Gabi goes exploring… Kenya!

Jambo! I’m Gabi. Currently a second year masters’ student of the Integrative Plant Science programme. In January I went on a three week expedition to Kenya, far from the Finnish winter, to participate in two field courses. Together with my fellow students we followed various experts around to learn about the natural world in Kenya. In my first week I went with aspiring botanists to the Taita Hills research station in South East Kenya. Where the collaboration between the University of Helsinki is most apparent when you stand in front of the small but expertly built sauna, which seems oddly out of place in the mountainous region of Kenya. In the second and third week I went traipsing through the Kenyan savannah learning about human-wildlife conflicts under the guidance of three seasoned conservationists.


Week 1 – The secret life of botanists

What do botanists do? They look at plants. And that is exactly what we did. Adorned with a hat and lathered in sunscreen, we hiked up various hills and mountains stopping every 2 to 3 metres to admire any photosynthesizers, both big and small. The forests hold a wide range of unique plants, from the small Commelina benghalensis with its blue petals to the tall Newtonia buchananii tree with its sturdy buttress roots that support an impressive trunk reaching far above our heads. 

Taita Hills is an important water catchment area. Water captured here supplies large areas of the country. Therefore, changes that occur in this area have far reaching consequences beyond the local towns. Due to the persisting drought people are forced to seek resources from the forest. Human disturbances include collecting firewood and harvesting plants for livestock fodder. On Mount Vuria, one such harvested species is Dracaena afromontana. Few individuals remain in areas that used to foster an abundance of the narrow stemmed shrub with its long and slender leaves. Besides this, the spread of introduced species such as Lantana camara presents a real nuisance. They will sprout back when they are cut down and are fire resistant.

There was a clear distinction between forests that had a high human disturbance compared to relatively intact forests. In disturbed forests we encountered more non-native plants, such as Eucalyptus spp. and Grevillea robusta, both from Australia. They are important sources of timber. Yet, in these arid regions, Eucalyptus trees are considered problematic for forest diversity. As part of its ecology, a Eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, which increases the risk of wildfires and their spread. Moreover, its leaf litter changes the soil pH to become more acidic, which favours its own propagation, but disadvantages local species. 

Aside from visiting the forests, we were invited to Darius’ farm, one of our field guides. His sloping plot of land left us in awe. He implements different intercropping strategies and combines improved and traditional crop varieties; the former for the yields and the latter to maintain a diverse gene pool. His approach is in stark contrast with the large monoculture plantations of sisal (Agave sisalana). Originally from Mexico, this fibre crop has been planted in rows as far as the eye can see. We drove past kilometres of saw-edged rosettes that have replaced native trees, shrubs and herbs.

After a week of vigorous hiking and plant inspecting, we ended the course with a feast and a bonfire. We said farewell to our field guides, the station staff and Taita Hills. With the first week behind me and the second week about to start the focus of my expedition shifted from flora to fauna.

“What I see vs. what the plant sees”


Week 2 – Putting the wild in wildlife

All facts are fun but some are more fun than others. Did you know that cheetahs have non-retractable claws? They are so fast that they need maximum grip when chasing prey. Did you know that the aardvark is closely related to the elephant? After spending two weeks with animal enthusiasts I’ve stocked up on some of these fun facts. The one I want to share most of all is the propeller tail of Africa’s most dangerous herbivore, the hippopotamus.

While defecating hippos will swing their tails energetically. In the water this results in an even distribution of nutrients, which is appreciated by fish and other aquatic organisms. By bringing nutrients from terrestrial to aquatic systems hippos fulfil an important ecological role, one that fishermen value in particular. On land, this Jackson Pollock technique is used to mark their territories and, unintentionally, to entertain the two jeeps packed with ecology students. They are very territorial and males will fight savagely to defend their patches of land and water. I don’t recommend getting caught between one of these grim neighbour disputes. Conflicts between humans and hippos arise when humans unknowingly cross paths with hippos. Hippos will not shy away from confrontation and running away won’t do you much good as they have no trouble keeping up. 

You may already know that vultures are excellent scavengers. But did you know that vultures have great vision too? While gliding in the air they will keep an eye on their peers. If one swoops down, having spotted a recently deceased or dying animal, others will follow suit. So where there is one vulture there will soon be dozens. Due to a very acidic stomach (pH ≈ 1), they are resistant to various diseases, even anthrax. Sadly, they are experiencing drastic population declines, in large part because of secondary poisoning. This happens when people poison livestock carcasses in retaliation against carnivores such as lions, leopards and cheetahs. As vultures have a slow reproduction rate, individuals that die are not readily replaced. 

Continuing with this more sombre side of these ‘fun’ facts. When giraffe calves are born they drop from a height of 2 metres. In rare cases, calves die from that impact. Last one. Spotted hyenas have a very curious social hierarchy. Mothers can raise up to two cubs which are born with their eyes open and their pointy teeth already poking out. Soon after birth they fight for the position of dominant cub. The outcome of these first contests determines their social standing and impacts many aspects of their life.


Week 3 – Caught in the middle

In addition to learning about animal ecology, we set out to shed some light on the issues that arise when animals and humans meet. We wanted to learn from the locals how certain species cause conflict and what is being done to mitigate these issues. The communities we visited live in close proximity to wildlife. While most locals appreciate the animals and understand their role as a high-profit tourist attraction, large carnivores endanger livelihoods by killing goats and cattle. In contrast to Europe, where we have food security, in these parts anything that threatens people’s livestock poses a serious risk for survival. Therefore, it is not surprising that these attacks lead to retaliatory killing of carnivores. Indubitably, as conservationists we would prefer the animals to be spared, but it is rather arrogant to tell the locals that they should not defend their livelihoods. Frequently, farmers and pastoralists lack resources and know-how. Hence, conservation efforts often focus on showing locals how to better protect their livestock by fortifying their enclosures. Efforts also include informing them on the ecological consequences of poisoning carcasses and retaliatory killings. More controversial methods include building electric fences to keep animals in or out of certain areas. 

However, conservation is not as straightforward as a conflict between farmers and animals. There are many different stakeholders with their own interests that do not always align with the preservation of wildlife. Besides local subsistence farmers or pastoralists, you have landowners that determine who has access to the land and usually cater to the tourism industry. Not to mention the governmental bodies that make land use policies and add a layer of bureaucracy. On the other side, the integral part of this web is wildlife itself. They require space, which is encroached by the growing population and changes in land use. In the middle you will find the conservationist that is trying to consider the stakeholders while safeguarding the needs of wildlife. In many cases, rather than being a human-wildlife conflict it turns out to be a human-human conflict.

“I spy with my little eye…”


All in all

It has been an invaluable experience, both culturally and academically. I’ve been enriched by the colourful welcome from the Maasai and Turkana tribes in Leikiji, the banter of the field guides in Taita Hills and the remarkable endemic flora and fauna of the African savannahs. Many thanks to both the IPS and EEB master programmes for offering these precious field courses IPS-175 and EEB-306. Thanks to the HiLIFE Trainee Conference Grant that has eased the financial burden of this three week venture. And thank you reader for reaching the end of this condensed retelling of my African adventures!

Gabriela Lemoine

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