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I’m finally back home in Oregon for a short while before I move on to the next adventure. I was hoping to write more before I left Kenya or at least sooner after I arrived back in the states, but as always, I needed a bit more transition time than I anticipated on both ends.

 

My last week in Kenya was very nice. I got to meet some of the researchers that are coming in as I leave, and I had a fun time soaking up the wisdom of the older generation from Kay and Dee. My favorite moment was one night when Kay jokingly asked me who I would like them to dart before I left. I say “jokingly” because it’s next to impossible to pick ahead of time who you will dart, since it’s hard to predict which hyenas you will even see on a given day, let alone which ones will present themselves in perfect darting conditions. I put my bid in for Princess Buttercup (Pbut for short), Parcheesi’s year-old cub and the first black cub I ever saw. She is a bold but not exactly brilliant cub, and is one of my favorites because of her funny antics. I didn’t really expect them to be able to dart her, but then the next day, Hadley texted Dee and me to come to the other car.

Pbut! Notice how her teeth still haven't come in yet

Pbut! Notice how her teeth still haven’t come in yet

Benson holding Pbut. She's so small one person can carry her.

Benson holding Pbut. She’s so small one person can carry her.

 

Sure enough, Hadley managed to fulfill my parting wish, and they darted Pbut as she was wandering across a field. She is just den graduating (growing old enough that she begins to move around on her own) and was by far the youngest cub I’d ever seen darted. She didn’t even have all of her teeth in yet. Since she was born almost at the same time as I came out to the Hyena Project, it felt very full circle to get to say goodbye to her in person.

 

I felt so confident in my ability to do my job well, and also recognized so many places for improvement, that it was hard to leave feeling like there was more I could do out there. However, I was also ready to come home. Kenya is a gorgeous country but it is not always an easy place to work, and while I constantly miss the hyenas and the people I worked with, there is a decently long list of things that I will not miss at all (#1 would probably be the blatant and pervasive corruption).

Sunrise from my last hot air balloon ride

Sunrise from my last hot air balloon ride

Hadley on our final balloon flight together

Hadley on our final balloon flight together

a vulture's nest from the air

a vulture’s nest from the air

View from the balloon out towards Serena

View from the balloon out towards Serena

Also before I left, I got one last encounter with the black mamba (which may not actually be a black mamba, as I’ll explain). This time, I was trying to get a look at an elephant that was foraging near my tent in the middle of the day and determine whether it was about to bring a branch down on the tarp, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I saw a very long silvery-brownish-grey body slide into a complex of holes that used to belong to a rat that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks (now we know why). Kay is taking the whole snake thing very seriously, and apparently by now they have installed a critter camera to try to catch the snake in motion, figure out where it’s spending most of it’s time, and determine exactly which species it is. Kay explained that based on my description and the fact that it ran away from me the first time, there is a possibility that it could be a cobra, which are known to be less aggressive and at least slightly less deadly (though versus a black mamba, pretty much anything is less deadly. Also, one last chance for me to throw in a cool hyena fact: Kay has seen hyenas get attacked by deadly cobras and survive, and I have also heard accounts of them surviving black mamba bites unscathed).

 

I had some fun leaving luck on the way out and got to see lots of cute cubs and the start of the migration again. I had been soaking up every moment for the last few months but it was still nice to see lions and hyena babies one last time.

Two young lions mating

Two young lions mating

Helios nursing Tira (Tierra Del Fuego) and Rion (Rio Negro)

Helios nursing Tira (Tierra Del Fuego) and Rion (Rio Negro)

Helios with one of her cubs

Helios with one of her cubs

Some black-backed jackals being cute

Some black-backed jackals being cute

The migration came back just before I left

The migration came back just before I left

I got to meet Kenna, one of Kay’s graduate students, in Nairobi before I left. Kenna is working with hyena vocalizations and has some really awesome theories that I hope to get updates about. Hyenas have a huge range of sounds that they can make, and these vocalizations comprise another facet of their complex social lives; now, sound analysis technology is advanced enough that Kenna may be able to analyze more specific differences in calls, as well as the situations in which they are used. She has some cool ideas about how rank might influence when hyenas vocalize, and how unique vocalizations might play a role in attracting a mate.

 

Finally, my time in Kenya was up. I lugged my giant suitcases to the airport, got to very, very briefly meet two of the new Research Assistants who flew in the same evening that I left, enjoy the last ineptitude of Kenya’s inefficient airport organization, and then bid the cool East African night farewell.

Baez at the new den

Baez at the new den

 

***

 

I decided to split up the long journey home and visit my friend Lindsay, who is studying abroad in Germany. I stayed with her for a little less than a week, spending most of my time in Göttingen, the university town that’s known for it’s famous alumni and teachers, including the Brothers Grimm and Gauss.

 

As someone with European Jewish ancestry, Germany has always held a certain negative connotation for me, so I was rather surprised at how much I liked it there. The people were very friendly, spoke excellent English, and didn’t give me a hard time when they realized that I spoke no German whatsoever. Everything was very clean and orderly, which felt incredibly nice after Kenya’s perplexingly inefficient non-systems.

 

I was worried that I would have a hard time so far removed from the natural world, but I was able to find beautiful green spaces even in Germany. The university has multiple large botanical gardens and pretty outdoor spaces. Obviously it doesn’t match up to seeing savannah megafauna go walking past your tent each day, but it certainly helped the transition.

 

An underwater salamander I found at the  botanical gardens

An underwater salamander I found at the botanical gardens

I had a lot of fun eating delicious food (cheese, cheese, and more cheese) and catching up with Lindsay. It was fun just getting to see a different world for a bit. It’s strange to think that Germany and Kenya are just one time zone apart, yet are so completely different. It also emphasized to me how lucky Kenya is to still have so many natural spaces and wildlife left, since a lot of the students I met at the University really bemoan the dearth of untouched nature in Germany.

 

It was too short of a trip, but I was also eager to finally get home. After two more excruciatingly long flights, I finally got my first mom hug I’d had in a year.

 

Now that I’m finally back, it’s strange how easily I’ve slipped back into this life. In some ways it’s nice, and in other ways it’s frustrating and a little unsettling. It seems like no matter how much I learn and how mature I grow, I will always be a child to my parents and I will always find myself falling into the role of youngest sibling when I’m with my family. Life here is safe and tame, and I appreciate what a privilege it is to live so comfortably, yet it’s hard to deal with all the emotions that go along with that recognition alongside the desire for exploration. I am constantly thinking about my friends back in Kenya, and especially the hyenas. It’s hard realizing that there really isn’t anyone here who can fully understand and connect with what I experienced over the last year, though I have no lack of support from my family during the transition. I still think about the poisoning a lot, and it’s harder to express how I feel about that here.

 

For the most part however, I really love being home and surrounding myself with family, friends, pets, good food, and all the little amenities that I have missed. Oregon is even more beautiful than I had remembered, and I am glad to be in the US for a while. My nephew Ira An Lei is so big now, and is fully interacting with the world. I find myself comparing him to hyena cubs, since those are the last young animals I watched grow up. An Lei may not be as fluffy, but he’s quite cute anyways.

 

Unagi, Taurus, and Pisces, three of the cubs that were born just before I left

Unagi, Taurus, and Pisces, three of the cubs that were born just before I left

***

 

After a very brief trip home, I just arrived at my next job. I will be spending the next half of a year working as an Intern with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. As I move in and explore the area, I appreciate how vastly different but strikingly beautiful this place is compared with Kenya. There is so much fog, and it rolls rapidly over the green hills, reminding me much more of a chilly Nairobi morning than the sunny and flat Mara. The views out over the water and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular, and it is an interesting mix of human structure alongside natural beauty.

