An exploration of ecology, conservation, environments and culture of Kenya.

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June 21 – Last day in Kenya. Mara – Nairobi – Amsterdam – Toronto – Home.

Sadly it was the last day in Kenya, sunny as always (our at least so it seems!). Breakfast was at 8am followed by the early-morning luggage packing and loading. Vervet monkeys showed up seemingly to say goodbye to us. We took a group photo with the staff before departure to help us remember the trip.

Group photo Mara Springs Safari Camp

We had a long drive to Jamo Kenyatta International Airport with a few short stops for lunch as well as souvenirs. Nairobi traffic unsurprisingly was crowded and loud. We had a taste of the foggy smoggy air too. We arrived safe and sound eventually.

Thank you Dr. Stephen Lougheed and Dr. Yuxiang Wang for this amazing field course. We appreciate the chance to learn and experience African nature and culture!

Goodbye Kenya! We loved you!

Thursday June 20 – Masai Mara

Chloe, Arjun, Shannon

A fortnight after our arrival, we awoke for our last full day in Kenya. At 7 am we had a hearty breakfast of crepes, taro, and maltabetta. We then had guest speakers (Eric, Jackson, William, and Patrick) from the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association. They taught us about the role of community conservancies in consolidating private land for wildlife conservation. Afterwards, we headed out to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

Upon arrival at the Sekenani Gate of Masai Mara, many vendors approached us and some of us bought some souvenirs. Our group was rife with excitement as we entered the reserve. During the drive we say many grazing and foraging animals, including zebra, giraffe, buffalo, and impala. We were thrilled to come across two male lions and a lioness lounging in the grass. We watched as the female walked over to nuzzle her mate before their affectionate encounter devolved into a brief lovers’ quarrel; even their softest snarls cracked like distant thunder. After that we saw a couple lone bull elephants feeding and herds of wildebeest migrating. Around 3 pm we reached the Mara River. Led by a ranger, we say many hippos and crocodiles, including a crocodile in the process of feeding on a wildebeest carcass. After a delicious meal of spaghetti and meatballs (Damian’s favourite), we gave a ride to some rangers to another point along the road. Along the way we stopped by the Tanzanian border.

On the way back to the gate we saw a female elephant cross a road and saw the rest of her herd in the bush with a couple calves. As the day waned, we witnessed the Maasai Mara sunset; its rosy fingers raised in farewell as our time in Kenya drew to a close. As twilight fell in full strength, a jackal loped through the bush by the roadside. After leaving the reserve we made our way back to camp. We saw herds of zebra and gazelle scamper away from our headlights, yet another reminder of the amazing abundance of megafauna (large animals) inhabiting this land.

We got back to the camp around 7 pm, where we had a dinner that included some amazing chicken and naan made by the Bunduz staff. We then worked on our field books and watched a slideshow that recounted some of the best moments of our trip.

Our last activity called “the bowl game”, a rendition of charades, closed our time at Maasai Mara with many laughs. We said exchanged bittersweet “goodnights” for our last night in Kenya.

Wednesday June 19 – Naivasha to Masai Mara

Kim, Damian and Nell

We started the day with a brilliant sunrise over the hillside along lake Naivasha. There was bird activity including a Pied Kingfisher and Great Cormorant. Also we surprisingly mistook an African Otter for a Hippopotamus!? This was all followed by a rapid camp disassembly and packing of the truck. Breakfast was picnic style with home fries, toast, sausage and passion fruit. We also had the pleasure of seeing Damian’s tiger tattoo (it exists). Kim made close contact with a colobus family.

