(Note: Ok, I know this is an absurdly long post, but it will probably be yet another month before I put anything online again so if you read a few pages a week that’ll be about when I can actually post again. It’ll still be a few more months before I can add photos probably)
Change is fundamental to the natural world, and despite our inherent apprehension surrounding the process, it is change, both regular and sporadic, gradual and sudden, that often drives evolution and adaptation. Those of us that hail from locations farther from the equator are familiar with the change of seasons throughout the year, yet most ecosystems go through yearly cycles even without the presence of snow. I am lucky to be in the Mara for long enough to observe the yearly cycle of change, and I have arrived at what many consider the peak. I am referring, of course, to the wildebeest.
“When the wildebeest are here, everyone is happy,” I was told on my first drive through the Mara. “The tourists are happy, the carnivores are happy, the hyenas are happy.” Around 1.5 million wildebeest, 350,000 thomson’s gazelles and roughly 200,000 zebra make up “the great migration”— a seasonal movement whereby these grazers follow the rain in a circle from Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti to Maasai Mara, and back again. It’s a favorite feature of nature documentaries, and for good reason: it is both visually impressive and ecologically critical.
In their tenacious pursuit of better grazing areas, wildebeest will travel over 300 miles in a year. This impressive journey passes through both anthropogenic and natural perils, including roads, unprotected areas, high predator concentrations, and rivers. In my first month here, we took an afternoon to watch an iconic emblem of the migration: the crossing.
Wilson used to be a tour driver, so he called around to find out where along the Talek they were crossing, and after an early morning in Prozac territory, we drove up and joined the long queue of tourist vehicles on the dusty exposed ridge overlooking the brown waters and waited for the conflicted mass of animals to take the plunge.
It was certainly less picturesque than the documentaries make it seem. This is an instance when I’m actually glad no one has developed a marketable smell-o-vision for movies. The tummy-churningly sweet stench of rotting animal flesh oozed up and over the ledge above the river. We spent the first hour or more watching vultures pick at bloating carcasses in the water and crocodiles sun themselves on the bank like so many logs. With that lead up, I expected the crossing itself to be a bloodbath, with crocodiles yanking animals out of the line and devouring them. As is usually the case with the space between televised nature and reality, it was exactly what I expected and entirely different at the same time.
After an hour of creeping tantalizingly close to the edge and then backing off with uncomfortable grunts, the first wildebeest finally launched itself from the bank and swam across. The herd immediately surged forward and it began—animal after animal pushing hard off of the rocks, arcing high above the water in beautiful stretched form, and splashing back to earth. They swam across, heads bobbing above the water, and pulled themselves out painfully on the smooth rocks of the other side, frolicking and running in the grassy plain above. Then I noticed that many of them were falling as they tried to get out; they were clearly injured, but I couldn’t see any crocodiles around and they weren’t bleeding. What I quickly realized was that the crocodiles were not moving because they didn’t have to lift a finger in order to get a meal out of the event. Slightly horrified, I realized that the bloodbath of a crossing is mostly due to wildebeest-on-wildebeest panicked trampling. One animal might jump directly onto the one in front, or the mass from behind might overcome a slow swimmer. We would quietly cheer on the limping animals as they tried to pull themselves out of the water on tottering wet hooves, and most of the time they actually made it. However, “most of the time” with hundreds of animals still leaves several for the vultures. Every once in a while, the line would pause and a smaller group of zebras would flash through, more confident and bold than the wildebeest, perhaps for good reason, since we didn’t see a single zebra carcass come floating down the churning waters. While not entirely what I expected, the sight was still stunning.
This giant mass of animals provides an important food source for a host of different animals—lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and dung beetles eat well for the few months they are present in abundance, and struggle when they move on to greener pastures. So at this time, when there are crowds of wildebeest filtering through the territory, we see fat and bloody hyenas moving in larger social groups. There’s enough food to go around, even for the lower ranking individuals. If an injured hyena has been having a tough time, the migration might be enough to help it recuperate and make it through next year’s lean season. Although hyenas can reproduce throughout the year, the peak overlaps with the migration when females are healthy enough for pregnancy and cub survival is more assured. Ripkin, Robinson, Sopa and Tiana are lucky to grow up now when there’s always a wildebeest leg to chew on and their moms have the luxury of passing up an old carcass for a fresh kill, but that might not be the case in a few months.