 

I can’t wait to start working with the raptors (the large predatory birds, not the dinosaurs—though they are related). The GGRO is a longstanding volunteer-based organization perfectly situated along a migration corridor, and working here will be a wonderful opportunity to learn how to identify birds in flight and actually handle these beautiful birds of prey.

Kay Holekamp, the researcher who runs the Hyena Project, flew out to oversee the project for the summer and make sure things were running smoothly. She is our boss as well as a well-known and respected researcher, so we were all nervous and excited to have her in camp. It’s been really neat to learn from someone who has as much experience as she does.

 

We've been darting more with Kay around to lend her expertise to the process. Here is Dave preparing the drug for the dart.

We’ve been darting more with Kay around to lend her expertise to the process. Here is Dave preparing the drug for the dart.

Benson preparing to dart

Benson preparing to dart

Weighing a grass rat as part of a small mammal lecture Kay gave to a group of MSU students

Weighing a grass rat as part of a small mammal lecture Kay gave to a group of MSU students

The first night Kay went on obs with us, we sat at the new den for nearly an hour before the cubs came out. While we waited, we noticed that there were bats flying around then den; then, we realized that they were actually flying in and out of the den itself. At first I wondered whether that meant that the hyenas had abandoned the den, but Kay explained that bats will often roost in active hyena dens. Sure enough, after a few minutes, Harpy and Alfredo’s cubs popped out of the den too.

 

Juno and her cubs at the den

Juno and her cubs at the den

I’ve always found it interesting how many different animals share dens with hyenas. I’d seen for myself that warthogs will at least live in neighboring den holes, and apparently porcupines will share space with hyena cubs too. The bats are especially interesting to me because I would have thought they’d be extremely vulnerable in their roosts. It’s amazing to think about an entire world of interactions going on beneath the surface of the ground. We spend so much time with the hyenas, but even so, there are so many unknowns about their daily life. To me, that just reinforces how important long-term research projects are. Kay has been out here studying hyenas since before I was born, and there are still so many questions to ask. It’s incredibly hard to keep a project like this going for so many years, but I wish it were more of the norm in field science rather than the exception.

 

Buar playing with her younger sibling (one of Helios' new cubs) at the den

Buar playing with her younger sibling (one of Helios’ new cubs) at the den

***

 

I finally had my first close encounter with a snake here in camp. I was walking to the storage tent to get some supplies, with my mind on whatever it was I needed, when all of a sudden, something moved on the ground in front of me. A snake had been sunning itself on the rocks next to the solar panels, and I had come about a foot away from stepping on it. I only realized it was there as I saw the end of a shiny grey body slither away fast as it could go into the bushes, presumably to save itself from being trodden upon. I was completely surprised, and the encounter immediately got my heart pounding. When I returned to the lab tent, I described what had happened to Dave, and he pulled up a picture on his computer.

“Did it look like this?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it! … That’s a black mamba, isn’t it?”

“Yep”

 

I was certainly more nervous about the encounter after I realized it had been one of the world’s deadliest snakes. While a black mamba bite does not ensure that a person will die, one generally only has thirty minutes to get the antivenom before the chances of survival plummet to essentially zero (there is only one recorded case of a person surviving without antivenom, and even he had intense medical assistance). It is strange to think that therefore in some ways, my life hinged upon the split-second fight-or-flight instinct of another living being. It was another reminder of how many things in life are completely out of our control and how unnerving that realization can be.

 

***

 

One night, we went out for obs and found a giant flock of swallows zooming over the plain. We often see large groups of them foraging in the air over the plains or water, but this was on another level. There were hundreds of them in the air, swirling in a mass above and around the car. It had rained a little the previous night so we thought that maybe they were after termites.

 

***

 

Wilson had never had a birthday celebration before because he didn’t know exactly when he was born, and there isn’t as much of a tradition of celebrating birthdays with the Maasai here. So we decided to pick a day and throw him a small birthday party after obs.

 

We were heading back from obs a little early so that we could celebrate together, when we came across a hyena lying down. When we stopped to ID her, she suddenly leapt up and started running, so we followed her. She led us straight into chaos. We were bumping along off road behind the hyena, trying to find her in the dark, when we noticed herder’s flashlights sweeping around. Then we saw a group of hyenas converging on an animal, and realized it was a cow. We drove up and scared the hyenas off of the cow just as the herder came running back, but we could already see two giant gaping wounds in the animal’s side.

 

I had never seen a Maasai man so distraught. He was crying so hard he could barely breath and he was shaking all over. At first, I thought he was just distraught about the hyenas attacking his cow, but slowly Benson and Wilson translated what had really happened. The hyenas were only the second animals giving the herder trouble that night – a group of elephants with young calves had suddenly materialized out of the bushes a few minutes earlier and started chasing the herders. One of them had gored a cow in front of the herder and then chased him and the other men away. The hyenas then closed in on the wounded cow once the elephants moved back and before the people could chase them away. The herder was so upset because he’d almost been trampled, and because he thought that the elephants had gored more than one cow, so it took him a while to calm down enough for his friends to explain that only one cow was injured. This was all made more serious by the news that just a few days earlier elephants killed a man in the Lloita area not far from Talek.

Elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous. This is one that charged at us from the bushes when we didn't see it and got too close.

Elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous. This is one that charged at us from the bushes when we didn’t see it and got too close.

 

Hadley, Julie, and I waited in the car while the guys sorted out what to do with the cow. She was clearly a goner—her guts were exposed and she already smelled like death—but shock had set in so deeply that she kept standing up and trying to walk back to the herd. It was disturbing to watch the cow walk around with her stomach almost falling out of her side, but it was a mercy that somehow she didn’t seem to be in pain.

 

Finally, we sorted everything out and headed back to camp. We were worried that given the night’s events we might want to postpone the birthday festivities, but in the end I think it helped us get our minds off of the whole ordeal. Besides, Wilson was ecstatic to have his first-ever birthday party; he kept standing up to make speeches about how happy he was and was still thanking us the next morning.

Koitobos, a Fig Tree cub with a giant wound that we think was probably from a lion

Koitobos, a Fig Tree cub with a giant wound that we think was probably from a lion

The Mourning Giraffe

We saw something very strange on obs this past week. One morning, we were at the den, when a group of hyenas started whooping and moving away into the bushes. We couldn’t see what had them so agitated, so we decided to follow. It took us a long time to navigate all of the bushes, but we finally found them running in and out of the thicket around a tall female giraffe. Then we realized that she was standing over a juvenile giraffe that was lying on the ground. We couldn’t tell what was wrong with the juvenile, but it was clearly dying. It was sprawled out on its side and every once in a while it would twitch its head and kick its legs out uselessly. We couldn’t see anything visibly wrong with it but we assumed it must have broken something critical or gotten sick. The hyenas circled excitedly at first, but the mother giraffe kept standing over the juvenile, sometimes running at the hyenas until they backed off. Ripkin, one of our youngest subadults, kept sitting down in the bushes next to the juvenile, watching it hungrily.

 

We stayed to watch, expecting the mother to leave when she realized that her baby was doomed. We stayed for a long time until it became clear that the giraffe wasn’t going anywhere. So we left, planning to come back that evening just in case she was still there.

