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

Kenya: Filling the gaps

A month of data collection at Enonkishu Conservancy has ended. Good-bye team 2 and good-bye Enonkishu, rangers and staff for 2020!

We have used the last few days to fill gaps in our surveys. We completed another two sets of waterhole observations by performing two evening shifts from 18:00 – 22:00, despite heavy rain on Wednesday and a challenging drive back to camp. We performed a few more vehicle transects in order to get more comparativ wildlife detection data. A new end-to-end transect route compensating for the former T3 has finally been tracked on GPS and will be used for the ranger’s monthly surveys until the forest area in block 8 will be drivable again.

Whilst we were doing all this, some of us had some very exciting wildlife encounters. The mammal mapping walking group accidentally ran into an elephant in dense shrub and made a quick escape into the bushes. The Kileleoni team encountered another leopard right beside the road. It was gone in a flash when the vehicle approached. Both female lions with their four subadult cubs were spotted again in block 8. The vehicle almost drove over one of them invisibly resting in high grass. Jet, all on his own in the back of the vehicle, took a quick-witted picture before he getting in the cab for safety. A hyaena trudged along the waterhole edge, came right in front of the hide where the animal stopped suddenly, lifted its head, sniffed and ran!

Alan’s results presentation and the Big Tusker Award Ceremony were once again a highlight on our last evening. An overview map created out of 2,000 recordings including wildlife, livestock and vegetation logs illustrates impressively what 24 citizen scientists can achieve in partnership with local rangers over a month of intensive data collection. Much more information will be derived from the recordings for the expedition report, so please stay tuned.

For me it’s also time now to say good-bye to Enonkishu and Kenya. Before I go I would like to thank everyone who helped to make this expedition a success. First of all a big thank you goes to our citizen scientists for supporting the project in many ways – for your enthusiasm,, determination, studiousness and good company. Thanks to Rebekah for managing things on the ground and the Enonkishu rangers for guiding us on and off the tracks through rough terrain and keeping us safe. Thank you Alan for inspiring us with your dedication to science, nature, birds and all the other living things out there. And last but not least we all thank the MTC staff for making us feel welcome no matter what we threw at you in the name of science.

Safe travels back home, everyone, or enjoy your onward travels. I look forward to meeting you again one day.

Best wishes,

Malika

Kenya: Learning from each other

This Sunday’s school visit programme created by team 2 in a four-hour session on Saturday afternoon included a lot of interaction and working in small groups. After a tour around Emarti Secondary School we took the students on a game drive and involved them in data collection using compass, rangefinder and smartphone. We were lucky enough to see the biggest herd of elephants spotted at Enonkishu this year.  We also saw the cheetah family feeding on a freshly killed impala. The groups also picked up (mainly plastic) rubbish along the main roads.

Back at the MTC, we continued by chatting around the lunch table in groups of eight (four expeditioners and four students each). It was then for our citizen scientists to deliver a short presentation about their home countries and the animals and landscapes that are protected there and at Enonkishu Conservancy. We learnt that it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to dissolve, that an elephant can suck up to 16 litres of water in its trunk in one go and that the cheetah is the fastest land animal. Musa talked about grassland management as the basis for both wildlife and cattle that are happily sharing space in Enonkishu. We finished with a brainstorming about possible careers and job opportunities in conservation.

Thanks to everyone for making it an unforgettable day.

 

Kenya: Beyond the Big Five

The team is doing a fantastic job with spotting elusive and rare species of Enonkishu Conservancy. We have gone far beyond the Big Five – buffalo, elephant, hippo, leopard, lion – encountering rhino on the plane in block 13 (they walked in from the sancturary in Ol Chorro conservancy) and mapping colobus monkeys during the hikes around Kileleoni hill. A leopard encounter during Thursday afternoon’s survey in block 8 resulted in hundreds of great pictures and videos. To the bird list we have added sightings of Southern great hornbill, blue quail and saddle-billed stork. Quite a few obervations of turtoise, plants, insects and flowers have been added to the Enonkishu project on iNaturalist. We came across lion quite frequently and a big elephant herd of  25+ individuals came into Enonkishu a couple of days ago. On the night drives we have recorded hyaena, African spring hare and banded mangoose, as well as a greater bushbaby at MTC. Enjoy the pictures!

Kenya: Camera traps and new arrivals

Team 1’s opportunistic camera trap survey was quite successful in terms of capturing more elusive and/or nocturnal species that haven’t been mapped during the day surveys. Amongst them is also a very good leopard picture captured during daylight.