Hadley and I have started a new tradition of reading excerpts from the book “Africa: A Biography of the Content” by John Reader over breakfast, which is a giant, well-written and researched tome that attempts to cover essentially everything about Africa, including the seasonal migration of wildlife. Watching the migration and reading more about it has raised a lot of questions for me. Apparently, this large-scale movement of animals has been a feature of the east African landscape for millions of years and was also critical in the evolution of humans. One of my big questions was why the predators don’t follow the migrating wildebeest since their survival increases when they have access to such a large prey source. My initial thought was that it might have to do with familiarity with a territory (such as the location of best denning sights, water, or good hunting areas), or competition with other predators. Reader explains that it’s actually mostly due to the fact that predator young take a long time to mature and would be unable to keep up with the migrating herds (unlike wildebeest calves that are born ready to walk a thousand miles). Interestingly, it seems that early hominids filled that particular gap, following the migrating herds of ungulates, scavenging the dead animals and gathering plant-based food like baobab seeds and fruit along the way. It’s not the usual image we paint of our ancestors, but it’s a much more realistic one.
Part of what I love about this job is that I feel like I am constantly learning. There are so many hyena spot patterns to memorize, more to understand about behavior, and new patterns to pick up on, not to mention all of the practical knowledge I’m picking up about car maintenance, etc. Most of the time our teachers are the Kenyan RAs Benson and Wilson, so I always thought it would be nice to have moments to share knowledge with them as well. Hadley and I finally have the opportunity to do so, at least with Benson (though Wilson often helps too). The lab is trying to find a way to get Benson to MSU to get a doctorate since he’s been an RA out here for two years and is interested in studying in the US. However, he doesn’t have a high school diploma, so Hadley and I are helping him study for the GED. A lot of the information are things I need to brush up on as well (I can’t even remember the last time I did long division), but mostly I think it’s helpful just to go through everything with him. It’s a good reminder that sometimes exams don’t actually test what people think they do. For instance, most of the math questions are confusing for him not because of the computations involved but because of the phrasing or cultural references. If you buy eggs in trays of 30, then a question asking about a dozen eggs isn’t going to translate well. One question good illustration of this was a word problem that started “Ten coworkers are going out for a lunch meeting.” Benson began to read the question and started laughing, and Wilson looked over his shoulder and laughed too. “Are they asking about cow-workers?” We all thought it was really funny, especially since in a Maasai area, cow-workers makes a lot more sense than coworkers. Ever since then we’ve taken to calling ourselves cow-workers.
After last night I am convinced that as a team the cow-workers are going to be very successful. It was a very busy night at the den, with four new cubs that none of us had seen before (or at least not since their spots emerged). The previous RAs knew that Aqua and Baba Ganoush had cubs before I ever arrived, but the moms hadn’t been keeping them at the main communal den so no one knew what they would look like when they actually started getting spots instead of solid black fuzz. Then, the night before last we saw Baba wandering down the hill overlooking the den area and started getting excited. When we drove up to the den there were cubs playing in front and I instantly realized they were ones I’d never seen before. I snapped photos as best I could, unsure which side was which individual or if all I was getting were simply photos of the same cub over and over. The next morning we were rained out so we printed out all the photos we could identify as different sides, though we didn’t know which went together as the same hyena, and prepped for the night.
We split up the tasks, and took on the situation as a four-headed data-collecting machine. We collected IDs, behavioral data, matched photos, figured out which cub was nursing from which mother, which one was which, sexed every single one, and determined which was dominant to the other. Then, towards the end of the night, we were rewarded with an extra special surprise: Wrangler, a very young female, emerged from the den carrying a tiny black cub that’s probably not much older than three weeks. It’s her first cub, which means we got to start a new lineage of names. Hadley whipped out the idea of creating the Hello lineage where each cub is named Hello in a different language. Benson and Wilson insisted that the first one should be Sopa, hello in Maa, and we couldn’t have agreed more.
In my last post I mentioned how I had started feeding the genets and bushbaby that came to beg at the dinner table. As some of you might have noticed, I had some reservations over doing so, but I waved them aside in the presence of large, nocturnally adapted, pleading eyes staring at my guacamole. Let this be a reminder: listen to the nagging doubt in the back of your head; it has been nursed by years of personal experience, communicated lessons, and probably a bit of evolutionary caution.