We departed camp Carnelly’s at 9:30am ready for the 7-8 hour journey to Masai Mara. Fifteen minutes into the trip, we encountered 4-5 roadside Masai Giraffes feeding on flat top acacias. Amber’s whole trip was made. We continued to the town of Narok where we had a 45 minutes cultural/shopping endeavour in the town of Narok. The stop was a local mall with high security. Many of us picked up some Kenyan Java coffee. Our short walk around town was filled with welcomes and requests for purchasing items at ‘student prices’ from locals. By 1pm we headed in the HMS Tusker off for Mara Springs Safari Camp. We noticed a drastic change in topography. As well as plant life from lush dense agricultural setting to open Savannah’s with grazing livestock. Due to heavy construction we took a detour down side roads that were not well-maintained. This made us feel like we were in a HMS Tusker bounce house, leaving us both exhausted and somewhat nauseated. We look forward to paved roads and solid (flat) ground.

As we neared the Camp, there was a transition into condensed rural lifestyle. With higher prevalence of traditional Masai attire. We tumbled down the slanted valley hillside to camp. We excitedly jumped out of the HMS Tusker and could not wait to set up our tents. Sydney, Damian and Hayden went on a short excursion to catch the elusive “Skink” but came back with a Kenyan Dwarf Gecko. This his was followed by Dr. Lougheed’s affectionate expression towards their find and a lizard fashion shoot. Our night concluded with a much needed Bunduz dinner of white rice, vegetable sauce, fresh green beans/carrots, and fruit made by Eucabetha, Mia and Franco.

Tuesday June 18 – Last day at Lake Naivasha

Lexly, Elaina and Charlotte

This morning we started our day with a 7 am bird walk to look for terrestrial birds and discuss biodiversity surveys as a method to gather data for surrounding biodiversity. We observed a giant king fisher and its nest, sunbirds, tropical boubous, and ring neck doves.

We finished our article presentations throughout the day. We listened to presentations by Chloe, Elaina, Lexly, Charlotte, David, and Arjun and had the opportunity to discuss each subject. We gained insights through Chloe’s presentation about the evolutionary origins of species assemblages and Arjun’s presentation on the evolution of African plants. David presented his article focused on using satellite data to model chimpanzee habitat in Africa and provided insight to the importance of computational modelling in conservation. Elaina presented on culture-based tourism, Charlotte presented about cultural and biological significance of Kaya forests, and Lexly’s was about the effectiveness of community-based conservation. All in all a varied and informative set of presentations!

We had the opportunity to welcome a guest lecturer Silas Wanjala of the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association. He discussed the ecohydrology of Lake Naivasha. We learned about the catchment of the lake and about what makes Lake Naivasha unique in the area, as well as the variety of human activities that have influenced the water quality and lake ecosystem. Silas emphasized the importance of riparian zones for healthy ecosystem function and the conservation strategies to preserve these areas of vegetation.

Around 2:30 pm we ventured off for a boat ride with local tour guides to observe the shoreline of Lake Naivasha. We saw birds such as the great white pelican, pink backed pelican, African fish eagle, giant king fisher, pied king fisher, marabou, purple heron, grey heron, hammerkop, blacksmith lapwing, sacred ibis, hadada ibis, little grebe, great egret, little egret, black crake, jacana, and grey headed gull. We were also lucky to see a few colobus monkeys climbing through the acacia trees, and MANY hippos playing and relaxing.

Once we returned, we listened to Dr. Wang as he gave us a water chemistry lecture. We learned about important environmental variables such as temperature, gas, and osmolarity, with a focus on oxygen availability for organisms.

We ended the day by packing up to prepare for our next and last destination Masai Mara! Until next time …

Monday June 17th – Lake Naivasha

Sherry, Sydney and Ying

A group of us got up around 6:00 am this morning to watch the sunrise over Lake Naivasha. At 7:00 am we went on a bird watch along the shore, spotting birds like cormorants, egrets, pelicans, and herons. Dr. Lougheed spent some time educating us on the evolution of birds, their classification, and families that may be found at Naivasha. At 8:00 am we had a delicious breakfast of fried plantains, pancakes, fruit, and toast. Soon after, we listened to critiques of some articles presented by Sherry, Sydney, Kim, Hayden, Amber, and Silvi. The topics covered in these papers included the history of land use and people in different regions of Kenya, as well as biodiversity hotspots and conservation of birds and mammals in Africa. Many of our article presentations were sabotaged by the incessant calls of the helmeted guinea fowl, but it’s all part of the fun of taking a field course. Halfway through our presentations, we took a break and noticed a pair of hippos approaching the shoreline. From a safe distance, we watched as one came onto shore to mark its territory before laying down to soak up the sun. 

