The Long Way Home: Caitlin’s perspective

Although we had one more mini-safari left on our way out of the Masai Mara, a clear shift in mindset had occurred during the night before our final day in Kenya. As much as everyone had enjoyed our journey around the country, I think most people were ready to get back to the comforts of home–fresh veggies, warm showers, clean clothes, reliable electricity, Internet (those, at least, were my main items of interest).

First we had to break camp and pack up, which we did fairly early in the morning even though our flight didn’t leave from Nairobi until just before midnight. On paper, we would have a ridiculous amount of time to hang out in the airport, but in reality it turned out to be a good thing that we got rolling so early in the day. Since I was staying in a banda, I didn’t have to worry about pulling down or packing up a tent; this gave me a bit of spare time for some last-minute birding. At the beginning of the morning, a red-chested cuckoo outside my window acted as a lovely natural alarm clock; I finished the morning with a bright blue woodland kingfisher watching over as I locked up and left my little hut (until next year!).

(Woodland kingfisher perched over the river outside my door)

Throughout the trip, students always stayed in the same minibuses, while staff gradually made the rounds. On our final day, we cycled back around to the buses we’d been in on our trip from the airport, giving us a nice sense of circularity and completion. My driver was Simon, who was always quite calm and cautious; this turned out to be a very good thing given the quality of the roads that we had to traverse to get out of the Mara. Although we’d originally planned to drive through the park one last time, we ended up changing our route at the last minute. Our new course took us through areas that are inhabited by a good deal of wildlife, but which also have a more obvious human presence. Despite our close proximity to people, we saw all the usual suspects plus a few species that few of us had previously encountered–including ground-hornbills, which I hadn’t seen since the 2011 trip.

(Southern ground-hornbills, photographed in 2011 near one of the lodges in the Masai Mara. This year’s birds were nearly impossible to photograph since they were hiding in the long grass on a hillside; all we could really see were the tops of their heads and their bills–better than nothing!)

We also got a good look at some yellow-billed oxpeckers feeding on the backs of buffalo. I saw both species of oxpecker in 2011 but didn’t manage to see any yellow-billeds at all last year. This time around I saw nearly equal numbers of the two varieties, plus I even saw some juvenile (less colorful) oxpeckers learning feeding techniques from their parents. It’s amazing how different the same ecosystem can be from one year to the next.

(A yellow-billed oxpecker. Actually, both types of oxpeckers have red on their bills; the yellow-billed birds have yellow at the base and red at the tip, whereas the red-billed birds have only red.)

After an hour or so, we switched from safari mode into travel mode, and picked up a little more speed in the hopes of getting to our lunch stop in Mai Mahiu at a decent hour. When I say “speed,” though, what I really mean is that we went as fast as we could on a road that was nothing but a series of potholes and boulders of various sizes. It was the same road we had used to access the Mara a few days previously, but somehow it seemed much worse on our trip out–potentially because we weren’t high on the excitement of going to see elephants and cheetahs and other new species. We continued to pass many interesting animals as we drove, but everyone had put their binoculars and cameras away and had set their sights on the airport. My biggest regret of the trip was that I allowed us to drive past two secretary birds without stopping for a photograph. We had seen several of these animals during our safaris, but had never before been so close to them. However, since everyone else was either asleep or seemingly uninterested, I didn’t want to disturb the peace.

Our driver estimated that it would take us about 2 hours to get to our restaurant, but in the end it took nearly 4–approximately 2.5 of the bumpiest and most uncomfortable hours imaginable across Masai land, and then another 1.5 on the highway; we didn’t eat “lunch” until almost 4:30 PM. One of the reasons we reached Mai Mahiu so late was that we stopped briefly in Narok to have a toilet break and do one last round of souvenir shopping. As in previous years, we stopped at a shop that has some really interesting, well-made, and unique things, but that also charges ridiculous amounts of money for them. Even the drinks and snacks were more expensive than anywhere else we visited. Of course, this was the place where I finally found the souvenir that I have been wanting since my very first trip to Kenya: a carved warthog. I really love warthogs, and I had no idea during my first visit that they would be so difficult to find in souvenir shops (apparently people don’t find them attractive enough!). I have been regretting my decision not to buy one at the first shop we visited back in 2011. The shopkeeper in Narok wanted to charge 3500 shillings for the carving that I picked out, but I am not that fond of warthogs. Luckily, I was able to get her to agree to 1000, which was all that I had left in my wallet.

