Immersed in the magic of Kenya

We have just returned from our two-week MSc field trip to Kenya. Twenty-three students and three staff from the University of Exeter have come back to Cornwall with memories of a lifetime: incredible interactions with African wildlife, with Kenyan people, and with a glorious but sensitive, and often damaged, environment. We have returned having had unforgettable experiences, and with BIG questions to be answered.

Conservation Science and Policy Kenya field trip: Class of 2015, Lake Nakuru

Conservation Science and Policy Kenya field trip: Class of 2015, Lake Nakuru

Why Kenya and why a field course?

We run a “Conservation Science and Policy” field course, not just to satisfy the training requirements of Masters students in Geography, but also to fill an important niche in conservation-based learning and teaching. Our goal is to understand the social, political, regulatory, and economic stage on which Kenya’s ecology and conservation plays out. This requires us to understand Kenya’s resources and conditions, both social and environmental. Yes, we study conservation of wildlife, but we embed this in broad-sense conservation, which includes biodiversity, environment, and quality of life. We seek answers to questions about conservation in changing environments, but we are faced with systems that are difficult to measure, and truths that are concealed by propaganda, opinion, misinformation, disinformation, and the occasional total lack of information.

Kenya’s key resources include the wildlife for which it is famous. But it also hosts the potential to feed geothermal energy, water, oil and food to the entire African continent. Kenya’s prosperity waxes and wanes with changes in climate, national politics, global politics and the interests of global superpowers, multinational companies, and international charities. In this melee, the people and wildlife of Kenya are often forgotten. It seems extraordinary, therefore, that our students repeatedly cite the warmth and welcoming nature of the Kenyan people, and the chance to see wildlife, people, and livestock in close proximity, as their abiding memories of the Kenyan “system”. I wonder for how long this melting pot can be maintained.

sleepy leopard small

Kenya is one of the last places on earth where visitors can easily and safely observe large numbers of charismatic megafauna in relatively natural and wild situations. We watched hundreds of elephants engineering the Maasai Mara ecosystem, just a small northern pocket of the vast Serengeti. We watched zebra, wildebeest, topi, eland, giraffe and gazelles grazing the acacia-grassland mosaics of the Kitengela plains and the Mara. We watched an incredible diversity of birds flying, feeding, resting, roosting, mating and nesting. We watched animals eating, mating and enjoying the first moments of new lives. Perhaps most exciting for students and staff, we watched the majestic predators of the African ecosystems as they slept between meals, or hunted and fed on members of the lower trophic levels. In just one hour of an epic safari drive in the Mara, we found male lions resting between hunts, lionesses playing with cubs, a leopard surveying his landscape from the branches of a tall tree, and watched a cheetah flush, chase, kill, and devour a scrub hare. These experiences sound like the natural history documentaries we and our students enjoy on TV, but the small screen simply can’t translate the pure viscerality of seeing nature, red in tooth and claw, in action.


Then again, this extraordinary backdrop of wildlife is just that, a backdrop, to the broader issues of conservation and sustainable development in Kenya. Kenya’s wildlife, and the tourism it attracts, is one of the keystones of the nation’s economy. But, Kenya faces social and environmental problems that affect international tourism, and its government seeks economic prosperity and technological development in ways that usually conflict directly with the nation’s natural capital. Furthermore, it is not only Kenya’s wildlife that needs conserving: Kenya is a contested nation, its population composed of many tribes and colonist nations and religions. Even the modern tribes claim little more than five centuries of history in Kenya, despite that fact that the Turkana region of the Great Rift Valley holds some of the earliest evidence of human evolution.

The field course begins: Land-use change around Nairobi

Our field trip spends 14 days in a small polygon of Kenya whose vertices are marked by Nairobi, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, Mount Kenya, and the western and eastern ends of the Maasai Mara. We begin in Nairobi, particularly the Kitengela triangles, barely-triangular tracts of land that traditionally formed dispersal corridors for the great wildebeest (and other megaherbivore) migrations of the Serengeti ecosystem. The pressures of economic development in Nairobi have caused land value to sky-rocket in this region. Without sensible regulation of land sale and subdivisions, the Kitengela plains have changed from a continuous stretch of savanna and scrub into a patchwork of small-holdings, farms, cement factories, and villages, fenced and fragmented to such an extent that wildlife migrations are blocked. Nairobi National Park, a honeypot for safari tourism due to its proximity to Nairobi, is now fully encircled by urban sprawl and poorly-regulated, anthropogenic, landscape fragmentation. Is it now any more than a big zoo?