Team 2 arrived safely at base on Sunday afternoon. Heike, Christiane and Matthias (Germany), Kunsang and Brian (Canada), Ariane, Kathy and Jet (USA), Celine (France), Sipra (Finland), Fiona (UK) and Paul (Netherlands) completed the two-day training sessions. Today (Wednesday) a full day of morning, afternoon and night surveys is scheduled. During the driver training on Monday, two teams were lucky enough to spot six lions on the plane west from Memusi dam well hidden under a bush in high grass.

We redeployed seven camera traps on Tuesday for another two-week opportunistic survey. This time we set them up much more specifically for rarely seen or nocturnal species and smaller mammals such as colobus monkey, mangoose, civet, etc. Four cameras were placed around Nubian camp in the forested area at the bottom of Kileleoni hill. They will now survey for us a “leopard tree” located at the campsite itself, a waterfall, as well bunches of ripe fruit on a massive fig tree up a steep narrow valley east of Nubian camp. Two more cameras were placed at the salt lick beside Memusi dam to find out more about the variety of species using the place.

 

Kenya: Thank you team 1!

Saturday afternoon was all quiet at Mara Training Centre. Alan and I dropped team 1 at Narok at mid-day. It feels like this group has came to a sudden end, but actually that’s not true. I guess we’ve been immersed in our tasks, busy in the field from early morning until late afternoon. During the daily briefing sessions before dinner Alan kept us up to date with the data collected by producing a map to identify blank spots within the reserve we haven’t surveyed yet. Keen to fill the gaps with data, we explored new routes both from the vehicles or on foot and climbed Kileleoni hill from every possible side. The weather has been pleasant throughout lately, with the odd rain shower during the late afternoon or night.

We collected eight hotspot camera traps on Thursday for first results before the vehicles got a proper wash and check. The team worked their way through solid layers of mud using machetes, brushes and brooms until the vehicles’ true colours came shining through. Well done, everyone!

The ‘Big Tusker Reward Ceremony’ on our last evening was not only about summing up data and scientific results, but also a reflection of every single citizen scientist’s special skills and  contribution to the tasks at hand, the field work and team-building activities. Alan and I totally agreed that everyone deserves their very own Big Tusker! It was great fun decorating ‘Wingman’, ‘Miss Congeniality’, ‘King & Queen of Kileleoni’, ‘Wreck it Ralph & fix it Felix’ or ‘Best dressed in Chebunyo’, only to mention a few. The day ended with a hilarous evening at the cowshed, a farewell chocolate cake presented by the kitchen staff, singing and dancing – Hakuna Matata, life goes on and everything will be alright!

Thank you, team 1, for coping with many last minute change of plans, bad weather an unexpected events. But also for your enthusiasm, support and hard work. I hope you’ve got as much out of our two weeks together as you have put in.

Now over to team 2!

 

Kenya: Connecting with the local community

Wildlife almost always exists in a human context. We can do all the monitoring we want – without having the local community on board, it would mean nothing. This is why this expedition includes an ‘educational day’. This Sunday we hosted twelve students (age 14-17) from the local boarding school in Emarti, the village just outside Enonkishu, for a day. In a planning session on Saturday afternoon, the team created an activities schedule to make the day a learning experience for everyone. After an eye-opening tour around the school providing first-hand insight, the team went out for a game drive in all three cars. Most of the students had never seen the wildlife that lives on their doorstep – not even an impala or Thomson’s gazelle. Not only did they see plenty of those, but also the cheetah family, as well as two female lions with two cubs. For the expedition, this was also the first encounter with them.

Lunch at the expedition base was then followed by a walk around our classroom by Monika and a short presentation created by Michael and Peter T. to introduce our international team of citizen scientists in order to create awareness that people from all over the world come to Enonkishu to support wildlife conservation efforts. Emmanuel, Albert and Musa from Enonkishu then talked about their roles/jobs/tasks in conservation before the students were briefed by Gabi and Nannette on a learning group activity they were asked to present to the group. Peter G. presented pictures of a remotely set up camera trap in the classroom before Brigitte and Sylvie handed over a present to each student. These were mostly notebooks and pens, brought in specifically for this event. Then it was time to go, but not before taking a group picture!

