Mount Kenya: Caitlin’s perspective

There are few things that can make a 4:45 AM wake-up call tolerable, but the beauty of the constellations in a clear sky is definitely one of them. My good spirits were decreased somewhat by the extreme coldness of the tap water in which I washed my face, by were lifted again by the very nourishing pre-hike breakfast served up by our kitchen staff.

The students on my bus also seemed to be quite energized about their impending journey up Mount Kenya; they periodically burst out into song during the drive between our campsite and the national park’s front gates. For the first time since I began coming to Kenya, we pulled over halfway to the park in order to take photos of the mountain; after three years, I finally have images that are not bisected by power lines and telephone poles.

(Dawn over Mt. Kenya)

It always takes a while for officials to process our paperwork at the entrances to national parks, but the wait is quite pleasant (if chilly!) at Mount Kenya since it allows us to look for some of the mountain’s many interesting bird species. On this occasion, we saw red-eyed doves, montane white-eyes, and red-fronted parrots. Once inside the gates, we quickly expanded our lists to include mountain buzzards, Hartlaub’s turacos, mountain greenbuls, and Kendrick’s starlings.

(A view of the peak from inside the gates of the park)

Because I was still feeling a bit under the weather, I volunteered to be the staff member who accompanied our non-walkers up to the Met Station during the shuttle’s first trip up the mountain. I was sad not to make my annual journey up through the eco-zones, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, and this gave fellow instructor Jan a chance to walk up the mountain for the first time in several years. As it turned out, the shuttle journey was actually a pretty exciting affair; we kept encountering ruts and patches of mud, and needed both four-wheel-drive and a bit of luck to make our way up the steep track. Unfortunately, our luck ran out at the very top, in the “driveway” to the Met Station; there, our vehicle got stuck and remained in place for another couple of hours until the sun dried out the mud and gave the tires a bit more traction.

(A very stuck 4×4)

We wandered around the station for a couple of hours, waiting for the others to arrive. As always, there were a variety of birds to watch—Jackson’s francolins, an orange ground-thrush, augur buzzards, dozens of streaky seed-eaters. Unusually, however, there were also many wildflowers to enjoy; the weather has been so mild and rainy that the plants are blooming more abundantly than I have ever previously seen. I saw some type of strawberry, St. John’s wort, clovers, and violets, as well as a number of species that I couldn’t recognize. I was obviously not the only one who appreciated these blossoms—I saw a female sunbird visiting a flower past its prime in order to steal some fluff to line a nest.

(Thawing frost at the Met Station)

(Hanging lichens)

(Lichens, mosses, and more cover a rock near the hiking path up Mount Kenya)

(A Jackson’s francolin foraging for food near where we ate our picnic lunch on Mount Kenya)

(Subalpine clovers so small they were nearly hidden among the grass)

(Streaky seedeater taking a break from eating seeds)

After lunch, I continued my role as chaperone to the shuttle-riders. Our journey down the mountain was slower and more careful than our trip up (perhaps because more damage could be done to the vehicle in that direction?) but otherwise uneventful. As the first people back to the campsite, we were able to avoid standing in line for a shower; we could also nap, or otherwise relax, for a couple extra hours. While I predominantly used the time to read my novel, I also managed to find a way to entertain the kitchen staff: I ran after a female baboon who had invaded our camp in an effort to loot snacks from our tents; unused to seeing either women or mzungus (white people) dealing with baboons so directly, the staff had a good chuckle at my antics.

While we waited for dinner, staff member Sarah retrieved the motion-sensitive cameras she’s been placing around our campsites throughout the trip. So far, most of her recordings have been of people or waving branches, but on this occasion she finally hit the jackpot. She had two clips of baboons using a fallen log to cross the river, and another couple clips of a waterbuck family browsing directly in front of the camera. It was exciting to finally see some wildlife on the footage; we could only hope that it was a sign of more good things to come during our impending stay in the Mara.

