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