Saturday, 29 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Waterbirds and hippos and chameleons, oh my!

Now that my body had settled into the rhythms of our long, hot days in Kenya, I was feeling a bit more chipper about life. Mind you, I wasn't exactly thrilled to wake up at 5:30 AM and take a cold sink bath by the light of a flashlight held in my teeth, but I was more tolerant than I had been before. On this particular morning, I had a brief chat with my husband over the phone, since he and his group of students would be arriving at our campsite later in the day and we needed to coordinate our schedules.

While his morning would be spent on a bus, mine was to be dedicated to take a boat trip around Lake Naivasha in order to see waterbirds and, hopefully, some snoozing hippos. I didn't mention before that our campsite actually overlooked the lake; from our front porches, we could look down and see fish eagles perched in the trees along the shore. To get to the lake, all it took was a 5-minute walk down the (very dusty) hill. The lakeside featured a small cabana with a bar and restaurant, as well as a hotel that allowed our students to pay 300 shillings (about $3.50) to swim in the pool. Between the restaurant/camp/hotel area and the shoreline stood a chest-high electric fence, designed to keep humans safe from hippos. You may think this sounds unnecessary, but the most deadly mammal in Kenya is not, as you might guess, the lion or the leopard or the buffalo; it is the hippo, that short-sighted, short-tempered, standoffish brute with massive and incredibly powerful jaws. Surprise a hippo while it is grazing at night, and you may not live to tell the tale.

During the day, however, hippos generally just concern themselves with napping, so it is fairly safe to take to the water, as long as you tread (so to speak) carefully and maintain a respectful distance if you do see one lounging about. The entirety of Lake Naivasha is no more than 5-6 meters (15-18 feet) deep, and in many places is even shallower, so we knew we had a pretty decent chance of encountering a hippo at some point. The shallowness of the lake and the richness of its fish population also make it attractive for many species of bird, our other main quarry of the day.

While listening to the safety brief prior to setting off, a few of us who were lucky enough to be looking in the right direction at just the right time caught sight of a giant kingfisher, which was a good first bird for the day. The impressive thing about these guys is not their plumage (they look fairly similar to the belted kingfisher found in North America), but their size--imagine a crow, then picture it hovering over and diving into bodies of water in order to snatch up fish. Impressive. The lake was also home to malachite and pygmy kingfishers, which whiz around like, and are not much bigger than, hummingbirds; I saw a couple zip past but was unable to get a good look in order to make a confident identification.

Out on the water, I quickly discovered that our boat driver was not only incredibly talented at navigating through thick and seemingly impenetrable beds of water hyacinth, but also quite good at identifying birds. I found this particularly wonderful because I generally have difficulty with all birds associated with water--shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks, even waders, all of which often can look surprisingly similar. Our guide was able to (correctly, as far as I could tell) name birds after only the most fleeting glance, which really took the pressure off me (since I was supposed to tell our students what we were seeing). I asked him if he'd been taught about the birds as a boy, and he told me that actually he stared learning them only 4 years ago, when he first got the job; everything he knew had been gleaned from visiting birders who hired him to drive them around on the lake. Obviously, he was a quick study.

I always find it very peaceful to be on the water, and the scenery at Lake Naivasha was quite lovely:

(A view of the shore from Lake Naivasha. If you look closely in the center of the screen, you may see hippopotamus ears sticking up out of the water.)

The hills and mountains surrounding us had all been formed by volcanic activity, or were, in fact, (dormant) volcanoes. The lake itself is supplied by a stream of fresh water that flows up from beneath the rocks and, of course, by the rain. Because there is such a delicate balance between the moderate amount of water that trickles in to keep the levels up, and the vast quantity of water that evaporates under the blazing sun each day, the locals get quite touchy when anyone comes in and tries to siphon off the water in any large quantity (more later on this issue).

As promised, the avian life around us was quite abundant. We saw both species of jacana, cool little birds that have gigantic feed adapted to allow them to walk across the surface of lily pads floating on the water:

(African jacana; we also saw lesser jacanas.)