After shopping and lunch, all we had left was to head back up the escarpment, make our way through Nairobi, and get to the airport. It was not a difficult journey, but it was a long and tedious one. We were hot, tired, dusty, and sore from all the driving. We had thought we’d be arriving at the airport around 4 PM, but the hours just kept dragging on, and we didn’t get there until around 8 PM. Finally, though, we managed to unload our gear from the vehicles, stick it all on trolleys, get it into the airport, and check in. We still had about 3.5 hours before our flight left, which gave us plenty of time to relax, have drinks, and (in my case) explore the airport bookstores for useful field identification guides.

The flight was about as fun as any 8-hour flight can be. Before leaving Kenya, we had received word that weather in the UK was becoming treacherous; however, we had no issues landing at Heathrow. This was decidedly not the case later that day or the following morning, so the timing of our trip could not have been more perfect. It was quite a shock to our systems to walk out into London’s freezing cold temperatures; many people had to root around in their bags to find extra layers (and shoes to exchange for flip-flops). Our buses took a wrong turn when entering the airport to retrieve us, leaving us shivering on the sidewalk for longer than we would have preferred. We nearly left behind several  students who went back inside to warm up and buy hot beverages; luckily some of their friends raised the alarm, and we were able to circle back around and pick them up.

The drivers were very anxious to hit the road as quickly as possible, because they knew that we would be driving into this:

These conditions are nothing to sniff at, but they don’t seem that treacherous to someone like me, who has often driven through the mountains in the middle of a blizzard. British drivers, though, are not used to this sort of thing, and our chauffeurs were right to be worried not just about the conditions on the road, but also the crazy things that inexperienced drivers might do while panicking about the weather.

The snow also caused a stir among our students because several of them had never seen it firsthand. They were quite anxious to have the opportunity to take pictures and, more importantly, go play in it. When we finally stopped for a restroom and meal break after a few hours on the road, they were some of the first people off the bus:

(Five of our most tropical students enjoy playing in the snow)

There were snow angels to make and, of course, snowball fights to be had:

They were lucky that we stopped when we did, because the snow continued to thin as we got closer to Cornwall. By the time we crossed the Tamar, all we were left with was good old-fashioned Cornish rain to welcome us home.

It’s always good to get back after two weeks on the road, but the return is bittersweet–and not just because of the difference in climate. Kenya is a beautiful and exciting place, and we are lucky to have the chance to visit it each year. Luckily for those who are experiencing Africa withdrawal, the course is not yet over even though the field trip is: Next week brings the poster session, at which students will give presentations on conservation issues that they learned about during the course (both in the field and by doing extra reading on the side); there is also an upcoming test, though I imagine that most people won’t find that quite as fun.

Amazingly enough, we’re also already at work planning next year’s course. We’ve been brainstorming about new activities and destinations that can help make the trip even more educational. Stay tuned to hear more about those in the coming months, and to find out more about the wildlife and conservation issues we learned about this year!

Final day in the Mara: Caitlin’s perspective

Every morning in the Masai Mara, a select few individuals are lucky (and rich) enough to hop into hot air balloons for what must be an enviable view of sunrise over the savannah. Since wildlife don’t generally look up, they probably have no idea that the balloon riders are looking down from above; I suspect that the animals therefore probably act more normally than they do during any other human-wildlife “encounter” (if you can call it that). One day I hope to experience this first-hand, but for now I have to be satisfied with looking at both the animals and the balloons through the window of a minibus. Really, I suppose that’s not such a bad perspective, either:

(A herd of elephants feeding in the early hours of the day)

As spectacular as the Masai Mara can be, it can also grow boring relatively quickly. You tend to see the same animals over and over and spend quite a lot of time driving through sections of grassland where relatively few animals can be found (or seen) at all–as was the case on the day of our arrival. The best way to avoid becoming impatient and jaded is to try to maintain excitement about the species that you do see, even if you’ve seen them a dozen times before.

(Helmeted guineafowl)

Take, for example, the helmeted guineafowl. We must see hundreds of these birds during our two-week trip through Kenya, which makes it easy to dismiss them as “ordinary.” But, if you take a closer look, you’ll see that they are anything but boring. They have striking polka dot body plumage, brilliant blue and red faces, and bony knobs on the tops of their heads. These are birds in whom the ancient dinosaur blood still runs strong. There are few other places on earth where something this exotic could be thought of as “boring”–an impressive indication of all the great stuff that Kenya has to offer.

(A pair of red-necked spurfowl)

Guineafowl have several close relatives cohabiting with them in the Mara, and one of these is the red-necked spurfowl. If Kenya were a country in which hunting were permitted, I’m sure that both these species would often grace people’s dinner plates. Luckily for these birds, though, humans are only allowed to shoot them with cameras. The pair of spurfowl shown above were quite generous with their time, allowing me to take several photographs while they posed right next to the road. It’s amazing how birds like these are tolerant of vehicles that pass within just a few inches of their foraging spots, while other seemingly similar species will take flight at much greater distances.

