From grey to green

How an almost dead landscape is transformed back into a wildlife paradise by livestock – by Christiane Flechtner

Kenya – Kunsang Ling looks through her binoculars. What the Canadian sees makes the corners of her mouth move upwards: “A cheetah with six young animals,” shouts the 38-year-old to her team in the 4×4 vehicle. Just a few years ago, this region of Kenya consisted of little more than barren earth. Dead, dusty land devoid of life. But little by little, the grey is changing into green – and with it zebras, wildebeests and antelopes are reclaiming their former territory.

Counting wildlife from the back of a 4×4 (c) C. Flechtner

The Canadian is one of twelve international citizen scientists on a wildlife conservation expedition to Kenya, conducted for the second time by the non-profit nature conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions. The organisation is known for its successful involvement of lay helpers in species conservation projects worldwide and has been working hand in hand with people and biologists in various project areas since 1999 – including the Enonkishu Conservancy in southwest Kenya. “We want to help scientists to conduct their research projects successfully,” explains Malika Fettak, the NGO’s expedition Leader in Kenya. “To this end, we recruit motivated people who help collect data and help hands-on during their holidays.”

Widlife of Enonkishu, all photos (c) C. Flechtner

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Kenya is one of the countries with the highest population growth worldwide. From 1960 to 2017, the number of inhabitants rose from 8.1 million to 49.7 million – an increase of a full 513 percent. In the next 25 years, the number is expected to double again. The country is groaning under the burden of a overpopulation and the associated expanding infrastructure, which increasingly encroaches on animal habitats. In just three decades, the species-rich country has lost almost 70 percent of its wildlife – on the one hand through the destruction of its habitat, and on the other through the effects of climate change with extreme droughts.
The 1,700-hectare area of Enonkishu Conservancy, located around 240 kilometres south-west of the capital Nairobi, also since ceased to be a habitat for wild animals. It is a buffer zone between the famous Mara Serengeti ecosystem and civilisation.

The land belonged to 32 different landowners, who used it as farmland for corn or bean cultivation and cattle breeding – and overused it enormously. The excessive number of livestock led to extreme soil erosion. In order to counteract the devastation, the landowners joined together in 2009 to form a community and transformed the area into a conservancy, a protected area jointly managed by the local population.

The thousands of years old behavioural patterns of wild animals served as a model for rewilding of the area: “Here, the great migration of the wildebeest through the Serengeti has been imitated on a small scale,” explains the expedition leader. The wildebeest not only loosen the soil with their hooves, but also fertilise it with their dung. Then they move on, and the grazed green grass can grow again. “Here in Enonkishu, they leave this task to the cattle – they systematically let them graze in certain areas and then drive them on. Within just a few years, dead earth transformed into a green oasis, from which not only the landowners benefit, but also the wild animals,” says Fettak happily.

The job of the expedition participants is to collect data to provide figures to document the return of the wild animals. While Kunsang, together with Matthias Herold from Germany, Sirpa Lahtinen from Finland and Kathy Haan from the USA, observes the waterhole for several hours from a hide using binoculars, GPS devices and rangefinders, ranger Albert Ngetich, together with Canadian Brian Oikawa and Dutchman Paul Serail, set off on foot to the summit of Kileleoni Hill to observe the area from a bird’s eye view. The third group checks camera traps for pictures of nocturnal animals.

Waterhole obervation (c) C. Flechtner
Hill top obervation (c) C. Flechtner
On the way to a research activity (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner

The results are quite impressive: The wildlife numbers have proliferated within a year. “The whole thing has developed a momentum of its own,” says the expedition leader. “The landscape has turned into a paradise where farm animals and wildlife can live peacefully side by side,” says Fettak. A positive side effect is that tourists are also discovering the area for themselves and supporting Enonkishu with their entrance fees to the protected area.

It may even be possible to find imitators of the sustainable concept elsewhere. It would be good for the densely populated country, and with the acceptance of wildlife and its benefits for people, this will be a chance to increase already scarce wildlife habitat bit by bit.

(c) Christiane Flechtner

This is how you survive on safari

This article was translated into English from the original article in Dutch by Paul Serail on Quest.

“It’s not a safari”, Biosphere Expeditions warned in advance. It was an adventure.

Cheetah (c) Paul Serail

Those who go on safari are driven around the savannah for a day by a guide. I went to Kenya for science. With twelve citizen scientists we counted zebras, wildebeest, giraffes and other cool animals in the Enonkishu Conservancy nature reserve.

How far is that wildebeest? Editor Paul Serail, third from left, measures the distance. (c) Paul Serail

Then you should also set out on foot. And not all animals on the savannah are harmless. As I walked into the bushes to take a pee, an irritated elephant hooted furiously nearby. Oops. During another walk I really had to run it twice for an elephant.

