We spent our second week in Nepal at Chitwan National Park, at the Tiger Tops lodge. The lodge is situated near the edge of the park, and hosts guided walks through the jungle to see the wildlife. In addition to the naturalists walking along with us, mahouts rode elephants at the front and back of the group. The elephants acted as security detail. If wild animals were to charge, the mahouts would move the elephants in front of the group as a very hefty protective wall. This provides security for the hikers and employment for the mahouts without overburdening or harming the elephants. Just a few minutes into our hike, we saw three rhinos (a mother and baby, and another female) and got to watch them interact. Later on the hike, we came across the mother and baby again wallowing in a waterhole.
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!
Within the large wildlife reserve and research center that is Mpala, there’s a smaller area where researchers and staff live and lounge. This area is surrounded by electric fences that keep out the biggest of animals–elephants, hippo, giraffe, buffalo, and lions. Even just in this small space, though, birds and smaller mammals are abundant (and often very habituated to people). Also, the front porch of the kitchen/dining hall boasts sunrise views stunning enough to make jet-lagged 4:30am wakeups a blessing.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join my advisor on his 41st research trip to Kenya. For the next month I’ll be living at Mpala Research Center, helping with an experiment looking at the interaction between herbivory (by cattle or wildlife) and prescribed fires. We flew in to Nairobe late at night, and the next morning drove about four hours to the research station. The drive itself was incredible, seeing the change from drier lowlands to wetter uplands to dry again uplands–this time in the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, which remained shrouded by heavy clouds. I loved the alternating patches of farmland with towns, bright colored shops and roadside stands. The road itself boasted newer cars and Landrover-type safari vehicles, overburdened motorcycles and brightly colored buses with catchy shoutouts to Jesus painted on their sides.
The research station itself is incredible, with views looking out at the mountain range and an impressive diversity of wildlife. In just my first afternoon here I’ve seen eleven wild mammal species–zebra (Plains and Grevy’s), giraffe (reticulated), bush hyrax, warthog, dik dik, mongoose, bush baby, hare, vervet monkey, and bush buck–in addition to cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. I wasn’t quick enough to get pictures of all of them, but I know there will be a lot more to see and many more opportunities! Our few hours in the field ended with thunderstorms in the distance and the setting sun lighting up the clouds over Mount Kenya.
Our final stop was the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. The city was vibrant life intertwined with layers of history–it seemed that everywhere we turned there was another oxidized copper spire reaching into the sky, and a stone church or museum around every corner. I loved all the bikes and brightly-colored buildings, and of course the canals and houseboats.
The Rundetaarn (round tower) in Copenhagen, Denmark was originally built as an astronomical observatory in the 1600’s. Because of its purpose, it was designed with a eight-plus story spiral ramp, rather than a staircase, to allow for horses and carriages to pull heavy equipment to the top of the tower. The top features a museum of some of the old pieces as well as stunning views of the old city.
Time has gotten away with me on these summer photos, especially as my fall months were packed busy with re-establishing my experiment in the Sierras, helping host a research and management conference at my university, and passing my qualifying examination (the last big hurdle on the way to my PhD before the dissertation itself). I’ve finally finished going through the last two stops on our beautiful whirlwind travels through Europe, the first of which is Bergen, Norway.
Bergen is a city established by German merchants in a country ruled by Scandinavian kings, a cultural and economic division that led to centuries of trade and occasional conflict. The old town of Bergen is a labyrinth of multi-story wooden buildings, all in shades of red, yellow, and orange, and the waterfront hosts restaurants with cuisines from all over the world–including Louisiana cajun-style seafood. The backdrop to all of this bustle is the dark green forests and fjords of the Norway coastline.