After driving around aimlessly for a while (secretly hoping to encounter leopards on their way home from a night’s hunting), we headed back to the elephant carcass to see if anything exciting had happened since the previous evening. Amazingly, the body was still more or less in one piece; while we watched, a lone jackal tried–in vain–to extract a bit of breakfast from the elephant’s hind quarters. The body was covered in “whitewashing,” which suggested that vultures had come over to investigate the potential meal but had eventually flown off in frustration after being unable to break through the tough hide. Ever the optimists, they had removed themselves just a short distance away, to a nearby acacia; they were waiting quite patiently for something with powerful jaws (i.e., a hyena) to come along and make the interior of the carcass available to them.

(A black-backed jackal attempts to feed from an elephant carcass)

(Hungry vultures wait to feed)

After the morning game drive, we gave the students several hours to put the finishing touches on some presentations they would be delivering later in the day. I used the free time to wander around looking at birds. Coincidentally, large flocks of black-headed weavers, arrow-marked babblers, and long-tailed starlings decided that this would be an excellent time to come forage in our campsite, so I had plenty to see.

(A black-headed weaver feeds from an acacia)

Although I was mainly searching the branches for feathered animals, there were also some furry species to be found; both vervets and baboons were abundant in the area and could frequently be seen (and heard) running across our rooftops. They have been visitors to the campsite in previous years, but I think they were particularly fond of the area this time around because of all the fruits dropping off the trees along the riverbank.

(A vervet monkey has a contemplative moment)

Actually, the vervets were quite a distraction during the student presentations that afternoon; each time the monkeys got testy with one another, their screechy fights would drown out our speakers. There was also one female with a particularly tiny and adorable infant; many people (myself included) were itching to grab their cameras and take a few shots of the baby. Sadly, its mother was very protective and quickly fled with it up into the treetops any time anyone even thought about getting too close.

The presentations addressed the herbivore surveys that we’d asked the students to do earlier in the trip; each bus group had to provide some background on the work, a description of their methods, the results of their quick-and-dirty statistical analyses, and some conclusions based on these findings. Although all the groups used the same techniques and produced more or less similar results, they still managed to generate a wide variety of unique and interesting points about their work. Only at the end of the day did we tell them that the information they collected was being used to initiate a long-term dataset on Kenyan wildlife.

(Bus group 8 presents the results of their observations on herbivore abundance)

As soon as the presentations were finished, we headed off to the minibuses to depart on our last real safari of the trip; the next time we hit the road, it would be for our drive back to the airport in Nairobi. Appropriately, we ended the day much as we started it: with elephants.

(A mother elephant and her calf)

There were also many bird species, but none that I could get very good photographs of. For the first time during the entire trip, I had a driver who was willing to stop to let us look at small birds. In fact, he was very good at spotting these species and pointing them out to us. After spending nearly two weeks speeding past LBJs (“little brown jobs,” for those who aren’t serious birders), I finally had the chance to try to identify the various larks, pipits, and cisticolas that lurk amid the Mara’s grasses. I was quite impressed with the students, who were all quite enthusiastic about poring over the identification guides and using difficult-to-spot field marks to try to determine which species we were viewing. Sometimes our efforts were more successful than others, but it was still great to have the chance to train my binoculars on these cryptic animals.

Our driver was also responsible for creating what was probably the best photo opportunity of the entire trip. Even though we were running very late for our 6:30 PM park exit time, our driver pulled over just within view of the gate and told us to turn around and watch the sunset. When we stopped, about half of the sun was sitting above the horizon; over the next several minutes (and several hundredphotographs), it slowly sank in an explosion of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples.

(Topi, impala, and gazelles graze in the last rays of the setting sun)

Over the three years that I’ve been doing this field course, I’ve seen several spectacular African sunsets, but this was the first time I’d ever deliberately sat and watched one as it happened. It was a phenomenal experience. I know that sunsets are beautiful in general, but the huge expanse of the African savannah, and the picturesque African wildlife, really made this one remarkable. It was particularly fitting and poignant since it marked the end of the last full day of our Kenya adventure.

(The sun sets on the Masai Mara, and on the 2013 Kenya MSc field course)

Note from the author: Just because this entry covers our last full day journeying through the safari, the blog isn’t done yet! Stay tuned to hear about our chilly return to the UK, see our species lists, find out more about the natural history of the wildlife we encountered, view student photos and videos, read student accounts of the trip, and more!