under thte tree

We find hope on the fringes of Nairobi National Park. We meet members of the Olerai Conservancy, whose aim is to halt the subdivision of land into fenced, half-acre plots. The conservancy was started by a group of brothers whose father insisted that their land should be conserved for posterity. The brothers seek to align their father’s interests with the desire for prosperity among local landowners. “Owning” land is new to the traditionally nomadic pastoralists of this region. The native Kenyan managers of the conservancy have worked with their local communities for several years now, fostering trust that their vision of posterity can also yield prosperity through a combination of low-impact agriculture and tourism. Grants from the Kenyan government and the World Bank have helped to support the installation of water pans, to provide precious permanent drinking for livestock and wildlife. We hold focus groups separately with the men and the women of the conservancy, and discover that different groups of members favour either posterity or prosperity. The future of the conservancy is on a knife edge: The managers prioritise the building of high-end tourism lodges but lack the start-up capital. Other members seek to maintain a standard of living through livestock, but worry that conflict with natural wildlife will go uncompensated. Our students hope that mid-range ecotourism, along the lines of farmstays and working holidays in Europe and the US, might help bridge the financial gap between the posterity and the prosperity of Olerai. We will return to Olerai in future years to find out whether the brothers’ vision of combined posterity and prosperity can be achieved.

edge of nairobi NP

We meet pastoralist landowners on the very edge of Nairobi National Park, where loss of livestock to lions and hyenas, and loss of crops to large herbivores, is not just a threat but a reality. These Maasai peoples have moved away from the traditional killing of lions as a transition from boyhood to manhood. Recent research suggests wild predators are only killed in retaliation for the loss of livestock. Even these retaliatory killings are illegal, and it is hoped that landowners will move towards more peaceful coexistence with wildlife. This move has been assisted by the intervention of government and international charities, via compensation schemes and the assisted installation of fortified livestock enclosures and new methods for deterring predators. But these schemes are usually transient, dictated by pockets of large-scale funding. The landowners celebrate investments in their schools and villages, but are concerned that schemes are short-lived, and confused by uncertainty in who to ask for help. They insist that without long-term support, they will be forced to return to retaliatory killing of the wildlife that threatens their livestock. These problems worsen as we move away from the boundaries of the national parks into regions where funding is more scarce and where land subdivision exacerbates conflict with wildlife.

Lake Naivasha: Floriculture, geothermal power, and catchment-scale management

We then move to a new set of environmental problems at Lake Naivasha, one of the freshwater lakes that lie among the complex of fresh and alkaline water bodies in the rift valley. The lake is fed by catchments that stretch back to the Aberdare mountain range, which themselves form a national park. The lake has a long, and ecologically devastating, history of species introductions, the most obvious of which are the vast floating mats of water hyacinth and papyrus. In some years, boats fail to reach the central lake waters through this floating thicket. We are lucky this year, and enjoy some great waterborne bird- and hippo-watching, but a change in the wind can completely alter the lake’s waterscape. Introduced crayfish and tilapia fish have radically altered the natural aquatic community, but even these fish stocks have declined in the face of sedimentation from upstream agriculture and the burgeoning floriculture industries on the lake’s shore.

students in the flower farm

Lake Naivasha is now a booming industry for international flower-growers, growing and sending roses to the supermarkets of Europe. The cynical view of this industry is that it exports Kenya’s scarcest commodity, water, to water-rich countries, in the form of flowers. This might sound like taking coals to Newcastle, but the tax breaks provided by the Kenyan government, coupled with the ideal growing conditions and cheapness of human labour in this region, make it highly profitable. In recent years, international media coverage of the impacts of this industry on the lake ecosystem and the welfare of the workers on these flower farms have forced the floriculture industry to invest in their workforce and in the mitigation of environmental impacts. We visit two flower farms where drip-irrigation is used to minimise water-usage; where the use of pesticides and fertilisers is carefully regulated–sometimes using biological instead of chemical controls; where attempts are made to capture rainwater efficiently and recycle water wherever possible; and where there has been investment in riparian waste-water treatment systems to reduce the output of waste chemicals into the lake itself. We discuss the provision of minimum wages and ethical working conditions for staff, the provision of housing and schooling for the families of workers, and the work of the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association whose members work to reduce the impact of floriculture on wildlife and the lake ecosystem.