Last night, I was engaged in my normal routine of feeding the bushbaby little bits of my leftovers, and had already successfully fed two of the gennets small scraps of chapatti. It was the first time I had ever fed one of the genets out of my hand, because their sharp little teeth made me scared to let them get close, while I was fine handing over food to directly into the bushbaby’s delicate fingers. Oh how deceiving appearances can be.
This night, on the second piece of food, the bushbaby held onto my fingers after it had grabbed the chapatti. This was unusual, because usually it snatched the food and then retreated back to consume it on it’s perch beside the whiteboard. It should have been a warning sign, but I was so immersed in how much its small fingers reminded me of how it felt when my baby nephew held my fingers that I mistook it’s blunder for some sort of cross-species offering of trust. Then it bit me.
I try not to blame the bushbaby. Clearly, it mistook my finger as just a larger handout of food and was simply trying to eat it, but it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed—and more than a little stupid. The shame of knowing that I was doing something that I already knew I shouldn’t have been (and having the only excuse be “well, other people were doing it too”) hurts worse than the bite itself, which wasn’t all that deep.
I’m slowly making progress on hyena IDs and every once in a while I start to feel actually competent. At the den, we usually see the same hyenas every day, so I have a smaller cast of individuals to choose from, and I can usually ID them all. I’m getting better at calling out behaviors as I see them too. A few nights ago, I was transcribing at the den and was able to call out a long string of aggressions with Hendrix, a low ranking female, who was defending her cubs against curious older cubs and higher ranking subadults. I was so proud that I could keep track of who was where, and what was happening. But then the next day I started to type up the transcription and realized that I’d gotten so excited that I’d completely garbled my words at some points and made some stupid mistakes like saying “she t3 bit Trunks” without actually clarifying who she was. Learning everything it takes to effectively do this job feels like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back every single day.
It’s also hard because we’re trying to keep tabs on two other clans that haven’t been as well studied. It’s hard to actually go and keep up with who’s there when the ID books haven’t been kept up but it takes so long to update the books, so the temptation is to not go as frequently or take the time to actually go through each transcription, but then the books get even more outdated and it’s even harder to get them up to speed again and becomes a negative feedback where the clans fall even farther behind. We’ve made it a personal goal to actually learn these two clans before the rainy season hits and we can’t get to them as easily, but it’s incredibly stressful trying to balance everything.
We have two askaris (guards) named Stephen and Lesingo who come to camp at night to help fend off wild animals and deter potential thieves (though there are certainly more of the former than the latter). I feel much safer with Maasai askaris who are also important figures in the community than I would with a random person with a gun. They are men who have grown up around wildlife, both dangerous and benign, and manage to look at once serenely casual and properly battle-ready with nothing more than a heavy flashlight and a spear. It doesn’t hurt that basically everyone else in camp was either once a Maasai warrior or at least grew up knowing how to defend their cows or village against angry elephants.
This has been particularly helpful lately, now that two buffalo and a bull that’s doing its best to integrate itself with its wild cousins have all three decided that fisi camp is their favorite new spot. If you don’t know much about buffalo, this wouldn’t seem like a big deal; if you know even a little bit about buffalo, you know it is in fact a very big deal. Despite their vegetarian habits, buffalo are renowned as ornery, aggressive, impulsive animals, and while not as bulky as a hippo or elephant, an animal that can weigh up to 870 kg (1918 lbs) and run 56 kph can still do a lot of damage. The bull I still haven’t really figured out yet, as it seems to ignore everything except grass most of the time, but I’ve still been warned to stay away from it because it charged at Jackson. I have definitely made up my mind about the buffalo, however, after one memorable night a week or so ago.
Hadley, Benson, and I were working on GED English in the solar tent one night before dinner after we got rained out of obs. When we heard the call for dinner, we got out of the tent and started walking to the lab tent, when we met Lesingo on the path, shining his flashlight into the tall grass. Benson said there was a buffalo nearby and we stepped back and waited for them to give the all clear. Instead, a minute later, Benson gives a yell and they start careening in our direction, telling us to run. In a blur, they tell us the buffalo (that we still can’t see in the darkness) just charged us, and they shove Hadley and I back into the solar tent, zip it up, and tell us to stay put. We tried to sit and read more of the GED book while outside we kept hearing yells from the guys, running, commotion, angry snorting noises, and long quiet pauses. I felt completely useless. Finally, Benson unzipped the tent and said they’d scared it away from the path enough that we could come to dinner. We decided to eat with the guys at the kitchen tent that night.
