Friday, November 20, 2009

Where Have All The Wildebeest Gone?

The “Great Migration” has finally decided to move along from the Trans-Mara side of the Mara. Some of you may ask how it is possible to know when this is official, but let me just give you a couple photos to help exemplify my point.

Not more than 1 month ago, it looked like this everywhere:

There are still a few resident wildebeest that you can see around, but not nearly the all-encompassing groups that used to be a mainstay.

However with the wildebeest leaving, some of the other animals are coming back in larger numbers. You can imagine that with a few hundred thousand wildebeest, so come all of the flies and bugs that may get on the nerves of such temperamental animals such as elephants.

Another fun thing about the wildebeest leaving is that the zebras seem to stick around for the peace and quiet. It’s an interesting sight being able to see these black and white animals littering the landscape. Amazingly, it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture of a zebra. All of my photos of these guys are going straight to National Geographic.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Te amo, te odio, te amo, te odio: an ode to Barcelona

Since first being introduced to the West clan in 2007, my favorite male has been Barcelona. Barcelona is the second-highest ranking immigrant male in the clan, but by far the best looking (in my opinion). He's always extremely well-fed and well-coiffed, like he keeps a comb and a mirror in his pocket just in case he runs into any ladies (which he always does—he's quite the social butterfly).

Barce moves from hyena sub-group to sub-group with confidence and ease—unusual qualities in an adult immigrant male. He seems comfortable with his place in society and knows when to keep his head low and his mouth shut, and when it's okay to push his luck a little further. For example, he's the only adult male I've ever seen groom an adult female...and she loved every second of it. Nobody else could get away with that. You can practically hear him counting down the days until Midget, the only immigrant male above Barce on the social ladder and an old, old man, kicks the bucket.

But Barcelona and I have a love-hate relationship. As in, I love him, and he hates me. And all other Fisi Campers. And our cars. Since the day he arrived in the West clan back in 2002, he's been extremely "spooky," which is our term for a hyena that fears our car. It's not unusual for immigrant males to be spooky—after all, whereas the adult females and cubs have all grown up with our cars, seeing us every day since the day they first poked their head out of the den, the immigrant males aren't used to being observed so closely and are understandably a tad more wary. Most of them get over it after a while...but not Barce.

One of my goals for being out here is to dart the males in our clans, in part because we need their DNA to determine paternity for all our cubs. As of one month ago, all the males in our West clan had been darted with one exception—Barcelona. He's been around for seven years—a long time in hyena years—but has thus far managed to evade all the efforts to dart him. When he sees us, he hides behind bushes, trees, other hyenas, grass clumps, you name it. He's very crafty: sometimes he won't even hide his whole body, he'll just hide the parts that he knows we can shoot (the butt and the side). In the evenings, when we can't dart because of impending darkness, he'll prance around the car, lollygagging with his butt in the air. For three field seasons he has been taunting me like this.

This year, I came to Kenya with the expectation that it would be my final field season, so I knew it was now or never for me to mend my relationship with Barcelona. As the months ticked down, I wracked my brain, hoping for a stroke of genius, some brilliant plan that no one had thought of until now. I asked everyone I knew for ideas, and here's what I got:

-get scuba gear and a waterproof gun and wait in the river for him to cross
-dig a tunnel that pops up near one of his favorite spots
-rent a helicopter and shoot him with one of those enormous nets used to dart elephants and rhinos
-buy a predator drone from the military and shoot him via joystick from my tent at camp

As creative and helpful as these ideas were, they all seemed slightly out of my budget range of zero US dollars (conversion to Kenyan shillings: zero Ksh). I was getting progressively more desperate...and more obsessed. Barcelona had started to haunt my dreams (no, I'm not exaggerating). I started to mentally prepare myself for what seemed like the inevitability that I would have to leave Kenya without his DNA. His cubs would forever go unclaimed, the only daddy-less black marks in an otherwise perfect paternity data set. The thought was devastating.

But there was one secret weapon I hadn't counted on: my man. And this time I'm not talking about Barcelona (although I have referred to him as "my man" more times than I can count). My boyfriend Dan was joining me for the last six weeks of my field season, and one benefit to having him here was going to be that he could be my "shooter" (I'm the driver). He had a little experience in marksmanship (thank youuuuuuu, Boy Scouts!) and is just generally very good at that kind of thing. So his first afternoon at Fisi Camp I plopped him out in the driveway with the darting gun, put out our practice target, and told him to get to work. The next morning he darted his first hyena and over the next week a few more to boot. But no Barce.