We also discuss the links between upper and lower catchment industries. In the Lake Naivasha system, upstream agriculture causes erosion and high levels of sediment in the lower stream waters and in the lake. This is detrimental to the river biota, to the flower farms, to the lakeside habitats, and to the lake itself. But there is hope here: The fact that the wealth in the catchment is located downstream, among the flower farms, means that investment in more sensitive agricultural practices upstream aligns the interests of all catchment industries. The flower farms are motivated to support environmentally sensitive agriculture upstream. We remain concerned, however, about the sensitivity of the Lake Naivasha system to global economic and political forces: The human population of Naivasha has boomed recently thanks to floriculture and local geothermal power plants, bringing pressures of new townships, infrastructural requirements, and standard of living, alongside threats to local wildlife. What would happen if the lake were caused irrevocable environmental damage, if floriculture became more profitable elsewhere, or if international interest in geothermal power changed?

hells gate NP

We take a break from issues of water conservation to experience Hell’s Gate National Park, a volcanic canyon that provides a rare opportunity to walk among Africa’s wildlife. The students learn the techniques of measuring animal densities using distance sampling, discover an awe-inspiring landscape, and search the cliff faces for klipspringer, Verreaux’s eagles, and vultures. They get close to troops (or “flanges”) of baboons, dazzles of zebra, obstinacies of buffalo, and towers of giraffe. At the end of a long, hot walk, we explore the narrow gullies of Hell’s Gate itself, discover geothermal hot springs, and then observe the spaghetti-like network of miles and miles of pipelines that form the geothermal power plant installations, managed by Kenyan and Chinese industries, with unknown consequences for wildlife dispersal. In 2015, our travel is restricted by protests against the installation of new fence lines that restrict access to the lakeside for pastoralists, livestock, and wildlife alike. Can the industrial development of the lake and its surrounding environment be regulated to allow conservation of traditional lifestyles and wildlife populations?

two flags

Lake Nakuru: The urban-wildlife interface

Our trip moves on to Lake Nakuru National Park, a completely fenced, but still vast, wildlife sanctuary on the edge of Nakuru city. This is a hotspot for rhinoceros conservation, hosting healthy populations of both white and black rhinos, alongside Rothschild giraffe, and chances to see several predators including lion, leopard, spotted and striped hyenas, and, in one very unusual event five years ago, African wild dogs. We camp in the park itself, our campsite surrounded by herds of buffalo and packs of hyena. Night-spotting with torches is an exciting pastime here, and this year we watched black rhino, buffalo, hyenas and impala, their eyes glowing orange or green in the shine of Nitecore torches. After two fantastic safari drives, watching lions, rhinos, and flamingos and an incredible diversity of other wetland birds, we set off on the long drive to the slopes of Mount Kenya. Despite enjoying the wildlife, we wondered whether we had just visited part of Kenya’s vast wildness, a bastion of conservation in the face of rising pressures from rhino poaching, or whether the fence line simply creates a safari park for tourists (albeit a very large one).


On the flanks of Mount Kenya: ranches, water cooperatives, and mountaineering

Our campsite at Naromoru, on the western flank of Mount Kenya, provides a base from which to explore several sites and conservation issues in middle Kenya. We start with Solio, a cattle ranch forming a buffer around a wildlife reserve that supports very large densities of black and white rhinos. Solio’s income is derived from a mixture of cattle ranching and high-end tourism, alongside national and international trade in rhinos for restocking programmes. The latter income source is currently threatened by increasing levels of poaching, but perhaps more directly by changes in government policy. Until recently, only the indigenous wildlife of Kenya was the property of the Kenyan people, and was managed by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. The recent Wildlife Act made even the non-indigenous wildlife of Kenya, including white rhinos, also the property of Kenya. This prevents ranches like Solio from earning money from trade in white rhino, and begs several questions: What’s in it for private conservation entrepreneurs? If the Kenyan government insists on ownership of all wildlife, how will they support its conservation on private land? Solio differs from its neighbour, Ol Pejeta, by not working with local communities to ensure the success of conservation efforts. What impact does this have on the economic divide between wealthy ranchers and local farmers? Could private ranches benefit from community engagement, so as to reduce the incidence of poaching? Recent national news includes the story of a policeman, shot dead when caught in the act of poaching. Are there poachers, or supporters of poaching, at all levels of Kenyan society? How can rhino horn be devalued internationally to reduce the profits in poaching? Should national stocks of rhino horn be burned, or be used to flood the international market? Should trade in rhino horn be legalised?

