April 28, 2018

For the last few weeks I’ve very much enjoyed retelling some wild stories about baboon attacks, Aberdare adventures and terrifying moments on Mount Kenya. But maybe it’s time to come back down to Earth for a bit (and just a bit) and remind you all that I did actually come here to do some work. This post certainly won’t be as thrilling or humor-filled as some of my others, but I think it may actually be interesting to take a look at some of the really intriguing projects I did and lessons I learned in my third course – Natural History of African Mammals.

Our first project was an intense investigative survey of dik-diks. Our goal? Find out literally everything we could about those weird creatures. For those who don’t know, dik-diks are a small type of antelope abundant throughout the Mpala Research Center. They’re odd looking: with a long snout that seems to have a mind of its own and dark, red coloring under their eyes. Despite this, I found them to be pretty cute and like to think I befriended a few during my time in Africa (not sure they’d agree, though).

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Were we watching dik-diks...or were they watching us?

For four days we followed them around, tracking them through the brush and observing their every move. We determined their eating habits, mapped each family’s territory, and even ran experiments to see how they respond when scared (conclusion: not particularly well). It was quite the undertaking. But you know how too much of a good thing can be a bad thing? After a few days we reached that point. We knew so much about dik-diks they were starting to creep us out, and I could probably tell you things about them you’d definitely never want to know. For example, did you know that dik-diks secrete a black goo from a gland under their eyes that they rub on plants to mark their territories? How they avoid poking themselves in the eye on a daily basis is beyond me, but watching them stab a stick into their face over and over again got a little gross after a while.

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Narrowly avoiding serious eye damage, a tiny dik-dik marks his territory with goo

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to our little grey friends (my group affectionately named our subjects Moonshine, Moonbeam, and Starlight) and move onto bigger things. For our next project we were heading to the Lewa Conservancy – a gorgeous expanse of tall, green grass and wildlife. And wow, Lewa was beautiful. It may have been the most beautiful place I visited during all of my time in Africa. Our first night there we took a sunset drive through the spectacularly lush grassland and watched the golden sun descend behind rhinos, buffalo, elephants, and zebra. I’m not sure I can really do the scene justice with words, so I’m just going to let a photo do the rest of the talking.

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Two Grevy's zebras enjoy an incredible Lewa sunset

Unfortunately, the rest of the week at Lewa was devoted exclusively to work. Perhaps my biggest regret/disappointment from my 3 months in Africa was that we didn’t dedicate more time that week to just exploring and enjoying the incredible environment we were in. I’m all for work, especially at school, but you can’t come to Africa and not spend a little time wherever you are just soaking it all in. Our work, at least, was very relevant – all of our projects were aimed to help the Lewa management better understand and protect its nature haven. Mine, for example, was a study of the impact of elephants on both the vegetation and wildlife. Doing work for a good grade is one thing, but doing work that actually makes a difference to the lives of both humans and animals alike was a rewarding and fulfilling experience. It was great to get another taste of the practical importance of environmental research.

But after a few days it was time to depart, and we returned to Mpala for our last week of mammals. My final project was an interesting one – attempting to better understand why zebras have stripes (conclusion: not sure, could be lots of reasons). But I won’t go into detail about that, instead I want to focus on our day excursion to Ol Pejeta and my thoughts that stemmed from that visit.

You’ve probably heard of Ol Pejeta – it was on the news recently when Sudan, the world’s last male Northern White Rhino, passed away within the compound. Now only two Northern Whites remain: a mother and daughter named Najin and Fatu. I was beyond excited to see them in person; the last two of their kind who now serve as a symbol of the consequences of humanity’s recklessness.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but seeing Najin and Fatu was a somber and sobering experience for me. For good reason, the two are kept under constant surveillance and behind a large electric fence. But what shocked me was the size of their enclosure; at best it encompassed an area of maybe four football fields. It saddened me to know that it was our fault these beautiful creatures were confined to such a small pen; to live out the remainder of their species’ existence.

There isn’t really anything inherently special about Northern White Rhinos. They’re not the last rhinos in existence. Nor are they even significantly different from the morphology other rhinos. In fact, there was a third rhino of a different species in their pen (for companionship, perhaps?) and we struggled to tell them apart. But really, it doesn’t matter. For a million years they survived on this planet before heavy poaching in the 1970s decimated their population down to just 15 individuals. It’s a stark eye-opener to just how deadly and potent we can be to the other organisms on Earth if we choose to do nothing but harm. The fact that I can fit an entire species – all that remains in the history of this planet – into one photo is a very clear signal that our careless lack of regard for the natural world needs to be reversed.

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Najin and Fatu graze together within their fenced and heavily-monitored exclosure

Admittedly, I haven’t been an environmentalist for very long. But during that time I’ve heard a lot of arguments about why humanity is not obligated to reverse its destructive habits. Climate change deniers believe the warming of the Earth is a hoax, or not anthropogenic – but that’s scientifically inaccurate and frankly irrelevant. Some capitalists and economists argue that conservationists prioritize animals and the environment over people’s wealth and well-being – but there’s absolutely no reason why it needs to be one or the other. I’ve even heard religious people suggest that because God gave Adam and humanity dominion over all creatures on Earth that we are free to do what we please – but any ruler who destroys the very thing they rule has no right to rule at all. In the end, the reasons for changing our ways and protecting the natural world are very simple: because its disarray is our fault, because we owe our protection to every organism on Earth, and because it’s worth it. The fate of every other species on this planet will serve as a reflection of the fate of ours.

As always, thank you for following along! I know this post was deeper than my usual, but I hope it gave you something to think about. Stay tuned for my penultimate Kenya post next week about a very muddy and sweaty 10 days at Lake Turkana studying paleoecology. I’ll leave you with one final image of an idyllic afternoon in Lewa:

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A rainbow appears above our car after a long day in the field - proof that after every transect comes the sun