Stories from my time in Kenya on the University of Exeter’s MSc African Biodiversity and Conservation Field Trip
From the big 5, to nearly 250 bird species and climbing 2 mountains, my first time in Africa was a truly amazing experience.
As part of my Master’s in Conservation and Biodiversity, I was fortunate to travel to Kenya as part of the University of Exeter’s field course fortnight. Running from 5th to 19th January, we visited numerous places across Kenya, learning about the conservation work being implemented to protect the country’s incredible biodiversity. We, of course, also got to go on safari to see this brilliant wildlife, giving us the chance to see first-hand the astonishing diversity of this tropical country.
Nairobi (5th-6th January) – A first taste of Africa
Our trip began in Nairobi, landing late in the city’s Jomo Kenyatta airport, before transferring to our hotel for the night. The next day, our trip began in earnest, starting with a talk from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the main organisation running the national parks and leading the country’s conservation programmes. Our talk involved discussions about the main threats, including land subdivision and fencing, human-wildlife conflict and poaching, and some of the methods they are trying to implement to protect Kenya’s biodiversity.
Shortly following this talk, we took a trip to the David Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary to see the cute little orphan elephants rescued from the wild after losing their parents to poaching or for other reasons. It was great to see these orphaned animals so happy and the great relationships they had developed with their keepers and other elephants. Even better was hearing about their achievements and how they have managed to successfully re-introduce many an elephant back to the wild. Despite costing $900 to keep each elephant for a month, the work they do there is truly remarkable and provides an effective way of generating interest in conservation and helping ensure the long term survival of this great charismatic species.
After this enjoyable experience, we travelled on to our first campsite at Lake Naivasha, passing through the spectacular Great Rift Valley, the reason behind much of the biodiversity of Kenya.
Lake Naivasha (7th-8th January) – A hell of a place
After our first night of camping in the African wilderness, we all got up early, excited for our first day out in the wild. The first trip of our day was to Crater Lake where we walked the national park with a stunning lake in the centre. After gaining beautiful views of the lake from the cliff tops we descended to walk through the savannah plains, getting our first excited look at the some of Africa’s most famous animals: zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, impala and gazelles. Few places allow you to walk so close to these animals without armed rangers, but due to the fenced nature and lack of major predators we were fortunate to approach these animals on foot. During the walk, the shear diversity of the birds to be found in Kenya dawned on me as I probably saw more new species in the space of three hours than I had ever seen in the UK.
After this stunning walk, we returned to camp for lunch, followed by a boat tour of Lake Naivasha itself. Despite being plagued with problems, such as flooding and the invasive water hyacinth and tilapia, the lake was still home to a great number of water birds and waders, including a range of storks, egrets, cormorants, herons and plovers. It was nice to see once more some of the birds I spent so much time with during my undergraduate research project in the Camargue. The trip also provided us with our first chance to see hippos relaxing in the water.
The next day, we headed to Hell’s Gate national park, a spectacular reserve lined by cliffs with nesting vultures. The day’s activity involved undertaking an 11km transect through the park, counting and estimating the distance to the herbivores we saw. Here we continued to see more animals, with warthogs, impala, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, eland and giraffes lining the path. After walking for about 2 hours, we had a short rest and learnt about the decline of the vultures in the park, the result of widespread carcass poisoning and the nearby geothermal power station, highlighting the hidden difficulties of renewable energies. After our break, we continued our walk for a further 2 hours, passing through the gorge, home to hot springs and the so-called ‘Devil’s Bedroom’ where lions used to den. After our morning’s walk, we headed back to camp for a well deserved rest and to prepare ourselves for the following day’s adventure.
