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Kenya Diaries: Part 1

As part of my MSc I got the opportunity to go on an incredible field trip to Kenya…please read on to discover what we got up to:

Day 1:  Olerai conservancy

Outside of Nairobi we travelled to Olerai, where the community would like to set up a conservancy. (How we ever made it there without a popped tyre I will never know, testament to the excellent drivers I presume!) After a quick look round we conducted a focus group with the locals. In order to make everyone feel more comfortable we split groups up by gender, so I was in the female group. We had 2 translators, who were also members of the community. In retrospect this did cause some difficulties, because as they were not independent of the group the tendency was to answer us straight away, without consulting the other ladies. We had one girl leading the questioning, a few behavioural observers and a scribe. However, I do think that there were too many of us visitors at one time in general, and they may have felt a little outnumbered!

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Our main questions were about setting up an eco-tourism conservancy in the area. They did not seem to consider there would be any future negative impacts of tourism for them, or the wildlife. Perhaps this was because this is what they thought we wanted to hear? Or perhaps because they were trying to ‘sell’ the idea to us as potential future eco-tourists? (At the end the beautiful Masai jewellery shop got whipped out!) Either way this was a useful insight. Another key finding was the idea of posterity; the ladies were keen to see eco-tourism work in this area for the benefit of their children’s futures. It is comforting to know that no matter where you are in the world, this factor unites parents.

Day 2: Near Nairobi National Park

Talk about land management in the morning. Nairobi is expanding, mainly Southwards due to government restrictions on going North. This is particularly worrying as below Nairobi is a key migration corridor for many animal species heading to-from the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem of Tanzania. Road development has resulted in soaring land prices, and local people selling off profitable pockets of land. This all leads to land sub-division and housing development, which further blocks migration pathways for wildlife. The government has come up with an initiative to pay local communities to keep land open with no fences, in order to promote wildlife dispersal. I think that this is a great idea for now, but how sustainable will it be in the future with the encroachment of the big city…

We also heard about lion payment schemes. In a nut-shell, if livestock is eaten by a lion, the government have a policy to compensate for the loss. This is implemented via KWS and an officer will be required to investigate claims. This should improve human-lion conflict and allow the people living with the economic cost of wildlife some form of incentive not to kill lions in retaliation. However, the policy process can be lengthy, and no-one has actually been paid yet over a year after setting it up.

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In the afternoon we went to speak to a group of maasai pastoralists living just outside the national park about human-wildlife conflict. This time I sat in on the male focus group, and it was lead by our Kenyan guide Enoch. He is an experienced social science researcher so it was interesting to compare it to our attempts from the day before! I definitely learnt a lot; in particular he was skilled at making sure each of the Maasai men spoke. We mainly focused on living alongside the wildlife, something these tribes have been doing for centuries. Traditionally, the boys would have to kill a lion to ‘become a man’, but they (claimed?) that this was no longer practiced. They have trouble from hyenas, eland that eat the good grazing pasture, and wildebeest who carry a disease that can infect cattle at certain times of the year. The main concern of the men was that they are not allowed in the park, nor do they see any financial benefits from it being there (the proceeds go to the government), yet they have to live with the everyday impact of the wildlife. For example, if there was a drought year and grazing pasture was reduced, the cattle would be competing for food but they could not use the pastures inside the park. On the drive home we saw zebra, giraffe, gazelle and wildebeest, set against the backdrop of Nairobi on the horizon…

Day 3: Broke camp and drove to Lake Naivasha. Stopped at the rift valley viewpoint, pretty awesome! The further away from Nairobi we drove the greener and less scrubby the landscape became. I am not sure what I was expecting Kenya to look like, but it certainly isn’t like the landscape in the Lion King!

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In the afternoon we went to visit a flower farm. This was quite a controversial topic for us to discuss as the farm uses vital water resources from the lake, but the produce is sold to the international market. The lake is a RAMSAR site and requires careful management. The water level fluctuates massively and so one cannot generalise about the effect of the farms, but nitrate levels in the river appear to be elevated as algal blooms are growing on what was once a clear lake. There are several farms in this area owned by foreign businessmen who come to the area as the water charges are ridiculously cheap. They clearly need to be held accountable for the part they play in this delicate ecosystem. However, the businesses have also brought considerable wealth and development to the area. The farm workers also receive benefits such as free onsite housing and schools.

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Day 4: Today we got up very early and went to hells gate national park, allowing us spectacular views of the sunrise into the park. We did some distance estimation and recorded the number of animal species we saw as we walked through. To mention but a few we saw impala, thompsons gazelle, warthog, their cute warthoglets and even a bat-eared fox! It was lucky we left early as it got very hot towards mid-morning…I guess that’s why it’s considered to be walking in hell! After the walk we went exploring a gorge from the Lara Croft movies and marvelled at the rock formations and old eroded lava towers. As Lara was my girlhood idol this was super cool.

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On the drive home we stopped to look out over the hydroelectric power plant. This will provide a key source of green energy to the country,  which is vital for development and Kenya’s 2030 vision. However, the plant also stands accused of blocking migratory corridors… is this beginning to sound familiar?

In the afternoon we went on a relaxing boat ride out over the lake. We saw hippo, maribu stalk, fish eagle…all in all fab day.

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Day 5: Drove to Lake Nakuru, only stopping here one night so luckily had a hostel. We went on a game drive in the afternoon and saw lots of amazing wildlife, including our first sighting of rhino!

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Day 6: Early morning game drive, grabbed some mendazi (fried dough- nom) and off we went. Saw a lion!!! I was surprised how close he was to the track until our driver said ‘this one’s waiting to die…’ Tried to learn the difference between white and black rhino, white have a wider jaw. We saw both today!

Old simba standoff with a wildebeest

Old simba standoff with a buffalo

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Mid morn we had a long drive to the Mount Kenya area, stopping at the equator at about midday. The most UV exposure possible! A ‘professor’ gave us a demonstration of the Coriolis Effect (where water spins the opposite way on the other side of the equator- pretty cool!)

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PART 2 COMING SOON!