A few days ago, we were driving on obs, and I noticed bits of white flecks on the ground. At first, I thought someone had littered bits of plastic or popcorn out the window as they drove since the flecks were so white. But as we drove further, I noticed that they were all over, blanketing the hillside—I leaned out of the window to get a closer look and saw that they were small flowers. Wilson told us that they are called Waste Paper Plants for their ephemeral blooming after a rain. For some reason, a sea of flowers was wholly unexpected in my image of the East African savannah, but it makes me excited to see what else pops up when we hit the real rainy season.
Right now I’m sitting on my bed having just woken up a little bit ago to light filtering through the trees next to my tent (I took the morning off to catch up on sleep, otherwise it’s usually dark when I wake up). I just wanted to mention that as I’ve been writing up some of these anecdotes, I have seen three impala delicately pulling off leaves, a small frightened dikdik that zoomed past the front of my tent, and a white-browed robin-chat that is flipping through leaf litter eating termites a few feet away. It’s kind of amazing to me that I can see all of that before I even get out of bed. Despite everything that can be difficult or maybe even dangerous about this job, there is a reason why I want to spend my life studying natural areas and why I spent two and a half years desperately trying to think of ways to get back to Kenya. Learning about and being in nature invigorates, excites, and challenges me in a way nothing else does.
I recently read an article by David Quammen called The Boilerplate Rhino, about how our images or communications of nature (whether that’s in the form of a nature documentary, a medieval wood block print, or a book) do not always resemble the real thing and that “real” nature is not dramatic. I usually agree with Quammen’s insights, yet I realized that his estimation of nature as interesting but not theatrical bothered me. Of course, actually living and working in Maasai Mara is nothing like watching a documentary about it (don’t hold your breath to see a cheetah kill out here), but to me nature is intensely dramatic, it just depends on where you focus. It’s highly unlikely that a group of banded mongoose fighting over the trash at a nearby lodge or the swarm of sugar ants infesting my tent pole is going to make it into Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but little things like these seem intensely dramatic to me. While I don’t usually pay as much attention to plants as I should, the fact that I see poinsettia trees here is incredible to ponder. The drama of nature isn’t always in what I directly see, but in the thought of how something evolved, how it works, how it fits into its ecosystem, how it is impact by humans, how it is different from my expectations. And this isn’t limited to the landscapes far from where I grew up; true, part of what I love about the Mara is being able to see large mammal life every single day, but contemplating a redwood tree, habituated white-tailed deer, red-breasted robins, or even the absence of certain species or families is very dramatic. Nature doesn’t just exist, it changes, it interacts, it reflects upon our own actions. To me, nothing could be more dramatic.
Social life is an important part of camp life. Or specifically, getting out of camp and making sure you don’t go stir crazy. We’ve been befriending the balloon pilots that work in the area and meet for weekly poker games and the occasional party. It feels really good to get out and interact with different people every once in a while. We’ve even had some of them come check out what we do on obs (by now, we love hyenas so much we get extremely enthusiastic when we get to show them off to other people). Then, last week we finally got to see what their job is like when we went for a hot air balloon ride.
The setup is intense. We arrived at the field when it was still dark out, and climbed into the basket sideways, lying on our backs while the crew prepped the balloon and got fans set up. Then, Mike, our pilot, started the burners, and the flames roared into the bright blue and white balloon as it slowly filled. Gradually, as more and more of the balloon took shape off of the grass, the basket began to tilt slightly, until finally we rotated forward, and found ourselves sitting down and rising off the ground. Then Mike let us stand up. It was amazing. The expansive views felt as though they encompassed the curvature of the globe, and the morning light bathed everything in gold. Mike showed us a little bit of how the balloon worked, how he could control up and down and depending on conditions, some amount of left and right (“but not back in time”). We skimmed low over herds of wildebeest and pulled back up to trace flashy lines of zebra. Vultures flew alongside us as we passed over streams. I was struck at the vastness of the land and how little of the Mara we actually cover with our three clans. It was serene.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of the experience was at the end when after we got out of the balloon. A giant truck met us and drove us to a catered breakfast out in the Mara. When we arrived, they handed us plastic flutes of bubbly champagne as we stepped out of the vehicle, escorted us to our seat, and pulled the chairs out for us. Mike laughed at Hadley and my shell-shocked expressions. We just weren’t used to that level of etiquette and finery.