After the article presentations, we had lunch, followed by some free time to either work on our projects or hone our skills in hacky sack. Around 3:00pm we gathered into 5 groups to compete in a friendly geocaching competition. The competition consisted of locating 12 points indicated by coordinates, all with a question about biology that we had to collect and answer. The questions were designed to test our knowledge on topics that we had covered on the trip thus far, such as endangered species, Kenyan history, and geography. The first group back with all questions answered got the most points. The competition was fierce, with many of us braving a spiky bush to finnishthe fastest. It was a fun time to practice our newly learned GPS skills and newfound knowledge of Kenya with a bit of competition. 

Afterwards, we all gathered at a lounge nearby to hang out and play some ping pong, in which Damian was undefeated against 6 opponents, including our very own Dr. Wang. At the lounge, some of us tried our hand at catching some of the local lizards but were largely unsuccessful. Heading back to camp, we saw a group of 8 colobus monkeys jumping between the trees nearby. They’re known for stealing anything they can get their hands on, so thankfully they stayed high up in the canopies. 

Later that evening, we had a tasty dinner provided by our Bunduz cooks. After dinner, Dr. Wang presented a lecture on water issues in Kenya, which focused on water use and the conflicts surrounding it. It was very insightful, as it also included information about issues around Lake Naivasha specifically, which is where we are staying. For instance, Lake Naivasha is a centre for horticulture and agribusiness, with 70% of Kenyan flower production occurring in this area. However, this is an issue, as many Kenyans have difficulty accessing potable water, much less freshwater in general. After a long day of excitement and learning, we all headed to bed pretty early in preparation for another early rise tomorrow morning. 

Sunday June 16th – Nanyuki to Lake Naivasha

Arjun, Chloe and Shannon

Today we celebrated Chloe’s 21stbirthday with a sunny and peaceful travel day. The morning was busy with packing, taking down the tents, and getting ready to go to Camp Carnalley’s beside Lake Naivasha. Breakfast was delicious and filled our bellies for the seven-hour drive; we had toast, sunny side up eggs, potatoes, sausages and pineapples. We then packed our lunches and the truck; but couldn’t leave before some last-minute selfies and a friendly splits competition between Shannon and Mia! Damian, Nell, Kim, Lexly, Elaina, and a lot of us were big helps with loading the truck!

Shortly into our long drive, we made a quick pit stop to get a group photo right on the equator in Nanyuki!

Along the drive, we all spotted some pretty cool stuff. Here are our biological and cultural observations:

  1. Agriculture crops: We mostly noticed small-scale crops including corn, sorghum, potatoes, cabbage; all of the vegetables that you can imagine, and bananas too. We also noticed some livestock operations. The intensity of patches of farmland became more apparent as we approached GilGil where virtually every patch of land had crops on it. This suggests that many of these towns depend on agriculture.
  2. Phytogeography and topography: Along our bumpy ride, we first observed mostly trees, bushes and grasses around 2000m elevation. As we dipped into the valley, it was mostly larger deciduous trees.
  3. Wildlife: We were very excited to spot a few giraffes, zebras, southern white rhinoceros, buffalos, camels, monkeys, donkeys, and several other mammals.
  4. Towns: We spotted a town every once in a while during the drive, each of them typically having their own general store, butchery, chemist, and farms. There was often crowds of people outside socializing, shopping, selling, or just out for a walk. Most of the towns also had small medical clinics, schools, hotels, as well as lots of churches and mosques. We noticed that buildings were often painted the same in every town which we predict may be for advertising purposes.