Mount Longonot (9th January) – A Long-o-not spectacular walk
The next day we arose before dawn at 5am to pack up camp before heading off to Mount Longonot – a dormant stratovolcano rising above the Great Rift Valley. At 7:30am we began our ascent, hiking up the steep mountain to the crater at 2560m above sea level. On our way up we experienced some serious gradients, but the incredible views of the surrounding valley eased the trek substantially. Once we reached the top, the views definitely proved worth it, with a stunning outlook of the whole crater awaiting us! The views truly took my breath away and it was great just taking them in. We soon carried on though, as we began the 7.2km walk around the crater including the climb to the mountain’s peak at 2776m where we had lunch. Here our previous views were surpassed! It must be one of the most stunning places I have ever been. From here, we began the descent, running down scree slopes, kicking up dust, slipping and sliding as we went. Despite a few near falls, I successfully managed to make it the whole way round the crater and descended to the bottom. The walk was tiring, but definitely worth it and was one of the gems of the whole trip.
Lake Nakuru (9th-10th January) – A bit of a reunion
After a few hours drive from Mount Longonot we reached our next destination – Lake Nakuru National Park. Here we immediately set off on our first game drive, starting slowly, but soon picking up as we ended by adding two of the big five to our list, seeing buffalo and both black and white rhinos!
The next day, our game drives began in earnest. Starting early, we set off on a 4-hour drive around the lake through the beautiful Acacia forests that surround the lake and stopping off at the water’s edge. It was here that I saw the first of the birds I had really been looking forward to seeing. It of course was my favourite birds – flamingos. Here, I was re-united with Greater Flamingos, the species I had spent a whole summer studying, and a new species for me – the Lesser Flamingo. The scene may not have been as spectacular as I had been hoping for, with only a few flamingos, instead of the flocks that have been known to reach a million, as heavy rains meant high water levels and low salinity this year. Nevertheless, it was still special to see these graceful birds again, and to be reminded of their grace and elegance. The drive continued onwards as we saw many new species, including hornbills, displaying pin-tailed whydahs and ostriches, until we saw a convoy of buses gathered round a tree. Hoping for a leopard, we rushed to the scene only to find two female lions asleep. It might not have been the elusive leopard, but it was still very cool to see these great cats exhibiting behaviour that until recently was believed to be unique to a small group in Uganda. Buzzing from seeing our first big cats of the trip, we thought we had seen it all for that drive, but it wasn’t quite over yet. Stopping to search for birds in the water, we saw some hippos in the water nearby starting to get a bit agitated. It was only then we saw their awesome power as two rose out of the water to fight. It may have only lasted a few seconds but it showed why these animals are not to be messed with. A seriously good game drive to end our time in Nakuru!
After a short but packed stay, it was time to move on from Lake Nakuru, with our next stop Nara Moru, on the other side of the equator. After setting up camp in the pouring rain and reuniting with the Behaviour field course, we were greeted with a truly wonderful and bizarre Kikuyu cultural experience. It all began as expected with some singing and dancing to traditional Kikuyu songs. Then as they left the stage to prepare for the next part of the show, we were all intrigued to know what was next. We, however, were not prepared for what came… First, a man dressed up as a monkey came running in and started dragging people up to dance, definitely scaring some of us. Next came a gorilla dragging Brendan, our course leader, up for a dance, but the best was still to come. Following the monkey and gorilla emerged two dancers dressed in an elephant costume, throwing some brilliant moves as they swung the trunk side to side. Finally, the weirdest of them all appeared. This time an ostrich came running in and started bopping people on the face as they tried to involve their audience. All over-awed by the whole experience, we were a bit reluctant to join in, but eventually we all got up and had a good dance. It was a great way to end a fantastic day.
