Conservation in the changing landscape of Kenya
There are times in life when you find yourself doing something that you never thought you would. This is one of those times. We are on a remote hillside in Northern Kenya collecting bones from outside a leopard's den. And there is a leopard inside.
We know this because there are fresh tracks leading into the den and Samuel Andanje, the lead scientist for our expedition and a senior scientist with Kenya Wildlife Service, can hear low growling noises inside the rocky crevice. "Don't block the entrance and work quickly and quietly," he whispers. And strangely we do - calmly gathering up the various skulls, femurs and vertebrae which are littered around the area. It is a mark of our respect for the scientists with us that we suppress the natural tendency to put distance between ourselves and a large predator and accept their assurances that the leopard is more frightened of us than we are of it.
This project is at the cutting edge of a critical problem, probably the greatest one now facing Africa's carnivores - the increasingly frequent conflicts between humans and wildlife as competition grows for land and resources. Kenya's population has doubled over the last 25 years and we are visiting at the end of the worst drought in living memory. The dry riverbeds and cattle carcases which scatter the scorched landscape testify to the unmerciful severity of the elements.
Most of the 25,000 km2 area where the project runs is well off the tourist trail. Vast plains of semi-desert, dotted with lonely rock formations, are surrounded on every horizon by mountains or extinct volcanoes which shimmer in the heat. The deep-red, dry earth is too poor for crops and the indigenous Samburu people are nomadic pastoralists whose lives have always revolved around their cattle. The number of cattle a man owns signifies wealth and they are rarely killed, milk and blood forming the basis of the diet. During periods of drought they dig in the bottom of riverbeds in search of elusive water, but as we drive around it is clear that people here, despite their supreme adaptation to the environment, are really suffering this year.
The Samburu are a beautiful and culturally-rich people although they are amongst the poorest in the country, years of drought leaving them dependent on food aid. Everywhere our vehicle is met with warm smiles which Samuel tells us is because Earthwatch projects have delivered tangible benefits for the community. The landscape has a feeling of wildness and timelessness that is in some ways deceptive. Because change is happening here.
The Samburu have coexisted with wildlife for centuries, but in recent times the rapidly growing population, and the tendency to become more sedentary - staying closer to the few schools and clinics - has caused problems. Overgrazing has led to degradation of the grasslands through soil compaction, surface runoff, seed loss and erosion, and this year's drought has killed a high proportion of the cattle. Those that remain have been moved up into the surrounding mountains in the hope of finding some scarce grazing. As we drive around only goats, sheep, donkeys and the odd camel are in evidence.
The vast herds of herbivores which once grazed the Samburu savannahs have been drastically reduced through hunting, competition with livestock and habitat degradation. And as their preferred prey has disappeared, the large predators - hyena, lion, leopard, cheetah and hunting dog - are increasingly turning to domestic livestock. Inevitably this has led to retaliatory burning of dens and poisoning, shooting or spearing of carnivores by affected communities. The Earthwatch Carnivores in Conflict project aims to better understand the ecology of large predators in order to reduce such conflicts. Key to this is engaging local communities to ensure they are active participants in wildlife conservation and research, both by tapping into their knowledge of predator whereabouts and by improving herding practices to minimise conflict and foster coexistence.
We have been brought to this den by a Samburu moran or warrior. He leads the way, springing away elegantly with the ease of a mountain goat while we volunteers make slow and painful progress, unpicking ourselves from the grip of thorny bushes. Like all morans he is bedecked in full tribal finery (shocking pink seems a particular favourite) and endless beads. Morans are responsible for guarding their community and livestock from raiding parties and spend much of their time living in the bush. Bizarrely, despite their eye-catching dress, they have an uncanny ability to melt into the landscape in a moment.
At each den all the bones are collected to identify prey species along with any predator scats. Information about the site is recorded and at active dens, camera-traps are set. Nelson Owange, one of the team leaders, also collects ticks from active dens as he studies the transmission of parasites and diseases between wildlife and livestock. Like the rest of East Africa's animals the ticks are spectacular. Other volunteer tasks include investigating carnivore kills, recording herding practices and carrying out transects to count livestock and wildlife. We visit villages and homesteads to gather information accompanied by Edie, a Samburu elder, who translates. Families live in manyattas, huts made from sticks, mud and dung. The homestead is surrounded by a barrier of acacia branches and within this there are bomas, pens where livestock are kept at night, surrounded by another thorny fence. The Earthwatch project is examining how simple changes in boma design can prevent livestock attacks.
Our surveys reveal considerably less wildlife in community areas than in the Samburu National Reserve. Somehow it seems more special to see wildlife outside protected areas and this is undoubtedly where the difficult conservation challenges lie, particularly for wide-ranging predators. One evening we came across a large herd of endangered Grevy's zebra. Grazing peacefully they appeared oblivious to our presence and, every now and then, one would roll sending up hazy clouds of dust, red against the dying sun. As we watched, I couldn't help wondering whether it will still be possible to see scenes like this in a few years.
We visit a community conservancy to collect conflict data - records made when carnivores attack livestock or people. Conservancies originate from land that is communally owned and potentially offer a way forward outside protected areas. They have a goal of protecting wildlife alongside indigenous livestock practices, and distributing the benefit of an area's wildlife heritage to the whole community. Tourism is potentially an important source of income, but this remote region is not on the tourist trail, and all too often local people see little benefit when tourists zoom across their ancestral homeland in 4x4s.
And that's how an Earthwatch project is different from the usual ‘holiday'. The days are long and there is a lot of data to process, but you get to see the Kenya tourists don't; to meet local people and discuss the challenges they are facing, rather than seeing their culture reduced to a sideshow. You also work with scientists who have a critical role in wildlife conservation and developing sustainable livelihoods for local communities. Samuel is an inspirational individual, driven by a great passion for his country's wildlife. The Carnivores project has implications not just for Kenya, but the whole of Africa, yet it only runs when Earthwatch volunteer teams are there.
We come across a cow recently killed by hyenas, a sobering find which graphically illustrates the issues the community faces. Apparently the hyenas will come back tonight for the carcase. Samuel is worried that villagers may poison the remains. The problem is suddenly starkly obvious. Is it reasonable to expect people who are struggling to survive - the majority of Samburu live on less than $1 a day - to tolerate such threats to livelihood and life? On the other hand, Kenya's large predators are also in real trouble. The lion population, for example, has plunged from some 30,000 in the 1970s to around 2000. Since 2002 it has been dropping by an average of 100 lions a year. If this rate continues lions will be extinct in Kenya within 20 years.
As we make our way back, a red-chested cuckoo in an acacia tree insists ‘It-will-rain, It-will-rain'. And it does, a heavy, persistent downpour that floods the roads. The country is transforming before our eyes. Carpets of grass and flowers are appearing, trees become green and water is flowing in the cracked river beds. Everywhere is a palpable sense of relief that the rains have finally come. But the drought-stricken landscape we saw on our arrival seems an ominous vision of the future. There are areas where no grass is growing - as a result of degradation there are simply no seeds left to grow when the rains arrive. This causes yet more runoff and a vicious spiral ensues, eventually leading to desertification.
For most Samburu the traditional lifestyle still prevails, but there is a feeling of a culture at a crossroads. Finding sustainable solutions to human-wildlife conflict is far from easy but has now reached a critical point. The next few years will determine whether large carnivores can be part of Samburu's future or just a memory.
Report by Abi Burns.
Volunteer on the Earthwatch project Samburu Communities and Wildlife.