From Mara to manyatta: the Masai experience (Caitlin’s perspective)

On our first full day in the Mara–our 10th day in Kenya–I was beginning to feel the strain of being away from home. The physical and mental exhaustion (not to mention the dwindling sizes of our portions at each meal) were beginning to take their toll on me, and I will admit to being a tad grumpy.  This was exacerbated by the fact that I was assigned to a bus with my least favorite type of driver: the kind that doesn’t actually care about wildlife. Actually, I suppose he did care about wildlife, but only in the sense that he wanted to make sure we all saw the “big five”; what he didn’t care about was the safety or welfare of any of the organisms we encountered during our game drive. He deliberately provoked buffaloes and elephants in order to try to get them to display at us, and he ran smaller animals–including a baby gazelle–off the road just for a laugh. Sadly, this is not uncommon behavior among the drivers, and it’s not the first time I’ve experienced it. Unless really provoked, though, I’m bad about piping up and telling drivers to rein themselves in, and so I mostly just sit and fume in the passenger seat. I hope that other safari-goers are more forceful, both for their own happiness and that of the wildlife around them.

(Composite panorama of a huge herd of grazing buffalo–and a single passing raptor)

We didn’t have that exciting of a morning game drive, but we did manage to see a few interesting things. Perhaps most impressive was the massive gathering of buffalo shown above; I needed to take 5 photographs just to capture all the animals in the group.

(A male lion in his very unnatural habitat)

We also found some lions (two napping males, probably brothers), but the delight of this discovery was quickly soured by the arrival of a seemingly endless horde of safari vehicles. This happens at least once each year, and almost always involves cat sightings. It is a pretty horrible way to view wildlife, especially when you can see that the animals want to get up and move elsewhere but are unsure of how to proceed given that they are completely hemmed in by minibuses. I noticed that this year’s students were quite sensitive to this, and quickly asked our drivers to leave and give the lions some breathing room; if only all tourists were equally well-informed and generous.

(Elephant carcass. When we arrived, the cheeks and trunk were missing, and there was a slash in the belly, but the body otherwise remained intact. Very little changed over the next day and a half, suggesting that scavengers were having a hard time dealing with the elephant’s tough hide.)

We also received word of a “fresh” elephant carcass that we went to visit in the hopes of seeing lions, jackals, hyenas, and vultures. Although there were supposedly lions lurking in the bush behind the body, we did not see any other animals until we departed, at which point we encountered a few hyenas that were obviously waiting for their chance to feed. Although the elephant was clearly not long dead–with the exception of its face, it hadn’t been touched by any scavengers–its scent indicated that it had died more than a few hours ago. We debated whether it was a natural death, a lion kill, or perhaps even a poaching event; human killers will often kill the elephant one day and return on another to grab the tusks, so the presence of ivory is not really a good clue. Since there wasn’t much action going on yet, we decided to visit the carcass later and see how things had changed.

(A spotted hyena waiting for its chance to forage at the elephant carcass. This guy probably could have “opened up” the dead body so that the meat could be accessed by other species such as jackals and vultures, but all the hyenas kept getting chased away by the lions who had been first on the scene.)

(A male elephant in musth, as indicated by the testosterone-rich fluid dripping from his swollen temporal glands)

Near the dead elephant was a herd of maybe a dozen or so living animals, who I’m guessing were probably related to the deceased individual. Elephants are known to grieve the loss of their friends and family members, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if these individuals had stayed in the neighborhood because they were not ready to “let go.” Indeed, one of the other bus groups later saw a standoff between a lion and an elephant matriarch protecting the carcass.

(Martial eagle)

Not all of our sightings were grim and depressing. We also got some excellent views of a variety of raptors, all of which appeared to quite enjoy the overcast conditions on this particular morning. I’d never seen a martial eagle prior to this field course, but on this morning I managed to see two separate individuals (or one individual twice!).

(Field trip to a Masai village)

After lunch, we embarked on an adventure that many of the staff secretly dislike: our visit to a Masai village, or manyatta. The experience is quite educational, but it is also interactive–hence our discomfort; the last thing a lecturer wants to do is be forced to dance around like an idiot in front of his or her students. It is also difficult to take anything too seriously given how keenly aware we are that our Masai hosts are putting on a show solely for our benefit. I have no doubt that there are grains of truth in everything they do or say, but I am also certain that there is quite a lot of embellishment going on. After all, the Masai have opened up their village to outsiders in order to earn money; they charge us for the tour and then they hope to earn additional cash at the end of the afternoon, when they funnel us into a marketplace erected just outside their fence. Thus, it is in their interest to make our visit as exciting as possible, regardless of whether or not that excitement accurately reflects their culture. Or maybe I have just become cynical over the years.