Kenya: Mud, stones & mammals

No rain for 36 hours! The sky was clear last night and the temperatures dropped significantly but it won’t take long until the warming sun will make us sweat again. The last few days have been adventurous, challenging and rewarding all the same – call it a true expedition!

Three days ago, on our first research day, we got stuck twice during the morning activity. There are a few muddy spots along the main roads that have been messed up by heavy trucks, some of them stuck for a couple of days before being pulled out by even bigger tractors. The video below will say more than a thousand word about the state of the road. Still, we managed both situations with great team work and spirit!

But none of this could hold us back from collecting data. The areas we could reach safely by car were surveyed on foot using the mammal mapping app. A few shifts surveying the waterhole have been completed and grid cameras have been serviced. We’ve also started exploring the areas just outside the Enonkishu boundaries by driving and mapping birds and mammals on the way. It’ll be interesting to see what’s going on in these areas in terms of human-wildlife conflict. About 500 recordings have already been logged in the mammal mapping app. Sightings include elephant, buffalo and cheetah apart from the “usual” gazelles, giraffe, baboon, topi, etc. Kisaru, the cheetah mum that is raising six cubs at Enonkishu, has been seen frequently. As have a herd of nine elephants including at least two juveniles.

While a team of four including Alan went for a bird & mammal mapping drive into Mara North conservancy on the day off on Friday, Peter G., Michael, Ralf and Monika spent their day with road repairing together with rangers Albert & Dapash. Car loads of stones were collected and dropped into the most treacherous deep mud holes at a key spot all cars have to pass to get out on their activity. Great job, guys and a big thank you from all of us!

Kenya: First steps

Team 1 has arrived safely at the Mara Training Centre at Enonkishu Conservancy, our expedition base for the next month. Getting to Nairobi and back as an adventure in itself as the rain had made many roads impassable, but we managed!

Our trailblazer team 1 this year comprises Gabi & Michael and Ralf (Germany), Brigitte, Silvie and Peter T. (Canada), Monika (Austria), Nanette (Australia), Jaein (USA), Margret, Christina and Peter G. (UK) as well as Emmanuel, a local placement from Kenya. The research team is supplemented by six Enonkishu rangers: Dapash, Albert and Mike as well as Meshek, Naman and Salamí.

We have now gone the usual couple of training days starting with a risk assessment on Sunday, followed by an introduction presentation about Enonkishu Conservancy held by Rebekah Karimi, the Conservancy Manager. It was sunny throughout Monday morning when everyone received training on data collection and smartphone apps, datasheets and the equipment, such as compass, rangefinders and GPS. After lunch we spent some time with pimping the three 4×4 rental cars by adding special recovery and safety equipment such as solid tow ropes, jumper cables, tyre repair kits and machetes, only to mention a few. We did some practice on changing a tyre before the drivers went through a theoretical 4×4 training session. For some practical driver training two cars left base a short while after. The game & practicing data collection drive of the non-drivers was literally rained off while the drivers all received some proper practice in mud driving. 😉

We prepared and set up seven camera traps first thing in the morning on Tuesday. Equipped with cameras, protective metal cases, wire, datasheets, GPS and compass, three teams went out together with the rangers to place them in the field. Besides an ongoing camera trap grid survey (18 cameras placed in fixed spots throughout the conservancy), these cameras are placed in places of high wildlife activity for an opportunistic survey during the expedition. Our hopes are to obtain pictures of more elusive and/or nocturnal species or maybe even of the three lions that are roaming Enonkishu right now.

We finished the training sessions with exploring the hide at the Memusi dam waterhole on Tuesday afternoon. All three cars drove in convoy memorising the track that leads up to the dam. From there we continued onwards on transect 2 through dense bushland, mapping mammals on the way and coming came across buffalo, impala and giraffe. We briefly explored the area around Nubian camp, a deserted camp site along the way, within preferred buffalo and elephant terrain. Alan found a leopard track and is quite keen to send an explorer team in due course for further investigation and general bio-mapping . We turned around and went back when the rain came, quickly turning the bush track into a stream.

Today (Wednesday) we have scheduled this year’s first proper vehicle drive transect activity, a walking mammal mapping activity and a waterhole observation shift. Writing this, three teams are out in the field completing the morning tasks in good conditions. As it is, Alan, Rebekah and I will be scheduling activities according to the weather on a daily basis. Keep your fingers crossed that the overall weather situation will slowly, but steadily convert into stable and dry conditions – just like they’re supposed to be this time of the year! 🙂