Fieldwork in Kenya

When I chose my course at the University of Leeds I had the option of paying extra to go on a field course to Kenya and undertake a short research project. The new postgraduate loan meant that I could afford to go, so how could I say no? I may never have the opportunity, or money to visit Kenya again.

If you find a course that gives you the option of conducting fieldwork somewhere other than your native country go.

It’s one thing to learn about conservation in your home country and how we go about protecting the places and creatures that are important to us. But conservation is a global issue. Go and experience the struggles and triumphs of conservation within other countries. Some aspects may be hard to deal with, but this is the reality of the field we have chosen to go into. You can never truly understand an issue until you experience it for yourself.

So just go!

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Me trying to look nonchalant at the top of Mukenya

Mpala Research Centre

The Mpala Research Centre was our home for the two weeks we spent in Kenya. The centre lies within the Laikipia plateau just to the Northwest of Mt Kenya. It has the fourth largest African Wild Dog population and scores of endangered Grevy’s Zebra. We stayed in small groups in houses across the Mpala campsite which we also shared with Dik-dik, Kudu, lizards and the occasional spider.

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Heathrow House was home to six of us during our stay at Mpala

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One of the beautiful Kudu that we frequently watched from our veranda

The centre has a library, equipped with articles published at the centre and every book you could possibly need for the research you might be conducting there. It also has a classroom, laboratory and kitchen (which serves the best chapati and lentil curry you will ever taste). The campsite is surrounded by fences which mostly keep out Elephants and larger animals such as Wild Dogs and Leopards. However smaller animals can get in, we were often joined for breakfast by Vervet monkeys and Hornbills. Just outside of the camp is hippo pool, which is self explanatory, and you can watch it live here! I could spend all day describing the parts of the 48,000 acres of the research centre that I got to see. However I feel like pictures will describe it much better than my rambling words, so I’ve put a short slideshow at the end of this post.

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A Hornbill joining us for breakfast

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The Vervet monkeys were very confident. Sneaking into the vans if the roofs were accidentally left open. They would even steal snacks right from your backpack!

My research project

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Team Thorn feat. James

Our group of six (Abi, Katherine, Aggeliki, Megan and Rosie) were looking at the relationship between four ant species and the whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium). The acacias provide their own defense in the form of stipular thorns, and produce extrafloral nectaries and domatia to encourage ants to colonise and protect them. Nectaries are sites at the bottom of leaves which produce nectar for the ants and domatia are swollen pseudogalls at the base of the thorns which the ants hollow out and colonise.

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Myself and Abi with an A. drepanolobium on our last day. When we realised we might miss the prickly so and so’s a little

In return the ants remove insect herbivores and swarm to attack mammalian herbivores when they feed on the tree, protecting it from overgrazing. They can even defend against Elephants! In fact we saw an Elephant kick one over in disgust – I don’t think they’re fans. Within these four ant species (Tetraponera penzigi, Crematogaster nigriceps, Crematogaster mimosae and Crematogaster sjostedti) there is a dominance hierarchy, with more dominant species displacing the initial colonising species T. penzigi. Some of these ants are more useful to the Acacia than others however. C. nigriceps is even known to castrate the trees so that they cannot bear fruit!

 

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This Elephant did not appreciate the ants making it difficult to get a meal!

Black cotton soil is a unique habitat as it is almost entirely a monoculture of whistling thorn acacia. Many studies have been conducted into the relationships between the acacias and these ant species within black cotton soils. However it is unclear if the nature of these relationships are the same in marginal, nutrient depleted soil. Our study found that ant species had a greater impact on the allocation of resources for anti-herbivore defense than soil type. And also that thorn length was greater in transitional soils. We found that there was a correlation between investment in the size of both ant and thorn defenses in transitional soils. However, whether a trade-off between ant and thorn defense investment exists due to reduced nutrient availability still remains unclear.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about ant-acacia mutualisms some key papers are  Young et al 1997, Stanton et al 2002 and Stanton et al 2011.

Unforgettable moments

A chameleon fell out of an acacia tree onto Ben’s head. There’s not really much else to that one. Just imagine it. It was hilarious. (N.B. both the chameleon and Ben were unharmed).

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Not said chameleon but another we met on our climb up Mt Kenya

We found the most adorable frog on an acacia tree. Frogs in the Savannah. Who knew?

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If anyone can identify this species please get in touch!

The gentle Dik-dik and Kudu that were nearly always present at our house. One evening we were sitting reading outside and the Kudu walked right past us.

Getting the call on the radio that Wild Dogs had been spotted. They had just made a kill and we were lucky enough to glimpse a pair through the scrub and long grass. My first wild dog. Ever. I was beyond elated and close to tears. Seeing Jackal puppies at the end of the trip nearly sent me over the edge! (For those of you that haven’t seen my first blog post I am obsessed with Wolves and dogs in general, so this was a huge event for me).

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The African Wild Dogs stuck around for over 10 minutes

Hyenas singing me to sleep each night.

And a moment I honestly believe I will carry in my memory forever. Up on Baboon Cliff we were looking out across the landscape spotting Elephants and Giraffes in the distance. Steve suddenly shouts out. It becomes quickly apparent that just below us is a Hyena den. We looked on as six Hyena lope out from the den and bound across the Savannah. A few seconds after the Hyenas disappeared the sky darkened and rain fell like I’ve never seen. Breaking the terrible drought that the region had been experiencing. We pelted back to the van singing Toto’s “Africa” and laughing our heads off.

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Steve, Team Thorns project supervisor, was the first to spot the Hyenas (credit: Abi Harrison captured the moment perfectly)

Photos

Please note: whilst we visited a reserve where White and Black Rhinos were present I cannot post pictures of them due to risk of poaching. Unfortunately the reserve we visited has lost many rhinos to poaching.

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