(Being welcomed to the Masai manyatta)

Before entering the village, we were met outside its fence by the chief, who provided some basic background information about the the village and its inhabitants. He then invited Masai performers of both sexes to come sing, dance, and–in the case of the young men–jump.

(The Masai welcome dance)

All of the dancing is interactive, and pretty much everyone is forced to participate. Supposedly, the ceremony is the same one they use when Masai youths gather to look for spouses. Men and women start off separately, but little by little wind up in a more-or-less circular knot of singers and dancers. This group of people then splits up into two chains that pass and acknowledge each other (with a high-five sort of greeting) while singing and bouncing along in time to the music. It is not dissimilar to a conga line. Some people really love getting their Masai groove on, while others are quite reluctant to join in. I felt like a total fool last year, and was very glad to observe the festivities from the sidelines this time around. Some people, like course leader Brendan Godley, manage to look so imposing that even lion-killing Masai warriors are afraid to press-gang them into participating.

(Look at that body language! It’s pretty obvious which one of these guys will eventually dance, and which four will remain standing on the sidelines.)

(Masai conga)

Once the dancing and singing have been completed, the Masai warriors have the opportunity to show their manliness by engaging in a jumping contest. I am not sure how important these sorts of sexual displays are to modern Masai singles looking for partners, but traditionally this was the portion of the festivities when men could demonstrate their physical fitness to the ladies. The warriors jump individually and together, and the heights of their jumps are demarcated by an observer who holds a stick out to indicate the level reached by the highest jumper’s head.

(Toby demonstrates his manliness. Note his straight legs–most UK jumpers bend their knees while in the air, but Toby has managed a very respectable Masai style of jumping.)

With the jumping completed, we went into the village and received another briefing from the chief. Before dividing us up into smaller groups that could more easily fit into the Masai buildings en masse, the chief invited us to watch several young men light a fire in the “traditional Masai style” (friction). I always think this is a rather comical portion of the visit because the adolescents really struggle to get the fire going–suggesting that these days it is more common for fires to be lit with matches or lighters. But, to their credit, the warriors never gave up, and they did eventually manage to get a blaze going.

(Juxtaposition of traditional dress and modern technology. Here, a young warrior uses his cell phone to snap a photograph of the students as they watch the fire-starting demonstration.)

(A Masai guide answers student questions outside his hut. One of the things that surprises students most is that many of the guides are university students in Nairobi or Narok; they participate in these cultural events when they happen to be visiting home during breaks in their education.)

Overall, this year’s manyatta visit was a huge improvement over last year’s–mostly because the much cooler weather meant that we didn’t have students fainting from heat stroke. On our walk home from the village, we had the chance to enjoy some new species of wildlife up close and personal; among other things, we saw a dung beetle rolling along near our path, and a lovely kingfisher foraging for food along the banks of the river running around our campsite.

(Cloudy sky–not only aesthetically pleasing, but also helpful for keeping the temperatures down to a level more tolerable to Europeans)

We arrived home just in time to head out again on the final game drive of the evening. Although the students’ eyes were on the wildlife out on the savannah, their minds continued to linger on the manyatta visit; I heard many lengthy discussions about Masai traditions and the relationship between the Masai and the wilderness around them. It was quite gratifying to find that the students had found the manyatta visit to be so educational and thought-provoking.

It’s just as well that everyone was engaged in such intense conversations, since there wasn’t too much to see out on the Mara. Probably the most exciting find was a trio of dik-diks, the smallest antelope; although it is hard to say for certain, we think that the group comprised a pair of adults and their mostly-grown offspring.

(Female dik-dik; she was distinguishable from the male because she was not sporting small horns)

(Scanning the treeline for leopards. Sadly, there were none to be seen.)

Just as we turned our vehicles around to head back home, we were treated to a meteorological show that partially made up for the lack of wildlife: a late-evening rainbow arcing over our path. Perhaps it didn’t give the same thrill as a cat-sighting would have, but it was still a lovely way to end the day.

(Rainbow over the Masai Mara)

Mara Conservancy: Caitlin’s perspective

Most of the people who participated in the evening game drive through the Mara Conservancy did not get to bed until at least midnight, so our pre-dawn breakfast must have been fairly painful for them. The reward for their suffering, though, was a beautiful golden sunrise and a glut of wildlife.

(Sunrise over the Mara Conservancy)

(A Masai giraffe browses behind a very alert herd of impala)

(The scale of the Mara is such that even giraffes can be made to look small)

The folks in charge of the Mara Conservancy strictly regulate how many vehicles are allowed into the park on a given day, which means that the animals in this area are much less habituated to humans. Sometimes this means they are a bit skittish when they see us approaching, but generally these restrictions seem to help preserve the animals’ “natural” behaviors.

