The results are in…

Each year, students have an opportunity to review the Kenya field course and let us know what worked well and what didn’t. Although the compliments and constructive criticism are always helpful, they tend to be focused on issues related to teaching and traveling; it is hard to get a sense of how the students felt about Kenya itself, and which memories will stick with them longest. To address this, I drafted a short survey and passed it around when we had our poster presentation session. It gave the students something to do while they waited for the instructors to come over and evaluate their posters, plus it gave the instructors a valuable new perspective on the trip. Win-win. I’ve summarized the students’ responses below.

(Bull elephant. Photo by John Abernethy.)

What was your favorite species seen during the trip?

Unsurprisingly, this question generated a rather long list; nearly every person picked something different. I was actually quite impressed by the diversity, since you might expect that most people would choose one of the obvious “Big 5.” Indeed, elephants were chosen most frequently (5 votes), but the next most popular species was the often-maligned hyena (3 votes). Spring hare, serval, topi, and warthog (my favorite mammal!) all had 2 votes apiece, and from then on the list varied widely. A number of birds were mentioned, which makes sense given how many birders we had in our group; among others, the Jackson’s widowbird, African blue-flycatcher, Verreaux’s eagle-owl, and rosy-breasted longclaw all made the list.

As you might imagine, lions were also a favorite–though only for one person. Other mammals included baboons (despite the thug male we encountered at Lake Nakuru), tree hyraxes, hedgehogs, and hippos (another one that I was surprised not to see listed more often).

For the first time since I became involved with the trip, we also had students who were overtly interested in invertebrates and–gasp!–plants. This was reflected in the survey responses by the inclusion of both fireflies and acacia trees.

(Ostriches at dawn. Photo by John Abernethy.)

Which of our destinations was your favorite?

Even though the Masai Mara was a bit “calm” this year in terms of wildlife, it was still selected as our top destination (10 votes). Right on its heels were Lake Nakuru (6 votes) and the Mara North Conservancy (5 votes); obviously, our students liked the savanna, and places where they could go on game drives. Mount Kenya, Hell’s Gate, and Crater Lake came in at the bottom of the list. There was also a single vote for “the dance floor,” though I’m not sure whether that refers to the dance floor at one of the bars we visited, or perhaps the area next to the bonfire at the Masai Mara, where the students danced with our Masai hosts.

(Spelling “Kenya” at the Equator stop. Photo by Tristan Pett)

What was your favorite activity?

I was surprised–but pleased–by the lack of overlap between favorite place and favorite activity; if students listed two separate things for these categories, then that must mean they were happy at least twice as long (or, at least, I’d like to think so). The answers to this question clearly indicated that students enjoyed themselves most when they were able to get out of the vehicles and wander around in nature; the list was topped by the hike up Mount Kenya (9 votes), followed by the gorge walk at Hell’s Gate (8 votes), the Hell’s Gate visit in general (4 votes), and the boat trip on Lake Naivasha (3 votes). Amazingly, 3 people said that their favorite activity was performing distance sampling during our drive through the Mara; I always thought the students hated that part of the trip. Game drives were also popular, and a couple of people specifically mentioned the night drive that took place at the Mara Conservancy. Only one student listed the Masai village visit as his/her favorite activity; that trip can be a bit awkward, so I was impressed to see this one listed even once (that said, we had several huge fans of the trip a couple years ago, when I think it would have been mentioned by many different people–attitudes always change from one trip to another!). There was also a single vote for “dancing with a guy in a monkey suit”–a reference to the “traditional” (and interactive) dancing display we are treated to during our stay at Mount Kenya.

(The intrepid climbers who hiked up through Mount Kenya’s vertical bog–and beyond. Photo by Tristan Pett)

What most surprised you during the trip?

I’m not sure what sort of information I expected to collect by asking this question, but I was definitely surprised (appropriately, I suppose) by the answers I received. The students all gave quite thoughtful responses that predominantly reflected their interest in conservation. Several mentioned how shocked they were at the degree of commercialization in and of wildlife parks; others brought up the disturbing lack of rules, regulations, and (most especially) enforcements associated with wildlife viewing. Two expressed their dismay at the state of rhino conservation and the situation at Solio Game Reserve, while another pair indicated how impressed they were at the dedication, pragmatism, and passion of the local wildlife activists.

Many of the students remarked on the Kenyan ecology. One (like me) was surprised at how green the country was during our visit, while another was shocked at the amount of dust we encountered. Several people were impressed by the density of wildlife we encountered, as well as by how close we approached certain animals. Two were amazed at how few mosquitoes there were (as was I–it was a welcome change from last year!), and one person (quite rightly) brought up the spectacle of lion mating.

Three people said they were most surprised by the quality of the facilities, but there was no indication of whether they expected better or worse than what they found. It is true that we encounter some incredibly basic setups (most notably in our campsite at the Mara North Conservancy), but I’ve always thought we had pretty good facilities relative to what the average Kenyan experiences in those same locations. So, I’m just going to pretend that our pre-trip descriptions gave the students very low expectations, which were then exceeded by the reality that they found during our travels around the country.

(Cinnamon-chested bee-eater in the rain. Photo by John Abernethy)

Do you have any other comments/thoughts to share?

I included this section so that the students would have a place to share any other stories, emotions, and/or attitudes that could not quite fit in one of the previous categories; I got quite a wide variety of responses. I was very pleased to see multiple compliments for our local guides/experts; Martin and Enoch, in particular, were named individually and praised very highly by several students. The students were also quite complimentary of all our guest speakers who discussed their experiences doing conservation in Kenya.

One person mentioned his/her dismay at how the bus drivers tended to chase animals and pull up very close to them. This is an issue that we deal with every year, so I was not surprised that it came up this time around; I am pleased to say, however, that conditions were much better this year than they have been in years past–we have made a real effort to request only those drivers who show restraint around the wildlife.

Someone praised the great variety of destinations that we visited, while another said that, in general, it was an “awesome trip.” One of the most positive remarks–and the best one to end on here–was that “the whole trip was a great way to start the year.”

(Mother elephant and calf. Photo by Tristan Pett)

All content by Dr. Caitlin Kight.