Why do we do field courses?

I write to you from the 2015 Kenya Field Course where we currently have 3 separate groups undertaking different itineraries. We (31 students and 6 staff) have spent time at Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru where we have interacted with Kenyans and expatriates involved in conservation, industry and the wider environmental sector. We have visited 2 national parks, one private conservancy, an elephant orphanage and a large scale flower farm. We have hiked, been on a boat trip and on traditional style safari drives. All students have observed >100 bird species and >20 mammals species and a wide range of habitats in less than a week.

We have even seen the elusive striped hyena.

We have even seen the elusive striped hyena.

There are a number of reasons why we have, for the last ten years, put field courses at the heart of the undergraduate and masters educational experience at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. To be in unfamiliar surroundings full of new and interesting biodiversity, landscapes and cultures can be inspirational and, of course, highly enjoyable. The courses also focus on developing personal and transferable skills such as fieldcraft, data analysis, teamwork and communication skills.

Students learning the challenging of wildlife censusing

Students learning the challenging of wildlife censusing

All of this for multiple weeks in a group can be, at times, challenging but, in many cases, lifelong friendships are formed. There have been many laughs and a few tears. Staff-student contact over several weeks means students are able to get a much greater insight into the life and work of their academics, and we, as staff, are able to know much more of our students’ strengths which helps us greatly as we are advising them on future career decisions and/or writing them references.


We have had formal lectures, group discussions and many informal discussions over meals, whilst travelling and around the campfire in the evening. It is these informal, wide ranging interactions that have the greatest impact, I feel. The diverse and complicated issues that conservation in Kenya throws up are terribly important and deeply engaging.

Thus far, a selection of the families of questions include:

Elephant Orphanage: Is it a worthwhile use of resources (900 USD per month for up to 10 years) to rehabilitate individual elephants? Is it safe? Will these animals ever contribute meaningfully towards favourable conservation status? Is it conservation?


Small fenced reserves: If these are not connected to the rest of the ecosystem are they benefitting conservation? How can networks of these reserves be managed to contribute? What are the ethical implications to be dealt with as populations increase?

Lake Naivasha Flower farms: Are the companies doing enough to recycle water? What is the true impact on the Lake of the industry? Given how altered the Lake is, are any costs cancelled by the benefits?

Rhino Conservation: Can the rhino protection battle be won? Who owns the rhinos? Could they be monetized? Are KWS antipoaching results as robust as they seem? Should more resources be focussed in the nations consuming rhino horn? Is the message shared regarding levels of illegal take always the full story?

Black rhino

Black rhino

And a final series of overarching questions emerge. How to engage the communities that live with wildlife? How can the rest of the world help Kenya preserve this globally important resource? What models can complement wildlife tourism which suffers so frequently at the vagaries of national and international political and economic events?

So, that’s only day 6! Tomorrow we hike up Mount Kenya, then 2 days on a bush camp in Ol Pejeta Ranch, followed by two days each in Meru National Park and Samburu National Nature Reserve. Watch out for the second instalment.


caitlin    January 15th, 2015    Kenya archive    , ,