One of the behaviors that we saw both here and elsewhere during our journey through Kenya was fighting—lots of fighting. Although some of the fights were between young animals who were clearly just practicing their skills for when they were older, most were between adult males who were interested in claiming territories, resources, and, of course, females. One of the many wrestling matches we observed was between two waterbuck who, judging from the disinterest of a female conspecific behind them, were not impressing anybody.

(A warthog forages in the grass, seemingly oblivious to the waterbuck fight behind him)


(A Masai herdsman and his son drive cattle across the Mara)

After we had made our circuit around the relatively small Mara Conservancy, we returned to camp in order to pull down our tents and pack up for our journey south to the Masai Mara. On the way back from delivering my baggage to the equipment truck, I couldn’t help but notice that a group of our female students had attracted quite a bit of attention while breaking camp. Their struggles with the heavy and unwieldy tent were being overseen not only by several male classmates, but also by a group of our camp guards. I’m not sure whether the guys had failed to offer assistance, or whether the ladies had declined any such proposals, but all in all it made a rather comical scene.

(Students take down their tents in preparation for our move to the Masai Mara)

(Our camp staff load our supply truck for the journey between the Mara Conservancy and the Masai Mara)

Once everything was packed up, we hopped into our minibuses for the short, and yet lengthy, trip to the Masai Mara. It is short in the sense that the Masai portion of the Mara abuts the Mara Conservancy; it doesn’t take us long to get to the border and cross from one section of the ecosystem into the other. However, it is long in the sense that we do quite a large circuit around the Mara prior to finishing at our destination—Riverside Camp. One reason for this is that we like to visit the Mara River Crossing, that iconic location, shown in seemingly every documentary about African wildlife, where migrating wildebeest go splashing across the river amidst a frenzy of snapping crocodile jaws.

(A group of hippos hiding from the hot sun by lounging in the Mara River all day)

We don’t see any of this excitement during our visits; there are usually a few crocodiles, but hippos are much more noticeable. One of the nice things about this visit is that we are able to get out of our vehicles and walk around; we hire armed guards to escort us along the riverbank and allow us to get good photographs of the river and its wildlife. As we go, the guards provide some basic life history information about the species we see—plus they keep an eye out for any lions that might be lurking in the undergrowth. We’ve never seen any predatory cats during these outings, but large feline paw prints in the mud serve as evidence that lions and leopards do sometimes visit the area.

This year, we initiated a Mara census protocol that we hope to repeat during each of our future visits to the area. The students collected their first batch of data during the trip from the river crossing to our campsite—or, I should say, they tried to collect data during this period. Unfortunately, our route took us through a part of the grassland that is typically quite empty; this year was even worse than normal because of all the heavy rains. The grasses were quite lush and long, which meant that they were assiduously avoided by any individuals worried about falling prey to a lurking lion. Thus, while we occasionally encountered a buffalo or warthog, there wasn’t much else to look at. Even the avifauna seemed pretty sparse here, though at one point I was delighted to look out my window and see a quail winging along at eye level after being flushed by our passage.

Once we arrived at Riverside, students had just enough time to set up their tents before we headed out for the evening game drive. Staff had the luxury of being housed in bandas, which meant that we had time to shower and relax a bit. The birding at Riverside Camp is always spectacular, and one of the first birds I saw this year was one I’ve always drooled over in the bird book—an African blue-flycatcher, which, true to its name, is an incredible shade of blue, and flits about the canopy while holding its tail perkily aloft.

The evening game drive also brought some pretty incredible wildlife viewing. Shortly after entering the gates, we saw our first cheetahs of the trip. They were pretty distant, but were still quite recognizable. Amazingly, our driver spotted them out of the corner of his eye, sitting still and low to the ground off along the horizon. I have no idea how our drivers manage to spot the things they do, but it is great to be able to take advantage of their expertise.

(Precursor to lion sex!)

Even more amazing than the cheetahs were their larger cousins, the lions. We spotted a pair napping in the sun, and I was pretty happy to get a few photographs of the male engaged in a ridiculously large yawn. Things got even more exciting, however, when he decided to snuggle up to his female companion and engage in a round of copulation. Not only could we see them mating—which surely is not something that is frequently observed during safaris!—we could also hear them quietly growling at each other during the event. This turned out to be only one of several lion matings observed by University of Exeter students during our visit to the Mara, so, as I mentioned in an earlier post, love was definitely in the air thanks to the extended rainy season.

