Wednesday, January 16, 2013

One Month Out

Hi, Everyone!

Most of you who'll be reading this blog are my friends and family - to be honest, most of my readership is probably going to be my mom and dad (Hi, Mom & Dad!). The rest of you will probably be my academic friends and family - my labmates, classmates, and awesome advisor (Hi, Stuart!). My equally awesome hostess might read as well (Hi, Anne!), but I'm sure it'll all be run-of-the-mill to her, as she's grown up in Kenya! Regardless, as I keep this blog up, I'll try to be more broad than brief, and more fun than factual. I'll also try to include a bunch of pretty pictures (for now, just enjoy the ones in this post, left over from Tanzania).

Left front, left rear prints of an adult male.

So what am I doing in Africa, exactly?
For everyone who doesn't know: I am going to be spending 5 months in Kenya, from February - July, working on a lion conservation project just outside of the Masai Mara National Reserve. From me work, I'm hoping to learn whether or not the 'predator-proof' fences that a local organization, the Anne K. Taylor Fund, has been installing have kept local people from losing livestock to middle-of-the-night lion thieves. This may sound more like animal husbandry than wildlife conservation, but it's not -- when lions kill cattle, people kill lions, sometimes in large numbers and often indiscriminately. It's one of the biggest problems we are facing in East African carnivore conservation, and hopefully my work will do a little something to help.

To help measure the impact, I'll be looking at old reports of livestock attacks, talking to local people about current lion attacks, and collecting evidence of lions prowling around livestock enclosures (more commonly, and therefore henceforth, called 'bomas'). With the kind help of two brilliant scientists/software developers/wildlife experts, Zoe & Sky, I'll be using some fancy new software by the name of WildTrack to take photographs of lion footprints, then analyze them to identify the species, age, sex, and (hopefully) individual animal.

Bandas and tents at field camp in Ruaha, Tanzania

So where am I staying? In a tent under a tree, right? Although bandas (see picture at left) are awesome, I've gotten spectacularly lucky and my wonderful hostess, Anne, will be putting me up in her home for part of the time. For the rest of the time, the Abercrombie & Kent safari company has been kind enough to donate lodging: a rondavel at one of their nearby lodges.

So why am I doing this? Well, if all goes well, the data I'll collect will help shape the way we deal with lion problems throughout Kenya, and maybe even in other countries in East Africa. This project will also be the basis of my Ph.D. at Duke, and thus forms the bulk of my dissertation.

So I'm one month away from my (alleged) departure date, and I couldn't be more excited. And panicked. Mostly excited, but a little bit panicked. This is because my to-do list looks like this:

Equipment I Have Known (Because I Bought It Years Ago):
+ Hiking Boots
+ Pocket Binoculars
+ Compact Rain Jacket (the rainy season in Kenya is from March - May)
+ Sun Hat(s)
+ Cool Folding Sunglasses
+ Smartphone (needs to be unlocked) - this is essential in Africa
+ Pocketknife & Multi-tool
+ Camelbak water-carrying backpack (I'm sure it's somewhere around here; I used to use it all the time in Colorado)
+ Map of the Masai Mara National Reserve
+ An entire Burt's Bees stash for dry lips
+ Lightweight Running Shoes

Equipment I Have Not Known Yet Because I Still Need to Buy It:
+ Canon Rebel Digital SLR Camera (who could possibly go to Kenya without the chance to take some great shots of wildlife in the Mara?)
+ A drybox/set of drybags (to keep the dust out of cameras/binocs/everything else)
+ A GPS-enabled point-and-shoot camera (for my research)
+ Proper binoculars (for long-range viewing)

Not Quite Equipment, But I Need It Nonetheless:
A store that sells everything, outside Iringa, Tanzania.
+ Nairobi-ready clothes: cute long skirts in bright prints, cute but practical sandals and heels (NOT flip flops), t-shirts & inexpensive but pretty jewelry
+ Bush-ready clothes: chambray & cotton camp shirts, khaki shorts, and a jacket with loads of pockets and/or a hip belt
+ Personal care items: As many wet wipes as I can get my hands on (these saved my life while in Tanzania); bunch of hand sanitizer packs; shower shoes; multipurpose soap (for washing hair, body, clothes)

To be honest, I'm the least worried about personal care items; in my experience with Africa, you can buy just about anything you need or want in a market or a store somewhere.

