Zoe Gamble, PR Officer at Earthwatch Europe, recently joined Dr. Bruce Patterson and Earthwatch volunteers on Lions of Tsavo.
It's 2.30 in the morning and here I am, sitting on the roof of an open top 4 by 4, head torch strapped to my head, a satellite radio tracker in one hand and a clip board resting on my knee. Above me, the star filled sky dazzles like a distant city, as my fellow team mate scores the surrounding shrub land with a spot light, hoping to catch the eye of a lioness on the prowl, a startled Impala or a watchful bush baby.
Despite the unsociable hour, there is excitement in the air. This is no ordinary night, for we have just embarked on our first night drive through the 96,000-acre Taita-Rukinga Conservancy, a stretch of private unspoiled savannah wilderness that is nestled between the southern arms of Tsavo East and Tsavo West, Kenya's two largest national parks.
Along with nine other people from all corners of the world, including Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Egypt, and the UK, I am a volunteer on the Earthwatch field research project "Lions of Tsavo". We will spend fourteen days and fourteen nights working alongside Earthwatch-supported scientists Dr Bruce Patterson (Field Museum, Chicago) and Alexander Mwazo Gombe (Kenya Wildlife Service) to investigate the ecology of the regions lion population. But there is more to this experience than a rare and wonderful insight into the fifth largest lion population in all of Africa; this research project has immediate implications for public policy and conservation.
"Today lions rank second only to elephants in the ongoing human / wildlife conflict" explains Dr Patterson. "Every year they kill hundreds of livestock on the ranches surrounding Tsavo National Park, forcing some ranch owners to convert their holdings to cropland and herdsman to resort to illegal poisoning campaigns in extreme cases."
Incidents like this inspired the Earthwatch research project to be set up in 2002. Three lions, named Diana, Kabochi and Shadow by the researchers, have already been fitted with radio collars. By tracking the lions, scientists and volunteer teams are helping to provide the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and local communities with urgent information about lion behaviour, lion density and prey selection so that cattle losses can be minimised. Already they have discovered that lion attacks on farm livestock increase during the rainy season, when wild prey disperse. By taking livestock to market before the annual rains, herders could therefore avoid the majority of losses from lion kills. There are six more collars to be fitted in 2005 with the help of a vet from the KWS. Once fitted, they will allow Earthwatch teams to monitor lion locations using real time mobile telephone signals.
The essence of an Earthwatch project like this one is that people from all backgrounds with no prior knowledge or experience can become critical members of the research team and play a vital part in collecting data about biodiversity and lion behaviour.
"Here science is accessible to everyone," explains Dr Patterson, "Earthwatch volunteers are so effective because they provide a continuous stream of fresh enthusiasm and passion for the work at hand. We spend up to eight hours each day in a vehicle gathering and recording data, so fresh eyes and ears never cease to be valuable. Someone who is willing to give up their free time, leave their home comforts behind them and embrace a chaotic sleep schedule is a very special person indeed. This project is kept alive by these extraordinary people who give their time and then take the conservation message home."
Indeed, the experience of stumbling across a lioness as she basks in the sun or watching a male lion devour a baboon under the shade of a tree is something that stays with you long after the project. Without making a sound, the volunteers are asked to track the lion's location on a hand-held GPS, and video record and photograph the lion so that they can later be individually identified by whisker patterns, scars, and other markings. This scrupulous examination is worlds apart from the safari experience taking place 16 km North in Tsavo East National Park.
As an Earthwatch volunteer I feel an enormous sense of privilege to have scientific access to a place off limits to Kenya's tourists. Two weeks living and working here is time enough to forge an intellectual and emotional connection with the environment and to really feel like you are significantly furthering the long-term conservation goals of this project. A first hand appreciation of the environmental and economic problems in this region of Kenya impact on the majority of volunteers who come here, equally, the experience of being a volunteer enthuses people to return home and inspire others.
This article also appears in the June edition of Global Magazine.