The grand finale to the day was our Africa-related pub quiz, which featured questions about wildlife, politics, culture, and staff members. The students probably got the most enjoyment out of the final two rounds; during these, course leader Brendan Godley performed snippets of songs whose names and performers were to be named, and lecturer Dave Hodgson mimicked animal calls in the hopes that students would recognize the original organisms responsible for these vocalizations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team that won included both a Kenyan and a South African; their reward was a free round of drinks, though, really, anyone who got to hear our staff performers was also a winner.

After the quiz, the bar’s DJ tried to create a party atmosphere with an unusual mixture of old and current dance music from around the world. Unfortunately for him, people were pretty weary from their long trek and even longer day; it did not take long for people to dissipate and head back to their tents for some well-earned rest.

Naro Moru: Caitlin’s perspective

I have yet to make it through a Kenya trip without falling prey to some bug or another, and this year’s illness appeared on the morning of our seventh day on the field course. Sadly, this meant that I had to miss our trip to Solio Game Reserve. Happily, the Mountain Rock campsite is one of our nicer homes away from home, so at least I could convalesce in comfort.

In fact, I was eventually able to wander around the grounds and do a bit of birding. The campsite is bordered on two sides by a small river and has numerous trees and shrubs, which means that there are plenty of places to find good avifauna. Usually we are only in the campsite at the very beginning and end of each day, so this was the first time I was able to watch birds during their most active hours. I saw several species that were new not only to the trip, but also to my lifetime species list; my sightings included African black ducks, a chestnut-throated apalis, African golden-breasted buntings, and a great sparrowhawk. While I was sitting outside my tent blogging, a beautiful bronze manakin came down for a dust bath and showed off his colorful plumage; I also saw a family of white-eyed slaty flycatchers making the rounds above our tents.

(A juvenile white-eyed slaty flycatcher begs for food–which one of its caretakers flies off to find)

(Black-and-white colobus monkey)

(Hadada ibis foraging along the riverbank)

(Immature common fiscal looking for some tasty insects to eat)

(Cheerful flowers by the river)

(Speckled mousebirds snuggle together during a short break from foraging)

Once the students returned from their day trip, they organized a UK vs. The World soccer game which was narrowly won by the latter team after a round of penalty shots. Everyone then convened in the lodge’s outdoor conference room in order to look at the results of their Hell’s Grate ungulate surveys, and briefly discuss ways of exploring the data statistically. This was followed by a quick preparatory chat about the next day’s trip to Mount Kenya. Martin listed the “special” species that we are likely to encounter on the mountain but not elsewhere; Jan then listed the different eco-zones that we would pass through during our hike. We ended with a quick Q&A session designed to allay any fears associated with the idea of walking up a mountain and spending an entire day at some of the highest altitudes that most of our students have ever experienced. Many people visibly relaxed after hearing the news that a shuttle vehicle would be available for anyone who needed help getting up or back down.

The rest of my day did not involve much excitement, but the students ended their day with a performance by a local group who come each year to demonstrate traditional dances…and do various other assorted tricks. The traditional dances are usually accompanied by an explanation and are therefore quite interesting. The other portions are generally quite strange and unrelated; we have seen people breathe fire, contort themselves into odd shapes, balance soccer balls/bottles/bike tires on various parts of their anatomy, and dance around while dressed in animal costumes. From what I heard, however, this year’s performance was relatively tame compared with those observed in prior years. After the show, dance music continued to pump out of the lodge’s bar for several hours, but I believe that most of our students chose to have an early night in preparation for the 5 AM pre-Mount Kenya breakfast scheduled for the following morning.

Mount Kenya

Biodiversity

The Mount Kenya ecosystem constitutes an important reservoir for biodiversity. Mount Kenya National Park, covering the entire area above 3200 m combined with Mount Kenya Forest Reserve, is a protected region to conserve the catchment area and wildlife.

Flora: Over 880 plant species belonging to 479 genera in 146 families recorded in the forests of Mount Kenya. This habitat contains at least 11 strictly endemic species of higher plants and more than 150 near endemic species.