 

That night, we made our way back, mostly expecting not to see anything since it had been so long. Instead, as we drove up, we saw the mother giraffe’s head sticking out above the bushes. She was still there guarding her calf, which was still alive, but unable to stand or move much at all. There were lots of hyenas in the bushes, waiting for her to leave. Most of them weren’t getting very close since a giraffe can kick the head off an adult male lion, let alone a hyena. They were just resting patiently, waiting. The giraffe, on the other hand, looked very stressed. She had strings of saliva hanging from her mouth and kept walking away from the juvenile as if she was about to leave, and then running back as though she’d changed her mind. We were surprised that she was still standing guard, especially since her calf was clearly not going to make it, and she was unable to eat much herself while she guarded it.

 

The mother giraffe standing guard over her dying calf

The mother giraffe standing guard over her dying calf

Amazon loped up as we were watching. She paced around the giraffe and sat down to wait. But after a few minutes, she seemed to get frustrated, and began whooping. After that, she loped away, presumably too impatient to wait for a meal. Finally, we left as well.

 

The next night when we returned, the mother giraffe was still there, but the juvenile was dead and partially eaten. The hyenas were still mostly keeping their distance but something, probably one of the lionesses we’ve been seeing in that area recently, had managed to eat out some of the internal organs. The mother giraffe either hadn’t comprehended that her calf was dead, or didn’t care, because she continued to keep guard over its body, chasing away any hyena that inched too close. However, after two days of vigilance, she was clearly getting tired; it was taking her longer to run back to the carcass every time she swayed away. Every once in a while she would go just far enough that a few of the hyenas would crawl up and start feeding, but then she would run back and chase them away again. We couldn’t understand why she was still expending so much energy and risking starvation for a calf that was clearly dead.

 

I think perhaps people are sometimes too presumptuous about the separation between animals and humans. There was no (apparent) logical explanation for the giraffe’s reaction except maybe a parental care instinct in overdrive; rather, it seemed as though she was simply unable to let her baby go. Scientists have documented grieving responses in other animals before, so this is nothing new, but still poignantly touching to witness. It makes me wonder whether and how the hyenas might be grieving for their lost clan members after the poisoning event.

 

By the next morning, there were no signs that there had ever been a giraffe in that clearing at all—not even a bloodstain was left. All we found were two hyenas, Alice and Kyoto, sniffing hopefully at the ground.

 

***

 

The rainy season never showed up. It’s supposed to have been raining for months now, but we haven’t had a drop in weeks. All of Kenya is in the middle of a drought, maybe all of East Africa. The guys in camp are getting really worried about their crops and animals back home. At this point, even if the rains do come, it’s probably too late—the corn has already grown up, and may die without even flowering or producing cobs; the bean pods have grown without any beans inside; the cows are too skinny to reproduce.

 

In the Mara, I worry that the dry spell will only put the hyenas in greater conflict with people, because the herders have come back into the reserve and a skinny cow is an easy mark. On the other hand, it might actually be helpful, because without rain, the migration may come to the Mara earlier than expected, which would be an incredible boon to all the carnivores in the area.

 

The dryness and heat have had a noticeable effect on the land. There is an unbelievable amount of dust everywhere. I watched a goat in Talek as it picked at food on the ground, and every exhale from its nose sent up a cloud of dust. Inside the reserve, it’s just as bad. Every time I stop the car, the dust we’ve kicked up catches up with us and leaves us choking; sometimes it’s so bad we lose sight of the hyenas. By the end of obs our eyes sting and our noses hurt, and every time I wipe my face it comes away orange.

In some ways, the aftermath of the poisonings has been even harder than the event itself. We knew beforehand that we wouldn’t be able to find all the bodies, but it has been taxing to keep a daily tally of who we have and haven’t seen since the poisoning. The first time we see a hyena is a tremendous relief, but as the days have worn on and we still haven’t seen many members of the clan, it’s beginning to set in that we have lost a large number of animals.

 

We now suspect that the poison claimed the lives of at least 19 hyenas, and there are several more that we still haven’t seen but we think (or hope) probably weren’t in the area at the time. Among the ones that we’re now fairly convinced are dead are Crimson, yet another new mother who was a consistent presence at the den; Argon, an older, low ranking mother, and the sister of Xenon; Loki, a higher ranking oddball female; Galapagos (or Gala for short), the reigning princess of the clan, and one of my favorite hyenas because I’ve watched her come into her rank just during the time that I’ve been here; Wellington, the high ranking immigrant male whom we joked was “married” to Helios because he always followed her around; and Mork, another immigrant male with striking spots and a slightly goofy disposition.

 

Crimson

Crimson

Argon with Lazy

Argon with her cub Lazy

Loki

Loki

Gala

Gala

Wellington

Wellington

Mork

Mork

The hardest part of the poisoning for me has been the repercussions of all of the mothers that were killed. Hyena cubs rely on their mother to nurse them, to help them learn their rank, help them find food, and protect them at carcass sessions until they are about three years old. There is a huge amount of maternal investment involved with raising a cub, which may be why it is extremely unusual for another mother to help raise a cub that isn’t hers. This means that without their moms, the cubs whose mothers were poisoned have been slowly starving to death, and it takes them much longer to die than I would have expected. Instead, we have watched them get slowly more and more lethargic and skinny. While their peers with living mothers play and run around the den, they just sit there and waste away. Lazy and Rage, Argon’s cubs, even got abandoned at the old den site and simply spend their days huddled against each other, waiting for a mother that will never come back. Each day we expect to find some of them dead, but they only look skinnier. It’s likely that they will crawl into the den before they finally die, so we may never find their bodies either.

Lazy, Rage, and Circle starving to death without their mothers

Lazy, Rage, and Circle starving to death without their mothers

 

Crimson’s cub Cyberman is the only one that seems at all likely to survive. She is fighting so hard to stay alive that it both breaks my heart and gives me a small spark of hope. She is still so small, but we’ve seen her following adult hyenas very far from the den to join in carcass sessions. Her best trick yet, however, seems to be bullying lower ranking mothers into nursing her. Ted is another young mother with just one cub (we think she originally had two but lost one early on), and through sheer obnoxious tenacity, Cyberman has been managing to nurse fairly regularly from her. She will follow Ted around and squitter constantly (a squitter is an obnoxious, squealing noise that a cub makes when it’s hungry), essentially ensuring that Ted will get no peace unless she allows Cyberman to nurse too. I don’t know if it will be enough to help her survive all the way to adulthood, but her will to live is so strong that if any of our orphans can do it, she’s the one.

Cyberman

Cyberman

 

Baez with her new cub born just after the poisoning. We named her Hope after Hope Solo.

Baez with her new cub born just after the poisoning. We named her Hope after Hope Solo.

***

 

At this point, it seems very clear that whoever was responsible for the poisonings will never be caught. Whether this is because of a lack of resources and expertise, or simply a lack of interest, I don’t know. The high expectations I had after the professional KWS post-mortem have fizzled by now, and it leaves me feeling even more dejected about the whole situation.

 

Part of what makes the poisoning event hard to cope with is that it is so emblematic of the deep problems in this area. While I still think poisoning a carcass shows an unforgivable level of stupidity, I can understand the reasons why a herder would do it. Especially after traveling around Kenya a little more, I can see that this community along the reserve is much worse off than a lot of other areas in the country. And right now, people are struggling even harder than normal because the rainy season that was supposed to support crops and livestock never arrived. There are so many ways in which the local community could and should benefit from the reserve, but the rampant corruption makes any potential solution untenable.