Mount Kenya (11th January) – A mountain to climb
After a night to remember came a day to remember with one of my favourite days of the trip. We started early, before 6am, setting off from the base of Mount Kenya National Park at 2,600m asl. From here we started our long walk up the mountain. After passing through the dipterocarp, bamboo and rosewood forests, seeing parrots, turacos and a chameleon on the way, we reached the weather station situated at 3,040m asl. It was here where we ate lunch, surrounded by Syke’s monkeys trying to steal our food, before a small group of us continued our hike up the mountain. It was from here the mountain revealed its true magic as we passed through the mist of the rosewood forests. These forests were truly mystical under the fog with lichen hanging from the trees, and the ground littered with beautiful flowers, such as the pink butterfly orchid. It felt really special walking through these forests with so many endemic species, many yet to be even named. As we continued to climb, we emerged from the forest onto a boggy moorland with recently burnt heathers. The scenery was just breath-taking, reminiscent of British moorlands and even the Shire from the Hobbit. As we climbed ever further, we crossed another ecotone, reaching the alpine vegetation zone, featuring some incredible giants. By this point, we were above 3400m and at an altitude where temperatures go below freezing at night, killing many plants. Not the giants though. These astonishing plants are capable of withstanding this harsh environment by trapping and storing heat, preventing their tissues from freezing. I had always been fascinated by these plants ever since I first learnt about them, so seeing them for the first time was very special. We continued further, until we reached the giant lobelias, or giant groundsels as Kew gardens kindly identified for us later on, at 3,560m asl – the highest point I had ever climbed. By this point we had been walking in torrential rain for at least 2 hours, but this did not distract away from how stunning this place was. Unfortunately, no spectacular view of the Great Rift Valley awaited us at the top, but the fantastic vegetation here more than made up for it. Exhausted and drenched, we quickly descended to get out the rain that had soaked us for the last 3 hours. Despite the rain, it was still a wonderful climb and somewhere I would love to re-visit given the chance.
Ol Pejeta (12th-14th January) – Rhino! There’s only 3 left!
After climbing two mountains, our next stop was the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Here, we had more great game drives, including our first sight of elephants, oryx and the endangered Grevvy’s zebra, but the true gem of Ol Pejeta was the brilliant conservation work they carry out. Ol Pejeta is home to the biggest black rhino sanctuary in Africa, and it was a privilege to see their work in action, with many rhinos found in the conservancy, closely patrolled by rangers helping to restrict poaching. Even with patrols though, it was grave to hear some were still being killed, highlighting the serious threat facing this species. We also got to see the blind black rhino ‘Baraka’ and interact with him, a fantastic idea set up by the conservancy to engage tourists with their conservation work.
In addition to their black rhino conservation work, Ol Pejeta is home to many white rhinos, including the very last three living Northern white rhinos. Unfortunately, these animals are unable to breed as Sudan, the last male, is too old to successfully fertilise the females, and the females are unable to support a pregnancy due to other injuries. In the face of adversity, Ol Pejeta is not giving up yet though. Instead of just letting this subspecies go extinct, they are putting in every effort to try and rebuild the population, investing heavily in new in vitro fertilisation techniques. It is hoped that they can successfully fertilise an egg collected from a female with one of the male’s sperms, and implant the embryo into a Southern white rhino acting as a surrogate. With luck, their work can successfully build a population of Northern whites that one day could be re-introduced into the wild.
As well as their rhino conservation work, Ol Pejeta is also trying to integrate wildlife and the local community by minimising human-wildlife conflict. One way they have achieved this is by creating new bomas that cattle are put in at night to protect them from predators roaming the plains. This way, both livestock and the predators are protected from predators and retaliatory killings respectively. Cleverly, Ol Pejeta have created a way to transport these bomas to follow the cattle, whilst helping to improve the plant diversity of the area by resetting succession patchily at the same time. Combined with their other community development and education programmes, they are beginning to get locals on-board and are showing how humans and wildlife can live in harmony.
A final conservation programme we got to interact with during our stay was the chimpanzee sanctuary. Home to 39 orphaned chimpanzees, the sanctuary provides a refuge to individuals rescued from the pet trade, allowing them to recover and lead a better life. Seeing these animals that so clearly resemble humans was quite a harrowing experience, with them clearly still traumatised and psychotically disturbed from their previous experiences. It was re-assuring though to see work was being done to give these animals a better life and to raise awareness about the problems our closest relatives are facing.