Fauna: Four threatened bird species and six threatened mammal species occur here: African forest elephant, black rhino, leopard, giant forest hog, bongo, and black-fronted duiker.

(Skyes’ monkey at the Met Station on Mount Kenya. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Several primates (including the white colobus and Sykes’ monkey), large carnivores (including the leopard and striped hyena), and many small mammals (such as the giant pouched rat and zorilla) are also found on Mount Kenya.

Mount Kenya has also been named as an Important Bird Area and is home to the threatened Abbott’s starling.

Importance of biodiversity: Mt. Kenya biodiversity is important for the local economy, as it provides many residents with their livelihoods. The forests support key economic sectors including electricity generation, subsistence, and cash crop production. Mt. Kenya is also important for the tourism: Visited by an average of 31,000 people every year, the mountain is one of the most valuable national and international tourist destinations in the country.

 

Threats

Human Settlements: The population of Mt Kenya increased ten-fold between 1969-2000, degrading the habitat and placing pressure on natural resources. Human settlement has resulted in deforestation, which has arisen because of legal and illegal logging for fuel and building 
materials, charcoal production, and marijuana cultivation, and the use of water for irrigation, livestock, and in the home; this has placed increased pressure on the 
finite resource that provides for 50% of the country’s population. Habitat loss has also reduced the mountain’s ability to retain water.

The Shamba system is a form of agriculture where forest trees species are planted 
alongside crops species to minimize effects of habitat loss and install conservation 
value within communities. Unfortunately, mismanagement has led to the failure of this system. Because of this, as well as livestock grazing, many invasive species have encroached on protected areas.

Corruption: Corruption throughout conservation and management organizations has dwindled funding, limiting local resources for biodiversity preservation.

Poaching: Over the past two years, at least 100 elephants have been killed at Mount Kenya; between January and March of 2011, half the collared elephants on the north side of 
Mount Kenya were poached.

(A view from Mount Kenya. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Conservation

Kenya has many stewardship programs associated with national parks and reserves; these help provide security for visitors and wildlife within and outside protected areas. There is also oversight of wildlife conservation and management outside protected areas. In order to facilitate forest rehabilitation, grassroots communities around Mount Kenya monitor illegal activities such as illegal logging, charcoal burning, and poaching. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) does not have the resources to effectively combat illegal activities for a reserve of Mount Kenya’s size–hence the introduction of Marania Wildlife Guards to certain areas.

Marania Wildlife Guards: The Marania Wildlife Guards are a foot patrol team who divide their time between the 
forests in the northern area of Mount Kenya and Rutundu. These guards were created in response to increases in poaching that occurred as a result of minimal KWS presence in the Mount Kenya vicinity.

Green Belt Movement: Another grassroots conservation scheme is the GBM, which allows local communities to take action to preserve Mount Kenya’s forests. Their goal is to promote and rehabilitate good environmental management and conserve 
forest resources. In 2004, they planted 527,806 trees–the majority of which (460,595) 
survived their first year. The movement is also involved in mass education projects aimed at fostering environmental 
care within the community; the GBM works to promote and facilitate environmentally friendly public policies and actions.

(Distant view of Mount Kenya at dawn. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Nabila Aziz Siddiqui, Toby Doyle, Hannah Hudson, Nathan Redman, Federica Reitano, Rebecca Zeroth (MSc students)

References and further reading:

Bett, Alice (2005) Role of community in the conservation of Mt. Kenya biosphere reserve. Kenya Wildlife Service, Research and Planning Department.

Gathaara, G.N. (1999) Aerial survey of the destruction of Mt. Kenya, Imenti and Ngare Ndare Forest Reserves. Kenya Wildlife Service, Forest Conservation Programme.

Kariuki, J. (2006) Common heritage, diverse interests: deforestation and conservation alternatives for Mount Kenya. Les Cahiers d’Outre-Mer, 347-370.