 

I had an interesting thought the other day when I was contemplating how heart-breaking it is to watch our cubs starve to death. I was making myself angry, wishing that I could make whoever was responsible for the poisoning feel what I feel watching the cubs die. I wished we could let them shadow our job for a year—let them follow the hyenas, watch them grow, form social bonds and enemies, fight, feed, mate, and have children, and then watch them die and see their children slowly waste away—no normal, social human being could watch that and not feel remorse at the suffering the poisoning caused. But then I started thinking about what the Maasai guys we work with have told us about what it means to be a good herder. You have to really know each one of your cows—what they act like when they eat, walk, mate, and interact with other cows, to the extent that you will know if one is pregnant, sick, injured, or acting strangely. You give them names and have to be familiar with them so well that even if one gets lost or stolen, you’ll recognize it months later. You help them give birth, watch their children grow, and although yes, you sometimes kill them for meat, as Joseph says, it isn’t a job that most people do for the money, but rather because “We love cows.” So to watch your cow starve to death in a drought or be killed by a hyena must be a blow that goes beyond the monetary loss. In many ways, the sorrow I feel at loosing an animal that I feel attached to because I have observed it for so long is not all that dissimilar from the emotions that probably spurred the herder who poisoned the carcass in the first place. This realization makes me feel even more strongly that there has to be a way to help the local community here re-connect with the wildlife in the reserve, both monetarily and emotionally. My anger needs to be directed not at the person who did the poisoning, but the system that created his desire to do so.

The funeral pyre for one of the unidentifiable hyena corpses we found a few days after the main poisoning event

The funeral pyre for one of the unidentifiable hyena corpses we found a few days after the main poisoning event

A Living Nightmare

I just got back from Blanket’s necropsy. I’m not sure how to communicate exactly what happened or how I feel because the details of both those things are still a little hazy right now. Blanket is the fourth hyena since the beginning of April who has been killed by poisoning. Idi, Honey, and Endor were all poisoned while Julie and I were on our trip to Lamu, but this is a new poisoning event, and this one happened inside the park, not all that far from the den.

 

Honey

Honey

Hadley and Benson with Endor when we darted him a few months before the poisoning

Hadley and Benson with Endor when we darted him a few months before the poisoning

Idi

Idi

Hadley and Benson found Blanket dead at the end of obs this morning. He had a sticky pink substance coming out of his anus, and was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes. When they brought his body back to camp, it looked like he was crying blood. The necropsy was fascinating in a very awful way; whatever they used to poison him was a disturbingly potent substance. The flies that landed on Blanket began to die, littering the ground around him with their twitching bodies. His internal organs, especially the liver, were discolored, and had a blotchy, irritated look to them. The inside of his stomach contained the remains of a calf that looked like it had been doused in a pink substance akin to pepto bismol, though it had a decidedly less friendly effect. We’re all still in shock. We haven’t been able to find the carcass that was poisoned, and we know that the casualties will probably include a lot more than just this one subadult.

Blanket

Blanket

In retrospect, maybe I should have seen this coming—hyena-human conflict only seems to have intensified since I’ve been here. But this isn’t something you anticipate. The sheer idiocy of a poisoning event crosses the line from retaliation for livestock predation into the realm of recklessly dangerous stupidity. Historically, it’s probably the most destructive thing a single person can do to in one instance to an entire hyena clan, yet most people here know better than to try. This is because poison is indiscriminant and creates a huge amount of collateral damage.

 

When a poisoning happens, it usually occurs after a hyena has killed a cow. The herder chases the hyenas away, puts poison on the carcass, and then leaves it for the hyenas to finish. However, any poison strong enough to kill multiple hyenas is strong enough to kill basically any other living thing (keep in mind that hyenas are able to shake off black mamba bites, diseases like anthrax or rabies, and wounds that would easily be fatal on other animals). Usually, when a carcass is poisoned, it kills scores of hyenas, a few lions, lots of jackals and vultures, and even domestic dogs. What is even more concerning is that the flies that died around Blanket clearly demonstrate that the poison remains deadly even after it is consumed, which means that it can spread secondarily to an even broader swath of the ecosystem. To add another level of concern, when an animal is poisoned, it seeks out water to drink. This means that they can also spread the poison to an aquatic ecosystem, which in an area where most people get their drinking water from rivers could actually end up harming humans as well. The probable and potential effects of a poisoning event are extremely serious and disturbingly wide reaching.

 

This isn’t even considering the fact that any substance that is that deadly is also almost certainly illegal, or that whoever is using it is probably a local herder, which means they probably have a large family and lots of small children without a safe place to store deadly chemicals. And then there is also the concern for those of us who have to handle the contaminated carcasses—both Benson and Wilson, who are usually fairly cavalier about safety precautions, were very concerned about the possibility of us being exposed to the poison while doing the necropsy. But even without these side notes, the basic idea is that poisoning events are very serious, not just for hyenas, but for any living thing that comes into contact with it, even secondarily.

 

This is a concern that is shared by Kenya Wildlife Services and most local community members. I asked Benson and Wilson about the last time a poisoning occurred some time around 2010, and they said that when KWS found the man who did it, they put him in jail and fined him 500,000 Kenyan shillings (almost $6,000), which is enough to pay for a car, a dowry, or 50 calves.

 

***

 

The widening circle of effect from the poison is turning into a nightmare. Just a few hours after I sat down to write about Blanket, we got a call about more dead hyenas. I had been hoping we might get a day or so before other bodies turned up, or that maybe the calf in Blanket’s stomach was too small to kill many others, but there’s practically no way to kill only one animal with poison.

 

In the car, we all expressed some of our feelings about the situation. Benson said that the local people here should be the stewards of the reserve, not trying to destroy it. It seems clear to me that they don’t feel as though they are benefitting from the reserve if they are taking such drastic actions. However, Wilson made a very good point that what the people should do instead of killing animals is demonstrate in front of the gate and demand that the park revenue be distributed more fairly (something that has happened in other areas of Kenya with what sounds like a surprising amount of success). Hadley cautioned that the people here may not have the education to know that they have a right to demand benefits. It’s still unclear to all of us whether whoever did this fully understood the repercussions of their actions. On the one hand, previous poisonings have been big news that most people would have heard about, but on the other hand, they still might not know that even a small amount of poison can have such giant effects because of the way that ecosystems work.

 

As we drove towards the area where Hadley and Benson found Blanket, we kept an eye out for any dead animals. Then we saw a strange shape in a tree, a tangle of cream-colored wings sticking out at odd angles from the branches. As we drove up, we saw it was a dead tawny eagle hanging off its perch. Above it, there was another eagle that was panting and struggling to fly away. We managed to get the dead one out and when we looked at it, we saw pink goo oozing from its mouth and the stain of pink on its feet. Tawny eagles are a bit like vultures in that they will also congregate at a kill to eat the meat. And apparently they will eat it poison or no poison.

 

The first dead tawny eagle we found

The first dead tawny eagle we found

We had to climb on the car to get the tawny eagle out of the tree, and as we looked across the plain, we realized that there were more small bodies scattered across it, from a variety of species. Even before we got close to each of them, I felt a sense of horror seeing the scale of effect laid out before us.

 

The first animal we drove to was a lappet-faced vulture that was still in the process of dying. I had never seen a vulture lying on its back before, and up-close it looked huge compared to when I’d seen them soaring over the plain. That vulture was one of the most upsetting things I saw all day. It was struggling so hard just to breathe, and every once in a while a spasm would rack its body and cause it to clench its talons. It was so clearly in pain, I couldn’t watch it.