There were also oodles of pelicans and herons, a few ibises, and a couple storks. We encountered the yellow-billed duck, which is Africa's answer to the mallard:

(Yellow-billed duck taking flight. Picture courtesy of

One of the things I enjoy about birding in different countries is not just the diversity of new and different species, but also the similarities you find to species back home. When you see the family resemblances, you begin to understand how closely related things are despite the vast distances between them. I wish that more people understood how this applies not only to animals and plants, but also to people.

We did also see a few hippos while we were out on the water, but most people failed to get very good views. The problem with hippo-watching during the day is that the animals spend most of their time completely submerged, rising to the surface every few minutes to take a breath. In fact, they can do this even while they are unconscious. On a related note, baby hippos are adapted to suckle underwater, without ingesting or accidentally breathing water. I learned these and other facts when doing a little hippo research the night before our boat trip, so I was able to amaze and edify the students with my wealth of hippo knowledge. It was one of the few moments during the trip that I actually felt like a legitimate teacher.

The "grand finale" of our boat trip was a visit to a known fish eagle roost--come to think of it, probably the same roost that was visible from our campsite. Here, the birds had been trained to swoop down and collect bait (a large dead fish) that had been thrown out to lure them in. Each of the birds dived in in fairly spectacular fashion, then quickly retreated to the trees to munch on its snack:

(Fish eagle coming to collect its payment.)

It was a pretty impressive display, and not one that I've ever seen for any species of eagle in the wild. All the same, it felt a bit too wrong for me to fully enjoy it--you go to see wild animals because they are, in fact, wild, not trained circus acts.

After we got back on dry land, it was time to hear a lecture on communication in conservation. Happily, the talk was delivered in one of the conference rooms at the hotel, and we were able to purchase nice cold Cokes before sitting down. These tasted wonderful after 2 hot hours in the sun. As it turned out, the caffeine was also a nice bonus, since the talk was a bit on the dull side. I had been pretty excited to hear what the speaker had to say, since I am so interested in science communication. Ironically, though, this particular speaker was not very dynamic, and soon there were drooping eyelids all over the room. Several different people were jolted back into consciousness after their limp hands released notebooks and/or pens that clattered loudly to the ground. It was a relief to finally be released so we could head back up the hill for our lunch.

Our afternoon trip involved a trek out to a flower and chameleon farm somewhere on the far side of Naivasha, about an hour and a half away. Shortly after departing our campsite, on the outskirts of town, our bus passed quite a scene on the side of the road; we were a bit perturbed, to say the least, to discover that one of the buses in our convoy was at the heart of the activity. There it was, surrounded by people banging at the windows and shouting; the whole scene was being surveyed by at least two members of the Kenyan army, both holding semiautomatic rifles. Quickly, our driver pulled over, exited the bus, and ran back to join the fray. The drivers of our other buses did likewise, leaving seven buses-full of frightened mzungus completely unprotected. Given the size and apparent anger of the mob behind us, we were feeling very uneasy. However, the excitement was over about as quickly as it started, with everyone suddenly smiling and shaking hands and getting back in their seats. Our driver informed us that all the "protesters" had been military recruits on their way to an army facility; their escorts had apparently wanted to show off a bit, and had therefore pulled over our bus for no reason. Once the driver requested that the local police (who had the real authority) be called in, the military backed down and we were sent on our way.

The drive to the chameleon farm, which began with some interesting pastoral scenery, quickly passed into the awkward and uncomfortable phase as we left paved roads and found ourselves on some of the most pothole-ridden tracks imaginable. It appeared as though none of our drivers actually knew where they were supposed to go, and our driver (who was in the lead) kept having to stop and ask locals if we were on the correct road--a road which, I should say, basically appeared to be somebody's incredibly long driveway. Then, at last, we arrived at the gate. At this point, we had to wait about 15 minutes while we negotiated our entry. For some reason, everywhere we went, we seemed always to have to wait an eternity to gain entrance to places, even though our trips had been arranged months in advance, had been double-checked a few days before our arrival, and had been confirmed on that morning. I am told that this is a third-world-country thing; all I know is, it's really frustrating.