There were no other events scheduled for the evening, giving us the chance to recover after a long two days on the road. When I returned to my banda for the evening, I had one last wildlife encounter for the day: a little gecko hanging out by my doorway, hunting by porchlight.

(A gecko does its best to blend in with the wood of my banda)


Looong drive to the Mara: Caitlin’s perspective

As hard as it is to walk up Mount Kenya, the post-hike trip to the Mara is maybe even more difficult; everyone’s sore muscles become even more sore over the nine or so hours that we spend in the minibuses. Unfortunately, nine hours isn’t the entire length of the trip, but merely the length of the drive time; add in another couple hours for meals, toilet breaks, and sorting out unexpected vehicular issues, and you’ll get a bit closer to the actual length of the journey.

There is, of course, a reason for all this hardship. For one thing, placing the Mount Kenya trip in the middle of our travel itinerary offers a brief respite from the sometimes overwhelmingly warm temperatures we experience at the beginning and end of our field course; for another, this scheduling allows us to progressively “ramp up” the Kenya experience as we go along, ensuring that each new destination is more exciting and intense than the last.

For this and many other reasons, the field course can be quite emotionally and physically demanding, which is why I like to sleep as much as humanly possible. On the morning of our journey to the Mara, however, I woke up well before my alarm went off and lay in bed listening to the bizarre sounds of the black-and-white colobus monkeys and rock hyraxes in the trees above my head. Other than our hard-working, early-rising kitchen staff, it sounded as though nobody else was awake, so I decided to visit the shower block to see if I might be able to claim a shower stall and, just maybe, even get a bit of warm water. To my surprise, relief, and great happiness, I was, indeed, able to start my day off with a lovely warm shower. That, in combination with the fact that my stomach seemed to be improving, left me feeling pretty good about the day ahead. Adding to my good cheer was the beautiful sunrise over our camp; little did I know that I would later experience an equally lovely sunset over the Mara.

There was quite a lot of napping in my minibus throughout the day, but I was feeling pretty wide awake since I hadn’t spent all my energy hiking up a mountain the day before. I wiled away the hours looking at scenery and wildlife (black kites galore!) outside my window, and listening to music on my iPhone. I discovered–to my horror!–that my music collection no longer contained Toto’s “Africa,” which I always like to listen to at some point during the field course (just for a laugh). In order to prevent such a catastrophe next year, I immediately put “add Toto” on my list of things to do upon returning to the UK. Luckily, I did still have Paul Simon’s “Graceland” ready and waiting to serve as the perfect soundtrack for a drive through central Kenya.

Around mid-morning or so, we stopped at a rest area that not only has toilets, but also cold drinks and freshly made samosas and mandazis (Kenyan donuts). I don’t normally like donuts or fried foods in general, but there is something about mandazis that makes them irresistible to me. They are quite heavy, and a bit oily from being deep fried, and only have a hint of sweetness; somehow, this is just the right combination for simultaneously minimizing hunger and helping me ward off motion sickness during long car journeys.

As we drove through the outskirts of Nairobi, we were treated to quite an unexpected sight: very upscale and modern-looking subdivisions that contrasted markedly with the poverty-stricken areas through which we had been driving. I noticed that many of these fancy homes were sitting empty, so perhaps these villas had been built out of optimism rather than necessity. Still, it was quite an eye-opening reminder that there is a whole other side to Kenya that we do not spend much, or any, time exploring.

After descending into the Great Rift Valley for the second time during our field course, we drove to Maai Mahiu for a wonderful lunch at another of the rest stops that we revisit each year. Our food was Indian-themed, which is not as unusual a find in Kenya as you might think; Kenya’s colonial history has introduced this and many other foreign influences throughout the country.

Shortly after driving through Narok Town, we turned left off the lovely tarmac highway onto a dirt and gravel road that slowly became less and less passable as we went on. The roads to the Mara have always been quite bad, so we had prepared our students for the discomfort they would experience during the latter portion of our trip; all the same, the bumps and jolts gave all of us a rude awakening (literally, in some cases). On several occasions, the route was so bad that we had to create new tracks, or even pull down low-hanging branches in order to drive through the trees and bypass mud pits and potholes.

Our reward for all this hardship was the spectacular display of wildlife that the Mara has to offer, even to those who are only casually glancing out their windows. At every turn, we saw things like zebras, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes, woolly-necked storks, widowbirds, fiscals, and eagles. We were also enthusiastically welcomed by countless Masai children who often ran long distances just to stand by the roadside and wave to us as we drove past; their friendliness and excitement began to make us all feel like celebrities.