 

The dying vulture

The dying vulture

As we made our way towards the dead hyenas that we could see lying on the plain, we found a dead black-backed jackal that something had started to eat. By now, we recognized the signs of the poison—bleeding from the mouth and nose, pink paste and blood coming out of the anus, and dead flies all around. Next to the jackal, a tawny eagle was stumbling around, trying to fly and falling on its side, clearly dying. We realized that the eagle had been trying to eat the jackal and had been poisoned secondarily. At that point, we decided to collect the bodies and put them in one place so that no more animals could get killed.

 

Hadley investigating a tawny eagle that was poisoned secondarily after eating a jackal that had eaten poisoned meat

Hadley investigating a tawny eagle that was poisoned secondarily after eating a jackal that had eaten poisoned meat

The first hyena we found was Mousetrap. She’s the bossy older sister of Parcheesi, the hyena I first saw take down a wildebeest. They both had matching ear damage, but Mousetrap had one of the most distinctive spot patterns of any hyena in the clan. She had just had her first cub, Earl Warren (Ewar for short), who is a rambunctious mischief-maker and is too young to survive without her. When we found Mousetrap, there were two strings of dried blood coming out of her nose, coated in dead flies, and the same telltale pink stains on her fur.

 

Mousetrap, as we found her

Mousetrap, as we found her

The growing pile of carcasses in the car

The growing pile of carcasses in the car

After that we found another black-backed jackal. That raised our non-hyena casualty total after just half an hour to three tawny eagles, one vulture, and two jackals. We knew that there were probably more that we would never find, because there was a dense lugga (thicketed area along a stream) nearby where most of the dead animals would have sought out as they died.

 

The next hyena was Xenon. She was another beautiful young first time mother. We had just finally confirmed seeing her nurse the night before, and hadn’t even given her cub a name yet. Her cub is also too young to survive without her. Xenon was in the best shape of the dead animals we’d seen so far, and hadn’t bloated as much, but she had the same signs of poisoning as all the others.

 

As we moved all the animals into the shade to slow down the decomposition process, we met up with a warden and James, a county council ranger who happens to be related to two fisi camp staff members. They told us that KWS vets were on their way. It was helpful to know that everyone was taking the situation very seriously. We decided to split up and look for more bodies.

 

Wilson had the good thought that some of the hyenas might try to get to the den as they were dying, so we made our way towards it. Benson and Wilson scoured the bushes around the den and found another hyena in the creek. It took us a while to get her out of the water and the tangle of bushes, but when we laid her out we saw it was Obama. Obama is yet another first-time mother, and her cub Sycamore Fig is also too young to survive without her. Because she died in water, Obama was a very grizzly sight. Even though she only died the previous night at the latest, her skin was coming off her face and belly, and the flesh around her phallus and anus was eroding away.

 

Finding Obama highlighted just how difficult it will be to know exactly how many animals were killed by this single event. If others also went into water surrounded by bushes, we may never find them. It was also a very heavy blow that all of the hyenas we found were young nursing mothers whose cubs will not survive without them.

 

***

 

After we got all the carcasses together in one place, we waited for the KWS vets to arrive. When they got there, a group of about 10 vets, vets in training, assistants, wardens, and rangers, got out and took in the scene. In a sad way, it was helpful to hear the exclamations of “Ah! Mbaya sana!” (Oh how bad) as they walked among the corpses—it at least showed that the officials were as struck by the death toll as we were.

 

the KWS team doing necropsies

the KWS team doing necropsies

At that point, we basically let the KWS vet Dr. Limo take over. I was glad to give control over to KWS, partially because I was exhausted just from collecting all the dead animals (and sick of the smell of so many corpses and the strange smell the poison added to the mix), and also because I knew they were our best chance of actually catching and sentencing whoever did this. David the KWS ecologist collected the information we had (GPS locations and total number of deaths that we’d seen so far), and asked a few questions. They collected tissue samples and then decided to do a post-mortem on Xenon.

Xenon opened up for a post-mortem

Xenon opened up for a post-mortem

 

It was morbidly fascinating to watch Dr. Limo work. He clearly had a lot of experience, and was able to point out the ways in which the poison had affected Xenon’s body. He explained that the bleeding from the nose and mouth was due to hemorrhaging in the trachea and lungs. He cut a chunk of lung off and showed us how it sank rather than floated, demonstrating that the air pockets had been filled with blood. There was hemorrhaging in the intestines and other internal organs as well. The most telling moment, however, was when he cut open Xenon’s stomach. The smell was awful, an intensified wallop of the sweet chemically decomposing stench that we’d been smelling all day. Inside were the remains of a cow that were stained an otherworldly neon pink and purple.

 

By the time we were done with Xenon’s post-mortem, it was nighttime and we still had to figure out how to dispose of the bodies in such a way that nothing else could eat them and die. After debating the merits of burning, the vets decided to bring the bodies back to KWS and put them in a covered cement trash pit where they could decompose without anything getting to them. However, first we had to burn the bloodstains off the grass where we’d done the post-mortem because even that amount of poison residue was deadly. So Wilson drove back to camp to get petrol, and we took the opportunity to chat with the people from KWS. It was really neat to talk with Kenyan researchers who felt as passionately about conservation as we do.

 

Finally, Wilson returned and we collected a few small samples from the hyenas and then loaded everything in the back of the car. Then we poured petrol on the bloody ground and set it alight. There was something about the fire that felt distinctly cleansing after our very long day.

 

After that, we drove the carcasses to the KWS research station. It was a long drive, and the smell of so many dead animals was enough to keep me with my head out the window almost the whole way (luckily, there was some magical plant around the KWS station that smelled somewhat like sage and helped my nose out tremendously towards the end). I didn’t like dropping Mousetrap, Obama, and Xenon into a deep cement pit as their final resting place, but the toxicity of the poison meant that it was the best possible option. They covered the opening with a cement block, we said goodnight and thank you, and headed home.

 

***

 

Despite the sincere concern expressed by those officials present at the post-mortem, we were a little worried that no real action would be taken as a result of the poisoning. Although KWS is carrying out the analyses of the poison, the County Council owns the reserve and so are the ones in charge of the actual investigation. We were worried that they might not consider it as serious as we did, or that the usual issues with corruption would slow investigation. We were very wrong about that. I am not sure I have been as pleasantly surprised by anything else in Kenya as I have been by the County Council’s response to the event so far.

 

Apparently, park rangers convened a meeting in town the day after the post-mortem and told the community that they had acted badly—the rangers had allowed them to graze in the reserve, and in return someone was killing wildlife. So the wardens said that no one would be allowed to graze their animals in the reserve until the person responsible came forward. They gave the community four days to bring forth information on the culprit before they called in the General Service Unit (a national brute squad that has a reputation for power abuse of the shoot-first variety). We’re actually hoping that the last bit was an empty threat, because calling in GSU would be very scary and even in my opinion an overreaction, but the ultimatum itself was far more than we ever expected the officials to do. Even more encouraging, it sounds like the people in the community are eager to help the rangers in their investigation.

 

That night, the Mara was unlike anything I have ever seen. There were no cows. Not a single one. We couldn’t believe it. We met James that night and he said there were 42 rangers all along the Talek River stopping herders from entering. There has not been a single night since I’ve been here that we didn’t see cows in the reserve, so it was very different to drive around and not see them. This is a huge reaction and I am very hopeful that even if it doesn’t ultimately catch the person responsible, it does send a strong message to the herders that poisoning is not an appropriate response to livestock predation. It is also a tremendous help emotionally to know that we have support from officials and the community. This whole event has been achingly horrific (whenever I go to sleep, I keep having nightmares about finding dead hyenas) but the one positive piece is that I honestly hadn’t thought before that so many people actually cared about the wildlife in the reserve, and now I can see that they really do.

