Connecting with nature in the African bush
There is a world of difference between seeing and experiencing African wildlife on foot, and from a noisy van, engine running. The Earthwatch project Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos provides this opportunity - to walk in the African bush and truly connect with the wildlife, at the same time making a valuable contribution to its preservation. Earthwatch is addictive, and Africa gets in the blood and always calls you back. Having already experienced an Earthwatch project in Kenya (Elephants of Tsavo), I still had the ambition to walk in the bush. So in August 2010 I set off to join the project at Ol Pejeta to monitor black rhinos.
Valerie (second from left) and members of the team.
In the 1970s there were approximately 65,000 black rhinoceroses worldwide, about 20,000 of which were in Kenya. There are now around 2,500 remaining worldwide, of which 539 are in Kenya and 83 within the Ol Pejeta conservancy in the Laikipia area. It is the largest sanctuary for black rhinos in East Africa and provides protection (particularly from poachers), as well as work in conservation and community development more widely. The overall aim is to achieve conservation through models that produce tangible benefits locally, nationally and internationally.
23 August 2010
Eleven volunteers from five different countries, ranging in age from 16 to 60s, set off from the rendezvous point on the drive to Ol Pejeta, weaving our way out of bustling Nairobi through small villages, coffee and tea plantations, and stopping for lunch at a restaurant situated in a tree house shared by Colobus monkeys. On entering the reserve near Nanyuki the landscape immediately changed and game was abundant: gazelles, eland, impala, waterbuck, baboons and innumerable zebra. The sun set and the African full moon rose above the rondavels and the tin-roofed research centre building that was to be our home for the next two weeks.
24 August 2010 - training day
Excellent training and briefing was provided by the lead scientist, Geoffrey Wahungu, and the field team leader, Lucy Mureu. The project focuses on the importance of acacia (acacia drepanolobium) to the whole ecosystem as the main diet of rhinos and other browsers. It is thus vital to assess how much damage is being done to the acacia savanna woodlands; whether trees are being removed faster than they are being replaced; how rapid any change is; and the effect of low rainfall. Volunteers were taught how to distinguish between rhino, elephant and giraffe damage to acacia, as well as the importance of ants to the ecosystem as they can deter these large herbivores from damaging plants. An important safety briefing was also provided.
25 - 27 August 2010 - acacia monitoring
The sun rose, lighting up the flat topped thorn trees so characteristic of the African bush. The roads were still sodden from the rain, so we had to walk an extra few kilometres from the Landrover to the plot, past zebra, gazelles and a herd of buffalo grazing peacefully on the ridge of the hill. It was amazing to be out in the bush, watched by giraffe peering over the bushes as we worked.
The next morning just after 6am, an excited cry from one of the volunteers brought us out of our rooms to see a lone bull elephant feeding just 100 metres from the camp, but it had moved on by the time we walked off (using GPS) to the plot where we were to spend most of the day. The task of counting acacia trees and seedlings in 20 x 20 metre squares on the first day was followed by other similar activities - measuring the growth of tagged trees, checking for animal damage to seedlings and even counting the thorns on branches. Always looking for ants, whose level of aggression can affect tree damage by elephants and giraffe, we soon noticed a general correlation between their presence and lack of damage to plants. And then as we drove back to the camp we saw white rhinos, the first of many sightings of both black and white rhinos.
Afternoons were spent entering data onto excel spread sheets, but with some free time, and other activities such as afternoon or evening game drives, walks to identify animal tracks and dung, or to the nearby hippo pool where unfortunately the rains had meant they had congregated elsewhere. Visits to the luxury camp next door (where the swimming pool can be used for a small charge) were possible and there were excellent talks by staff and others from the conservancy. Evenings were spent sitting round the camp fire - with wide ranging discussion on conservation issues.
28 August - walking with rhinos
After three days measuring acacias, we set off early for our first 8 km transect walk to monitor wildlife. We saw literally hundreds of impala, gazelles, zebra, buck and giraffe and then a family of rhino peacefully grazing - but this time we were on foot, about 100 metres away - such a very different experience. That afternoon we visited a nearby sanctuary for chimpanzees.
