Today was the last full day at the station. It was our only free day of the week so we all had slightly different plans for the day. Some ventured out to the market center of Voi, some stayed closer and explored the market of Wundanyi and a few climbed Yale hill. The morning started out misty and relaxed as we hung out at the station and waited for our trip out to Wundanyi market.
A small group of us went with the lovely kitchen’s assistant chef, Phenny, and bought some deras, a type of African dress that many of the local women wear, and many other souvenirs and gifts to bring back home. We enjoyed the time we spent with Phenny and the local insight that she provided on the area.
After our time in the market, we returned to the station in the afternoon and walked 3 km to visit Darius’ farm. Darius welcomed us to his home and gave us a tour of the different crops and fruits growing on his land. He has a wide variety of plants, vegetables and fruits growing, some of which I had never seen before. He has an ancient variety of pineapples, tomato trees, irish potatoes, wild bananas, and so much more. Perhaps what was most interesting, however, was his circular manure-handling system that not only produces an organic fertilizer for his crops, but also biogas with which he is able to meet about 60% of the cooking needs for his family.
Our final dinner followed at the station, with some nice and, at times, amusing final remarks from Petri. He addressed each of us individually and thanked us for our participation in the course. It provided for a satisfying conclusion to our course and dinner. The night ended with some loud sing-alongs on the balcony of the Kasigau house.
I think all of us feel quite lucky to have been able to participate in this course. The employees at the station made all of us feel at home and my fellow students gave me lots of laughs and memorable times in Taita. We had unforgettable experiences from the lowlands of the savannah to the very top of Mt. Kasigau. I hope I am able to visit the lovely county of Taita-Taveta again, as well as reunite with the people I met there. Asante sana, Taita.
Our Thursday morning started per usual with great breakfast at the station and a little briefing of what was ahead of us during the day. The plan was to have a workshop with rangers from Lumo and Taita Wildlife Sanctuary and to get to know their background and profession better. We were divided into three groups that focused on different things. The themes were socio-economic background, duties and responsibilities of their job and challenges of conservation in the area. When we got into the bus and began our journey, each group discussed and planned their questions beforehand.
The workshop was organised in the hotel that we had already visited earlier because of the pool but today we opted for the auditorium. Before our workshop took place, professor Pellikka gave a presentation about the Taita Research Station and about the research that is going on there.
After short introduction from the rangers themselves and Enrico’s briefing of the workshop, each group went with one group of rangers and dived into the topics. We had half an hour with each group and then we moved on to the next one. Talking with the rangers and hearing their stories was extremely interesting. We talked for example about their motivation in becoming rangers and about their main duties as rangers. Their work consists of for example guarding the national parks from poachers, counting the animals, and educating the communities. In the middle of our workshop session, we had a nice coffee/tea break outside in the warm and sunny weather with some delicious snacks.
After getting to talk with all the rangers, each group prepared a simple poster summarising the session and presented it to all. It was great to hear what other groups had talked about and what kind of similar and different points everyone picked up.
After the workshop we stuffed ourselves back to the dear bus and headed to Mwadime’s farm.
He and his family welcomed us warmly and even served us lunch. After the delicious and fulfilling food, we got a tour around the farm. Mwadime told us about the crops and livestock he has and also about different tools they have been using when measuring for example fluxes and soil temperature.
One of the most surprising things of the day was that we were at the station before dark! Usually our days stretched out late into the evening. Returning early was great since we had still delicious plans for the evening as Professor Di Minin made and taugh us how to make pizza!
It was once again lovely to eat outside and enjoy the great atmosphere. We even got to witness a birthday cake surprise that the station’s kitchen staff had prepared for one of the students who had their birthday that day. Another memorable day behind us! <3
First in the morning we chose one of us to get the title of Ms or Mr Kasigau based on the most encouraging attitude during the Kasigau hike. The winner of the title was chosen by all of us by voting anonymously and the winner got six votes and won a cool Kasigau T-shirt.
