Samburu the Ghostland
Samburu was a ghostland. There were a hundred times when I felt the heavy glare of eyes that sent shivers up my spine. But when turning to look each time, there was nothing in sight except a hazy horizon rippled by heat waves, moonlight, or bony acacia trees.
Stark, pure, prickly and barren, the Wamba region of Samburu is the inhospitable home to the nomadic Masaai tribe of western Kenya. They come and go like the wind; invisible, invincible, and omnipresent, all at the same time. From a distance, they would watch us work. Even when dressed in the earth-tone garb of the ecology-obsessed environmentalist, the eagle-eye precision of the murran warriors was startling, as was my blind oblivion to their sporadic, colourful appearances.
It wasn't just their divine power of sight, sound, smell, and survival, but their uncanny sense of direction which guided my research team daily through 11 kilometres of thorny brush and monotonous topography to our exact starting point. Trailing behind in their footsteps with a GPS device, we shook our heads in disbelief and laughed.
Heading 140 miles towards Mt Kenya into the southern wing of Kenya's Samburu region, we next arrived in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy which occupies 62,000 acres of open savannah plains and distantly rolling hills. A protected, natural sanctuary for the endangered black and white Rhino and Grevy's zebra species, mammalians live within the crossroads of tranquillity and fear as the daytime brings lazy meandering and hearty grazing, a luxury which hastily dissipates with the setting of the sun.
Near dinnertime, the awaited hunt begins, and in the back seat of our four-wheel drive, I again felt the pang of a stare. Using a torch to unveil the darkness, the glinting eyes of two lionesses appeared, ablaze with hunger, as they stealthily encircled a pack of unwary gazelles. They watched us too.
Few visitors to Kenya have traipsed through the cracked abysses of dried-up riverbeds and clustered oasis of calendula and aloes in Wamba. Even fewer have driven by the odd peaks of monoliths towering out of crusty earth and witnessed the flash of sienna tails, ruffled ostrich feathers, and the snap reflexes of feral Bovidae in their natural habitats. Only four people saw the unzipped carcass of the lion's attack that night in Lewa. And I was the lucky student who received the £1,000 first prize scholarship and the chance to experience visceral, surreal Samburu, one of 130 conservation expeditions funded by Earthwatch.
I chose the Samburu Conservation Research Initiative for three reasons. First, the project was in dire need of both funding and volunteers, so I was compelled to put the scholarship award to good use. Second, unlike the majority of other expeditions, this project offered the chance to work on two research initiatives in two vastly different locations in Kenya. Third, part of the research focused on traditional homeopathic treatments for diseases, such as typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria, using indigenous flora and fauna with medicinal properties, and this fascinated me.
Being selected as an Earthwatch Student Scholar was more than an honourable accolade or rare opportunity to walk the corners of the Earth. It was a springboard to mould my passion for environmental conservation into viable practice and tangible results. My parents taught me that hard work builds character and, it does. Environmental research is not a walk in the park and can often push you to your limits. The Samburu project, for example, involved working in the battering African heat of 115 degree temperatures from sunrise to mid-afternoon, followed by hours of meticulous data entry.
But the fruits of labour are far rewarding - the research will be developed into best practices for conserving medicinal plants, some which may become life-saving treatments. Furthermore, the data will inform environmental policy on how to ameliorate the human-wildlife conflict for scarce resources, such as water and forage.
Volunteering with Earthwatch for 14 days seemed like a spec in the universe of time, but as the memorable philanthropist Albert Schweitzer contests: 'You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others-something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.' I wholeheartedly concur.
By Agnes Gambill