I have been enthralled by Africa since I was very young and had always dreamed of experiencing the incredible sights and sounds of the continent that I'd spent so many hours reading about late at night when I should have been doing my homework!
I discovered Earthwatch long before I was lucky enough to become a member of staff, and have participated as a volunteer on two projects in Kenya which have left me with some wonderful memories of the country, its wildlife and its people.
The first was a visit to Lions of Tsavo in 2002 investigating the ecology of Tsavo's infamous population of maneless lions. Over the past 200 years lions have suffered massive number and range losses because of conflict with people, and the project is committed to studying a radio collared population adjacent to the local national park to see how these factors are affecting their behaviour.
Although it's necessary to rise early and stay up very late in order to observe the lions, the drives through the dense savannah woodland in the dead of night or as the sun was making it's first appearance over the horizon were exhilarating. We felt privileged as a team to be able to experience their behaviour over several hours completely separated from the tourist safari traffic.
During one memorable night, the bush awash with full moonlight, we waited anxiously by a waterhole for the arrival of a lion that we could hear roaring nearby. Instead we were rewarded with several families of elephants emerging from the trees on their way to drink. We counted some 300 in all, splashing and mud slinging in the waterhole, trumpeting to each other and feeding on nearby vegetation. They surrounded our vehicle completely and were calm and untroubled by our presence.
They watched us, watching them, for over an hour until they finally melted quietly back into the undergrowth. Our lion didn't show up then! We did however see him (the first collared lion on the ranch) about an hour later, having killed a zebra and busying himself keeping the local hyena population at bay. He was joined eventually by 2 hungry females who were permitted to feast alongside him. Although we didn't know it then, this was one of the first gatherings of his new family.
The camp immerses volunteers in one of Africa's last great wilderness areas and it's possible to see a tremendous variety of wildlife. The ranch is a 96,000 acre tract of privately held land containing extensive Acacia savannahs which have disappeared from the rest of Kenya due to cropland conversion. The tented camp is rustic with wonderful views of a waterhole and the sounds of Africa take over at night. When we awoke in the small hours, the vehicles were waiting to take us onto the endless trails which traverse the two ranches. We would spend 4 or 5 hours using the radio tracking equipment and recording numbers of lions and their prey species, take samples and make recordings of behaviour. It is a rare privilege to be given the opportunity to hear from experienced scientists why the data we were collecting was so important and how it would be used by local officials to secure government protection for this spectacular unspoiled area. It increased my desire to see lions and humans being given the chance to live harmoniously together.
It was wonderful for me to then return to the area to participate on the Elephants of Tsavo project some 4 years later. The Tsavo ecosystem holds Kenya's largest and single and most important population of elephants, numbering at least 10,000. Since their persecution by poachers in the 1960s and 70s, their numbers have been slowly recovering. However not all areas are protected and therefore the elephants' traditional range and route usage has been disrupted. This has caused increasing incidences of human-elephant conflict as they cross between the protected area of Tsavo East National Park and the private Rukinga ranch ranges in search of water. We were also continuing the monitoring of some 900 recognised elephants who form the foundation of the research.
Our covered vehicle gave us the perfect opportunity to observe new elephant families, many of whom had young, and to locate the labyrinth of paths they establish across boundaries of private land. Identification of individuals was a fascinating process of locating ear notch patterns, tusk damage and body scars - it was an exercise in learning just how diverse their characteristics are on closer observation. Team work was crucial and dividing up the tasks meant we had all bases covered! I was lucky enough to see a lone female elephant one day gouging out a drinking hole from a section of dry river bed to find water for her calf and in fact their constant search for water. In fact what I remember most about the herds endlessly crossing the Tsavo region.
The Park is renowned for it's abundance of wildlife and I lost count of the number of other animals which formed part of our survey. One morning the team witnessed the birth of a Dik Dik, the mother having holed up close to the edge of the road in the shade of a bush. Samuel Kasiki, our very experienced PI on the project, had not seen this in over 20 years of research in the area so we felt extraordinarily lucky.
We were fortunate enough to be accommodated in relative comfort during the project (which was very welcome after a hot and dusty day in the field!) and enjoy an occasional swim in the Voi Wildlife Lodge's pool. As the lodge is contained within the park boundary with its own waterhole, the spectacle of passing wildlife never ends. Each morning we left in our vehicle not expecting to return until 6pm when (for those who hadn't seen enough) we could watch elephants feeding close to the Lodge's viewing platform.
As flagship species in the Tsavo ecosystem, there is a great need to continue monitoring elephants and lions. As I discovered they are both incredibly charismatic and fascinating animals. Furthermore, I was able to appreciate how vital Earthwatch teams are in contributing to the urgent need for information which will ensure their protection and ultimate survival.
Nicole Yde-Poulsen is a staff member with Earthwatch Europe.