Hitting the Ground Running

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After a year (or more?!) of applying for numerous permits and grants, playing in the Bart station for extra research money, fine-tuning methodologies, and going through human subjects and animal care and use protocols, my dissertation field work has finally begun. I feel like I could write an entire blog post about the preparation process and bureaucracies involved, but that would have an extremely limited audience (students trying to do wildlife research in Kenya?), so I’ll focus on the exciting stuff and bore folks another time.

The past 12 days have been a whirlwind. After disembarking in Nairobi from 26 hours of flying, and 36+ hours of no sleep, I went straight to Savannah Tracking Ltd, the company that has been designing the collars I intend to outfit on spotted hyena in the coming weeks. Although I was exhausted, I chugged a ton of coffee and spent 2 hours getting trained up on the proprietary software system they use for managing their collars. My excitement about seeing my nearly finished collars hanging in the shop contributed to my ability to stay awake for the training, and somehow I ended up in an hour-long deeply philosophical conversation with Daniel, who was training me on the collar software. Just goes to show I’m not ever one for small talk.

Logistics planning started immediately the day after I arrived on Soysambu Conservancy. I learned how to drive stick shift in about 2 hours in a huge Range Rover, from Nina, a researcher here who is graciously letting me borrow her car while I search out my own.

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View from my new room!

The best way to learn is to just do it, and I’ve already logged over 35 hours of driving manual in this behemoth in just one week! Additionally, I worked and sweated with Nina and two new friends I’ve made, Dennis and Sora, to clean out and organize a sweet little cottage here in Nina’s camp that otherwise was being used as storage – and which has started to become my new home.

 

I’ve met a number of people in the past week with whom I’ll be working directly or indirectly, including Soysambu conservancy and livestock staff, Kenya Wildlife Service science and community staff and rangers, various community members, and of course the two Kenyan master’s students from Egerton University who have signed on to my project: Gerald and Christine. In the hopes of doing participatory research properly, it’s extremely important to me to train and build up these students and also to communicate consistently with the communities in which we work, thus assuring we’re at least trying to actively listen and be helpful in the work we’re doing.

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Mercy- KWS ranger and new friend, goofing for the camera.

 

Going into Lake Nakuru National Park for the first time as a researcher rather than a visitor was quite the experience. The power of the single, unassuming piece of paper that is my research permit is amazing, and my passage through the park has been more than facilitated. Luckily, my only struggle has been keeping track of the names of all of the folks I’ve met during my travels there. On Monday, I spent 12 grueling hours driving off-road (and occasionally walking) around the perimeter of the park with a KWS scientist and ranger, mapping weak points of the fence and putting up camera traps to see which carnivores are crossing to and from the community lands. Lake Nakuru National Park is fully electrically fenced, yet there are many weak points in the fence due to rivers and flooding, as well as due to the lowest electric wire not being live, so animals dig under it easily. During our assessment, I even saw a grazing goat from the community shimmy it’s way under the fence from the national park back to the community lands. There were several areas where the road was completely underwater, so the plan is to take a couple of rangers and hike through the bush to assess the remainder of the fence and complete the camera trap placement this and next week.

 

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Placing camera trap at Nderit River, with electric fence elevated nearly 2m off the ground.

This week, I’ve also begun verifying land cover on Soysambu, and teaching my student Gerald how to conduct prey density transects since that is going to be a part of his thesis. I’ve spent much of my time training Gerald and Christine on various field techniques and some of the participatory methods we’re going to use, even as I continue to decide on and train myself on certain aspects of my methodology- thus it has been quite the whirlwind! However, I’m very excited about the students. Their professors have asked me to challenge them and make them work hard, get dirty, and gain field skills. I’ve already noticed they don’t even have sturdy bush shoes or backpacks and Christine has even showed up to field days in designer jeans (!), so we have our work cut out for us…

Lastly, today my hyena collars finally arrived! I am so grateful for my grants and for various crowdfund donors I’ve had who have led me to be able to have these collars custom-designed for my work. Hopefully I will outfit 8-15 hyenas by mid-July, and start to see where they’re moving throughout these different management zones and through the community.

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Collars!

It is amazing what a lot of hard work and openness to opportunity will do for you if you keep at it. When thinking about my journey in preparing for this research, I’m reminded of Amanda Palmer’s book “The Art of Asking”, which inspired me to lose my fear of being vulnerable and instead ask for help and guidance when I need it. Hopefully this principle will continue to guide me as I step out of so many comfort zones and dive more deeply into this learning experience. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

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