I actually rather enjoyed the breakfast (I had yogurt for the first time in two months) and guiltily enjoyed feeling kind of pampered for a change, but I definitely felt out of place. We aren’t used to having elegantly dressed servers waiting on the table, for one thing. At fisi camp, as far as we’re concerned, we all work together. Benson and Wilson have the same job title as we do, as well as a collective three years over us; Jackson, Joseph, Stephen, and Lesingo are experienced and wise, knowledgeable both about fisi camp specifically, and many aspects of life in this part of the country more broadly. That’s just what works for us. So the clear separation between the balloon pilots, the tourists, and the Kenyan staff, while expected in a tourism setting and in many ways makes interactions more clearly delineated (I can fully appreciate not wanting to deal with cultural translation), was strange for Hadley and me because of what we’re used to in camp. It was definitely very special, however, and I hope we can do it again some time, now that we know what to expect.
Yesterday, Dave and I were driving near the den site when we stumbled upon a group of fat, bloody, contented hyenas eating a carcass. We started enthusiastically IDing, recording, and snapping photos, when Dave let out a disappointed sigh. “Shoot,” he said. “It’s a cow.” His voice carried sadness for the unseen herder’s loss in an area where cows are both status and survival, regret for the reinforcement of the hyenas’ bad image, and on a deeper level, frustration at the increased human-wildlife conflicts in the area. We concluded the cow must have been sick or separated from its herd since the hyenas in our clan are very skittish around people, but I wonder whose cow it was and whether they’d see it that way.
Half an hour later, at we stared at the cow’s cloudy, lifeless eyes, Dave suddenly commented about how much more we are forced to think about death out here. We seem to be confronted with death on multiple fronts, not just because we are studying predators. As the giant flood of wildebeest recedes, they reveal those that fell behind. Twisted, dried carcasses poke out above the tall yellow grass or along the roadside. The hyenas and other scavengers will get to them when the rain softens the dried-out skin and bones, but for now they spot the landscape, unnerving reminders of all living creatures’ ultimate fate. The resulting contemplation is inescapable.
In some ways it’s refreshing. Death is always a part of life, and at least here we can see its full arc in a way that may be obscured in other places. The natural expanse here also provides the mental space for contemplating existence and impermanence, and while I doubt I’ll ever like the concept of death, this feels like the sort of place where I could learn to accept it.
There’s one animal in particular that has been honing my contemplations of destruction, its intersection with conservation, and my conceptions and misconceptions of place. A few days previously, Wilson rescued a herd of sheep from an elephant. He heard a commotion near camp, took the car, and managed to intervene after the elephant had killed two animals and wounded a third, by honking at it until it chased the car instead. He then lost it in the bush and went to find the sheep’s young herders huddled under a bush in fear. He explained that if he hadn’t come there, the elephant probably would’ve killed the entire herd in a matter of minutes. The rest of us were out of camp, but hearing him describe in gory detail how the enraged elephant had slaughtered the sheep made me sure I would have thrown up at the sight had I actually been there. The same night, Joseph brought back a newspaper that there had been a giant car accident on the road we take to Nairobi that killed over forty people on site, and around thirty more in the hospital.
When I heard these stories, I felt numb, nauseous, and suddenly filled with a sense of doom. This is a melodramatic overreaction of course, but also understandable. I knew that there were risks coming out here, just as I have accepted risks whenever I travel, but despite the reasonable precautions we take it is undeniable that my risk of injury or death is higher here than when I am at home (which is not the same as saying that there are no risks at home—I could get hurt in a car accident just as easily in the states, for instance). I used to either interpret these potential dangers as overblown, or perhaps at times that they added to the adventure. Now that I am actually living here, however, these views seem naïve at best, and ignorantly privileged at worst—the symbol of someone who can simply fly home and leave malaria, election riots, and angry elephants behind. One of the members of camp just recently went to the clinic and was diagnosed with both malaria and typhoid fever, while I sit here complaining that prophylaxis treatments hurt my stomach too much to take. It is a reminder that my world experience is vastly different from the people I work with on a daily basis and the location I am now.
