On Saturday morning, Santiago, Sarah and I pack everything into ACK’s newly-acquired (used) Nissan pickup, say goodbye to Elena, and make our way down to Salama with our driver Wallace, a small, thin man with round spectacles. The Salama base is about 1.5hrs southeast of Nairobi, about a kilometer off the Mombasa road. Much of the region has seen drastic increases in settlement density during Mary’s 15-year use of the area. The remaining brush fields and farms have been stripped of trees cut and burned largely for charcoal, the short grasses shriveled from drought and intensively grazed. ACK’s Salama camp is located on a small plot of land leased from a local, and supports a roomy brick building bisected and organized into a kitchen and office area. Three bisected safari-style tents are propped up on wooden pillars below the office building to accommodate a maximum of 6 people, with two manyatta-style bathrooms further down the hill bisected into an open-pit toilet with a western seat on one side and a pulley-style bucket shower on the other. Overall, it’s much cozier than I had imagined.
On Monday morning, we awaken at dawn and ready ourselves to meet with the first field officer Jimmy. The Salama field officers have all been working with Mary for up to twelve years, and are very knowledgeable about the wildlife and landscapes. Each field officer at the two sites has been assigned a block of four 5km transects that target different landscape types (i.e. high wildlife sightings, low wildlife sightings, high settlement, etc.). Each transect within the block is conducted once a week, so it takes 4 weeks (about a month) for a field officer to survey the entire block. The remaining four days of the week, they drive or walk around high-wildlife sighting areas within their block in search of predator tracks and visit households who have had problems with carnivores. Once a month, they assemble at the ACK base for a meeting to discuss updates on community projects, submit their transect forms, consider new projects, etc.
We meet Jimmy outside the village on his motorbike and follow him to the start of his transect beside a large borehole. The field officer dismounts from his bike, clad in a huge red and black ski jacket and black synthetic motorcycle pants that dwarf his lean frame. He greets us enthusiastically, pulling us all into surprisingly friendly hugs. He pulls out his transect materials, including a clipboard of forms, a caliper, a GPS unit, and a small compass. We begin walking along the dirt road through a highly settled area – this particular transect from his block is supposed to be a high-settlement area, although much of Salama has been largely settled at this point – and I explain my research needs to him. Since the establishment of the transects, the field officers have only been conducting prey density counts – recording GPS location, number, distance, and angle of any prey species and/or livestock sighted within 200m on either side of the transect line. With each of the officers, I plan to explain to them the needs of my project, which include recording any predator cues (scat, tracks, etc.) within 5m of the transect line on top of the prey counts. Jimmy gives me the okay and will-do.
I also notice that he has been recording houses and settlements within his transects, which was not specifically dictated in their instructions. Sarah points this out, but I have an idea and actually encourage Jimmy to record any settlement and shambas (plowed farms) within the 200m, as well as the presence or absence of livestock at the farm, just once for each transect. This way, I will not have to do so much remote-sensing work on my own to find the settlements (i.e. use Google Earth to map houses and farms). By mapping and collecting all settlements, I can also randomly select households to interview by assigning each household recorded within the block a number and then using a random number generator on excel or a calculator to select a certain number of livestock-owning households to interview from each block or transect.
Back to less technical aspects, we walk the length of the transect, which slopes gently upwards, and alternatively glance around between farms and households for any wildlife as well as the dusty road for tracks. There are tracks aplenty by this hour – mostly goat, donkey, dog, and motorbike – so discerning predator tracks are difficult. This is one of the reasons why the officers begin so early (typically around 6:30am); they must begin the transects early enough to still see fresh predator tracks before people release their livestock for grazing, but cannot go so early as to get caught during the dangerous hours of the morning when predators are still active and looking for a meal. We catch sight of a few hyena tracks, which Jimmy differentiates from dogs by gesturing toward the banana-shaped outer toes and the irregular central pad.
The attention to detail by the field officers is astounding – their understanding of the behavior of both soil and wildlife allows them to tell the species and age of a fragmented track, as well as the potential behavior being exhibited by the animal (i.e. hunting, jumping, running). They understand that tracks in soft dust and sand will spread and appear larger than usual, and that tracks on rocky soil will be fragmented and altered by the position of pebbles and sticks. Though these men are Akamba people, they remind me largely of the Maasai in their knowledge of the bush.
The remainder of the walk is largely uneventful – we see little wildlife apart from a few baboons once we emerge from the settled area and follow the length of the established transect into a local conservancy. We take a shortcut and meet with Wallace in the car to hitch a ride back to the beginning of the transect, and drop Jimmy off at his motorbike. It is about noon by the time we finish and return to the camp. We lunch, and the remainder of the day is quiet, restful, and uneventful. The landlady’s 8 dogs come to visit us and lounge beside our water tank in the shade of a tree. I spend most of the afternoon sorting through my photos and reading Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon.
Our Tuesday transect begins at 6:30 from a small village into a much less settled “high wildlife sighting” area. We meet with our guide, Pius, at his small general-good shop and walk from there to the beginning of the transect nearby. I explain my research to him as I had done with Jimmy, making sure that he is comfortable and willing to collect predator and prey data simultaneously along his transect. Pius is much quieter and more reserved than Jimmy – he points out a track or an animal and allows Sarah and I to collect the information (I have brought my Map62s GPS and compass with me this time, and Sarah is carrying the clipboard and form. Pius has not brought his caliper with him today, as that is usually reserved to route patrols). Despite his reserved nature, I find myself liking Pius. He likes to challenge me and quiz me on some of the tracks, but does not mock me for guessing wrong. He also appreciates my limited use of Swahili and tries to teach me a few words.