 

(Correction: Sycamore Fig is not Obama’s first cub. She had her first cub, Acacia, about a year ago, but lost him when she got her snare.)

Obama nursing Sfig

Obama nursing Sfig

Since it’s harder to do field work during the rainy season, Julie and I decided to take a small vacation after Jackson’s wedding to travel around and explore a new part of Kenya. We decided to check out the coast, but since things have been a little dicey in that region, we limited our travel plans to the island of Lamu.

 

We took a tiny 11-passenger plane from Nairobi to get to Manda, the island adjacent to Lamu. It was by far the smallest airplane I’ve ever been on; we were all in the same compartment with the pilots, who passed around a container of mints at the start of the flight. As soon as we touched down, a hot, salty breeze welcomed us to the coast.

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Lamu is a small tropical island town that survives on fishing and tourism. The town has a fascinating history due to its location along trade routes that has mixed Swahili, Arab, Portuguese and Indian cultures in a colorful blend of people, traditions, and architecture. The town brags that it has only two cars yet 6,500 donkeys, and the streets are certainly narrow and winding enough that even getting around by donkey can be a squeeze. I haven’t heard any estimates about the number of boats, however, which is the most common mode of transportation between the various islands in the region, as well as up and down the length of Lamu itself. Everything about Lamu orients towards the ocean—the streets draw you towards the seafront with the flow of traffic and the downhill flow of water from the narrow sewage channels that run alongside the alleys. Most of the men and many of the women seem to spend their time (both working and relaxing) along the jetty, manning boats for tourism and fishing, relaxing in front of mosques, running open air restaurants, or loading up donkeys with coral blocks and metal poles for construction. Around the seafront, there are a lot of Rastafarian men who view Bob Marley as a prophet, not a musician, and take the “pole-pole” (slow or easy going) lifestyle seriously. They add dreads, ripped jean shorts, and the rasta red green and yellow to the mix of colors and people along the water’s edge.

The all-important donkey welcome

The all-important donkey welcome

And of course,  more donkeys

And of course, more donkeys

Lamu from the water

Lamu from the water

The people I met on Lamu were very friendly, and the first few days everyone we met wanted to tell us why they love Lamu and its laid-back lifestyle so much. By the end, however, there was a certain cast of ten or so men that kept dogging us, trying to get money (offering anything from Swahili dinners to donkey rides to bracelets), that we started to feel pretty harassed. The unrest in Mombasa has really hurt tourism in Lamu, so a lot of people were very desperate to make money off of the few tourists who were there. It’s a very small town, so you start to feel like you know people quickly, which can be nice when they are genuinely friendly people, but less so when they are conmen trying to make an easy buck.

 

One of the first activities we did was a walking tour of the town with a man named Abas. He took us through the winding streets full of stray cats and women wearing buibuis (long head coverings that sometimes include a full Muslim hijab or burqa—also note that I don’t actually know what most women in Lamu call their various kinds of head coverings, but buibui is what the Lamu museum called them). Many of the houses on Lamu are very old, some built up to 800 years ago, though very few remain in their original state. They are often built out of coral with tall open courtyards for airflow. It was very impressive to climb flight after flight of stairs to a beautiful rooftop balcony and think about what an architectural marvel the structure must have been when it was first built. The more modern constructions are actually less well built in terms of natural cooling because they are low to the ground and made out of cement, or still tall but with less space inside.

 

Coral-walled alleys

Coral-walled alleys

View of the Lamu seafront from the top of one of the oldest buildings in town

View of the Lamu seafront from the top of one of the oldest buildings in town

Lamu is a very beautiful place. Somehow, even with all the cement and trash, the colors come through. The people especially have a striking mix of cultural styles that makes it a treat just to sit and watch passersby. Women congregate in mixed groups, some wearing coverings that reveal only their eyes, some in flowery t-shirts, chatting away. Abas explained that while the majority of people here are Muslim, they are proud of their tolerant attitude that embraces differences. I don’t know how much of an ideal fantasy that might be, but I definitely saw very different groups of people hanging out together. I think, given the mixed cultural history, Lamu has to be a slightly more tolerant place than it might otherwise have been. Even the head coverings come in a variety of styles—some are a gauzy black, some are beaded, some are brightly colored or made out of patterned kangas. I’m so used to the stereotyped images of Muslim women in burquas that it was fun to see groups of schoolgirls wearing glasses and colorful headscarfs, goofing off together, or even a woman wearing a full head scarf with only her eyes showing but on top of a sleeveless beach dress. Lamu is a place where different cultures come together and change, and people get to pick different parts that they like or that they consider most traditional. I wished I could have been braver asking people for photos, but it’s such a small community and the physical spaces are all so tight that it felt personal and invasive, so I mostly kept my camera in my bag.

The flag of one of the dhows we went on

The flag of one of the dhows we went on

Wall art

Wall art

 

***

 

Snapshot observations:

 

There is a woman around the corner from our hotel who sells fruit and has a beautiful smile. She always laughs and greets us as we go past and asks us if we want to buy a mango.

 

Julie and I got skirts made at a local tailor because it was too hot to wear pants. He was a very friendly man who was interested in learning about hyenas, and he told us about how he once hand-raised a baboon.

 

Things stay fairly lively after dark, with lots of people out once it gets cooler. In the Mara, everything shuts down as soon as it gets dark, so it was fun to get to walk around at night. It feels surprisingly safe here since there are always so many people around.

 

The culture, weather, food, people, and everything else are so different here that it feels like a different country from the Mara. So I was surprised to find that there are a small handful of Maasai men who live part-time on Lamu to sell crafts. When we met them, they explained that there was a drought in the Amboseli area a few years ago that killed off a lot of their cows, so they started selling crafts on the coast as a way to make ends meet. A lot of tourists cruise along the coastal circuit and never go inland, so they can make good sales to groups that otherwise wouldn’t see the famed Maasai. I would imagine that they get fairly homesick in Lamu, however. The food in particular is very different, especially since most of the people around Talek don’t eat fish and don’t like spicy food. The Maasai we met said they buy a lot of cow and milk and go home every three months to visit their family.

 

***

 

One day, we decided to take a donkey ride to Shella beach, just a short way from Lamu town. The donkeys were surprisingly comfortable steeds named Shakira and Puff Daddy (although depending one which person was talking the second one sometimes had a different name). The man leading the donkeys explained that most of the property in Shella is owned by foreigners now, and it’s changing the dynamics of the community a lot.

 

We hung out at the beach and swam a little. The sun was just starting to edge towards the horizon and the water was warm. As we got out of the water, a rasta guy with bleached dreads came up and handed us beautiful white tropical flowers. As we tried to communicate our thanks, it became clear that he couldn’t hear or speak. He wrote words or questions in the sand, which I answered by writing my responses next to his. His name was Lali, and he worked on the boats. We all sat on the beach and watched the water, and I started sketching with pastels that I had brought with me. I gave Lali a piece of paper and he drew a fish while I tried to capture the coastline. Then I drew a picture of the flower he had given me and gave it to him. He asked me to draw a lion, so I did my best and gave him that drawing too. By then, it was starting to get dark and the tide was going up, so we started to head back to the docks. Lali led the way along partially-submerged paths and helped us find a boat back to Lamu, coming along for the ride to point things out along the way. It was fun to watch the scenery on the way back, because the road we’d ridden along with the donkeys was now underwater. In a few places, the gates that led up to houses opened right on the edge of the water.