Enon Kishu (15th January) – So near yet Sa-Far-I Way
After travelling for over 10 hours through heavy rain to reach Enon Kishu in the Maasai Mara, we did not know what to expect the following day for our game drives. As we woke to dry weather, we were expectant of a good drive, though the tracks were still extremely wet and muddy from the day before. We decided to go ahead nonetheless, treacherously driving through the muddy ditches and puddles. Fortunately, our bus successfully negotiated the endless muddy tracks, although many a close shave was to be had. Other buses were not so lucky, including the aptly named ‘doom buggy’. After helping another bus out the mud, it was decided that we should return to relieve the doom buggy of their woes, whilst the other 3 buses continued their game drive. It was then that I experienced the most painful, gut-wrenching moment of the trip. As we turned back, in the distance we saw a big cat approaching the other three buses in the distance. Initially we thought it was a lion, but soon realised it was a leopard, the only member of the big five that had eluded us thus far. Too late to catch up, we continued to return to help the stuck bus and push it out, still thinking about what we had missed with growing ‘safari envy’. At least, we could claim we had seen the big five, even if it was just a glimpse, more than the poor other buses stuck in the mud could say. We did still have a good laugh about it later on though, and actually it was quite fun helping push them out the mud. All was made better later too as we travelled to our next camp through the stunning plains of the Maasai Mara, witnessing storms in the distance like a picture-postcard. As we settled down to camp, the morning’s action felt long ago as we saw elephants within 20m of our tents, heard lions roaring in the night and found numerous hyenas in camp on our camera traps. Truly wild camping that night was a magical experience, and I will never forget the noise of the lions reverberating through camp as we tried to sleep.
Mara North (16th January) – I’d be lion if I said I didn’t want Mara
Our second day in the Maasai Mara started with another game drive as we went out searching for more big cats. Despite seeing many a hyena, the cats eluded us once again. After breakfast and a short talk about the Mara, we set off again looking again for cats. Thinking we had spotted a cheetah in the distance, we to a diversion off-road only to find a rock that looked very much like a cat lying in the long grass. So once again no big cats. We did however get to go to the hippo hide, seeing more than 30 hippos relaxing in the river whilst a Nile crocodile swam nearby. We also saw more elephants, including a collared bull sleeping up against a tree, which we learnt after lunch was part of the Mara Elephant Project work. This project is helping to track elephants in an attempt to understand their behaviour to reduce human-wildlife conflict and to protect them from poaching.
So after several fruitless drives, we were all desperate for a big cat and we thought we were unlucky once more. As the sun began to set over the plains, spotted hyenas was as good as it had got again, when Duncan, our driver, began increasing his speed. We quickly realised we were heading for something special, and in our excitement we almost ran over a hyena lying in the middle of the road. Fortunately, no hyenas were hurt and we arrived at the other buses to find two beautiful female lions laid in the grass. It was a privilege to get so close to these amazing animals and see first-hand their shear power. As we went to move on, the drive got even better as we saw a majestic male emerge from the shadows coming straight towards us. After getting so close the day before, we felt very lucky to be the first bus to see this amazing animal and got the chance to watch it relax close to us. As the other buses arrived at the scene, one of the females came over to the male and joined him by our side. A wonderful moment and a definite highlight of our trip! Our day was to get better still as we went on a night drive, seeing not one, but a pack of 20 or more hyenas trying to hunt zebra and topi in the black of the night. In the craziness of the moment it was difficult to follow the action with so many animals running everywhere, meaning we didn’t find out if the hunt was successful or not, but an exciting watch nonetheless. The Maasai Mara had been a truly special place and is somewhere I would like to return to in the future for sure.
Amboseli (17th-19th January) – Ele-Phant-astic ending!
The final leg of our trip was to Amboseli National Park. After the excitement of the Maasai Mara, we questioned if it could match it, but it turned out to be a great place to end the trip. With another lion, massive herds of elephants with calves, and great views of the iconic Kilimanjaro, it was a fitting end to my first trip to Africa. Even after two weeks, we still continued to see new animals too, with the civet, bat-eared foxes and open-billed storks all adding to an incredible species list I had accumulated over the trip. With over 50 species of mammal, 248 birds and endless plant species, it hadn’t been a bad introduction to African wildlife.
A final end of trip party and a flight back to the UK was all that was left of my first venture to the African continent. Looking back, it was an unbelievable experience and I absolutely loved everything Africa had to offer. My time there was a real eye opener, revealing the many problems sub-Saharan African wildlife faces, but also the fantastic work done by dedicated individuals to try and protect it in the face of adversity. All I can say is “Asante Kenya!!”