those issues and support both wildlife conservation and thriving livelihoods.

Maasai herder brings his cattle home at sunset (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai herder brings his cattle home at sunset (Photo: Shasta Bray)

To that end, one thing the community has done is to designate three zones of land use on the group ranch. The first is a settlement and grazing zone occupied by people and livestock for much of the year, particularly during the wet season. The second is a buffer zone into which people and livestock migrate during the dry season. Lastly, there is the conservation zone that serves as a wildlife refuge and is only used for livestock grazing during drought conditions. Following this structure ensures sustainable land use and preservation of the savannah ecosystem.

We happened to arrive on the last day before the community would be allowed to migrate across the river into the conservation area in response to the current drought. It was a great opportunity for us to visit the conservation area and see it unoccupied; later in the week, we would see it occupied with people and livestock. It was also our first chance to game drive, get the lay of the land and look for wildlife. We split into three groups, each with a guide and headed out in the cruisers.

Getting ready to head out on our first game drive in the South Rift

Getting ready to head out on our first game drive in the South Rift

First, we visited an unoccupied boma, or homestead. Peter, an elder who is on the Conservation Committee, explained the set up of the boma and pointed out which corral was for cattle and which was for shoats (sheep and goats). We also peeked inside one of the manyattas, or huts, in which the people cook and sleep. The entire boma is surrounded by a fence of thorny branches.

Peter describes life in a Maasai boma (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Peter describes life in a Maasai boma (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Thorny acacia branches surround the homestead (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Thorny acacia branches surround the homestead (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Then we continued our game drive until after dark, spotting a diversity of wildlife from zebras and wildebeest to baboons and giraffes. It’s so amazing to think that the Maasai, their livestock and all this wildlife – including lions and other carnivores, even though we didn’t see them on this first game drive – share the same space. Sure, here in Cincinnati we share our backyards and cities with birds, squirrels and deer, but even so, we still think of it as “our” space. We’ve eliminated our large predators like wolves and cougars and are generally nervous when potentially dangerous animals like bears are spotted in the area. What could we learn from the Maasai about living with wildlife rather than separated from it?

Zebra and cattle sharing the same space (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Zebra and cattle sharing the same space (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Giraffes spotted on our game drive in the South Rift (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Giraffes spotted on our game drive in the South Rift (Photo: Shasta Bray)

It was a very full first day in Olkirimatian. Exhaustion and the much hotter, drier climate caught up with me after dinner so that I retired to my tent and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We had five more days of adventure and exploration ahead of us.

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

 

 

 

 

August 5, 2015   1 Comment