Hippos are the most dangerous

How do you get through your expedition safely? Tip 1: stick together. Tip 2: keep your distance from the animals.

But what should you do if the animals do not keep their distance from you?

Hippos are the cause of most casualties in Africa. A hippo usually flees to the water. Therefore, make sure you never stand between a hippo and the water.

If you leave elephants alone, they will leave you alone. Mostly. (c) Paul Serail

Elephants pretend to attack

Stressed elephants often perform a fake attack, then stop and make themselves big. They shake their heads “no” and rake the ground with one foot. They can also trumpet at the same time. The right solution: get out.

Buffalo, especially the bulls, have a short fuse. (c) Paul Serail

If you stay, it can happen that an elephant really attacks. He does this without sound, with folded ears for extra speed and with the tusks ahead. Running makes no sense, because the elephant will win that competition. Stand still, make yourself tall and yell, “Stop!” It works, I am told.

Buffalo do not fake attack. You better stay far away from the animals to avoid misery.

Whoever runs away from a lion is prey

Has she already eaten? (c) Paul Serail

If a lion comes across as slightly interested, stand still. It will be difficult, but otherwise the hungry hunter sees you as prey and you don’t want to be that. It can be wise to make yourself big and shout loudly. Then you come across as a threat, rather than a meal.

Other expedition pictures, all (c) Paul Serail

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Do you also want to go on an expedition? You can. Biosphere Expeditions organises volunteer trips in nature. From diving to coral reefs to the mountains where snow leopards live. And everything in between.

(c) Paul Serail

Azores: the south of Faial strikes again!

The wind has been blowing quite hard from the north all last week and yesterday (Sunday) was the first chance to get out again. The lookout on the south of Pico only saw a few small groups of dolphin, so we decided to stay to the south of Faial, where the waves were a bit smaller than the north side. It was a good choice!

We found a co-operative group of common dolphin, including some very small calves, where you could still see the fetal folds. Fetal folds are the “zebra” like stripes formed from the baby dolphin being bent inside of the womb, before birth. The brighter the stripes, the younger the animal. These marks will fade after a few months.

Just after the dolphin, we saw the second loggerhead turtle of the day! Not in “Turtle Time” for those of you wondering! 🙂 After the turtle dived, we put the hydrophone in for the second time and got a surprise. We had already passed a group of sperm whales! So we headed back the way we came and after about five minutes, I spotted three animals surfacing not too far from the boat! Yes! Then a small calf popped up and joined them and then another two! There were six sperm whales at the surface, including two calves; one suckling and the other not. Two of the four adults had been photographed in 2015, the other two are new to science.

Luckily, they didn’t all dive at the same time; one, then two sequentially and finally the fourth adult left the surface. The small calf was left at the surface and the larger one had shallow dive. WOW!! Now we understood why we hadn’t heard them on the hydrophone the first time we listened, they had all been up at the surface at the same time! We followed their clicks and waited for a second showing of the flukes, just to make sure we got the ID photos. And once they had all gone again, it was time to start back towards the harbour.

We passed very close to the Morro, the big white rock that you have to avoid hitting when landing or taking off from Horta airport! It is very impressive. No more animals were spotted, but I will be going out again soon, tagging along with Rui & Monica from the University of the Azores again. This time, they are going to be trying to tag a sperm whale.

Weather looks good, let’s hope the animals are waiting for us. Today Monday, 8 June is World Oceans Day.

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Status update June 2020 – All 2020 citizen science now deferred to 2021

The world remains in the grip of the coronavirus. Many countries that we operate in continue to keep their borders shut and some are still expecting their first peak, let alone a second wave. In fact, in many countries that we operate in, things are predicted to get worse before they get better. And a vaccine will take time, or it there may never be one.

Because of all this, we have decided to defer the citizen science elements of all our 2020 expeditions to 2021. These are:

Expeditions that happened early in 2020 and are now scheduled to repeat in 2021 as normal are

An overview over all expeditions is on our website as a list and a map.

Please note that project work has not been cancelled. It is only the citizen science element that has been deferred to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Project work with local staff only will continue and you can see on our appeal page what is planned in terms of community expeditions and project work. If you can, please support our efforts to raise funds for this!

You can also read about community expedition efforts already under way in the Azores and Tien Shan.

We continue to feel very strongly about the need for continued conservation efforts and supporting our local partners and staff despite, or indeed because of, the unprecedented and very difficult circumstances. We hope you agree. If you do, please give to our coronavirus appeal to enable our local partners & staff to do just this.