Baby Cheetahs

These young ones were hidden in the grass a little ways away from one of the areas we burned. Our hope is that the burned areas will attract lots of herbivores, which will in turn provide some tasty lunches for the cheetahs when they get a little bit older!

 

 

 

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Game Drive

The only legal way to shoot wildlife in Kenya is from a car, with a camera. In the afternoons and evenings after the day’s fieldwork, we drove around to different parts of the reserve, stopping whenever we spotted something in the bushes, trees, or skies.

The diversity of wildlife here is mind-blowing. In just a few weeks, I’ve seen 34 different species of wild mammals, and more birds than I could begin to count. I’ve also gotten pretty good at taking pictures out of a truck window, aided by the best drive and tour guide imaginable (my advisor).

Prescribed Burns

Fire–and what happens to plant communities after fire–is the core topic of my dissertation research. I’ve set up experiments in Sierra mixed-conifer forest and nutrient-poor but diversity-rich serpentine chaparral communities, and when my advisor discussed a project with prescribed fire in his study system in Kenya rangeland, I jumped at the opportunity.

For over twenty years, this project has been studying how the presence or absence of wild herbivores or cattle can affect this plant community–the acacia trees and understory grasses that grow on black cotton soil–and through them, the rodents, birds, and insects that also use this environment.

In 2013, the research team burned a section of each plot to test how past herbivory affected fire behavior, and how fire changed all of these interactions between wildlife, cattle, trees, grass, and insects. This year, we reburned all those sections to look at the effects of repeated fire, and burned a second set of sections in each plot to look at differences between fire in different years.

There were 36 burns total, each 30 x 30 meters. The whole process took our team of almost thirty people five days. Most of the crew was there not to light fire, but to keep anything outside of these sections from catching fire. In addition to the two main organizers and fire-lighters, there were people running two water tanks with hoses, people driving the trucks that pulled the water tanks, people running an even larger refill water tank–which was pulled by a tractor. Another crew wore backpacks full of water, to be able to spray any spot embers, and a final crew stayed behind after each burn, to rake apart coals or smoldering dung, and make sure all the hot spots were extinguished. Plus of course all the researchers recording temperature, wind speed, flame heights, bird movements, and tree survival.

For me, this project was a wave of experiences. This was my first time visiting anywhere in Africa and my first time working on a prescribed fire team. My original plan had been to arrive a week or so before the burning started, to have time to settle in and establish my own mini-experiment within the burn areas. However, due to concerns over the rains coming early, the entire project was moved forward, so we starting burning my second day after arriving. This meant that my first week I was trying to learn the system, help with the burns, keep ahead of the burning plan to set my experiments in the late afternoons or early mornings in the areas that would be burned the following day, and see and photograph as much nature and wildlife as I could. I didn’t have time to be jetlagged or tired from the 24 hour flight until over a week later!

From field assistants to coworkers, the team here has been absolutely amazing. Watching an unwieldy group of people with all these moving parts come together to accomplish all of these burns smoothly and safety was incredible. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way!

 

The Hippo Pools

On Mpala Ranch is an area commonly referred to as the hippo pools, which is just upstream of a small dam, so the water level stays consistent even during the dry season. It’s one of the best places to go to see wildlife, including the hippos that give its name, and many other animals that take advantage of the predictable resource. We saw over fifteen hippos there on our first visit, as well as a small herd of elephants, a troop of vervet monkeys, two giraffe, a fish eagle, a little bee eater, and a hadada ibis. The big yellow-barked acacia that grow near the river are called fever trees.