 

***

 

I think the highlight of the whole vacation for me was the two dhow trips we took. Dhows are the traditional sailboats that the people around Lamu use. We took a trip on one to visit the Takwa ruins, the remains of a religious site and small settlement built around 1500. It was a fun trip, and we got to meet some other tourists from Australia, France, Sweden, and Germany. We swam at a beach, ate lunch, and then made our way through the mangroves to the ruins, which can only be reached at high tide. The ruins were interesting to learn about, and beautifully shaded by baobab trees. It was really neat to hear the guide explaining that the people who lived in the ruins ate baobab fruits, so that many of the trees around the ruins probably grew from the discarded seeds of previous residents. The guide also showed us part of the large coral and stone walls that used to surround the village to keep out the soldiers of neighboring Pate island as well as the lions, buffalo, and other large animals that used to roam the island of Manda. That was an interesting side note, because the island today hosts very few animals besides domestic cats.

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Takwa ruins

Takwa ruins

We took another dhow trip on our last full day on Lamu, this time to go snorkeling at Manda Toto. Our captain Baji was very friendly, and told us a lot about local conservation and politics. He explained that the Kenyan government wants to build a giant port on Lamu even though the local people don’t want it because of the radical changes it would create for the area and the ecosystem. The government wants to blast out one of the smaller islands to make a channel for larger vessels, and put a wharf along the entire length of the island. Baji explained that even without the port, there have been a lot of issues with unsustainable fishing practices. He said that even though he and other captains try to explain to the other fishermen that net fishing in the mangroves, the nurseries for the reefs, will cause a collapse in the fish populations, the practice is still increasing. Baji said he tried to ask them to think of their children and grandchildren, but they just reply that they’ll deal with it when they run out of fish. I don’t imagine those sort of practices will decrease with the influx of large commercial fishing vessels either.

 

Julie, enjoying the water

Julie, enjoying the water

Me, enjoying the water

Me, enjoying the water

The reefs themselves were very interesting. They were in no way pristine, but there still seemed to be a good number and diversity of fish, although the distribution was patchy and the coral itself looked pretty banged up (though when there’s an island full of people using coral as a construction material I can’t say I’m surprised). It was interesting to see so many animals that looked familiar yet different from what I’d seen when I was snorkeling in Belize, and it definitely made me appreciate how special South Water Caye was by comparison. Nevertheless, it felt wonderful to snorkel again after so long. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I never get tired of exploring the strange undersea world along reefs. It’s just so colorful and strange that everything is exciting to look at.

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While we snorkeled, one of the other guides caught fish with a spear. He caught parrotfish, large angelfish, groupers, and even two stingrays. I had decided before coming to Lamu that although I am usually a vegetarian, my conscience could handle one week of eating fish, especially where the seafood was renowned and (more or less) sustainably caught. So it was a special occasion for me to get to eat such fresh fish, and it was the tastiest meal I had in Lamu. They made coconut vegetables, and cooked the fish with spices on a small grill on the boat. I figured as long as I was eating an animal, I wouldn’t waste any of it, so I even ate the fish heads and Baji showed me how to eat the eyes. For desert, we had fried bananas with white chocolate. It was an incredible meal.

It doesn't get much fresher than this

It doesn’t get much fresher than this

Spear fishing

Spear fishing

 

One funny thing we saw during that dhow trip was a boat full of dogs, the only canines I saw the entire time on Lamu. Baji said the men on the boat were going to go hunt on the mainland, which was why they had the dogs. It was very funny to watch an entire boat full of dogs go speeding past.

Getting henna on our final day in Lamu

Getting henna on our final day in Lamu

 

***

 

Our last night on Lamu, we met a man from Nairobi who installs solar panels. We talked a lot about conservation and politics in Kenya, and he mentioned a story about a clinic called Mbirikani. The name sounded familiar, so I asked him for more details, and realized it was the clinic I visited with SFS near Amboseli. I remember being extremely impressed with the facilities there: they had an entire electronic medical records system, all the doctors had trained in the US, and they were fast, efficient, clean, and seemed to know what they were doing. From what I’d seen, it looked like they did an impressive job of serving the local community in a sustainable way. So I was very sorry to hear that it had closed recently, when the woman who ran it couldn’t keep up with all of the bribes she had to pay to corrupt officials just to get supplies in. Corruption is crippling Kenya in so many ways, it’s very frustrating to watch.

 

***

 

We flew back to Nairobi from Lamu. Things have been troubling in Nairobi lately, with bomb scares and concerns about terror attacks by Al-Shabaab. Uhuru’s response to the attacks and the way in which he is targeting Muslim Somali refugees reminds me uncomfortably of Bush’s response to 9/11 and the Patriot Act, but I know he needs to do something to help Kenyans, and the tourists that Kenya’s economy relies upon, feel safe. It’s a very interesting time to be in Kenya, but we didn’t particularly want to spend much time in the city and were anxious to get back to our hyenas.

 

On the matatu back to the Mara, I had a very curious interaction with a man from Mombasa. He worked in a girl’s home on the coast, and had never been to the Mara before, so it was strange to meet a Kenyan who knew less about the area than I did. He had come to the Mara trying to find a young girl in a photograph whose name was Tangawizi. Apparently, there was a little boy in the US who had seen her photograph online and was so sad to see that she didn’t have a bed that he raised $6000 to buy her one. Somehow, they had contacted the organization from Mombasa, and now this random guy was trying to find an unknown Maasai girl that he knew nothing about so that he could give her a bed. He didn’t even know where she lived. He didn’t even know if she wanted a bed. Actually, I don’t think he could actually know for certain that she didn’t already have a bed. When he showed me the photo of the girl, her roomed looked just like the inside of every single boma I have seen in the area. “I pray god that I can find this girl and help her,” he told me. The whole thing was so completely ridiculous that I couldn’t think of anything to say except “good luck.”

Jackson’s wedding

After much complication and planning, Jackson, one of the men who works for us in camp, was finally having his wedding. It took us a while to figure out who could go and when, but finally, we packed the car full of people and bags, and drove off for Naivasha.

 

Julie, Hadley, and I decided to spend a couple days before the wedding seeing Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park. It took us a while to find a place to stay after a reservation mix-up, but we ended up in a nice low-budget banda camp on the lake. As we drove to the camp, we passed miles of industrial greenhouses. The main industry of the area around the lake is commercial flower growing. Tropical flowers are grown in massive farms here and then shipped to Europe. It’s a bit disappointing that the flower companies and private places to stay mostly block lake access, but we were lucky enough to be staying where we could actually see the water.

The view at the lake side

The view at the lake side

 

The camp by the lake was very beautiful. We saw lots of interesting birds (including hoopoes and a long-crested eagle) as well as crabs, and the view of fog curling up off the surface of the lake in the morning was striking.

 

The next day, we visited Hells Gate. The main draw of the park is that visitors can walk or bike through it, something that is rare in most nature areas of Kenya due to the presence of large carnivores, elephants, etc. Hells Gate, although it served as some of the scenery inspirations for the Lion King, is too small to support lions, elephants, or other dangerous wildlife except for a few buffalo. It was very novel to bike next to baboons and warthogs, and see eland and zebra up close, but I was forcefully reminded that it has been a very long time since I’ve ridden a bicycle, and by the end I was really wishing that the seat was a little more padded.