We started the day by visiting Kenya Wildlife Service in Voi where we had a really informative lecture about human-wildlife conflicts in Taita-Taveta county. We heard about animals which have most conflicts with humans in the area and how these conflicts could be prevented.
After the visit in Kenya Wildlife Service we visited Tsavo East National Park and drove through the park to the lodge to have drinks and lunch. During our visit in the national park we saw many beautiful animals like giraffes, dikdiks, elephants, zebras, impalas, gerenuks and many interesting birds and we enjoyed the delicious food with each other.
It was nice to have physically more relaxing day after the long hike we had day before in the Kasigau and just enjoy the interesting lecture we had in Kenya Wildlife Service and beautiful scenery and animals in the national park. The drive back from the lodge was occasionally loud because some of the students wanted to show off their talents in singing. Feeling sorry for bus driver and those students who just wanted to have relaxing bus drive.
On Tuesday we hiked to the top of Mount Kasigau, one of the highest peaks in the Taita region with an altitude of 1600 meters. Our day started with an early wakeup and breakfast already at 6 am, since our plan was to arrive at our destination as early as possible. The aim of the early start was to avoid the hot midday sun before making it to the shadowy forest part of the hike, and to make it down before the sunset. The bus ride from the research station to Kasigau mountain took approximately 2-3 hours including one stop at the gas-station.
During the bus ride, the weather was a little gloomy and rainy. But once we got to our destination the weather cleared up and the sun started to shine. During the hike we observed the changing environment and vegetation, which comprises of savanna to cloud forest. At the bottom of the mountain it was drier with scattered forest, but the further up we got, the vegetation changed to bigger trees and more greenery. In the higher altitudes even the moisture was more noticeable and it got colder.
As we hiked to the top, we followed a water pipe to make sure we were on the right track. Most of the hike the terrain is very steep and quite rocky, so we had to be careful where to put our steps. Once we reached the top, we had lunch, enjoyed the view, and took a group photo before heading down again. On our way down we had to be careful of the safari ants that tried to climb up our legs, we had to be in almost constant movement to avoid getting bitten by them. All in all, the hike took us about 8 hours with some breaks on the way – approximately 4 hours up and 3 hours down. The whole route was about 14 km long.
At the end of the hike, once we made it back down, we were greeted by local women who sang to us and sold handmade baskets in different colors. After some of us had bought baskets we got back on the bus and made it to the station for a tasty dinner. I think everyone was pretty tired after the long day and hike, so right after dinner it was time for bed. All in all, it was a fulfilling day, and the hike was not as rough as many of us had thought in the beginning!
Grateful for yesterday’s awesome party we got to enjoy a later breakfast, after which we prepared towards the day’s activities: exploring the Maasai village in Salaita Hills and Lake Chala near to Tanzania border.
When we arrived at the Salaita Hills, as in Kenya, we received a really warm welcome from the women of the village. After that we listened Julia’s interesting presentation about her research focused on the lives of Maasai women.
What is remarkable about the lives of Maasai women in addition to their clothing in all the colors of the rainbow, is that they build houses, milk the cows, take care of the family and, if they have time after all, make beautiful jewelry for sale. The main task for men is only to own the cattle, which makes it fair to describe women as the backbones of families.
After an interesting and impressive visit, we crammed again into our beloved and incomprehensibly durable bus, and got a little briefing about our next destination. Lake Chala, also known as Challa, is a lake with a surface area of just over 4 km², and it gets its water mainly from rain and fog coming from Kilimanjaro. Because the lake is located on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, its existence as a source of water for two different countries causes conflicts. Private investors are also interested in the surrounding areas and as Kenya News report says, an unidentified private developer has laid claim on over 1,000 acres of land adjacent to Lake Chala.
The walk to the lake was easy, and after a short walk Lake Chala opened up in front of us in the turquoise waters of which the bravest dared to swim, and on the shore of which we enjoyed an outdoor lunch and fig bombs falling from the trees. After lunch it was time again to move to our reliable vehicle, and head towards our already established research station. On the way to the station we stopped at one place selling Kenyan handicrafts and enjoyed one more beautiful sunset, which we had already witnessed several on our journey.