Our trip was beginning to drag on and we were all anxious to arrive at our campsite so we could set up our tents before nightfall. Even so, we made a quick stop to take advantage of the incredible photo opportunity provided by wildlife walking along the horizon in front of the setting sun. My inner photography buff had been drooling over the scenery for a while, so I was very relieved to have the opportunity to stop for a few snaps.

Shortly thereafter, we finally pulled in to our campsite at the Mara Conservancy. The facilities there are incredibly basic–“long-drop” toilets and a couple basins of water for hand-washing–but the setting is fantastic; there are no fences anywhere in sight, and the wildlife wanders where it pleases. We do, of course, have armed guards that ensure we are protected from dangerous species such as lions and buffalo, but safer organisms such as genets, hyenas, and jackals can come and go at will (as demonstrated by the footage captured on our motion-sensitive cameras–more on which later!).

The Conservancy is also the only place we visit where we have the opportunity to go on a nighttime game drive; this provides us with the chance to see more nocturnally active species such as porcupines, aardvarks, hares, and various felines. As much as I would have loved to have participated in such a game drive, I was so tired by the time my tent was up that I had to take a nap just to have enough energy to make it to dinner. When a few students asked if they could skip the safari and go to bed early, I was all too happy to volunteer to be the staff member left behind to supervise them. I was so exhausted I actually fell asleep between the time that our drivers started their vehicles and backed them out of their parking spots; I continued to sleep so soundly that I failed to hear either the buses returning from their outing, or the nearby hyenas making a racket with their raucous laughter in the middle of the night. I was sad to miss out on the opportunity to add an audio recording of their vocalizations to my collection of African sounds (more on this later, too!). However, all this rest allowed me to be refreshed and energetic the next morning, just in time for our first real game drive through Kenya’s iconic Mara ecosystem.

Masai Mara


The Masai Mara is the Kenyan segment of the Serengeti (savannah landscape. It comprises the Masai Mara National Reserve (MMNR; 1,500 square kilometers) and the Masai 
Mara Ecosystem, which is mostly made up of surrounding pastoral ranches and agriculture. The MMNR is managed by the Narok and Transmara County Councils.


The MMNR is home to critically endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species: the African wild dog, Madagascar pond heron, and black rhino (CR); the Cheetah, common hippopotamus, lion, and lesser kestrel (V); 26 near threatened species; 80 least concern species. Populations of almost all wildlife species have declined to a third or less of their former abundance, both in the MMNR and in adjoining pastoral lands.

(Sunset on the Masai Mara. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

A large-scale wildebeest migration generates (through grazing, etc.) optimal conditions for other large mammals. The resident wildebeest population declined from 199,000 to 22,000 (by 80%) from 1977-1997 due to illegal hunting and land use change for agriculture. There is also ongoing large-scale vulture population decline due to decreased food availability (caused by changing land use and general wildlife population declines) and the poisoning of carcasses with carbamate pesticides (used to control hyena population). The magnitude of the decline warrants reassessment of the conservation status of Gyps spp.

The Masai people
The Masai are traditionally a nomadic people, communally utilizing resources within their land. Recent government policies have subdivided communal land into individual family 
ranches, resulting in increased fencing of land, and, therefore, reduced wildlife movement.
The government has been encouraging the Masai to engage in agriculture (with wheat being the predominant crop); most of the output from these farming efforts never reaches local markets.

(Ostriches in the Masai Mara. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

The 1977 Wildlife Conservation & Management Act bans poaching and reckless hunting of wild animals. Despite this, there are very high levels of poaching in the Masai Mara; from 2001-2010, over 1,500 poachers arrested and 17,300 snares were collected. Most poachers are poor subsistence farmers relying on bushmeat for nutrition and 
income. Approximately 160,000 resident and migratory herbivores are harvested illegally in the 
Mara-Serengeti every year.

Human population growth is driving need for more food–hence more agriculture. In the MMNR, land use has changed from traditional nomadic 
pastoralism to sedentary pastoralism and large-scale agriculture. Expansion of agriculture destroys natural habitats, alters landscapes and ecosystem services, and fuels human-wildlife conflicts (reducing local support for conservation). Perhaps most importantly, increased agriculture results in fencing off of farms, thereby disrupting wildlife movement and migration. In times of food or water scarcity, wildlife populations cannot move to better areas, and so starve or die of thirst.

Increases in agriculture have resulted in decreases in tourism as aesthetic appeal is lost.
Additionally, government bodies (at all levels) are prone to mismanagement and corruption; a lack of funding also makes it difficult for them to ably conserve the Masai Mara.

(Cheetahs in the Masai Mara. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Rebecca Woodward, Said Gutierrez, Sonja Kaulbarsch, Shawna Sanfey, Anthony Schultz (MSc students)