Endurance Training

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1000 km. Two drivers. Four observers. Just under 300 raptors.

As of last year, The Peregrine Fund has been conducting country-wide surveys throughout Kenya to better monitor the raptor populations. The surveys consist of a Southern Route thru both Tsavo National Parks and a Northern Route through Laikipia plus the data from my on-going surveys in Masai Mara National Reserve. This year I was able to join the Northern Route team for an adventure in camping, counting, and ultimately driving. The long trek through the North would take four days and involved traveling nearly 1000 km over some of the less friendly roads of Kenya.

Northern Kenya is known to be a bit less safe than Southern with theft and car-jacking a potential issue for the unwary traveler. Despite the reputation I was surprised to see herders – your typical young boys usually equipped with little more than a machete – were carrying guns as they walked along the edge of the streets with their cows. Clearly you can’t be too cautious.

I’ve spent so much time in the Mara that I sometimes forget what the rest of the country looks like. Laikipia and Samburu are dry and bushy and less densely populated by humans and wildlife alike. Our first day we drove north from Nairobi and stayed just outside the border of Samburu National Park. In over 300 km we saw almost no wildlife and it wasn’t until we reached the community conservancy that housed our campsite that we finally came upon some zebras. Our first campsite was lovely set along a dry river bed with the sound of snorting zebra and after we played some recordings of our own, the noisy hoot of a Pearl Spotted Owl. Usually sleeping in a real tent (not the luxury ones at Ilkeliani with beds and a warm shower) is a bit of a struggle, but after the long drive falling asleep was no issue. Our second day we headed into three neighboring protected areas – Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba. All three areas have been used by at least one of the tagged vultures from Masai Mara during both years of study, so I was excited to see a few vultures hovering over a cliff in Shaba. I wondered if they would beat me back to the Mara despite the 500+ km flight it would take to get back there. The wildlife was sparse in all three parks but we did manage to see a small herd of elephants munching on some palm fronds. The crisp palms splintered in the elephants’ mouths with a loud crunch of someone eating potato chips. The elephants here were calm and didn’t even get disturbed when a baby crossed the road and became momentarily separated from its mother as a tourist vehicle drove between them. The baby went racing off towards the rest of the herd only to trip over its own feet landing in a tiny pile of dust. The mother seemed unbothered and just popped another potato chip frond into her mouth.

Though we had planned to stay in Maralel the second night we ended up in Wamba instead since the drive through the reserves had taken considerably longer than expected – stopping to try and tell the difference between a common and lesser kestrel can really slow you down. Wamba, which didn’t look like much on the map, turned out to be a reasonable sized town with two gas stations, a row of shops, and its fair share of drunks, who of course walked over to greet us. The city councilmen set us up on a small campsite that doubled as a bar/picnic area during the day. It was fenced to protect us from elephants (and more likely robbers) but teemed with vervet monkeys who no doubt took advantage of the occasional leftovers.

The third day was a race to Mpala Research Center, an area I know well since it is where my advisor works and where my car stays when I’m back in the states. What I had expected might be a shorter day turned into a ten-hour drive with a 6:30 AM start. Once again outside the borders of the parks our counts were considerably lower. I never would have known I could drive so long but we made it there without incident and stayed at the river campsite that I had visited on my last trip to Mpala. Along the way we stopped at a beautiful cliffside with great views of the landscape below. Along the edge of the road there was a cobbled stone fence almost like a scenic viewpoint area you might see on the side of a highway. When we got out to get photos, we found out this was a view with a fee. The fence had been set up so that two guards could charge people that tried to take photos and then offer then a chance to go through the gate to the other side of the fence where there stood a tiny toilet adjacent to a huge cliff. Supposedly you had to pay a fee for entry to this “conservancy.” Only in Kenya.

The final day was a leisurely drive back to Nairobi with raptor counts continuing up to Nanyuki. At the end of the surveys we had seen nearly 300 raptors, only a handful of which were scavengers. I wondered how much of the low density could be attributed to declines and how much was just related to the generally low abundance of wildlife and more highly wooded habitat which would most certainly restrict a vultures’ view of the food below.

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