Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Lake Nakuru

Needless to say, after managing to get almost no sleep the night before, I was not particularly thrilled to wake up at 4:45 AM to embark on our first day of safari in Kenya. I took some consolation in the fact that, because I had a private banda with my own running water, I was, at least, able to start my day with a refreshing sink bath and clean hair. Enjoying, as I was, the privilege of being able to clean myself, I took a little extra time to get over to the mess area for breakfast. Imagine my surprise when I arrived, a mere 10 minutes after breakfast was scheduled to be served, and found that there was no food left. Consider the fact that I'd skipped the previous evening's dinner because it was completely unpalatable. Consider also the fact that nothing affects my mood more than a lack of food, except maybe a lack of sleep. Now you are beginning to understand the attitude with which I greeted the third day of my trip in Kenya.

Luckily for me, one of the highlights of Lake Nakuru is its incredible diversity and richness of bird life, and there are few things that can improve my mood like doing some good bird watching. I was able to add several species to my list just while standing in the parking lot outside the gates to the park, which is always a good sign. Of course, other taxa were also on hand:

(A vervet monkey in the parking lot at Lake Nakuru. I always think that monkeys are incredibly cute from a distance, but then a little creepy up close--they are so humanoid, kind of like little precocious human babies, but with fur and long tails.)

For the first time, we popped up the roofs of our buses so that we could get a good view of the terrain:

(Our convoy entering the park.)

The open roofs allow you to obtain an unobstructed view of the wildlife and also get a much more distant view of the habitat, so you can spy things on the horizon. The only problem is that it can get a bit rough if (when) the vehicle drives over bumpy ground; without the seat and the seatbelt to anchor you, you will almost definitely bang into the bus or your fellow passengers. We quickly learned that the best thing to do was sit down as soon as we saw a hill, a patch of mud, or a pothole. In the beginning, we also occasionally ducked down in order to avoid particularly thick patches of dust that had been kicked up by the vehicles in front of us. After a while, though, we realized what a pointless battle that was (after we returned from Kenya, it took me three days before I was no longer Q-tipping red Kenyan soil from my ears).

The first animals we encountered inside the park were several species of antelope (impala, Thomson's gazelles, Grant's gazelles) and baboons. For some reason, I found myself completely uninterested in the antelopes, though I am normally pretty excited to see any new species for the first time. Perhaps this is because most of the specimens we saw were behaving in a fairly boring manner (they basically did nothing but munch on grass and occasionally scan for predators). Regardless, it's a shame that I ended up ignoring them for as long as I did, because they're actually very striking in a graceful, delicate sort of way. It was much easier to enjoy the baboons, who were engaged in all sorts of interesting activities. We saw baboon troops often during our journey around Kenya, but they never got old; there's always someone eating, someone fighting with someone else, someone grooming someone else, a baby or juvenile romping around wreaking havoc, a mother with a baby clinging on to her stomach, a male putting a subordinate in its place. And, again, you can't help but feel that you're watching tiny, furry humans:

(Adult and young baboon feeding at the side of the road. The adult here has almost, but not quite, perfected the quintessential baboon pose: Tilting the head sideways and looking back over one shoulder in an air of disdainful contemplation. This posture makes them seem like spoiled rich people who can't believe you've had the audacity to disturb them. Indeed, the baboons at Lake Nakuru generally appeared to think they owned the park, strolling across the road in front of our vehicles and getting out of the way only at the last possible second, affecting a posture that said, "You can go when I'm ready to let you go.")

I was immediately quite smitten with the baboons and so was staring at them quite intently through the window. By chance, I happened to be studying one who glanced up and looked back at me, causing us to make eye contact. Anyone who's ever seen documentaries about primates knows that this is a very serious occurrence--eye contact can be seen as a challenge, which can either be infuriating or frightening to an individual depending on its social rank. In this case, it appeared that the baboon in question was subordinate, as its response to our "moment" was unmistakably one of fear and discomfort: It jumped up and jerked back simultaneously, glancing nervously to each side, retreating from the roadside and carefully averting its eyes. I felt guilty for being so scary, but I was also excited to have had such a "connection" with a wild animal.