Sun was shining and reggae music was playing on the bus on Sunday as we were driving to Choke ranch. The bus ride from the station was about an hour and we saw nice views on the way. Choke is one of the biggest private ranches in Kenya consisting of 21 ranching units and two wildlife sanctuaries. It employs 200 people and is a home to up to 800 cows. Choke ranch used to be one ranch of 500 acres (about 202 hectares) but nowadays includes many neighboring ranches with the area reaching to 25 000 acres (about 10 117 hectares).
We were greeted with a very interesting and informative lecture by one of the ranch owners. We learned that conservancy comes always first on the ranch before any actions or changes take place. The ranch depends on the communities and is operating in a truly holistic matter that considers conservation, livestock and community in a comprehensive way. For instance, livestock management on the ranch is organized in a way that the herd won’t be moved around that much (depending of the season). Also only critical areas, such as houses, are fenced from wildlife. Otherwise, wildlife is monitored and located in other ways, like with the use of technology.
Typically, climate change will bring some uncertainties and that’s the case for the ranch too. Drought is already a problem that is very much present. According to the owner, the water storage system needs to be more efficient and cooperation with students in terms of thesis subjects would be highly beneficial for both parties. We were taught that carbon credits can be used for reinvestments, and almost 70% of the ranch’s revenue consists of sold credits where you will be reimbursed for example by a big company or NGOs.
We learned that there’s a land use problem in Kenya and people might not appreciate large spaces which leads to fragmentation of a landscape. A chance of land fragmentation, erosion and desertification are one the reasons Choke ranch won’t sell any land but instead focus on long term thinking. Choke ranch’s focal points in the future will be ecological monitoring, education of partnerships and people (especially children), cooperation with different partners and shareholders, expansion of revenue and focusing on the working traditions on the ranch.
Next, we headed to a waterhole which was first occupied by beautiful elephants. We learned earlier that animals “take turn” in sharing the waterhole and we got to experience that with our own eyes. After the elephants had disappeared a large herd of cows came in for a drink. Meanwhile we were listening to the presentations of MSc and PhD students and the research that takes place.
Following the Choke ranch, we drove to a local mining spot that mines breathtakingly beautiful and rare gemstone called Tsavorite. Tsavorite is a deposit part of a large geological structure that extends all the way to Tanzania. The mine itself is a production unit hosting 40 employees and the caves reach up to 200 meters.
On another note, there were a lot of specific minerals on the Choke ranch. It had the qualities of plagioclase which is a common mineral also found in Finland. But I have never seen it in this colour and quantity before! This area could also be interesting for geologists when it comes to research.
After our adventure time, we retreated to the high lands to our beloved station. It was time to get ready for the soirée of the evening. The party was especially meant for the hard-working staff and rightfully so. We started with delicious food prepared by the kitchen staff which was at least a three Michelin star meal!
We then continued the party in the only proper way; singing and dancing under the full moon. I didn’t take too many pictures since I was having too much fun dancing. There was magic in the air as we all tried to learn each others songs and dance steps.. What a wonderful night!
Saturday morning we got up to hike mount Vuria the highest peak in the Taita Hills at 2,228 meters. At first we were all worried this hike was supposed to be much harder than the previous one and at the start of the hike the sun was beating down on us. However in the end we found it much easier as the area got moister and colder as we were climbing and we took lots of breaks.
On the way up, Mwadime, one of the station members provided lots of information about the surrounding plants and culture. He taught us about how the local farms are split between all children after the parents’ death, meaning that the farmland an individual owns decreases after each generation. This has led to farmers buying and expanding their land into the lowlands. Addtionally we were taught about some of the human wildlife conflicts with the local monkeys trying to steal farm food, meaning the farmers have to stay up all night to protect their crop. During the trek we also learnt about the tree species in the area with 95% of the valley being exotic trees such as eucalyptus, avocado and cyprus trees. Whilst walking we found a wild ancient banana species, which Mwadime mentioned that in times of famine, these wild banana species could become an important source of food.