When I studied abroad in Kenya with SFS, I could understand the destructive potential of elephants and that they could destroy someone’s crops and thereby their livelihoods in a very short amount of time. However, our camps were fenced, so while we appreciated the concept of living alongside wildlife (a goal I still believe is a key factor in conservation), there were complexities that we never saw. Last night, we had an entire herd of elephants surrounding camp. I lay awake in bed listening to giant creatures tearing through vegetation and worried about whether they might bring a tree crashing down through the roof, or hurt Lesingo as he tried to scare them away; I jumped when I heard that incredibly loud roar that sounds like pure fury and feels so out of place coming from an herbivore. These sorts of events are scary. Hadley said it was one of the most frightened she’s ever been. It’s not just about elephants potentially destroying crops or fences, but the potential for them to actually hurt a person. Fear is hard to live alongside with, no matter how much I value elephants for their ecological importance, intelligence, interesting social structure, and endangered status.
The day after Wilson rescued the sheep from an elephant, we saw a wounded Thomson’s gazelle on the side of the road. Its horns were broken, it couldn’t walk, and the grass was stained with blood beneath it. An elephant had stabbed it, leaving a long gash along its belly, and left it to slowly bleed to death. By evening it was gone, and we all hoped that something or someone had put it out of its misery.
Before I start to paint too negative an image of elephants, I want to raise the critical question in these series of events: Why are our elephants so angry? They are intelligent creatures, and known for having very different dispositions in different areas, based on how they were raised, and different environmental conditions. Therefore, when I see elephants acting so violently, I must temper my fear with the knowledge that it is also a reaction to something else. Similar to Dave and my conflicted interpretations of our hyenas feeding on a cow, the probable reasons behind the elephants’ actions are complex, relating specifically to human disturbance. Elephants often react to stress with aggression, and there are plenty of things to stress them out now. The first is the migration. Elephants, for whatever reason, don’t like wildebeest. It may be that they don’t like the large number of animals around them, or I’ve even heard that they hate the sounds they make. So they retreat to the more bushy areas when the migration comes by. Theoretically, this would still mean they have many options, yet they often end up in the area around our camp. This is because the Mara’s ecosystem has changed in the last several years; bushy scrub used to dominate the landscape, but now they’re mostly confined to areas near water. This alone might make them a little irritable, but then add increased livestock grazing in the park, larger human populations, the pressures this population adds to wild areas, and poaching, and the elephants have a good reason to be mad. It’s no mystery why they congregate in the wooded areas around camp, nor why they might lash out at sheep, or even a Thomson’s gazelle in their anger. If the key to conservation might be living alongside wildlife, then we also need to be better roommates.
Here are some random observations/musings:
Watching hyenas eat is really neat. I’m not sure why, but the way they eat kills makes me feel a little nauseas and hungry all at once. The sound of them cracking bones is crunchy and satisfying.
There are termites that live in a log in front of my tent. They make a sound that Wilson describes as frying oil to scare off potential predators whenever I walk nearby. I think it sounds like a natural rain stick.
Vervet monkeys keep stealing the popcorn we feed to cubs when trying to dart them. I really don’t like monkeys. They keep licking the branches of the tree next to the kitchen tent, I’m guessing they’re eating sap? Also, they chewed open a container of matches, which isn’t even food.
Ground hornbills are extremely cool-looking birds. Look them up. They appear huge from far away and their eyes look strangely humanlike to me.
I removed my first tick on my own last night. I was very proud of myself and wanted to make sure it was dead so put it in a small container submerged in hand sanitizer but now I don’t know what to do with it.
Driving practice is coming along slowly. Finally getting some experience driving in the mud with four-wheel drive. There are so many cows here, I keep stalling while trying to inch through giant groups of them. I’m realizing that driving on the left side of the road doesn’t bother me, but if I ever try to drive a stick-shift vehicle in the states I’m going to be really confused since I’m so used to using my left hand to shift.