The next couple hours were devoted to birdwatching at various points along the perimeter of the lake. Because it is both shallow and saline, it is a prime spot for flamingo feeding and we saw thousands of the birds (of both the greater and lesser variety) standing knee-deep in the water. There were tons of other species, as well, from waders and shorebirds to terns, gulls, and raptors. I'm not sure we fully appreciated the spectacle until we saw it from above:

(View of Lake Nakuru from a lookout. The light-colored dots along the shoreline are mostly flamingos. In the small pool towards the right, there were a couple of ibises, and I think there was even a lounging hippo.)

As you can see from the photo above, the park includes quite a bit of grassland, scrub, and trees, which attract and provide for many non-avian species of wildlife. We also saw zebra, water buck, white rhinos, giraffes, and buffalo, to name a few:

(A procession of buffalo. One or two of them were giving rides to oxpeckers. I found that particularly exciting because every documentary about African wildlife always seems to feature oxpeckers, so it was great to see them in person. Now, if only I could have watched egrets sticking their heads in crocodiles' mouths in order to clean their teeth...I suppose that just gives me a reason to go back and visit again.)

Another species that immediately plucked my heartstrings was the warthog. Yes, this really is one of the most unattractive animals you can imagine, but it's unattractive in the "so-ugly-it's-cute" kind of way. Also, I have never seen an animal (including humans!) with such a proud, pugnacious posture. Everything about the body language of a warthog says, "Yes, it's me and I'm awesome, what are you going to do about it?" The young are also exceptionally appealing, partly because being smaller only makes them cuter, but also partly because they are so obviously mischievous. Adults and juveniles both seem incapable of locomotion that doesn't involve at least a trot; these animals seem constantly to be in motion, jogging, cantering, running, and always with their tails held straight in the air as though they are indignant over a recent insult. I would show you a picture of this, but nobody on earth (including myself and every other person whose photographs are cataloged in Google) appears to have obtained a decent photograph of this phenomenon. Suffice it to say, it is a priceless view. Also, did you know that the local word for "warthog" is "pumba," as in the name of the warthog in Disney's The Lion King? (While we're on this topic, did you also know that Simba's other friend, Timone, is a meerkat, who would never be found in the ecosystem featured in the movie, and that the captive singing bird is a toucan, who is not even from the correct continent? At least Disney got the warthog thing right.)

We spent several hours driving around the park; as midday approached, we were seeing fewer individuals and fewer new species. But, as if to produce evidence that Kenya is never dull, our driver soon set off in a breakneck pace after having a quick chat (in a local dialect) with the driver of a passing vehicle. We had no idea where we were going, but it was pretty obviously somewhere exciting. Eventually, we rounded a bend and came across a huge gathering of vultures, circling in the sky and perched in a massive tree. Obviously, there had recently been a lion kill, and these guys were ready to move in and clean up:

(Ruppell's griffon vultures and African white-backed vultures pouncing on a recently-abandoned carcass.)

When we first arrived, it appeared that this was the source of all the excitement, and that was fine with me. Vultures are probably my favorite group of birds (I know, warthogs and vultures, what kind of person am I?), so I was pretty excited to see these massive birds in action for the first time. But, as it turns out, the lions hadn't gone far and, as we watched, the last female to leave the kill came back as though she was undecided about having a bit more to eat. Then she turned away again, and as we looked off in the distance beyond her, we saw a string of her pride-mates walking off towards the horizon. At this point, our driver went into "earn-a-great-tip" mode and started speeding down the road, dodging all the other vehicles around us. After taking a turn and careening around a few bends, we suddenly found ourselves in front of the line of females we had previously been viewing from the back; the foremost female was walking towards us at a leisurely, unconcerned pace. I am still not sure whether our driver anticipated where the lions would walk or just got incredibly lucky, but several of the females sauntered so close to our car we could have (with a bit of flexibility) touched them through the window:

(Not the best photography in the world, but it shows how close we were to the lions--the white at the bottom is the nose of our vehicle...and my camera does not have a very powerful zoom.)

