Friday, April 27, 2012

The Flood That Wasn’t (…THANKFULLY!)

Thought you were done reading me complain about the rainy season? I’ll stop complaining after it stops raining and we can get out of camp!

Two nights ago we were all awoken by our askaris (“night watchman” in kiSwahili) just a few hours after we had called it a night.  Many of us in camp had been on edge given the somewhat consistent, dramatic rainstorms we had been having and the threat of things getting damaged by all of the water.  If you remember correctly, the last time I wrote, we were worried about the lab tent flooding from poor drainage.  We had done our best to fix this problem, and were hoping that we could move onto worrying about something else in the time being.  That’s why when our askari woke us up, we knew it was going to be something a little more troubling.  Two nights ago when our askari woke us up, it was because the river right next to camp, the “Talek”, was flooding its banks.

This type of water situation is much more dangerous and worrisome.  We have at any time 2-3 tents along the riverbank, and depending on how high the river gets from rain upstream, the lab tent (and all of our equipment and data inside) could easily be trashed.  Definitely nothing to scoff at!

After pulling ourselves together and out of our sleep induced stupors, we started evacuating the tent most likely to be destroyed: our kitchen tent.

At the time, this tent was literally packed to the zipper with fresh food from a recent Nairobi trip, and took almost an hour just to move it all to the lab tent and our dining table.

With the river continuing to rise and the kitchen tent evacuated, we moved our attention to the lab tent.  Here, the lab tent was full of months of data: blood samples, photo-ID books, extracted DNA etc.  In addition, we have (seemingly endless) essential equipment to make camp run-- all in danger if the river got much higher.  And unfortunately for us, it didn’t seem like the river was slowing down anytime soon.  So…raise things to higher ground and move all the data and expensive equipment to the cars we did! That way, if the river was still a threat, we could drive to higher ground, out of camp, and into the bush.

What? The river is still rising? I guess we better start taking down the (now empty) kitchen tent and hope for the best.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Luckily the river didn’t get much higher at this point.  A few more feet and the river would have literally been up to the lab tent—forcing us to drive things out of camp to higher ground.

In the morning, we all awoke to the wreckage and slowly started putting things back into their respective places.  It felt a bit silly putting everything back where it came from knowing that the same thing could happen again the next night…but we’ve got a camp to run out here and we need our stuff in their appropriate places!

Although it has still been raining every day, the river is back down to its “normal” level.  We’ve all been sleeping easier in camp, and are doing our best to stay busy and out of trouble by learning new games and watching movies.  We’re running out of new ones (already playing various forms of gin, rummy, bridge, hearts), so any recommendations are welcome!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rainy Season Blues

For all of you faithful bloggers out there, this is David, returning to Kenya for my long field season to conduct my graduate research (I’ll be here for ~2 years).  My dissertation focuses on ways that we can use the spotted hyena to assist in the conservation of wildlife out here in east Africa.

Although I wished my first blog entry (of this field season) would be triumphant, a sort of, “I’m back, and look at all of this data I’ve already collected in just a few weeks time,” this has not been the case.  Unfortunately, I seemed to have timed my return to Kenya with the return of the intertropical convergence zone, filling me with the blues. 

The rainy season blues.

The intertropical convergence zone creates the weather patterns of dry and wet seasons here in Kenya.  The northeast and southeast trade winds converge twice each year over Kenya, once in March-April, and then once again in November-December.  This low atmospheric pressure combined with the heating around the equator creates literally tons of precipitation.

What this means for us here in camp is a lot of rain.  And by “a lot,” I mean up to 50 millimeters in the course of a few hours.

This changes much of our day-to-day work here in fisi camp.  Driving around recording hyena behavior is often replaced with ensuring camp doesn’t flood, and in the event that it does, putting things into dry bags and elevating expensive electronics.

Here’s to hoping we get some sunny days soon to dry off and get out of camp!

Friday, April 20, 2012

April Showers Bring...Mud.

Impending doom over camp as I left Happy Zebra den

April was a different pace compared to my first few months here. We had much more rain, which meant a lot less time spent in the field collecting data. Rain also meant that the few times we tried to visit the hyena dens, the Mara made sure it was a challenge. Changing a tire at night only 100m from a hyena den as curious hyenas investigate the issue can be a little stressful. Fortunately, our second flat tire occurred during the daytime with no hyenas trying to assist, and when Noémie’s family was visiting, so it went much smoother.

My first week working alone in the Mara, I was unaware that a fuse had come loose in the fuse box of the Land Cruiser while driving in a rocky area one evening. So when I attempted to restart the car and head back to camp, I felt a surge of panic, but quickly regained my composure, knowing that all fuel and liquid levels were good and that the battery was still working. I now know that cars contain a fuse box... After waiting only 2 hours in the darkness standing on top of the vehicle, periodically waving a Maglight towards the glow of headlights on the horizon (with a visit from the South clan hyenas, including Clovis herself, lions fighting and/or killing something in the darkness and jackals and hyenas calling all around), I was graciously rescued by one of the Mara Conservancy mechanics.

My first week alone also included not only my first, but also my second time watching a bunch of hyenas on a kill! Obviously I was quite overwhelmed, especially since the second kill ended up being a different hyena clan than the ones we study, which explained my complete lack of recognition of any hyena! During the first kill, I witnessed Clovis (she seems to be a recurring them in my posts) drag an impala carcass into a mostly dry riverbed (called a lugga in Kenya, after many frustrating attempts to discover the meaning of this word) and then remove it a few minutes later. Intrigued by this behavior I did a little research. Apparently, the intelligent hyenas have discovered that if they cache their food in water, terrestrial predators cannot smell it, nor would they even think to search for it in water. Hyenas also seem to only cache food in small water bodies, not in crocodile-infested waters where they would quickly lose their meal. In March, after seeing a hyena swim across the low-level Mara River, we also discovered that not only can they swim, but they can dive and catch fish as well! These hyenas never cease to amaze us!
Clovis with an impala (dead, obviously)

My second week working alone included getting the tiny little Suzuki Maruti stuck in the mud, twice, but help was never far and both instances occurred during daylight. I am quickly learning to skirt around any area that looks even remotely squishy.

Despite not being out in the field as much, amazing animal moments still occurred! One morning, Noémie and I were overjoyed to come across a caracal! We probably spent more time following it than we should have, but then again, it was a caracal! Who knew when we would see one again? Well, 2 days later, I saw it again while driving back to camp one evening! One of my favorite moments this month, though, was when I was driving back from North clan’s den and came across a female cheetah, lying on a termite mound. I stayed there with her until after darkness when the cheetah left, because that moment was just too special for me to disturb with the noisy engine of the Land Cruiser. She now has a new litter of cubs! Hopefully they have better luck than the previous litter!

The most impressive moment happened fortunately when Noémie’s family was visiting. 4 giant male lions were marking their territory in South’s territory and we could tell these big boys had nothing to fear. This was most evident when they had all sacked out against each other in the middle of the plain in the rain but none batted an eye when we drove right up to them for photos. 1 lion is impressive, 2 is incredible, but 4 was absolutely amazing!

Lastly, if any former Fisi campers or blog followers recognize this snake and can confirm that it's not dangerous, that would be very much appreciated considering it is climbing my tent pole in the photo! It was between 1-1.5m long, green scales with black skin underneath, yellow belly, excellent tree climber (slithered straight up the trunk!), and occasionally puffed up its neck like a long balloon, when threatened.

Even during the rainy season, the Mara still manages to entertain!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science