Saturday, April 13, 2013

Wild Dogs, Water & My First Week in the Maasai Mara

Jambo, everyone!

 I've arrived in the Mara! Apologies for the long delay in updating, but getting between getting settled, starting my research, and taking fabulous pictures of amazing animals, I've been a bit busy.

Where I Live
So I've finally landed at Olonana Sanctuary, where I'll be based until June as I work on my research. It's a beautiful lodge run by Sanctuary Retreats, and has fantastic staff and a beautiful dining room that looks out over the Mara River. I like to sit out on the veranda in the afternoons to drink milky Kenyan tea and read while I listen to the hippos grunting and playing in the water.

I've been in Kenya for a little over a week now, and I can already tell that I won't want to leave in July. This part of the country is beautiful, with vast sweeping plains dotted with trees and and sharp green mounts just teeming with life. 

There are animals everywhere, and if you know anything about me, you'll know that this place is just heaven for me. There are lizards and geckos running to and fro, and Sykes' blue monkeys, vervet monkeys, and coppertail monkeys jumping about in the trees with galagos and genet cats. There are hippos and crocodiles in the river, and black kites and martial eagles soaring overhead. At night, I can hear hyenas (fisi) making their walking-around sounds and bushbabies crying. When we drive the plain, we pass elephants (tembo) and ostriches and lions (simba) and giraffes (twiga) and all manner of ungulate. Kenya is the closest thing to the Garden of Eden that I can imagine. 

Dad teaching baby elephant how to bathe in a small mud puddle.

Buffalo always look so completely unimpressed with whatever you're doing.

A Masai giraffe, just trying to get a morning snack.

standing tall under the big blue Mara sky

Concerned hyena wonders why you're staring at him. 
Just layin' around, sleeping, doing lion stuff.
What I Do
My work is going well so far, although we've only gotten a few days in! For those of you who don't recall, I'm here working with a local organization that builds predator-proof fences (read: fences made with aluminum and chain link, rather than sticks and thorns) to protect people's livestock from lions and other predators. Protecting the livestock means people won't need to kill predators -- so it protects lions, too. My job is to assess the effectiveness of the fences: what works, what doesn't, and why. 

An mzee at his boma, inside the manyatta. This is an unfortified boma, built with sticks and thorns, rather than chain link.

So that means that I work about 6 days a week in the local communities, paying visits to the manyattas to interview the families living there about their experiences with predators and any problems they've had. I try to get a sense of whether the fence has had an impact on their livestock losses by comparing predation rates before the fence to afterward, and looking at how things have changed.

Interview time with two of the mzee's wives, his neighbor, and the best baby ever.

Looking for leopard footprints at the site of a predation event (see the giant hole in the boma roof behind me? Yeah, that would be where the leopard broke through).

I'm working with the best team anyone could ask for -- Elias Kamande, a staff member at the Anne K. Taylor Fund, is my right-hand man/bestie/home slice, and we work together with Saitoti, another AKTF teammate and a respected member of the Maasai community here. Saitoti speaks Maa and some Swahili, so he helps us translate when we visit families who don't speak any English and only limited Swahili (this is most of the families).

Saitoti, myself, and Elias Kamande

We've had a great time visiting the manyattas, speaking with local community members, coming up with great new ideas for education programs, and seeing the Mara.

What I've Seen
Oh! And a bit of awesome luck: on one of our trips up the escarpment, we saw African wild dogs! This is a huge deal, because wild dogs (also known as Cape hunting dogs or Painted dogs) are very endangered, and were pretty much locally extincted from this part of East Africa in the late 1980's. In our conversations with local people, we'd been hearing a lot of reports that they'd been seen in 2011 or early 2012, but we hadn't had any more recent confirmation. Now we know that Lycaon pictus is coming back, and can start thinking about how to integrate them into our thoughts and plans for fence-building and conservation in the area.

This wild dog met us on the road to Olkurruk. Note the distinctive mottled coat pattern.

The two, meeting at the edge of the escarpment. 

Lying down to take a rest.

As a final note, things have also been generally quite quiet in Kenya politically, since Kenyatta's swearing-in earlier this week. We're all thankful for a peaceful transition, and look forward to watching Kenya's development over the next five years. Maybe the wild dogs will be a good omen for the strength of Kenya's economy and identity as it moves forward into the future -- I'm definitely hopeful and happy for this beautiful country in the middle of the East African coast.

Love from Kenya,


  1. Alex!

    Thanks for the update. Looks like your research is coming along fabulously! Be safe!!!!


  2. Thanks, Tia! Can't wait to catch up when I'm back. :)