Further into our trek, we started to enter the forest where the climate became cooler and our our trek got easier for a while, apart from being yelled at by some disgruntled goats along the way. Later on, we came across a fern tree forest, which was something I previously wasn’t aware of even existed, but as we continued the forest provided a new issues, mainly that it seemed like every tree was trying to trip us up.
Finally, we made it to the top, where we had the most stunning view of the savanna below and had a lovely long lunch, where we could relax and enjoy the sun and the view. Unfortunately, some of us enjoyed the sun too much and got some nice sun burn whilst up there.
After we got back down the mountain, we rewarded ourselves for our hiking efforts by visiting a local pub for a nice beer. We then left to head towards our next destination for the day, a skull cave which is a sacred burial site to the local people. Here all the important members of the local clan have their skulls are laid to rest. These are laid out in a particular order based on generation so that clan members can later recognise their loved ones. Whislt there, Mwadime told us more about the caves and their importance, mentioning that it is very dangerous to remove any of the skulls. He then told us a story of a local school teacher who took one of the skulls for his science class, only for the school children to become uncontrollable until the skulls were given back to the elders and the appropriate rituals were preformed.
Overall we had a very interesting day filled with lots of different activities, with special thanks to Mwadime for being a wonderful guide for the day!
On the fifth day of the course, we had an exercise about apiculture. The task was to find out suitable places for beehives within given areas by using Participatory GIS. Because of the covid situation we could not interview people outside our ‘’covid bubble’’ so we concluded the interviews with the research station’s local staff.
Living area of the bees is decreasing and bees are very important for pollination. Bees also work as income generating activity for the farmers as the price of honey is high. Beehives are also used at Taita Hills as a mitigation method to human-elephant conflict as elephants tend to be scared of bees’ stings. Even though elephants’ skin is thick, the bees can sting them inside the trunk or behind the years where the skin is softer.
Land use, vegetation and flora type among other things are variables for bees’ ideological environment. Bees also are affected by altitude, distance to water, terrain and distance to roads and urban areas. In the exercise we were supposed to interview farmers about these variables and find a suitable place in their farm for the beehives.
First, we were divided into five groups and each group travelled to the staff members’ farm. Some of them were as close as 300meters from the station and some were further away in the lowlands. My group travelled to Granton’s farm, which was located about 15km away from the station but within the Taita Hills. On our way to the farm, we had a beautiful view to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
When we arrived to the farm, we learned that Granton was already skilled in beekeeping. He had in total 4 modern and 4 traditional beehives. From experience he told us that the modern beehives are better and showed us a few plants like musisiha and murimbawasi (names in Kitaita language) that are good for the bees. Granton also told us that he inspects the hives once a month and that he cuts the grasses around the hives regularly so that they do not burn the hives in case there is a fire.
After having tour around the farm we interviewed Granton about the variables that affect beehive productivity. After the interview we marked possible best places for the beehives at the farm. After the exercise we noticed that according to our variables Granton’s farm was very perfect spot for the hives and the best spots were already occupied by his hives! Later we learned that Granton’s farm scored the best points from our variables from all the farms that were visited by the students. In the video below Granton shows how to clean (empty!) modern beehive.
On the way back we learned some Kitaita:
Thank you = Chawucha
Good day = Kwasina mana
Good night = Lale mana
Good morning = Kabuka mana
Thank you Granton for a nice day! Asante sana Granton kwa siku nzuri!
Our third day in Kenya started as usual with delicious breakfast by Phenny and Jonathan. As we were eating we got informed that our teachers had arranged us a pleasant surprise: they told us that we would go swimming after field work! This news got us super excited and ready to roll, so after breakfast we headed back to the lowlands and savanna to continue with Ilja’s Heliotropium locating and measurements in Lumo sanctuary. When entering Lumo we got to see many lovely animals again. “Giraffe alert” and “cow accident” were yelled inside the bus when encountering animals which indicated that this time it felt more casual to see these animals around. It was fantastic to spot these animals as we were heading to “work”. Quite different commute than back home!