The point of visiting the chameleon farm was to learn about how some local businesses are trying to establish and maintain healthy relationships with local wildlife. Throughout Kenya, illegal harvesting of wildlife (either dead or alive) has long been a problem, particularly because the poverty is so extreme that people will try anything, regardless of the potential punishment they might face if caught. The chameleon farm had been established in addition to a preexisting business--a flower farm. Conveniently, the owners of the farm could simply seal off some of their greenhouses, introduce a few wild-caught specimens, and then let them breed and prosper on their own. It was a nifty little system allowing the farmers to make quite a bit of money off each chameleon sold without having to invest too much capital up front. Even better, they only sold chameleons that were three or four generations removed from nature; thus, from a relatively small selection of wild chameleons, they had produced a fairly good number of captive-bred individuals who never knew what they were missing. It may not be a flawless plan, but it certainly is better than poaching.

I'm sure the farm owner/manager had fascinating things to say about all this, but I was unable to hear anything from my position at the back of the group. Interestingly, this is not because I was all that far away; rather, it's because Kenyan people speak amazingly quietly. Time and again, we encountered this problem when our group sat down to hear lectures from the locals. I mentioned this to our documentarian, who had been filming and recording all of the talks. She said that the sound level meters confirmed my observations--in some cases, the Kenyans were at least half as loud as we mzungus were, requiring her to adjust the recording volumes. I have no idea if there is some cultural explanation for this.

Luckily for me, the visit to the farm included not just an oral portion, but also the opportunity to go into the greenhouses and search for chameleons. After trying for a few minutes to locate one of the reptiles on our own, we finally had to get assistance from one of the farmers. He reached into the bushes and pulled a chameleon out right in front of our eyes, which was incredible; we'd obviously been staring at it all along but had been fooled by its camouflage. We were given crickets to feet to the chameleons so we could see their tongue-reflex action; we were also allowed to pose with our new friends:

(A horned chameleon deciding whether it's worth the effort to flick his tongue out and catch the cricket. In the end, he decided to forego the snack.)

(This guy was pretty lethargic whilst sitting in the bush, but suddenly got very energetic after being allowed to roam all over our shoulders and heads. I don't think it was so much the shared warmth as the urge to find refuge from these strange, two-legged beasts.)

After I was done torturing the chameleons with my attention, I headed back up to the buses to chat with a couple of the other lecturers, who were charming a group of local children by showing them how to use binoculars and scopes. I think that several of the children (if not all) had never used binoculars in their lives; nor had a couple of the adults who were accompanying them. The surprise and delight on their faces was unmistakable; it was impossible not to feel happy just watching them. Two new children came up shortly after I arrived and, seeing my binoculars still around my neck, one of them said "Give me!" I was surprised that the kids knew any English, but it makes sense that they would be familiar with that phrase--it can be used with great success on many tourists. After I handed over my binos, I watched the two children trade them back and forth; while one looked through them, the other would patiently wait until it was his turn. I was impressed with how unselfish they were, and fair: Both children used the binoculars for about the same amount of total time, then handed them back to me when they were done and walked off without a word. The whole encounter was so matter-of-fact it felt like a business transaction.

During the bus ride home, I asked my bus driver about the shirt he was wearing--a Cleveland Indians baseball jersey. He told me that he likes baseball and sometimes plays it back home in his village. Imagine his surprise when I told him that the team whose jersey he was wearing were my own "local" team from back home in the US! I am perpetually surprised by what a small world it is.

After we returned to camp, we had dinner and then an hour-long seminar, in which the students discussed some of the conservation issues that we'd encountered thus far in the journey. I was very impressed by how many of them were absorbing so much information; it would have been easy to simply come and be a tourist checking off species on a list, but these guys were obviously paying attention and thinking hard.

Eventually, my husband and his students arrived, though they'd been incredibly delayed by a broken-down bus. The students were forced to set their tents up in the dark, which is always a chore and a challenge--you can't see where the ground slopes, where your tent poles go, or whether you're about to step down on a giant acacia thorn. As it turns out, darkness also makes it quite dangerous to make trips to the bathroom, as I was to learn later that night. I used a shortcut to climb back up to my banda, and because I wasn't shining my flashlight up high enough, I failed to see a branch that was hanging right at eye level. Luckily my eye was shut when I made contact, but the blow was hard enough to make me see spots, and to immediately raise a huge egg on my temple. I quickly developed a throbbing headache in response to the blow and I tried to examine myself in my tiny mirror in order to see how serious the damage was. The lighting was not good enough for me to make any judgment calls, so I went to bed with my fingers crossed that I would wake up whole and healthy in the morning.

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