many rhinos

With this conservation conflict still ringing in our ears, we return to the issue of water regulation and conservation. Water is more plentiful on the flanks of Mount Kenya, but the catchments extend all the way to the Indian Ocean, and with increasing levels of water extraction, mountainside rivers soon turn into seasonal streams, needed by pastoralists and wildlife alike. In Ngushishi, a Water Resource Users Association (WRUA) is supported by the Department of Water to regulate the use of natural water sources by domestic users, flower farms, local farmers and larger farms growing crops for the international supermarket trade. Water users join the WRUA and are given a proportion of the water flow, but the WRUA ensures that a fixed amount of water is left to flow to the lower parts of the catchment. Here, regulation is essential because the wealth is at the top of the catchment and, left unchecked, there would be no incentives for upstream users to leave water for downstream use. Ngushishi WRUA succeeds where others have failed, thanks to good management and an apparent lack of corruption. Issues remain, however: What happens during drought years? What happens when water prices fluctuate? How does illegal water extraction get policed?


We meet an organic farmer who is supported by the WRUA and has created an exemplar of low-impact, organic farming. On a small piece of land, he grows a diversity of crops for the local, national, and (sometimes) international market. He rears cattle in barns to supply milk for the local market. He composts his domestic and horticultural waste to return nutrients to the soil. He drip-irrigates to minimise water consumption. In fact, he uses every drop of water four times. He has built water pans to store rainwater, ensuring water availability for at least three months of drought conditions. This water is used domestically before entering a large fishpond, where the farmer rears fish for the local market. The water from the pond is used to irrigate crops and is then recycled to feed a composting system. On the fringes of the composting pits and water reservoirs, the farmer rears bees for honey and silk moths for fabric. We sit in the shade of a mango tree, thinking about the price of dried mango in UK supermarkets, and hear how market forces shape his horticulture: He is forced to maintain strong links with the local markets because the quality control of international supermarkets means that his snow peas or avocados could be rejected at any time. Downstream, a large horticultural company sprays water into the air to provide fairtrade vegetables to UK supermarkets. We hear a controversial quote that panics many of us: “We have a word for exploitation, it is ‘Fairtrade'”.


The following day is a challenge and a treat for all of us. Starting at Mount Kenya National Park’s Naromoru Gate, we climb one vertical kilometre to the Met Station at 3000m altitude. Eight miles of walking sees ecological transitions from podocarp forest (the trees twist clockwise due to the Coriolis effect…or so we tell the students), to mixed montane woodland, to large stands of giant bamboo, to African rosewood forest, to mixtures of giant St John’s wort and giant heather, through the famous “vertical bog” (recently devastated by fire), to the alpine zone. Part of my heart dwells in this incredible alpine environment, surrounded by weird giant lobelias, giant senecios, and Mt Kenya gladioli (the reddest shade of red imaginable), and looking out across Kenya to the Aberdare mountains. It’s a long and challenging walk but the students revel in it. On the way back down, we play with a group of Sykes’ monkeys, see tree hyraxes, puzzle over the hanging nests of sunbirds, enjoy sightings of mountain-specialist birds, and gasp at the calls and colours of Hartlaub’s turaco, a bird so ostentatious it’s like something from a cartoon. After the 16-mile round trip, we exploit the exhausted delirium of the students by treating them to a pub quiz, testing their knowledge of Kenyan history, geography and wildlife, and entertaining them with songs about Africa and impressions of Kenyan wildlife. The tree hyrax cannot be imitated, sounding like a cross between a jet engine and a tree falling over, but we do our best.