We finally arrived around 4PM to Camp Carnalley’s and eagerly unpacked and set up our tents. We then checked out the beautiful view of the lake and saw some cool birds including eagles, pelicans, giant kingfisher and two pied kingfishers. A couple of the lucky ones even spotted a hippo in the far distance!

We all helped out to prepare for dinner; peeling potatoes, cutting up vegetables, mashing the squash, and washing lunchboxes. We sat down to enjoy impeccable squash soup, mashed potatoes, fried okras and cabbage, chicken, and watermelon for dessert.

We finished the day with a short debrief.

Egyptian goose on edge of Lake Naivasha

Saturday June 15th – Second full day at the base of Mt. Kenya

Chloe, Shannon, and Arjun

Half of us woke up early in the morning for a peaceful stroll down the road to see some birds at 7 am. The rest of us managed to sleep through the horrific, ghastly, somewhat traumatizing screeches of the roosters.

Those of us who did go saw common fiscal shrikes, also known as butcher birds. This name stems from the fact that they kill their prey by impaling them upon acacia thorns to store food for later feeding, resulting in an array of corpses akin to meat hung in a butcher’s shop. We also saw some African fire finches, and an augur buzzard perched on a pole. We witnessed a puny shrike attempt to attack the buzzard, which was many times its size. The only sign that the buzzard even registered the shrike was a mere twitch of its head.

We got back from the bird walk just in time for breakfast at 8:00 am. As always, the amazing Bunduz staff prepared the meal. We had fresh omelettes made in front of us and got them hot off the pan.

At 9:30 we gathered in ‘The Dungeon’ (not an actual one as it has compy chairs) to listen to the rest of the debates and article reviews. First up was Hayden, Amber, and Silvi with a discussion on debt-for-nature swaps, wherein a nation’s debt is partially bought by a conservation organization and is forgiven if the country takes certain conservation measures. Then came a debate about traditional medicine and its impact on biodiversity by Charlotte, Elaina, and Lexly. Then finally Nell, Damian, and Kimberly had a debate on international treaties for conservation.

Damian, Nell, and Kim debating

Then we had a break for lunch, the highlight of which was the mango pudding.

Nell reacts to mango pudding

After our break it was back to the dungeon for article reviews. First off was Ying discussing a paper on latitudinal gradients in biodiversity. Next, Damien discussed a paper that sought to determine the extent of habitat fragmentation in the eastern arc mountains in East Africa. Then Shannon presented a paper on phylogenetic endemism in amphibians that sought to determine if amphibian refugia were adequately protected by conservation areas. Nell was the last to go today, and discussed a paper on the bush meat trade in the savannas of Africa. Having finished the day’s article presentations, some of us took a yoga break:

Yoga at Camp Angiri

At 5 pm, we all went on another bird walk around the area and saw a hadada ibis, a grey bird with an elegant curved beak and an irredescent sheen on the outer surface of its wings, fly away furiously at our approach with a flurry of its stubby wings. We saw a black saw wing, a species of swallow identified by its striking black colouration and a deeply forked tail. We also saw a crushed chameleon on the road.

Dr. Lougheed gave a short lesson on how to properly identify birds. The lesson started in a grassy, open area, until some military guys showed up and ‘kindly’ told us that this was military land that was unmarked. And so we continued our lesson on the roadside. We learned that the shape of a bird’s bill can tell you much about the ecology of the bird. For example, if you see a bird with a wide flattened beak, it is likely that its main prey are insects.

Bird identification lesson

After getting back to the camp, we worked on article presentations and did our laundry, until dinner at 7:30 pm, which included some magnificently flavoured beef stew, noodles and rice. We then sat around the fire and socialized with each other and some Kenyans we met around the fire.