The transect is very different from yesterday – the substrate, first of all, is largely rocky soil so tracks are difficult to distinguish. We are forced to rely largely on scat findings. The landscape is also made up of steep hills, and much of the transect follows little more than a game trail through the bush. We slip and slide along pebbled slopes and leap over soft-soil ravines. The hike feels long and leaves us wanting for breath, but the views from the top of the hill are wonderful. Pius and I usually charge ahead and then break at the top as we wait for Sarah and Santiago to stumble their way up. We manage to see a few baboons, vervet monkey, bushbuck and dik-dik, and many tracks of hyena but little else. We finish by cutting through the bush and rejoining a dusty road, where we discover fresh leopard tracks to finish off the transect. However, we soon realize we have overshot the transect limit by nearly 2km, and Pius admits that his GPS may not have recorded the transect lengths regularly due to overcast weather.
Feeling triumphant over the 7km hike, we walk down the hill along a dirt road on the opposite side of the hill we have climbed to meet Wallace. I feel somewhat apprehensive as I watch the little silver pickup rumble its way up the narrow, rocky, and uneven road and try to turn around on the road. At one point, is gets stuck on the turn and the back wheels spin overenthusiastically until I hear a hollow thunk. When Wallace finally manages to turn to car around, the front right wheel is making a sharp raking sound, as though a stone or stick had gotten lodged. We walk along the car for a while, hoping it will stop, but it is not until Santiago suggests that he momentarily try to reverse that our car manages to dislodge the intruder.
We make our way back down relatively safely, in 4WD, and drop Pius back at his shop before making our way back to the camp for another relaxing afternoon, which is quickly turning to restless boredom. That evening, I watch the sun set from ACK’s little treehouse viewpoint over the hills.
Our third transect on Wednesday morning is with Lomumba, the field officer who has worked with Mary in Salama the longest – 12 years! He is a tall, broad man, perpetually smiling, and very talkative. We awake early as the road to Lomumba’s transect is quite far – we pick him up at 6am to promptly begin the transect at 6:30. The hike is much easier than Pius’, passing first along a wide dirt road through a local village packed with shops and shambas, and then through a conservancy where many people bring their livestock to graze but little settlement is present. The substrate is decent, and we see many tracks especially of hyena. We take a shortcut through the bush to return to the main road to meet Wallace and the car, and along the way come across a group of young local girls who rush over to shyly greet the mzungu girl.
Thursday morning Jimmy comes by to pick me up from the Salama camp. I grab the extra motorcycle helmet and hop on his motorbike and we zip off for a morning patrol. On the patrol, the officers typically wander along random wildlife-dense areas in search of predator tracks and prey sightings. We bike through the Malili and Icity areas, where we see numerous herds of wildebeest, kongoni (hartebeest), impala, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelle, eland, and giraffe. We also see a few ostrich, and a group of white-backed vultures indicate a dead goat, likely a drought victim rather than a fresh meal according to Jimmy.
A little further, we stop and walk over to a kongoni carcass laying in the bare brush. The pied crow snacking on the beast’s dry ribs staunchly remains in place until we wave it away and it flies a few feet away and crows at us indignantly. The carcass is ripped open and missing the legs and most of the innards, and the earth around it appears disturbed as though it has been dragged around. Upon closer inspection, Jimmy makes a noise of disgust and points out the wire snare around its neck, suggesting a victim of poaching. We remove the snare, Jimmy keeping it to send to KWS who monitors such activities, and record the event.
The remainder of the morning we drive around and visit a few boreholes and dams, Jimmy ascertaining that they are leaving some water out overnight for the wildlife. One of the borehole managers discusses some plans to build collection dams along the streambed beside the borehole for the rainy season, as well as hopes to plant trees around the area to reduce erosion and raise the groundwater table, but of course funding is the biggest setback and he explains to me the importance of foreign investment and financial support as local and even federal funding is highly limited.
We do visit one farm for a follow-up on recent conflict issues. The household patriarch, an elderly man with a slight hunch and toothy grin, wanders over from working on his shamba and greets us warmly, his young grandson shyly clinging to his leg. He speaks in a mixture of Swahili and English with Jimmy, who translates the rest for me. We admire his newly fortified goat boma – an impressive network of boughs, wooden planks, aluminum sheeting, and canvas shoved, strung, and nailed together into a large box. The man admits that he has had two young goats snatched by hyenas recently because they had not been in the boma at night. Jimmy laughs and reprimands him for his carelessness, but the man does not seem too bitter about the loss. He complains about his dogs being too small, though Jimmy insists that it is not a matter of size but rather that he should invest in more dogs and feed them more. I notice a quiet young puppy seeking the shade of our motorbike as we ready to leave, no more than a few weeks and roughly the size of a football. He grunts when I pick him up, but is surprisingly docile. With a good diet, he looks like he’d make a decent guard dog, I announce, and slip him into the arms of the little grandson.
The last day – Friday – is the day of the monthly Salama meeting (which has actually been moved up a week to accommodate our schedule). The three field officers arrive on their motorcycles and we prepare a round of chai for everyone. Santiago and I begin by reviewing and explaining our studies with the three field officers, running through the information we need them to collect, answering any clarification questions, and reviewing the initial forms for improvements and recommendations. It takes several hours before we make it to the general meeting minutes, largely due to Lomumba’s penchant for chatting. Santiago and I are fairly quiet during this second part as Sarah and the officers discuss community outreach and education projects, recent conflicts and predator sightings, highway mortality, etc. We end the meeting with a lunch of quickly-made sandwiches and say our goodbyes until next time.
Jimmy is the last to leave and, of course, offers hugs all around.