Valerie gets down to her research tasks.
29 August 2010 - free day, the flamingoes of Nakuru
On our free day, we got up at 4.30am to drive to Nakuru. I was thrilled to be able to do this, having in mind the ‘flamingo shot' taken from the air in the film Out of Africa. The scenery changed as we came down the escarpment into the Rift Valley and, at the lake, the sight of thousands if not millions of pink flamingoes as far as the eye could see was totally amazing.
30 August -2 September 2010 - walking the transects
The second week was spent on longer walks to monitor wildlife. Volunteers could select the transect length they wished to do each day, varying from 3 to 10 kms. An alternative activity was the monitoring of endangered Jackson's hartebeest. It was cold setting out at dawn with the guides and researchers and sitting on a bale of hay in the back of the truck wasn't exactly glamorous - but so very much better than being in a luxury tourist vehicle.
The beauty of the African sky.
Further expeditions took place and we got a real feel for the reserve and its abundant wildlife. Truly, being on foot is such a different experience, giving a real feeling of ‘connecting' with the wildlife.
3 September 2010 - community day
The ‘community day' began with a visit to the conservancy's headquarters from where its cattle farming is coordinated. Techniques for mitigating human-wildlife conflict were explained, including how this affects elephants, rhinos and carnivores. Conflict is most acute in areas where animal species coexist with, or border on, human populations that are dependent on basic agricultural production and income from the land. Conflict can be mitigated in a number of ways, including good land use planning; tourism development and benefit sharing; compensation payment; and animal relocation or control (with the use of barriers such as electric fences, ditches, walls and repellents ranging from chemicals to bees). Government policies can be influenced but conflict between conservation and food production is very challenging, requiring a centralized, well coordinated approach and good resources.
Mixing wildlife conservation with cattle farming works well at Ol Pejeta. The cattle (approximately 5,500) eat down the poor grassland and help fertilise the ground with their manure. This is carefully controlled and results in the growth of a richer type of grass in concentrated areas, which also attracts game to those areas leading to much better viewing for tourists.
A visit to a local health centre followed, and then moving on to a cultural village, volunteers had the opportunity to view reconstructions of typical Masai, Samburu and Turkana houses and watch traditional dancing. Finally, a women's co-operative showed how local ‘cottage' industries could be promoted so that home working on woollen rugs, jumpers and scarves could be productive.
4 - 5 September 2010 - the exciting last days
With just two days left, I was determined to make the most of my last opportunities to walk in the bush and connect with the wildlife, and with two guards, four of us set off on a 10 km transect along by the river.
On the very last day Mount Kenya was visible in all its glory in the bright early morning light and it was a fabulous day for a last ‘walk on the wild side'. As we drove to the transect, from the safety of the vehicle we saw a magnificent lone bull elephant, hyaenas, gazelles, zebra, giraffe - and rhinos too. We started the hike and some beautiful oryx watched us walk by and then at about 120 metres a herd of about 150 buffalo. They seemed less friendly than others we had seen and fixed us with rather unnerving stares. We gave them a wide berth. That night I heard lions - an amazing experience.
Valerie enjoyed experiencing African wildlife during the expedition.
6 September and afterwards
It would not be honest of me if I didn't say that I sometimes wondered what I was doing looking for an acacia seedling 20 cms high on the plains of Africa, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. If you are looking for a jolly walking holiday, well it is emphatically not that. It's hard, repetitive work, but going to Africa to connect, to see sunrises and sunsets, the bush, the stars, the way a giraffe moves, a lion hunting, eagles circling - not to mention the hubbub of Nairobi, the way of life, the faces of the children ... this will change your life I guarantee it.
It's a sort of gap year for grown-ups who don't have much spare time. Every day I kept thinking - this is the best day so far ... If you want the experience of a lifetime, to really connect with the African bush and feel that you can help and make a difference to the local community, to Kenya, and to save these species for all of us - then go for it.
Earthwatch volunteer Valerie Shrimplin, December 2010
Join the Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos expedition.