Heliotropium field work went smoothly after yesterday’s practice. Some of us also started measuring and researching one water pan for Lumo’s animals. The water pan was quite dry, with only one lonely cow hanging around.
When field work was done for the day, we went to see an active termite mound which was also located in Lumo. Interesting fact: the area around termite mounds has lots of nitrogen because different animals use the mounds as vantage and relieve themselves there. 😀
It was a blistering hot day in savanna, even more than yesterday. The forecast predicted something around 30 degrees but in lowlands it felt at least 40 degrees… Couple of us got some heat damage and I think we all got sense of the typically scorching hot savanna day. All respect to the cattle herders who wander all day long across the savanna!
After dusty and sweaty day, we were excited to go freshen up and swim in this beautiful hotel. And man, it felt nice to dip into that pool. After couple of refreshments by the pool we were back on our feet again. We headed back to the research station, ate dinner, and went to sleep. The day was exhausting because of the heat and all but I think we all felt happy when we went to sleep. It was eventful and great day all in all! 🙂
Fun facts learned in third day:
🪳 Termites have approximately 40-day lifespan
📊 It’s believed that termites produce 5 percent of global emissions
🔥 To avoid sunburns one must apply sunscreen multiple times to wrists, they sweat a lot!
🥲 If you have too much fun by the pool you might forget your hiking shoes under your sunbed and lose them…
On the second day at Taita we were ready to begin our proper field works. The plan of the day was to go to Lumo Community Wildlife Conservatory to locate and measure invasive plant species for Ilja’s PhD thesis. But before starting the field works, we would go to a hill called Lion’s Rock inside the conservatory to observe the scenery and familiarizing ourselves with what kind of landscape we are dealing with. Little did we know what would be waiting for us.
Once we got inside the conservatory an started heading towards Lion’s Rock we sighted many zebras, gazelles, a few giraffes and a lot of cows. Like A LOT OF COWS. The animals grazed peacefully among each other and didn’t mind about us so much. Once we got to Lion’s Rock we got of the bus and headed to the top of the hill. The park ranger who companied us instructed us to stay silent and look around for lions. We didn’t get further than 50 meters from the bus before we spotted some cubs about 20 meters from us. Not long after their mother appeared from the bushes and came a few meters closer to us, growled and showed her teeth. That was the moment we started moving back to the bus, none of us had plans to be the lions’ lunch. From the safety of our bus we observed the majestic cats. The male of the family showed up to keep an eye on us from a top of a ridge with another female with him. In total we sighted nine lions, but the task of observing the scenery and landscape failed badly in the fuss. There is no doubt where Lion’s Rock got its name.
When we had made some decent distance between us and the lions we got of the bus and started to do our field work. We were divided into three groups. Two were tasked to locate and calculate the number of Indian heliotrope plants with precise GNSS locating device Trimble inside a 10x10m area. In the same area we also inspected the ground coverage and average height of grass and shrubs. The third team measured soil moisture in the study plots.
After long day of working at the field we had the chance to go to a night hike to Ngangao forest companied by Hanna Rosti. The goal for the hike was to try to see very rare tree hyraxes and galagoes that Hanna has been studying. We were once again on the Ngangao trail, familiar to us from day before yesterday, but this time we only had the lights of our torches and the Moon. It did not take long for us to start hearing callings of the tree hyraxes and some of us were even lucky enough to see their torch-lit eyes in the trees or heat signatures in thermal scope. Hanna emphasized multiple times how rare it is to spot these koala-like creatures, so we were truly fortunate.
Afterwards we split into two groups: one group headed up to the first peak of the mountain to look for the beautiful night sky while the other group stayed down looking for opportunities to spot tree hyraxes. We in the night sky group sighted a sengi, a little rodent with a snout like and elephant has, just few meters from us. The view from up top was just as amazing as we imagined it would be, and it was also amazing to hear that sengi is incredibly rare sighting as well. Unbelievable luck. The other group was able to spot some more tree hyraxes so their time waiting for us was pretty nice as well. 🙂