The whole time I was watching this scenario, I was thinking two main things:

1) None of it seemed real. My mind knew those were lions outside my door, yet I could not shake the feeling that I was watching a documentary. During the run-up to the Kenya trip, I kept thinking that it would be really amazing and powerful to see certain species of wildlife, such as lions, up close in the wild. It never occurred to me that it would feel exactly the same as seeing them in zoos or wild animal parks. Until there is absolutely no barrier at all--until you unzip your tent in the morning and find a lion lounging on your doorstep--it really doesn't feel "wild" at all. From the safety of the car, Kenya does not feel much different than, say, the Columbus Zoo. Weird.

2) I really didn't feel comfortable with the way we were interacting with the wildlife. I was in one of about 10 vehicles that eventually showed up at the scene, each battling to pull up a bit closer to the lions so that the occupants could get the best views and pictures. It felt incredibly intrusive. I kept wondering if our presence was altering or shaping the lions' behavior in any way; the idea that it wasn't was almost as disturbing as the idea that it was, since that would indicate that the animals were habituated to the presence of humans--that they were not quite as "wild" as they could be. Especially odd was the fact that our driver (who was, by the way, a maniac--a point which I will return to in future posts) was perfectly happy to leave after a few minutes, and chase down other, potentially more exciting, quarry. Even worse, everybody in our bus seemed to think this was a good idea. Now, I think it's perfectly acceptable to leave even the most wonderful sighting after 5 minutes or so, because that's kind of a rule-of-thumb in the ecotourism world in order to minimize disturbance. However, you can leave the immediate scene but withdraw to a binocular-friendly distance in order to watch the animals from afar; or, in our case, we could have gone back up to the site of the kill and watched the vultures. Instead, the whole scenario just boiled down to checking off one of the "Big 5" from our checklists and then moving on to track down one of the remaining four. So much for communing with nature or learning about animal behavior. Little did I know that my patience about this issue would be even further tested later in the trip.

After seeing the scene of the lion kill, it seemed appropriate to stop and have a bit of lunch for ourselves. For much of the trip, we were able to return to our campsite at lunchtime and have a hot midday meal; occasionally, though, we had to eat a packed lunch. This was our first experience with that format, and it was certainly interesting. Each person was given a large "pancake" folded in half twice (really, it was like a crepe, folded into the shape of a sno-cone), a hard-boiled egg, a packet of tea biscuits, and a juice--except that only 40 juices had been packed for 60 people, so many of us didn't get one. Our party also included people who could not eat eggs, gluten, and/or dairy, which meant that several people had little or no food to eat. To compound this problem, it was nearly 2 PM and breakfast had been served (to some of us, anyway, *ahem*) 8 1/2 hours previously; a few people had packed snacks and generously shared them with the rest of their bus-mates as we'd been on safari, but at the end of lunch many bellies were still grumbling.

After the meal we resumed our safari, but it was a bit half-hearted. By that point the heat was fairly intense, so most of the wildlife had retreated somewhere unobservable in order to nap until it got cooler. Those animals we did see were, again, the same species we'd been watching earlier, and we'd arrived at a more vegetated part of the park where our view was often obscured by shrubs and trees. As you might expect, there were many interesting birds in this habitat, but it was practically impossible to get our driver to stop so we could look at them; when he did stop, it was often just for a couple seconds, or was more of the "rolling stop" that you use at stop signs when it's 3 in the morning and nobody else is on the road. This was utterly infuriating, but, as I was to discover after chatting with people from the other vehicles, it was also the norm. The drivers are trained to give tourists what they want, but in most cases that is lions, leopards, giraffes, and rhinos; the average tourist couldn't care less about a bird unless it's extremely close, large, colorful, or rare. Thus, in trying to please us in the standard way, the drivers were actually failing to please us, and no amount of cajoling seemed to alter their behavior. (Lest you think I am being too critical of our drivers, let me say that in future blogs I will have wonderful things to say about some of them...just not this one, who really was a maniac. I once almost throttled him with my bare hands, but you will have to wait to find out about that.)