Dan could see how important darting Barcelona was to me, and being a competitive person, it soon became an obsession of his as well. So after a week he proclaimed that if Barce wouldn't let us get close enough to shoot (less than 30m), we would just have to figure out a way to shoot him from farther away. Three hours of practice shooting in the driveway later, and I had a shooter who was hitting the target from 40m away. This development introduced an entirely new set of rules to the game, and it rejuvenated my hope. I started to allow myself to think that we might actually get him. Our first few days post-New Rules were unsuccessful but encouraging. Barce was letting us get within 40m...a distance he thought was safe for him, since it had been for so many years. We could feel that it was coming.

And then, on October 29th—what a glorious day!—the stars aligned. We found Barcelona roaming around a small thicket of bushes, a little chubby and therefore more lethargic than usual. Perfect. He was wary of us, as always, and was fulfilling his mantra of "constant vigilance!" We can't shoot hyenas when they're looking at us, because we don't want them to associate the experience with humans, and Barce wouldn't take his eyes off us. But we didn't give up. We were following him in the car from about 40m away, waiting for something to distract him, when off in the distance we saw a herd of wildebeest begin running in a panic. Barce's eyes lit up as quickly as ours did. As we watched, a hyena isolated one wildebeest from the herd and began to close the gap. For a split second, Barce forgot himself and paused, mesmerized by the thought of fresh meat. That's all we (okay, Dan) needed. He pulled the trigger and we watched and waited to see if it hit.

Got him.

From 36m no less. Nothing short of a miracle. It only took a few minutes for Barcelona to fall asleep—in hindsight, surprising given his enormous mass of 65 kg (143 lbs.) When I first drew his blood into our vials, I was so overcome with emotion—relief, joy, disbelief, pride—that I teared up a little. Dan proclaimed his blood "liquid gold." And indeed it was. You can't see it in the photos, but we're pointing to the name on the vials—Barcelona.

Now I can relax. And relax we did—the last photo is of us celebrating. Dan is wearing a pod from a tree on his head as a crown. Don't ask...he just shot Barcelona—he can do whatever he wants!!! (I may live to regret those words....)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Suffice it to say the short rains have arrived.

61 mm in less than two hours yesterday afternoon (that's about 2.5"). 44 of those mm (1.75") came within just half an hour. Unbelievable.

The wildebeest seemed to know the rains were coming (they always do...) as they finally showed up last week. A good four months lather than the migration usually comes, but better late than never. It's good to see them back.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wanting it Both Ways

One of the biggest inner conflicts I have experienced out here has been with tourists and tour vehicles. On the one hand, tourists help fund the existence of the park, and it's largely because of them that this land has been set aside as a protected area. On a larger scale, tourism is the Kenyan economy's largest source of income. Clearly, Kenya NEEDS tourists, and the Mara is arguably the most popular destination. Furthermore, it's wonderful to see people interested in and excited about wildlife, and wanting to shoot photos instead of bullets. These are all good things.

On the other hand, it can be very frustrating to watch tour vehicles violate the park "rules" (and I use that word loosely because like a tree toppling in a forest, is a rule really a rule if no one ever enforces it?) over and over again. On a daily basis, we see tour vehicles driving off-road, approaching animals to very close distances, making a lot of noise, and occasionally littering. The more in-demand animals like cheetahs and lions routinely get surrounded by tour vehicles. Below is a photo depicting only a portion of the thirty-one vehicles that encircled three adult cheetahs attempting to hunt.

As you can imagine, it's pretty difficult to sneak up on your prey when you've got thirty+ vehicles on your tail, so on this particular evening these cheetahs were unsuccessful. Better luck next time.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thirsty Lions

Some of you may already know this, but most of Kenya is in a severe drought. This is affecting crops, livestock, and wildlife within and outside of the parks. Driving back from Nairobi the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how dusty and dry it has become. With many fresh cattle carcasses littering the landscape, I know that many families are going to struggle keeping their livestock going during this next month.

Back at camp, I have a different story to share.

I woke up this morning and looked for a water jug to brush my teeth. Usually, this is just outside of my tent like this:

However, I looked around and could not find it anywhere. Upon closer inspection of the scene of the missing water jug, I saw this:

Yeah, that’s a lion’s footprint. After learning about Leslie’s great detective work in finding her phone, I followed the tracks to find my missing water jug. Finally, I had discovered it, but the lion had already broken in and gotten its fill of delicious H2O. I felt surprisingly accomplished for finding the remains, but a big bummer because this water jug is now out of commission.

Lucky for us in Serena Camp on the western side of the Mara, the short rains are rolling in right now. It’s been raining for the past 3 days; each storm getting progressively larger, longer, and starting earlier in the day.

Maybe now the lions can find their OWN water?

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science