Friday June 14 – First day at the foot of Mt Kenya

Damo, N-dog, and K-unit. (aka Damian, Nell and Kim)

We arose to a brisk morning, sky filled with ceros clouds and sounds of active passerines ready to greet the day. All were well-satiated with a wonderful breakfast of sausage, fried mushroom, mystery potato, and mango prepared by our skilled Bunduz kitchen staff. Shortly after we departed for Timaflour 4 rose farm in Central Meru. Where we were warmly welcomed by Simon van der Burg (proprietor), and Simon Jr. whom led us on our tour. We learned that most flowers supplied to Holland originate from flower farms in Kenya cultivated by hard-working Kenyan locals. Which commenced with an open sheeted greenhouse containing 2-year old juvenile white roses. Exterior design has an extended roof segment that acts as a ventilatory structure. Next, we were shown the fertigation room where 26 hectares of mix fertilizer product are combined through a pipe with flower feed. The proceeding greenhouse was flooded with mature 8-year old white roses as well. Most of these species are tetra/quatroploid which increases susceptibility to color mutations. Water supplied to each greenhouse is collected from rainfall and 45% of energy powering the farm is solar. He also keenly mentioned that back-up generators are used in case of frequent loss of power. Another issue is the contamination of individual roses within a crop with white fly, spider mite and Phytocillus. An infestation is detected via intermittent sampling by ‘’Scouts’’ every few meters within a line of stock and marked with a color-coded flag. The white fly can also induce secondary infection known as triumph fungus. Another innovative method known as ‘’grafting’’ conducted by an external company is used to increase production by 30% Where a multitude of young stalks are grown from a single rose stem. Different species are also fused together to form ornamental hybrids. The tour progressed through each department of the rose harvesting operation from short-term storage to sorting and final packaging before shipment.

Soon after we returned to Angiri camp to feast on a delectable lunch by our Bunduz chefs (rice and peas, beans, meatballs, green beans and slices of pineapple. D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S. After refueling we geared up for a hike near the Burguret river basin at the base of Mount Kenya. The beginning of the hike had clear signs of human influence within the pastoral setting. Creating loose dry soils and an open landscape from grazers. The objective of the hike was to locate wildlife, and identify species of reptiles, mammals, plants, insects and butterflies. Our knowledgeable guides Julius and Mike displayed their fine expertise on the surrounding flora and fauna by differentiating between poisonous and edible plants. As well in the identification of animal tracks. Due to the time of day and considerable heat, there was a noticeable absence in animal activity. However, there was a continual presence of fresh elephant, water buck, antelope and sheep scat. As we almost neared the desired destination, we unfortunately had to high tail it back to the HMS Tusker. Upon hiking downhill, some students went off the beaten path, but luckily reencountered the rest of the group before ending up as hyena chow. At last we arrived at Angiri camp just in time to commence the shower race where some of us figured out how to turn on the hot water while others suffered in polar temperatures. To top off the day, we had a wonderful meal, again by our Bunduz pals (Mia, Franco, and Eucabetha).

Thursday June 13 – Nairobi to Nanyuki

Charlotte, Lexly, Elaina

Our day started with breakfast at 8 am, which was followed by the first of our student debates. Group 1 (Chloe, Arjun, Shannon) were the first to present and they argued the usefulness of ex-situ strategies for conservation. Arjun was the proponent and discussed the benefits of ex-situ strategies such as replenishing diminishing populations of small animals. In addition, he emphasized the importance of public education on conservation. Chloe was the opponent and discussed the limitations of ex-situ strategies and emphasized the importance of whole ecosystem conservation and resolving the main cause of the decreasing population.  As the moderator, Shannon led the group discussion and summarized the points discussed. Group 2 (Sydney, Sherry, Ying) followed with their debate and argued that trophy hunting is a valuable tool to generate money for local conservation and benefit local communities. As the proponent Sherry highlighted the positive economic benefit of trophy hunting for conservation. Sydney, the opponent, talked about the pressure that trophy hunting puts on natural populations, as well as the ethical concerns. As the moderator, Ying summarized the points made from each side and engaged the class in a lively discussion.