Our perfunctory after-lunch safari came to a rather rapid end, as we were hurriedly making our way to a back gate that conveniently let us out next to a curio-shop-plus-cafe. Throughout the trip, we did not stop at any curio shops that did not have attached cafes; nor did we stop at any cafes that did not have curio shops. These places are clearly made for the visiting mzungu, and we all knew it, but we all did the typical mzungu thing anyway and spend loads of money there. It's impossible not to. For one thing, they sell Coke--often, refrigerated Coke--and by the time you get there you are so thirsty and so hot that you would steamroll an old lady in order to get to the counter faster. For another thing, they have toilets--many are even flush toilets, with seats and/or toilet paper--and after hours in the bus you usually have to pee. Finally, for some reason, you just cannot avoid the urge to buy souvenirs. The more distant and exotic the place you're visiting, the more you feel the urge to buy something to take home as proof you were there; since Kenya is pretty distant and exotic, people had practically started souvenir shopping before they'd even gotten out of the buses.

We made a second shopping stop on our way back to the campsite, this time to a supermarket in Naivasha. This visit was truly a godsend, for two reasons. First, we could stock up on snacks to supplement the awful food we were being served by our cooks. I purchased two tins of fruit (oddly, the only canned fruit sold in the store was pineapple, which was one of the most common fresh fruits sold at local produce stands) and, in a stroke of genius that I would later celebrate, a jar of peanut butter. The second reason I was completely overjoyed to stop at the supermarket was that my bladder was absolutely bursting; I knew there was no way I could last the rest of the ride back to our campsite. Unfortunately, the store didn't seem to have a public toilet anywhere, so I had to go ask one of the clerks if there was a restroom I could use. That (male) clerk referred me to another (male) clerk, who then took me to a third (female) clerk, who escorted me into the bowels of the store, past many staring eyes, to what was obviously an employees-only restroom. I am not sure that I would have been given this privilege if I had not been a white foreigner who was assumed to have a lot of money, but I was extremely thankful. During our trip, the locals commonly showed us this type of kindness and thoughtfulness, and I do think that it was motivated by more than just the proximity of our money.

Back at the camp, we had a bit of spare time before dinner, so I wandered around doing a bit of birding. I also had to lead an informal seminar discussion among the students on my bus. Being both a behavioral ecologist and a conservationist, I thought it would be interesting to try to get these conservation-oriented students thinking a bit more about animal behavior. Thus, I asked them to consider some of the behaviors we'd seen during the safari, and talk about how they might inform or influence conservation strategies. For instance, some animals were primarily found in herds/flocks, while others were loners; this can influence, among other things, land use patterns and breeding behaviors, which are important things to consider when planning the size and shape of a reserve. I was rather surprised and disheartened to find that the students didn't really understand why it was important to think about behavior, or appreciate how a knowledge of animal behavior might be important when doing conservation work. The ensuing (off-topic) conversation somehow led us to a discussion--almost an argument--about how traditional cultural practices often counteract conservation efforts. I was again surprised by people's remarks--this time because nearly everyone was extremely narrow-minded and seemed to see things only in absolutes. I think this was a combination of naivete, idealism, ignorance, and maybe some misconception; whatever it was, I found it very disheartening.

Luckily, I received a bit of a pick-me-up at dinner. Our trip leader had pulled the chef aside to explain the concept of vegetarianism and to complain about the small portion sizes. As a result, we had an enormous quantity of delicious vegetarian lentil curry with fresh, homemade chapatis. With a belly that was finally full, and with eyelids that were leaden, I retreated to my banda for a bit of reading and a much-needed night of rest (spiders or no spiders).

No comments:

Post a Comment