 

Hadley biking through Hells Gate

Hadley biking through Hells Gate

The topography of Hells Gate is drastically different from our area of the Mara. The rock formations are volcanic and create all sorts of interesting shapes. We biked to the gorge that is a main attraction of the park, and hired a guide to hike through it. Brian was a local Maasai who explained the geology of the region and some of its cultural history. One of the strange aspects of the park is that there is a geothermal power plant inside the park with a huge new paved access road. It was very disconcerting to be biking along a dirt path beside zebra one moment and then hit tarmac the next. However, Brian spends his days guiding tourists through a gorge that has been carved by the steady force of volcanically heated mineral water, so he sees things on a more geological scale. When we asked him about the road, he said that it wouldn’t last long. Erosion will carry it away, just like the rocks of the gorge.

The scenery of Hells Gate

The scenery of Hells Gate

Brian leading us through the gorge in Hells Gate

Brian leading us through the gorge in Hells Gate

***

 

The morning of the wedding, we got a call from Jackson. He’d forgotten to buy a wedding cake and rings and was wondering if we could pick some up for him in Naivasha. This was one of the many indications that this was going to be a very different wedding than we were used to. We didn’t even know where to begin finding those sorts of things, so we were grateful when Benson agreed to pick them up on his way to meet up with us.

 

After many hours of communicating between all the different groups by phone, and pushing the start time of the wedding back farther and farther, Benson finally met us and we all headed out to meet up with the rest of the wedding party.

 

Part of the difficulty in timing hinged on the fact that Jackson and his bride Evelyn (and half the wedding party) were traveling all the way from the bride’s house in the outskirts of Nairobi to the church near Joseph and Jackson’s home, which was a few hours outside of Naivasha. This is a long drive to begin with, but with all the people involved it took even longer, so by the time we even met up in Naivasha, it was past noon.

 

When we saw the wedding caravan, we finally realized just how big the celebration was going to be. There was an entire retinue of cars, including a giant purple bus, bedecked with purple and yellow streamers, piled with family heading for the wedding. In a long line of vehicles, we made our way out of the central Naivasha area and onto the muddy dirt roads to Jackson’s wedding.

 

After very long last, we got to the wedding. It was in a picturesque country church, on a green sloping hill with a view of Lake Naivasha far below. As soon as we arrived, people started streaming into the church, and the ceremony hurried forward. It was more of a traditional Christian wedding than a traditional Maasai one (Benson and Wilson were definitely more lost than I was), but even so, most people were dressed at least partially in Maasai clothes and even Jackson wore beads over his suit. It was a very interesting wedding because everything seemed very familiar, but also completely different from what I was used to.

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After the ceremony, we all made our way up to Joseph’s house as the light began to fade. The wedding party continued there, giving way to more traditional maasai customs. The young men of Jackson’s age cohort (and us mzungus) all gathered in the main house and began singing. Traditionally, it’s up to them to choose a new name for the bride. This will be the name they use when talking to or about her, so it becomes her new name within her community. They spent a long time singing, and Evelyn and a few other women joined. Joseph’s daughter Gloria fell asleep holding my hand, after resolutely refusing to go to bed. After a long time of beautiful, throaty singing, Wilson informed us that they had chosen the name: Evelyn. Evelyn had refused to respond to the new Maasai name they’d given her, so they’d decided just to keep her old name after all.

 

***

 

After the wedding, we spent a day hanging out at Joseph’s house and seeing his and Jackson’s home area. We went to see one of Joseph’s brothers who helps to run a community bee project. The drive to his house was breathtaking, with rolling hills that were greener than anything I’d seen in months.

 

Joseph’s brother is quite the innovator. We came there to see the community bee project, but it turned out that he had plenty of other projects going as well. His house was large, and while the construction materials were mostly non-traditional (wood, tin, and cement), he managed to keep the familiar feeling of a boma in its layout. He showed us how he had diversified his income by planting multiple different crops (including award winning snow peas) and fruit trees, as well as investing in an entirely different breed of cow. These were much larger than the cows we see around Talek, and produce an incredible amount of milk. Because they produce more milk, he can own fewer of them and graze them in a smaller pasture. He also supplements them with feed so he can use the rest of his land for crops and bees. Not only that, but he’s even installed a bio-gas collection system for whatever manure he doesn’t use on the garden. World Wildlife Fund partnered with him on the bio-gas project and was going to help him buy refining equipment for his honey, but the machinery had to be shipped from Europe, so it ended up being too costly of a venture.

 

Finally, we went out to see the bees. We took a short walk, soaked in the scenery, and after a while arrived at the hives. Some of the men who work to collect the honey explained some of the factors they use in figuring out where to place the hives (it mostly has to do with the distance from water). Then they built a fire and one of the men put on the bee suit while the rest of us moved farther away up the slope.

 

Getting ready to smoke out the bees

Getting ready to smoke out the bees

It turns out that a lot of the guys we work with really don’t like bees. There was a mix of bravado and nervousness as we headed to the hives, with Benson and Joseph insisting they didn’t want to get anywhere near the bees, while Wilson made fun of anyone who was hanging back (but then ran away faster than any of the others once the bees started swarming). I wasn’t so keen to get close without proper clothes, but I did seriously underestimate how far bees will go to protect their hive. We were far out of eyesight of the hive when the guys who had been closer ran past us, already getting stung. Joseph told us to lie down on the ground so that the bees would fly over us, but even doing that one of them stung Dave. Joseph told us that once one stings you, the others will try to go after you too, so after Dave got stung, we all decided to make a break for it and ran off up the hill. We all congregated at the top of a rise, and for a while all was good, until another group of bees found us and we split up and ran in all directions. I decided to walk back to the opposite side of the slope and wait until someone gave the all clear, and just took in the view of the valley below for a while. Finally, Benson found me and handed me a fresh piece of honeycomb and we all headed back to the house. It was the best honey I have ever eaten, still warm from the inside of the hive and packed with flavor.

 

The freshest of honey

The freshest of honey

That evening, we hiked to another one of Joseph’s brother’s houses. James was actually one of the few people I’d met before the wedding, since he works at Talek Gate and sometimes comes by camp to visit. The hike up to his house was steep but fun, and the view of the lake below just got better and better, even with the oncoming darkness. The volcanic soils glittered in the light of our headlamps as we walked.

 

James’ house was very nice, and he even had a TV, something I’ve never seen in a Maasai home. The walls of the living room were covered with the sort of posters you might see in an elementary school (letter and number charts in Swahili and English), and it emphasized just how different the Maasai are in this area compared with Talek. Education has clearly been a much bigger emphasis here, as has the investment in small-scale farming to supplement livestock raising. There are more people experimenting with new ways of doing things and innovation seems to have paid off because in general, the people here seem to live much more comfortably than they do around Talek. It’s hard to know which aspect came first, but now they all feed into each other—education helps people innovate and secure good jobs, which helps pay for education so that their children can take projects one step farther. Meanwhile, the people in Talek are stuck in the opposite cycle—no one can pay for education, so no one values it, and people are stuck in ways of living that don’t make enough money so that they can afford to do things differently. I can’t help but wonder whether a more equitable distribution of resources from the reserve might be the little extra that it takes to set Talek on a different trajectory.

 

We ended our stay at Joseph’s house very full of good food, happy to have finally met his and Jackson’s families, and with a lot to think about in terms of the differences between their area and Talek.

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