After lunch, we packed the truck and browsed the goods of a vendor present at Kolping Conference Center, many of us buying a few things as souvenirs. Shortly after, we boarded the bus and travelled about 4 hours to Angiri Camp, near the town of Nanyuki, near Mount Kenya. Along the drive, we observed an abundant amount of green forest, small farms and grazing livestock, and many school kids who were very excited to see us. We arrived at Angiri Camp around 5:00 pm and immediately began to set up our tents.

In the evening, we had the pleasure of welcoming our guest lecturer Mordecai Ogada.  He elaborated on the paradigms related to conservation and challenged many of the dominant ways of thinking. He brought attention to the issues of elitism and racism in African conservation. He emphasized the need to consider human culture and history, along with animal populations. He used examples of conservation failures, such as transportation of rhinos from South Africa to Chad to show the need for a more multidisciplinary approach to conservation, particularly in Africa. Dr. Ogada concluded his lecture by stressing the importance of wildlife conservation being integrated with human populations, rather than isolating protected areas and separating them from humans.

After our lecture, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, cooked by our friends Mia Mia, Franco, and Eucabeth. We will explore our new home for the next 4 days, and enjoyed a bon fire and played pool.

Wednesday June 12 – UNEP & National Museum

This morning we awoke at 6:00 am to have breakfast at 6:30 am. Breakfast was amazing as usual, prepared by our wonderful Bunduz cooks. Breakfast consisted of fried plantains, sausages, beans, toast, and fresh fruit. After eating breakfast, we prepared boxed lunches to get ready for the journey ahead and a busy day.

We hopped on the beast of a machine, the HMS Tusker (a large retrofitted Scania truck), and drove two hours across Nairobi to the United Nations headquarters. The distance itself was short but turned into quite the slog with heavy traffic. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our tour guide, Joy, who gave us our UN tour passes (only after we had passed through security!). After an introductory presentation about the UN and its different departments as well as its goals and programs, we headed on a tour of the extensive compound. In the presentation we learned about the six official languages of the UN (English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic) and that Nairobi is one of the four main headquarters, along with New York, Geneva, and Vienna. On our tour, we talked about many of the UN’s programs such as UNICEF (for children’s rights), UNMAS (removing land mines), and the UNEP (environmental program). Joy then led us to a conference room where delegates meet to talk about policy and other issues. Afterward, we took a tour of the courtyard and surrounding gardens, which were filled with trees and sculptures given to the UN from other nations. Some of the most interesting sculptures depicted a variety of environmental issues such as climate change, poaching, and deforestation. We were then lead to the UNEP building which is known for its green initiatives such as its use of natural lighting, collection of rainwater, natural heating and cooling, and use of green energy. To finish our tour we were shown the memorial garden that was planted for the 200 individuals that passed during the terrorist attack on the US embassy during 1998.

After the tour, we boarded our truck and had our boxed lunches on the way to our next stop, the National Museum of Nairobi. The museum consisted of a variety of exhibits including birds of Kenya, mammals of Africa, the history of Kenya, the evolution of humans, and Kenyan traditions. We then headed to the herpetology exhibit (Serpentarium) with live snakes, tortoises, and a variety of lizards. There was also an aquarium in the same location with plenty of native Kenyan fish. We saw a variety of venomous snakes including black mambas, puff adders, carpet vipers, and cobras. We even had the amazing opportunity to interact with a young African rock python and two chameleons. Last on our list was stopping through the museum’s gift shop to get some trinkets and then we headed back to the Kolping Conference Centre, tired after our long day of excursions. After dinner we did a ‘debrief’ of the day and discussed the many values of museums like the one we visited this day.

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