mnt kenya

Land use and safari in the Maasai Mara

Next day, we fold our aching legs and hangovers into our matatu vans and endure the looong journey from Mt Kenya to the Mara North Conservancy at the western end of the Maasai Mara. As dusk falls we drive past the “Pastoralist”, surely the most ironic pub name in the world, and enter a patch of scrub that forms our wild camp for the night. Maasai guards keep the leopards and hyenas away, and the students are awestruck by the stars…there is no light pollution here. A dawn walk by the river reveals hippos and buffalo, but the feeling of wilderness is dispelled when the students are shown the lodge and the glamping tents, only metres from their supposedly “wild” camp. This is Salt Springs, a lodge run entirely by Maasai, comprising only temporary structures and helping to bring income into the Mara North Conservancy. We note that rules denying permanent structures are being broken in the nearby village, and we think back to our drive into the Mara the day before: In order to reach the grassy plains, covered in grazing gazelles, wildebeest, elephants and giraffe, we crossed a belt of ploughed land. Even here, Maasai landowners have sold to high bidders, in this case horticultural entrepreneurs from India. We see little evidence that the soil will be tilled and farmed sustainably. Water is critically short, and ploughing has broken the soil’s seal. Rising land value and a new sense of ownership, yield fences and international investment. The Serengeti ecosystem is vast, but development risks the natural movement of the wildlife that maintains this northern section.


After our morning walk, we drive hell-for-leather through a series of conservancies, owned variously by native Kenyans, international investors and the Narok County Council. We perform estimations of herbivore densities, awestruck by the huge numbers of elephants (too many, we wonder?), and stop for views of crocodiles and hippos in the Mara river, then dwarf mongoose at the Olloolloo gate, before experiencing our epic hour of wild, majestic cats. What follows are two days of pure safari, and a look-back at all the issues of broad-sense conservation, linking both science and policy, which we have experienced.

elephant van small



Even the safari raises issues: We drive too close to the animals, spend too long watching them, and find ourselves voyeurs of traditional Maasai lifestyles during a touristic visit to a local manyatta. It makes us question our very presence in Kenya. The experiences are those of a lifetime, but how does tourism change local lifestyles, impact on the behaviour and persistence of the wildlife, and drive the market forces that exploit Kenya’s natural resources? We debate our impacts on Kenya, and conclude that the field course can only be justified if it has legacy…what the staff and students learn from the experience must be translated into efforts to help Kenya develop sustainably and to CONSERVE. We don’t mean conserve as in “preserve the wildlife and ecosystem”. We mean conserve as in help Kenya adapt to maintain its biodiversity, the quality of life of its residents, and its natural environment (and natural capital), in the face of national and international politics, market forces, and climatic change.


Summing up

Personally, I can’t wait to return, with a new group of students, in 2016. I have been involved with Kenya field trips for ten years now. I sense changes, although I often can’t tell whether I am gradually forming opinions, gradually finding out more truth, or detecting real change. This year, I came home feeling more positive than ever that the instinctive optimism of Kenya’s people will bear fruit, and will provide the impetus for the conservation, and sustainable development, of Kenya’s natural environment. Despite political instability, corruption, poaching and terrorism, the people of Kenya understand that their wildlife contributes both posterity AND prosperity to them and to their nation, and are motivated to conserve it. I hope that Kenya’s political systems catch up with this optimism and learn to support, regulate, and align the interests of Kenya’s human and natural systems. I also hope that groups of students from the University of Exeter Penryn Campus’ Masters programmes in Conservation Science and Policy–along with those in the sister programmes of Biodiversity and Conservation and Behaviour and Evolution–will be there to observe this transition.

human kenya



(Photo credits: Dave Hodgson except leopard, elephant courtesy of Danny Buss; Mt Kenya alpine zone courtesy of Jess Walker, cheetah hunt courtesy Georgina Walker, lions courtesy Sophie Davison, burnt heather courtesy Jamie Lock)

caitlin    January 22nd, 2015    Kenya archive

3 thoughts on “Immersed in the magic of Kenya”

  1. Kevin said on January 30, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    What a great read must have been unforgettable for you and the students .Do you need help in 2016

  2. JOANNE said on March 12, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Did you alos visit the arid lands and look at conservation issues there?

Comments are closed.

Skip to toolbar