So in addition to the above-mentioned items, there are a few more questions left to fully resolve before I can peacefully sip a gin and tonic before slipping off to sleep on the plane to Nairobi. These are (in no particular order): 

Who's going to take care of the dogs? I have two dogs - Fish, a Catahoula Leopard Hound and Boh, a Shiba Inu. Boh's going to be staying with my friend Katie. Fish will hopefully be staying with a friend, or doing a homestay kennel. In a worst case scenario (hoped to avoid), he'll stay in a group kennel.

What about malaria? What about other diseases? First: yes, malaria is endemic to the regions of Kenya in which I'll be traveling. In the past, I've taken Lariam (bad idea) or Malarone (which worked fine). In Ghana, the Lariam gave me such a horrible reaction (nightmares, hallucinations, seizure auras) that I quit after two weeks and went the rest of the time without any antimalarials. Didn't get sick then, but it's wise to be careful. 

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania - viewed from my hotel room
However...Malarone runs about $9/pill, and must be taken daily. Since I'll be in-country for over 5 months, we're looking at a $1,400 bill, not including the cost of any potential complications. I think I'll do best to take the Malarone only before and after my time in Nairobi (read: a week on either end), when I believe I'll be at highest risk of transmission. I'll see what I can do about picking up some Coartem or Cotecxin (two CDC-approved malaria treatment meds) just in case I develop any kind of symptoms.

And I should be just fine for anything else - the Yellow Fever vaccination is suggested, but not required to enter the country (and besides, between China, Ghana, Tanzania, my post-college Peace Corps application and losing my yellow card four times, I've had so many yellow fever shots I can probably cure other people). I've also had shots for Typhoid,  Hepatitis, Tetanus (again, x4) and MMR a bunch of times over. For everything else, the key is to be smart, be sanitary, and safeguard your own health - don't ignore any symptoms.

I bet if I were a lioness, they wouldn't make me file for permits.
Lions don't need no permits.
What about permits/visas?
Traveling to Kenya as an American tourist is a piece of cake. Just buy your ticket, bring your passport, and when you arrive at the airport in Nairobi, pay $50 - $100 and carry on your way. 

Traveling to Kenya as an American student wanting to do wildlife research is a huge pain. Your first step is to make friends with someone either in Kenya Wildlife Service or the National Council for Science and Technology (preferably both). You'll want to do this ten years ahead of time. If you have not done so, then you can apply for a research permit at least two months ahead of time, pay $400, wait for a rejection, apply again, wait for a (potentially) second rejection, pay $700, then apply again and hopefully be accepted with the proper affiliation. And that's after you've jumped through all the hoops on the American end.

Obviously, I have had to do the latter. More specifically, I have to do this:

American Forms
I. Project Proposal & Literature Review - Simple enough. Drafted eight different versions to suit each of the funding applications I submitted, as well as my advisor, department, and university.

II. Institutional Review Board Training & Application - The IRB is the university office that makes sure you aren't doing something horrible to someone vulnerable (e.g. impoverished children).

Kenyan Forms
I. Research Permit for Non-Citizens - " FORM B - Application for Authority to Conduct Research in Kenya" [$400 USD] - must be handed in to the National Council for Science & Technology in Nairobi.

II. Local Organization Affiliation Form - "FORM D - Affiliation Form" [$700 USD] - must be mailed/handed in to the National Council for Science & Technology in Nairobi, after being filled out by a representative from the Kenya Wildlife Service who has agreed to affiliate with you. 

III. Student Visa - "Form 8 - Application for a Pupil's Pass" [$0 USD] -- must be handed in (in person) to the Department of Immigration in Nairobi, and must be filled out by a Kenya Wildlife Service representative.

IV. Re-Entry Visa - "Form 16 - Application for a Re-Entry Pass" [$0 USD] -- must be handed in (in person) to the Department of Immigration in Nairobi. Although not required, some anecdotal evidence suggests that this is helpful for work in/around national parks, as Park officials may sometimes request to see a re-entry Visa at boundary parks.

I know, elephant - I want to slam my head into a tree, too.

Three months after my first application, I still haven't gotten my research permit approved yet. But that's OK! Because I have confidence that everything is going to work out (even if it's at the last minute), that all my plans are going to come to great fruition, and that I'm going to get to have the adventure of a lifetime. 

I can't wait.



  1. Sweetness! I look forward to reading your updates. And here's hoping Fish finds a good temporary home :-)

  2. Hi Al -
    Great blog post!You're going to have the time of your life. I'll be certain to check in regularly to see how you and the pride are making out. And just think, I've been waisting time watch house house international while you're embarking on a real life adventure. Super jealous right up until the malaria part of your post:) Any way that we can help before you go or while you are gone?


  3. Thank heaven for friends with adventure in their life.