20 February 2010

Carnivore Project Update

New Year:

The rains arrived over Christmas and New Years.  The region received only about a week of rains, but they were enough to settle the soft, ashy soils, and bring an end to the long, devastating drought.  Christine and I arrived back in camp just after New Years, and the camp was the greenest it's been since May 2008.  Up north in Olkiramatian, rains were light, but enough for Tribulus (a small herb with nasty thorns) to pop up and set seed.  To the south, rains were heavier and the former dust bowl now had grasses as tall as the Landcruiser in some areas.  Given the reports we'd read and heard while we were back in the U.S., we expected to see carcasses riddling the landscape.  Instead, during our first animal counts of the year, we observed hundreds of wildebeest, and even more zebra, that have been devastated by the drought in other parts of Kenya.  Unfortunately, the drought did take its toll on the wildebeest, with hardly any wildebeest calves from March surviving in to 2010.  We can only hope 2010 remains a wet year, and the long rains of March and April will sustain the plant and animal communities for many months.


Lion Update:

We have 4 lions radio-collared total, a male and female in each of two prides.  There is a third pride of lions that we hope to collar in the next month. During the drought, the prides sustained small, tight home ranges, based in the thicker bush and woodlands near water sources.  Here, the lions seemed to find an adequate prey base of zebra, lesser kudu, and buffalo during the long drought.  Now, the lions have dispersed out, making it much more difficult to find on a nightly basis.  Ren, one of our male lions typically found around the region where the Ewaso Nyiro river and the Sampu stream meet (an area locally known to the Maasai as Lengong) has moved out from his drought range.  Much to our surprise, Ren was found way up by Sampu camp with another male from Lengong, about 12 km away from their typical territory.  This is also the same area where the Sampu pride had been resident for all of last year, and contains Mwanzo (collared female) and Mkubwa (collared male).  We haven't seen Ren interact with either Mwanzo or Mkubwa, but we have yet to locate Mkubwa this year.  We're not sure if he has been displaced by Ren or not.  We hope to figure this out in the coming weeks…


Conservation and Development Strategies:

About 2 years ago, I attended a workshop in Nairobi sponsored by KWS, IUCN (World Conservation Union), local NGO's, and researchers to develop 5 year management and conservation plans for lions and spotted hyenas in Kenya.  A similar workshop was held for cheetah and wild dog several months prior.  This past week, all stakeholders were invited to KWS headquarters for the official launch of conservation and management strategies for lion, spotted hyena, cheetah, and wild dog.  It was an exciting event attended by ~200 individuals, with speeches by the director of KWS and the Minister of Forestry and Wildlife.  These strategies are the first of their kind in Kenya, and will hopefully set a new precedent for large carnivore conservation and management strategies throughout Africa (http://www.newstimeafrica.com/archives/10910).  Among the highlights are an increased emphasis on protecting large carnivore populations not just inside parks, but outside on community and private lands.  Community and private lands comprise ~90% of Kenyan lands and contain ~60% of all Kenyan wildlife.  We are quite pleased these new strategies emphasize integration of local communities, like the pastoralist Maasai, in conservation planning.  Many of these ideas are already in progress in the South Rift, where SORALO, ACC, and the Olkiramatian and Shompole communities have developed programs that integrate conservation and development.  All partners recognize wildlife conservation, inclusive of large carnivores, will not succeed in the long-term unless basic socio-economic needs of local communities are met.  Simultaneously, rural development plans that ignore short and long-term impacts on the environment will inevitably damage ecosystems and adversely impact rural livelihoods. In the South Rift, we are all excited for the recent progress of several integrated conservation and development strategies: Loisiijo eco-tourism project (http://www.loisiijolodgeshompole.org/) in Shompole has officially opened in the last three weeks and has already had 4 groups of visitors, the Olkiramatian Women's Group is currently developing a new girls scholarship program and pursuing small business plans, and everyone at the Resource Centre continues to promote education through purchases of textbooks for local schools, and encouraging regional health facilities across the South Rift.  We hold a strong belief that each of these socio-economic factors, coupled with long-term ecological research, must be considered for any future conservation, management, and development plan to succeed.